Photo of puzzle pieces in a pile

5 things to know about… puzzles

Editor’s Note: At Case Western Reserve University, we love anything that makes us think (beyond the possible). So in honor of National Puzzle Day, we spoke to our resident expert, Bernard Jim, to find out the importance and intricacies of such brainteasers.

As a kid, Bernard Jim often would sneak glances of his mother’s unfinished New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles—and always became frustrated when he didn’t know any of the answers. But through those experiences, a lifelong interest in puzzles was born.

For the past eight years, Jim, a lecturer in the Department of History, has shared his interest in puzzles with Case Western Reserve University students in his SAGES seminar, “Puzzled.”

When Jim was tasked with proposing a new seminar, puzzles seemed like the ideal topic: They could be explored from different angles, and also spur plenty of discussion in class.

Paul Schroeder holds up origami piece
Paul Schroeder in the SAGES “Puzzled” course.

“I ask my students to produce research projects that confront a topic that has been puzzling to them,” he said. “I want them to wrestle with a concept that has proved vexing and, hopefully, gain some insight into themselves in the process.”

Just what is it about puzzles that so many people find fascinating? Jim believes it stems from a desire to challenge our minds, just as we challenge our bodies.

“Why do people climb Everest? Or do triathlons?” he said.

Before you exercise your mind on National Puzzle Day, find out the five things Jim thinks you should know about puzzles.

1. They’re an ideal way to start your day.

Doing the New York Times crossword puzzle is a great way to start your day. Each day the puzzle gets progressively harder, with Saturday being the most difficult. Because crossword puzzles require one to see and make connections, they are great preparation for leading a SAGES seminar. The ability to quickly find the right words to respond to students in discussion is really important.

2. There’s more than just jigsaw.

Yes, we do recreational puzzles in my “Puzzled” seminar, but the heart of the class is based on philosophical, psychological, literary and artistic puzzles. Over the years, I have taken my students to an Escape Room, to see M.C. Escher’s work at the Akron Art Museum, and to see a theatrical production of an Agatha Christie mystery—but my favorite aspect of the class is discussing philosophical conundrums.

3. There’s a strong connection to many fields of academics.

I have found Case [Western Reserve University] students to be fond of puzzle thinking. Many of our disciplines—computer science, engineering, economics, math and cognitive science to name a few—have puzzle-solving aspects to them.

For example, an EECS [Electrical Engineering and Computer Science] student said that she considered circuit boards as puzzles that she wanted to build/solve in the fewest number of moves. A computer scientist likened the work she does coding to constructing a puzzle as well. A vocal performance student wrote that staging an opera is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Oftentimes, students view the process of figuring out how to do well in their classes to be a type of puzzle.

4. Challenge your skills with older options.

One of the first Puzzle Challenges that we do each semester is assembling a jigsaw puzzle in groups of four or five students. I have collected jigsaw puzzles from the 1930s that differ from modern versions in that they are inexact in the number of pieces that they contain and there is no picture on the box. Without knowing the image or its dimensions can make assembling a jigsaw puzzle with “200 or more” pieces pretty difficult.

It becomes really important to communicate within the group when there is no master plan, and the groups that are the noisiest tend to be the first ones finished.

5. Age-old mind-benders have perplexed for centuries—and still do today.

Over the history of puzzle-solving, there have been many puzzles that have obsessed their solvers. According to puzzle historian Marcel Danesi, the tutor of a young king during the Middle Ages, presented his pupil with a problema bovinum—or cattle problem—that consumed his every waking hour.

Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment came while soaking in the bathtub after puzzling over the problem of how to determine if a gift was made of pure gold. In the early 20th century, frustrated solvers refused to believe that there was no solution to the “15-14 Puzzle.”

Today, our puzzle content comes via smartphones and videogames, but our level of obsession with Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Super Mario is not dissimilar.