The Rubik’s Cube may be the best known of all geometric puzzles, but it turns out there’s a whole world of 3-D brainteasers out there that will not only satisfy your inner nerd, but light up aesthetic nerve centers in your brain as well.
More than a dozen examples of such puzzlers hand-carved in wood by Stewart Coffin, the world’s most esteemed designer of interlocking puzzles, are now at the Linda Hall Library.
They are from the collection of Norton Starr, an Amherst College emeritus professor of mathematics and computer science who now lives in Kansas City, where he grew up.
Starr, who taught at Amherst for 43 years, first saw a puzzle by Coffin in 1966. He then visited Coffin’s workshop in Lincoln, Mass., where he became a client and both became friends. They still email each other.
A large part of the appeal of Coffin’s work is the visual beauty of his designs. Over the years he has used cocobolo, bubinga, rosewood and other exotic woods for his carvings. Many puzzles combine two or more woods in different colors, and all are exquisitely crafted. Any of them would look just fine in a room of minimalist sculpture, and one can imagine them sitting in the studio of an artist such as the late Sol LeWitt, famous for his geometric, conceptual artworks.
All of the puzzlers on display are polyhedral (3-D geometric figures whose sides are polygons), and they require real mastery to undo and reassemble.
“Most of these puzzles look simple to put together,” Starr said in a recent interview, “but in reality they are extremely difficult; some are cunningly diabolical. You look at them and think: I can do that. But you have to really work at them to get them apart.”
Starr has included several examples of a single puzzle that is shown fully assembled and also dissected in its various parts. The labels, while somewhat mind-boggling in themselves, help explain some of the puzzles’ intricacies.
For “Convolution,” we learn that “this seven-piece dissection of the 4-inch cube satisfies Stewart Coffin’s rules for combinatorial puzzles: all pieces are dissimilar, none has axes of symmetry, and only one solution exists. It also has only one possible order of assembly, making it totally interlocking and very difficult to solve…”
The “Hexsticks” puzzle, an “interlocking assembly of 12 notched hexagonal rods,” has the shape of a rhombic dodecahedron and was licensed to the 3M corporation, which sold epoxy versions of it. There are actually three distinctly different solutions to this teaser.
“Mathematicians are basically problem-solvers, and these pieces are both challenging and artistic, Starr said. “Puzzles have been around forever. Perhaps their basic appeal is that we’re all afraid of Alzheimer’s, and these give our brains a good workout.”
Starr attends an annual conference for the “puzzle community,” as he calls it, which is held in a different country each time. He also has his own website (amherst.edu/~nstarr), which includes a puzzle he designed that can be played online.
Eric Ward, vice president for public programs at Linda Hall, worked with Starr on the “Ingenious Objects” exhibit. He incorporated framed reproductions of patents for a variety of puzzles, the designs for which serve as constructivist artworks by themselves. He also selected a number of the library’s renowned ancient manuscripts on mathematics, which are opened inside vitrines.
The books, by such scientific greats as Rene Descartes, Euclid, Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, are alone worth a trip to the library.
“Ingenious Objects: Geometric Puzzles by Stewart Coffin” continues through May 31 at the Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry St. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. Go to lindahall.org for more information.