Wednesday, June 7, 2023

# Can you solve it? Chicken or egg

Today’s column is a tribute to Ivan Moscovich, a legend in the world of puzzles, who died last week aged 96. Ivan was a prolific inventor of toys and games, a pioneer of interactive science museums and a bestselling author of puzzle books. The following questions are taken from his magnum opus, The Big Book of Brain Games, which sold around half a million copies.

(More about Ivan’s amazing life below.)

1. Chicken and egg

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

2. The last man

Here is the first line of a science fiction story:

“The last man on earth sat alone in his room. Suddenly there was a knock at the door!”

Can you change one word in the above sentence to make the man’s isolation before the knock at the door more complete?

3. Four walls

How can you build a house that has a window in four walls but every window faces south?

4. Egg of Columbus

Several years ago Ivan saw an ingenious toy in the shape of an egg, inspired by the story that Christopher Columbus balanced an egg on its pointed end. Ivan was unable to get the egg toy to stand on its end. Shaking the egg revealed no moving parts. The only way to balance the egg on its pointed end was to follow the instructions on the box: 1. Hold the egg with the pointed end up for at least 30 seconds. 2. Turn the egg over, wait for ten seconds, then place it on the pointed end. The egg would then balance perfectly, and stay stable for about 15 seconds, after which it would topple and anyone trying to balance it again would fail unless the instructions were repeated. Can you guess the inner structure of the egg?

5. Marble and glass

Can you lift a marble off a table using only a wine glass? (Hitting the marble in any way is not allowed, as this might break the glass.)

6. Penny drops

The image above shows a shot glass filled to the brim with water, and me holding a penny. How many pennies can I drop into the glass before water spills over the edge?

I’ll be back at 5pm UK with the answers. Meanwhile, PLEASE NO SPOILERS. Instead discuss your favourite puzzle toys – there’s a good chance they were invented by, or at least inspired by, Ivan Moscovich.

Now to more about the man himself and his remarkable life. Born in 1926 in Novi Sad, former Yugoslavia, Ivan was interned in two Nazi labour camps and four concentration camps (including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen) during the Second World War. He always said that what saved him was his ability to think creatively, and that his endless drive to come up with new ideas was an after-effect of his war-time trauma.

Ivan emigrated to Israel after liberation. A meeting with the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős inspired him to invent his first puzzle toy – and he never looked back. He licensed more than 100 toys and games and was still launching new products well into his 90s: his most recent being 30 Cubed. In 2020 he won the lifetime achievement award from the US toy and game industry.

In Israel, he came up with the idea for a new kind of science museum, in which visitors were able to interact with exhibits. He was founder and director of the Museum of Science and Technology, which opened in Tel Aviv in 1964, and which featured many objects he designed. The museum inspired Frank Oppenheimer, who used many of Ivan’s ideas when he opened the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is perhaps the world’s best-known hands-on science museum.

Ivan also popularised the harmonograph – a drawing machine based on two pendulums that creates beautiful swirly loops. Art from his machine – “harmonograms” – have been exhibited in galleries and museums in the US and Europe.

Ivan later moved to the Netherlands, where he wrote dozens of puzzle books, the best-known being his Big Book of Brain Games. In my selection above I chose puzzles that skewed towards the physical, since Ivan was such a genius at creating playful objects.

Thanks to Emilia Moscovich for the images. You can check out Ivan’s puzzle books here.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. I’m always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

I give school talks about maths and puzzles (online and in person). If your school is interested please get in touch.

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