Puzzles in Pop Culture: Square One TV

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re jumping into the Wayback Machine and looking back at the math-fueled equivalent of Sesame Street: Square One TV!

[The intro to Square One TV, looking more than a little dated these days.]

This PBS show ran from 1987 to 1994 (although reruns took over in 1992), airing five days a week and featuring all sorts of math-themed programming. Armed with a small recurring group of actors, the writers and producers of Square One TV offered many clever (if slightly cheesy) ideas for presenting different mathematical concepts to its intended audience.

Whether they were explaining pie charts and percentages with a game show parody or employing math-related magic tricks with the aid of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the sketches were simple enough for younger viewers, but funny enough for older viewers.

In addition to musical parodies performed by the cast, several famous musicians contributed to the show as well. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bobby McFerrin, The Fat Boys, and Kid ‘n’ Play were among the guests helped explain fractions, tessellations, and other topics.

[One of the many math-themed songs featured on the show.]

Two of the most famous recurring segments on Square One TV were Mathman and Mathcourt. (Sensing a theme here?)

Mathman was a Pac-Man ripoff who would eat his way around an arcade grid until he reached a number or a question mark (depending on this particular segment’s subject).

For instance, if he came to a question mark and it revealed “3 > 2”, he could eat the ratio, because it’s mathematically correct, and then move onward. But if he ate the ratio “3 < 2”, he would be pursued by Mr. Glitch, the tornado antagonist of the game. (The announcer would always introduce Mr. Glitch with an unflattering adjective like contemptible, inconsiderate, devious, reckless, insidious, inflated, ill-tempered, shallow, or surreptitious.)

Mathcourt, on the other hand, gave us a word problem in the form of a court case, leaving the less-than-impressed district attorney and judge to establish whether the accused (usually someone much savvier at math than them) was correct or incorrect. As a sucker for The People’s Court-style shenanigans, this recurring segment was a personal favorite of mine.

But from a puzzle-solving standpoint, MathNet was easily the puzzliest part of the program. Detectives George Frankly and Kate Tuesday would use math to solve baffling crimes. Whether it was a missing house, a parrot theft, or a Broadway performer’s kidnapping, George and Kate could rely on math to help them save the day.

These segments were told in five parts (one per day for a full week), using the Dragnet formula to tackle all sorts of mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to calculating angles of reflection and refraction.

These were essentially word problems, logic problems, and other puzzles involving logic or deduction, but with a criminal twist. Think more Law & Order: LCD than Law & Order: SVU.

Granted, given all the robberies and kidnappings the MathNet team faced, these segments weren’t aiming as young or as silly as much of Square One TV‘s usual fare, but they are easily the most fondly remembered aspect of the show for fans and casual viewers alike.

Given the topic of Tuesday’s post — the value of recreational math — it seemed only fitting to use today’s post to discuss one of the best examples of math-made-fun in television history.

Square One TV may not have been nearly as successful or as long-lasting as its Muppet-friendly counterpart, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many puzzlers these days.

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Let’s Make a Deal!

It’s a scenario every game show fan knows well. You’ve got three doors to choose from, and one of those doors will open to reveal a fabulous prize.

After you’ve made your choice (let’s say Door #2), our affable host Monty Hall plays Devil’s Advocate by opening one of the doors you didn’t choose (let’s say Door #1), revealing a goat or other lackluster result.

And then, Monty offers you a chance to change your mind. Will you stick with the door you initially chose, or will you switch to the other unopened door (Door #3)?

The average player sees two choices, Door #2 and Door #3, which on the surface sounds like a 50/50 shot, a coin flip. So would it surprise you to learn that people who switched from one door to the other doubled their chances to win the fabulous prize?

This is known as the Monty Hall Problem, an example of how statistics aren’t always what they seem, and it has puzzled people for decades.

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? I mean, you have two choices, so the odds should be 50/50. But you’re forgetting that third door that Monty eliminated. That third door makes all the difference, statistically speaking.

Let’s break it down. Your initial choice is between 3 doors, meaning you have a 1 in 3 chance of picking the correct door, and a 2 in 3 chance of picking the wrong one.

When Monty opens that other door, the odds haven’t changed. Only the number of options available has changed. Your door is still a 1 in 3 chance of being correct and a 2 in 3 chance of being wrong. But the remaining door now has a 2 in 3 chance of being correct!

So what appeared to be a coin flip between sticking with your choice and switching is now heavily weighted toward switching!

There have been several real-world tests of the Monty Hall Problem, and all of them have consistently shown that the people who switch were twice as likely to open the winning door!

The real puzzle here is how we fool ourselves. We take the numbers at face value — 3 doors become 2 doors, so a 1 in 3 chance becomes a 1 in 2 chance — and actually hurt our chances with those seemingly simple assumptions.

Being able to reconsider your assumptions is a major tool in the puzzler’s solving kit. Plenty of tricky crossword clues depend on you associating the clue with one thing, when the answer is something quite different.

After all, if you saw the clue “Unlocked” for a four-letter entry, you’d probably try OPEN before you tried BALD. Clever constructors are counting on that.

So be sure to remember Monty Hall and his three-door conundrum the next time you’re stumped on a puzzle. Maybe the answer is as simple as trying another door.

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PuzzleNation Live Game #3: Answers!

As promised, here are the answers to Friday’s PuzzleNation live game, a.k.a. the Progressions challenge! Thank you to everyone who gave it a shot. I look forward to doing another live puzzle game soon!

(And for anyone who didn’t get a chance to play, you can check out the original puzzles on our Facebook and Twitter accounts!)


1.) 18  25  28  35  ______  45  48  55  58

Answer: 38 (+7 +3 +7 +3 +7 +3 +7 +3)

2.) 92  91  89  85  ______  76  74  70  62

Answer: 77 (-1 -2 -4 -8 -1 -2 -4 -8)

3.) 64  71  78  83  ______  91  94  95  96

Answer: 88 (+7 +7 +5 +5 +3 +3 +1 +1)

4.) 81  162  54  108  ______  72  24  48  16

Answer: 36 (x2 /3 x2 /3 x2 /3 x2 /3)

5.) 22  23  28  33  ______  35  40  45  46

Answer: 34 (+1 +5 +5 +1 +1 +5 +5 +1)

6.) 242  121  123  41  ______  11  15  3  8

Answer: 44 (/2 +2 /3 +3 /4 +4 /5 +5)

7.) 15  9  18  14  ______  22  44  40  80

Answer: 28 (-6 x2 -4 x2 -6 x2 -4 x2)


1.) 39  43  49  52  ______  63  69  72  79

Answer: 59 (+4 +6 +3 +7 +4 +6 +3 +7)

2.) 9  17  25  23  ______  29  37  35  33

Answer: 21 (+8 +8 -2 -2 +8 +8 -2 -2)

3.) 108  104  52  48  ______  20  10  6  3

Answer: 24 (-4 /2 -4 /2 -4 /2 -4 /2)

4.) 58  49  52  44  ______  40  43  35  40

Answer: 49 (-9 +3 -8 +5 -9 +3 -8 +5)

5.) 31  22  66  57  ______  162  486  477  1431

Answer: 171 (-9 x3 -9 x3 -9 x3 -9 x3)

6.) 46  47  49  46  ______  47  53  46  38

Answer: 42 (+1 +2 -3 -4 +5 +6 -7 -8)

7.) 4  16  18  6  ______  28  30  10  11

Answer: 7 (x4 +2 /3 +1 x4 +2 /3 +1)

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!