Mathematicians contributes to Today Programme's book of puzzles

Staff and students from the School of Mathematics and Statistics has contributed to a book of puzzles being released by Today, BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme.

The cover of the Today Programme puzzle book

The School has submitted approximately 10% of the puzzles contained in the book, with many of the contributions having been read out live on air for the #PuzzleForToday slot on the programme. Dr Fionntan Roukema, University Teacher from the School, read out a puzzle devised by one of his undergraduate students during the live broadcast of Today from the AMRC earlier this year.

After listening to Today’s first puzzles of the day, the School thought it could contribute interesting puzzle ideas for broadcast and were successful in attracting interest from the programme's produers. Professor Neil Dummigan and Dr. Fionntan Roukema began coordinating submissions from across the School.

Since then, puzzle ideas have come from every academic rank in the department, from undergraduate and PhD students, technicians and postdocs, through to emeritus professors. The process of devising puzzles has been a collaborative affair across the School of Maths and Statistics, with puzzles born or developed at weekly department coffee mornings, during which contributions are suggested from a broad range of people.

The Today Programme Puzzle Book includes over 280 cryptic, linguistic and numerical brainteasers. Our colleagues join some of the greatest puzzle masters from around the world in submitting for the book, including individuals from organisations such as Mensa, the UK Mathematics Trust, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

Dr Fionntan Roukema said: “It’s been a fantastic opportunity for the School of Maths to show the real spirit of the subject. Maths isn't just about complicated abstract concepts, it’s creative, surprising and wholly relevant to everyday scenarios.

“Collaborating with students and colleagues across the School has been a rewarding and enjoyable way to promote the ingenuity in maths-based learning.”

The puzzles are certainly not for the faint-hearted, with one of them reputed to have been an old Oxford interview question. Not all of them are maths-based, many are in the form of a pun or wordplay and one of them even involves a physical challenge to try out.

It was also a challenging process to devise them. The team of collaborators started from a Maths principle or question, but then needed the imagination to turn it into a funny and quirky scenario, with plenty of humour and often involving presenters from Today. Ultimately, the puzzles need to be satisfying to complete, as Dr Roukema explains: “a good puzzle should have a really elegant and surprising solution”.

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