Article published by the Mathematical Association of America at MAA.org
November 1, 2011
By Katharine Merow
MAA and ThinkFun hosted the second annual Gathering for Gardner Celebration of Mind on October 21, what would have been popular mathematics and science writer Martin Gardner’s 97th birthday. Gardner, who passed away in 2010, requested that, in lieu of memorials, his fans continue to meet annually to celebrate his work, and carry on his pursuit of a playful and fun approach to mathematics, science, art, magic, and puzzles.
Unlike the 2010 MAA/ThinkFun event, which covered mathematics, puzzles, skeptics, and magic, this year’s celebration focused, as MAA Director of Publications and Communications Ivars Peterson explained, on logic puzzles, “puzzles Gardner himself might have been interested in and appreciated.” In addition to Peterson, Gardner biographer and computer science professor Dana Richards spoke, as did ThinkFun cofounder and CEO Bill Ritchie. Together, the three speakers impressed upon their audience a twofold message: Thinking can be fun, but fun and games—in the hands of computer scientists, at least—quickly become serious business.
Dana Richards kicked off the evening by recapping one of Martin Gardner’s lesser-known works. In 1958, Gardner published Logic Machines and Diagrams, a book based on one of his articles in Scientific American. The book chronicled attempts by such familiar names as John Venn and Lewis Carroll to represent logical relationships and operations graphically, as well as forays by the likes of Charles Stanhope and Allan Marquand into the mechanization of logical manipulations. Making machines capable of doing logic, Richards noted, was crucial for the eventual development of computers.
During his presentation, Ivars Peterson flashed slides of Sudoku grids, held up a brightly colored Stacking Shapes Pegboard, and demonstrated the use of a ThinkFun Rush Hour app, all to underscore the logical thought required to solve such puzzles and the mathematical questions raised by the puzzles themselves. Listeners learned that one can get a Ph.D. from MIT for studying how difficult puzzles are and how to measure that difficulty, for classifying puzzles into categories such as NP-complete. “NP-complete essentially means,” Peterson explained, “that the bigger you make the puzzle the longer it takes—exponentially longer—to solve it.”
Peterson also mentioned the practical applications of puzzles. Only 15 years after its invention, the ThinkFun puzzle Rush Hour, in which the player must shift obstructing vehicles within a six-by-six traffic grid until a certain red car can exit, already has a literature devoted to it in computer science journals. Peterson compared the shifting involved in the puzzle to the negotiation of obstacles required of a robot vacuum like the Roomba. “Computer scientists can use puzzles as surrogates for the real world,” he said.
ThinkFun’s Bill Ritchie is more concerned with engrossing children, though, than giving computer scientists new subjects of academic study. He seconded a sentiment Martin Gardner voiced in a 1998 op-ed in the New York Review of Books: “The best way to keep students awake is to introduce recreational material that they perceive as fun.” In tracing the origins of both his company and a puzzle called Chocolate Fix, Ritchie reiterated his belief that games and puzzles can and should have enough depth that playing them becomes a learning experience.
Ritchie voiced a hope shared by educators, parents, and puzzle constructors alike when he recalled his realization that, “maybe, really genuinely math things can be fun.”
The Gathering for Gardner hosted by MAA and ThinkFun came to a satisfying conclusion when, after Dana Richards argued that a generalized version of the puzzle is NP-complete, each audience member received his or her very own Chocolate Fix. Event attendees then trooped upstairs to enjoy refreshments and test their wits against such ThinkFun offerings as TipOver, River Crossing, and Tilt.
Parents puzzled next to children, professors collaborated with students. Martin Gardner would have smiled at the evident edification and enjoyment.
The MAA/ThinkFun event was part of a global party called Gathering for Gardner Celebration of Mind II. Gardner-related resources and information on how you can attend or host a gathering are available at G4G Celebration of Mind.
Click here to see more photos from this wonderful event!