From the time Derrick Niederman was in elementary school, he buried his head in puzzle books for entertainment. Years later, after earning a degree in mathematics from Yale, he was working toward his PhD at M.I.T. when he decided to try his hand at crossword puzzles.
“I was making so little progress on my own thesis that I thought, well, can’t I do anything?” Niederman says. His first three submissions to The New York Times were rejected, but the fourth time was a charm. The first of many of Niederman’s New York Times crossword puzzles was published in 1981, the same year as his thesis.
Niederman says that “an inspired entry” is what got his foot in the door. The clue: This always happened between 7:59:30 and 8 p.m. in The Ziegfeld Follies. The answer? Secondhand rose.
Now a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, Niederman uses his love of puzzles both in the classroom and in other professional pursuits, like his second book, The Puzzler’s Dilemma: From the Lighthouse of Alexandria to Monty Hall, a Fresh Look at Classic Conundrums of Logic, Mathematics, and Life. The book takes an approachable, humorous look at classic brainteasers.
“What the book does is it talks about puzzles from a construction point of view as well as a solving point of view,” Niederman says. “In other words, it doesn’t just present a puzzle and its solution in the tradition of most puzzle books … It will take a puzzle and run through the solution process, including wrong turns.”
Niederman’s experience as a puzzle creator has given him that unique perspective; besides dozens of crossword puzzles, he also created the 36 Cube, a modern 3-D puzzle. “Anyone in mathematics, the challenge is always, ‘Can you come up with something that no one has done before?’ And you don’t get a PhD in mathematics without being able to do that to somebody’s satisfaction.”
Also, as a professor, he recognizes the importance of making things seem approachable. You know, for those without a PhD in math. “One big trap is to think that you should present yourself as the perfect problem solver,” Niederman says. “You put your problem on the board and say, ‘Here’s how it’s done.’ If you don’t include your own wrong turns and foibles, you distance yourself from your audience. Because they’re not thinking, ‘OK I can do this.’ They’re thinking, ‘Geez, I couldn’t do it that quickly in a million years.’ Well, guess what? I can’t either. But I prepared it. So it’s trying to bridge that gap and get closer to your audience as a result.”
The Puzzler’s Dilemma is split into 12 chapters, some very technical and some not. When he’s not dissecting puzzles like “Knights and Knaves” and “The Tower of Hanoi,” he discusses how they can apply to everyday life. “I use puzzles as a means to get into things like symmetry, symmetry of relationships, that are very tightly defined in a puzzle context, but not tightly defined when it comes to the symbiotic relationship between two human beings,” he says. “What I’m hoping is that readers look at my presentation not to conclude that this author really nails it, but to let their own experiences come into play, to say, how do they relate to this puzzle about symmetry with events from their own lives. I’m merely serving to try and prime the pump.”
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