Puzzle Hunt

10 October 2016

Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Picross, or the latest fad of 'puzzle rooms' to escape from... puzzles, puzzles, puzzles... To capitalise on our love for puzzles, the Sydney University Mathematics Society (ΣUMS) runs the ΣUMS Puzzle Hunt each year, to encourage people to employ mathematical thinking without having to understand any maths.

The ΣUMS Puzzle Hunt involves teams of up to five people competing online to solve twenty-one puzzles over eight days, and the winners are awarded hundreds of dollars in prize money. It usually occurs sometime in November, so keep your eyes out. It's a big favourite!

The University of Sydney Puzzle Hunt was even paid homage to this year by one of the oldest and most famous puzzle hunts in the world: that run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States of America. MIT's Mystery Hunt, as it's called, is notoriously hard, and requires being on MIT campus because it always involves finding a hidden item, like a coin, in a building somewhere, or being given physical objects as part of a puzzle.

Sean Gardiner, ΣUMS president, had been fascinated by the MIT Mystery Hunt since a kid, and had always dreamed of being involved in the creation of something a little more user friendly. So first and foremost, Sean must be congratulated on following through on his vision! He instigated the ΣUMS Puzzle Hunt as soon as he joined university in 2009 and it's been going and growing strong ever since.

A puzzle example is in order. So check out this puzzle. Are you going to give it a try before I show you how it goes?

'Porcus' means 'pig' in Latin, so this suggests we are dealing with the language game of Pig Latin. Pig Latin is about altering English as follows: move the first consonant (or cluster of consonants before a vowel) in a word to the end (or add a 'w' to the end if the word begins with a vowel), add '-ay' to its end, and then pronounce the word phonetically the same but for the aforementioned changes. An example: 'scram' becomes 'amscray'. It's some fun to conceal words for those who don't know the game or can't play it fast enough when speaking it.

Looking at our puzzle, one of the clues reads 'rubbish; nonsense'. Like crossword clues, this conjures the word 'trash' which in Pig Latin becomes 'ash-tray' which oh my, oh my, is linked to another clue in the puzzle 'smoker's receptacle'! Do you feel like you could work out the others now?

But what about the pink and green symbols next to the words? This is a very common code called Pigpen Cypher. So common that even if you didn't know about it, you'd come across it by Googling together terms like 'pig', 'lines and dots', and/or 'cypher'/'cipher'. Deciphering the columns gives rubbish words in the left and right columns, but 'REPAIR CODE' in the centre. We need to repair the code? Ah yes!

Since the clues 'rubbish; nonsense' and "smoker's receptacle" were linked through Pig Latin, we can search for similar pairings in the remaining 12 clues from the left and right columns. And with each pair you can combine their associated Pigpen Cypher symbols to separate out their green and pink parts, decoding the cypher to yield green and pink letters. The green letters can obviously go in alphabetical order, and as you do so they align the pink letters with them, giving: MARRIED A FROG. We are on a track for sure!

Who has ever married a frog? We could think of a handful of fiction characters, but really there is only one that fits: the Muppet Miss Piggy! She married Kermit the Frog in several productions, forming what the pigpen symbols represent as a combination of pink and green. The answer is Miss Piggy!

Wow. What a journey! Twenty puzzles like this! Keeping you on your toes for eight days! All culminating in a final meta-puzzle involving all the solutions of the other problems along with pieces of a story that are also given out with each puzzle along the way. And only here, at the very end, does it all come together and make true sense.

What talent our students have to write this. And they are committed to making sure it's accessible to a general audience, ensuring puzzles cover a variety of themes. There's code cyphers, image puzzles, logic, arithmetic, 3D constructions, trivia... Sean says he always wanted to cover diverse knowledge bases and strategies, so being part of an equally diverse team is subtly being encouraged. I like that idea so much. Puzzle solving is also all about pattern recognition: the true essence of mathematics. In both, you deconstruct information logically and analytically in a creative search for links, and hence patterns. So something else being encouraged through these puzzles is mathematics! Love it!