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Raymond Smullyan

Raymond Smullyan is an American mathematician and puzzle designer who will turn 93 in a few months. I would call him the greatest puzzle designer of all time, but that implies that there are lots of people who do what he does and he’s better than them, and that’s not quite right. What I mean to say is that Raymond Smullyan is the Marcel Duchamp of puzzles, he’s the Brian Eno of puzzles. His work is singular, transformative, genre-defining, in a class by itself.

Smullyan creates logic puzzles. That term might make you think of the kind of puzzles in which you are told a bunch of facts about various people (the banker is wearing a hat, the lawyer is standing next to the accountant, the dentist is standing next to someone wearing a hat) and you have to figure out which one is the banker. That kind of puzzle is, by-and-large, a tedious exercise in bookkeeping. Smullyan’s puzzles are nothing like that.

Smullyan’s puzzles are songs that play your brain like a piano, twisted 4-dimensional shapes made out of statements and beliefs, they combine the delicate impossibility of a Zen koan with the mechanical precision of a door knob.

What makes a Smullyan puzzle so great? Like most truly beautiful things, I don’t think it’s possible to say exactly. But here are three things that I love about them.

1. They are truly deep. Smullyan’s work as a puzzle designer is inextricably linked to his work as a mathematician. His books use puzzles to explore some of the subtlest, strangest, and most beautiful corners of the mathematical thought – infinity, Gödelian incompleteness, combinatory logic, and more.

2. They are hardly true. Even though Smullyan’s puzzles are exercises in propositional logic, they are always framed in light story structures, little fables about islands, villages, liars, planets, vampires, detectives, birds, or marriages. This narrative surface is always wafer thin and formulaic, with something of the flavor of a parable or folk tale. But despite (or more likely because of) their generic quality, these framing stories flesh out the puzzles just enough to engage the sensual, spatial, perceptual, and social dimensions of the mind. You’re not just calculating P or Q you are exploring an island, discovering a village and meeting its inhabitants. You’re not just searching for an answer, you’re looking back and forth at the faces of two people, one of whom might be lying to you. This intersection of the abstract and the concrete gives the best Smullyan books the timeless, mythic feel of the best game worlds.

3. They are deeply hard. A great Smullyan puzzle is challenging in a particular way. It’s small enough that you can easily hold all the necessary ideas in your head, but the solution remains elusive, just beyond the reach of your capacity to reason. Their difficulty doesn’t hang on linguistic tricks or baroque complications, they are the simplest possible expression of a genuinely complex problem. And when you are able to rotate the ideas in your head into the right configuration they snap together into a profoundly satisfying solution that feels like a single new idea.

Raymond Smullyan has long been a personal hero of mine. I discovered him before my own thoughts about game aesthetics were well formed and his particular blend of the poetic and the mathematical has been a major influence on my thinking and a continual inspiration for my work as a game designer. Thanks Raymond!

6 Comments

  1. Zaratustra wrote:

    Are puzzle designers immortal or something? Gardner lived to 95, too.

    Sunday, February 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Incendiary wrote:

    Immortal? The difference between living forever and living to be 95 is, well, forever.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Ava wrote:

    For me, Smullyan is a personal hero more due to hir general niceness and attitudes towards people and life than hir affinity for creating puzzles. See “the tao is silent”, “who knows”, and “this book needs no title”. It is wonderful the see a professor of mathematics tackle eastern philosophy and things that are beyond logic. :)

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  4. Huh. The name didn’t immediately ring any bells, but after a little digging — I swear I must’ve gone through several of his books growing up (“To Mock a Mockingbird” and “Alice in Puzzle-Land” seem really familiar — and would’ve come out when I was 7-8yrs old). (I certainly chewed through very Martin Gardner book I could find, as well.)

    Anyway, good to be reintroduced to him! Maybe it’s because I deal with math and logic all day on a very functional and mundane level (tappity-tap on keyboard for food/rent), but I’m fascinated by people who can connect that kind of thinking with the sublime, who can pull philosophy out of these seemingly very strict tools…

    Friday, May 11, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  5. I’ve been a huge fan of Raymond Smullyan’s work since the ’80s. And he just looks like the coolest guy.

    Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Qwng wrote:

    Some may be interested in these two books by Raymond Smullyan:

    Reflections: The Magic, Music and Mathematics of Raymond Smullyan

    The Magic Garden of George B and Other Logic Puzzles.

    Monday, May 11, 2015 at 5:28 am | Permalink

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