Rube Goldberg Overload!

A Rube Goldberg machine, for the uninitiated, is a device designed to accomplish a simple task in as many unnecessary, ludicrous steps as possible. The name comes, appropriately enough, from Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist and inventor most famous for his cartoons featuring singularly silly and elaborate machines like the one pictured below.

We’ve posted videos of Rube Goldberg machines in the past, because they’re a perfect example of a mechanical puzzle in action. Only when things happen in a precise order does the machine complete its task.

And they’ve been around long enough that we’re starting to see fun variations on the concept. Beyond simply accomplishing a task, many Rube Goldberg devices tell stories or center around a given theme. (We even featured one that was designed to take weeks to complete!)

And today, I’ve got four videos of Goldbergian goodness to share with you.

First off, another terrific entry from Purdue University. The school has really made a name for itself in the Rube Goldberg field over the last few years, and perhaps my favorite device of theirs is this record-setting machine charting the progression of human history:

From human history to racing history, we now turn our attention to this car part-themed device from the team at Arrow FiveYearsOut, complete with an unexpectedly zippy finale:

When it comes to devices with many moving parts in complex interactions, it’s hard to top watches with their myriad of miniature gears, wheels, and other intricate details.

So it should come as no surprise that Seiko has gotten into the Rube Goldberg spirit with their own timepiece-themed device, “The Art of Time.” Involving over 1,200 individual watch pieces, this might be the smallest, most elegant Rube Goldberg device I’ve ever seen:

And finally, we have my favorite of my recent discoveries. This video from YouTuber Kaplamino has been making the rounds on Facebook — uncredited, unfortunately — and it’s a marvel. It’s entitled “Magnets and Marbles,” but should really be called “Magnets and Marbles and Momentum and a Metric Buttload of Patience.”

Built on a tilted table, “Magnets and Marbles” is not a true Rube Goldberg device — there was never one complete uninterrupted run — but it remains a thoroughly impressive design.

According to the creator, “Each screen was recorded separately, and even like that, some of them only work 10% of the time. I can’t give you a number because I didn’t count the fails, but I think it’s over 100.”

Nonetheless, the clever use of magnets makes this one of the most dynamic and creative machines I’ve seen in quite a while:

Rube Goldberg devices are only growing more ambitious, audacious, and creative, and I cannot wait to see what people come up with next.


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A musical puzzle a thousand years in the making…

Most of the time, if I’m writing a blog post centered around a certain video, I explain the story of the video first, laying out all the necessary exposition so you as a reader will go into the video properly informed. Then I’ll share the video, share a few parting thoughts, and wrap things up.

I’m not going to do that today, though. Today, I’d like you to watch this video first and allow me to explain its significance afterward:

In all likelihood, that’s the first time you’ve heard this song. And there’s good reason for that. Until it was performed on April 23, it hadn’t been heard in a thousand years.

It has taken two decades of masterful puzzle solving, diligent research, and careful extrapolation to allow Sam Barrett of Cambridge University to reconstruct these melodies.

From the article on the University of Cambridge website:

The task of performing such ancient works today is not as simple as reading and playing the music in front of you. 1,000 years ago, music was written in a way that recorded melodic outlines, but not ‘notes’ as today’s musicians would recognise them; relying on aural traditions and the memory of musicians to keep them alive. Because these aural traditions died out in the 12th century, it has often been thought impossible to reconstruct ‘lost’ music from this era – precisely because the pitches are unknown.

Akin to decrypting an encoded poem, Barnett had to identify what are known as neumes (symbols representing a form of musical notation employed during the Middle Ages, specifically the 11th century), and then puzzle out how to translate those neumes into actual notes for musicians to perform.

The discovery of a missing manuscript leaf proved to be the key to unlocking what are now known as the Cambridge Songs:

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” he said. “Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem.

“The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”

This remarkable accomplishment marks the latest in a series of transformations the work has gone through since its creation in the sixth century as a poetic treatise on philosophy by Boethius.

