Science Book a Day Interviews Alex Bellos
Special thanks to Alex Bellos for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Can You Solve My Problems? A Casebook of Ingenious, Perplexing and Totally Satisfying Puzzles
#1 – What was the impetus for Can you Solve My Problems? What is the definition of a puzzle?
In 2015 I posted a story on my Guardian maths blog about a puzzle that was dong the rounds in Singapore. The ‘Cheryl’s birthday problem’ went viral – more than 5 million views, making it my most successful story ever. It was the #1 story in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC and the New York Times, and other papers around the world.
As a result of the interest in the Cheryl puzzle, I started to write a regular puzzle column – and this got me really immersed an interested in the world of puzzles. This work led to the book. There are many puzzles that work better on the page than online.
My puzzles are mathematical and logic puzzles, which means they are testing logical thinking and creativity. A good puzzle is one that requires no technical knowledge, that has a light-hearted tone, and that anyone can solve with a bit of thought. I like to think that a good puzzle also touches on some deep idea, and by solving it you are somehow learning a technique that will help you in life.
#2 – A book of puzzles seems quite different to your previous books. Why did you feel the need to make a book of puzzles?
This book is not so different to my previous books. Because of my background as a journalist, I like to tell stories and research widely around the subject. My book contains many puzzles, but also lots of historical context, background about the puzzle inventors and mathematical digressions.
#3 – You take puzzles from different periods in time and from different parts of the world. What are the histories behind these puzzles? Are there cultural histories in different parts of the world around puzzles? Do certain countries prefer particular types of puzzles?
The history of puzzles is a parallel history of mathematics. Ever since there has been mathematics, mathematicians have enjoyed solving puzzles, and it has inspired them in their ‘serious’ work, and often serious work results in great puzzles. Good puzzles can last for millennia, with each generation telling them in a different way.
#4 – What is your favourite puzzle?
I don’t have a single favourite – the book is a selection of my hundred or so favourites.
#5 – In a world of distractions, are puzzles as popular as they have ever been? Have they been translated into a digital world?
I still think puzzles are popular – look at the success of the Cheryl’s birthday problem, and of Sudoku. But maybe the way we consume them is different. Also, I think that because modern life requires less ‘thinking’ than before, because of smartphones and the internet, people are really seeking out ways to exercise their minds, and many do that with puzzles.
#6 – Are you working on any future books/projects you want to tell us about?
Yes, I have a new mathematical colouring book that is appearing later this month in the US and in the UK in April.