His work was translated, then set to music, and then lost to the ages before being reconstructed and reimagined by Barnett and the three-piece group known as Sequentia, who perform a snippet of it in the video.

There have been times while I’ve been working on this that I have thought I’m in the 11th century, when the music has been so close it was almost touchable. And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.

This is the sort of tenacity, creativity, and resolve I have come to expect from puzzle-minded people over the years, and it’s one more example of how seemingly nothing is beyond the reach of people willing to put in the time and effort to discover (and rediscover) what was once believed lost.

Amazing stuff.

[Although the information in this post came from the original article on the University of Cambridge website, I became aware of the story thanks to this article on Gizmodo.com.]


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Pizza puzzling!

I ordered pizza the other night, and being a puzzly guy, I couldn’t help but find a puzzle hiding beneath the lid of that pizza box.

The pizza was cut into eight slices, as you’d expect, all of roughly equal size. And I started to wonder: what if you had more than eight people sharing one pizza?

The simple solution would be to cut those pieces down the middle into long, thin pieces. But were there other solutions out there, other shapes that would allow more people equal access to a shared pizza?

So I did a little research, and I stumbled upon this recent Gizmodo article, which discussed a mathematical paper titled “Infinite families of monohedral disk tilings.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely going to start calling pizza slices “monohedral disk tilings.”

Anyway, mathematicians had apparently tackled the pizza problem before, and they believe the solution rests with tessellation, the use of the same shape or symmetrical shapes repeated over and over to fill a given space.

When you think about symmetry and tessellation, you tend to think of straight lines.

But the amazing thing about these solutions to the pizza problem? They all abandon straight lines.

As you can see, there are numerous variations that work from this shield patterning. Since the shields are the same, dividing the shields up into equal parts in different forms yields other solutions.

And that use of arcs (curved lines) instead of straight lines makes patterns that would normally only work in squares, pentagons, and other shapes work for circles, like your friendly neighborhood pizza.

But there are more solutions for the pizza problem lurking out there if you abandon the three-sided piece and try more exotic shapes. Check out these patterns:

Granted, the average pizza slicer isn’t going to be dicing up a pie into 28 or 36 pieces… but it’s nice to know there are options out there, in case a few dozen friends stop by unexpectedly on pizza night.


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A crossword like you’ve never seen before

When someone sends me a link, claiming they’ve uncovered the most difficult crossword they’ve ever seen, I’m usually skeptical.

I mean, I’ve seen some diabolical crosswords in my day. From puzzle 5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the meta-puzzles lurking in Matt Gaffney‘s Weekly Crossword Contests to the Diagramless and Double Trouble crosswords offered by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, it’s hardly tough to find challenging crosswords these days.

But this puzzle, originally created for the 2013 MIT Mystery Puzzle Hunt and made solvable (and rotatable!) online by Greg Grothaus, might just take the cake:

As you can see, there are clues across three sides of the hexagonal grid: the across clues, the down-to-the-left clues, and the up-to-the-left clues.

But these clues are unlike anything I’ve seen before.

It turns out that these are regexps, or regular expressions, sequences of characters and symbols that represent search commands in computer science.

Now, anyone who has used graphing features in Excel or crossword-solving aids on websites like XWordInfo, Crossword Tracker, or OneLook is probably familiar with simple versions of regexp. For instance, if you search C?S?B?, you’ll probably end up with CASABA as the likely top answer.

Of course, the ones in this puzzle are far more complicated, but the overlapping clues in three directions make this something of a logic puzzle as well, since you’ll be able to disregard certain answers because they won’t fit the other clues (as you do in crosswords with the across and down crossings in the grid).

But if, like me, you don’t know much about reading regexp, well then, you’ve got yourself a grid full of Naticks.

If anyone out there is savvy with regexp, let me know how taxing this puzzle is. Because, for me right now, it’s like doing a crossword in a foreign language.

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I first checked out the post on Gizmodo, they titled it “Can You Solve This Beautifully Nerdy Crossword Puzzle?” and I laughed out loud when the very first comment simply read “Nope.”

Glad to see I’m not alone here.


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