Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Big Bang Theory

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 delving into the world of The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s runaway hit about four nerdy scientists — Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj — bumbling their way through social interactions of all sorts.

Although the show covers all sorts of activities often deemed “nerdy” — roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, comic books, cosplay, conventions, obsessive fandom, etc. — they rarely play puzzles. Usually, the closest they get are board games and card games, whether real ones like 3-D chess or fictional ones like Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.

But in episode 3 of season 7, The Scavenger Vortex, the boys and their girlfriends embarked on one of my favorite puzzly pursuits: the scavenger hunt.

Here, hunt organizer Raj lays down the rules with plenty of style:

The teams end up being the odd couples of Leonard and Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend), Sheldon and Penny (Leonard’s girlfriend), and Howard and Amy (Sheldon’s girlfriend), allowing some new pairings for the writers to have fun with.

For instance, we’re treated to this exchange between Howard and Amy, where Amy references her unpopularity growing up:

Howard Wolowitz: Wow, you’re really good at puzzles.
Amy Farrah Fowler: I did them all the time as a kid. As my mom used to say: when you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends. She was full of fun lies like that.

The game starts with a jigsaw puzzle, which quickly reveals the location of the next clue: the comic book store. (Although Sheldon forces Penny to wait while he completes the entire puzzle.)

When the competitors arrive at the comic book store, a cardboard cutout of the Riddler holds their next clue.

Riddle me this:
Arrah, Arrah, and gather ’round,
this hero is legion-bound,
He multiplies N by the number of He,
and in this room the thing you’ll see.

Sheldon instantly solves the riddle, followed by Howard and Amy, then finally by Bernadette and Leonard, highlighting how well the three teams are working together. (Either Sheldon or Penny takes the lead, depending on the task, while Howard and Amy collaborate well, and overcompetitive Bernadette basically yells at Leonard the entire time.)

Arriving at the geology lab at the university, Penny and Sheldon reveal the next puzzle: To continue on your quest, leave no stone unturned.

While they turn over various rock samples in the lab, Sheldon explains how he solved the riddle.

Arrah pointed to Jan Arrah, a member of the DC Comics superhero team The Legion of Super-Heroes, who goes by the name Element Lad. This pointed Sheldon to the Periodic Table of Elements, where he multiplied the atomic number of N, Nitrogen (7) by the atomic number of He, Helium (2), getting 14, the atomic number of Silica, which pointed him to either the geology lab or the chemistry lab.

And the final line of the riddle — “and in this room, the thing you’ll see” — pointed toward the Marvel superhero The Thing, who is made entirely of rock.

As Sheldon is showing off his impressive riddle-cracking skills, underdog Penny actually solves the current puzzle, realizing that “no stone unturned” didn’t mean the samples in the lab. It meant the Rolling Stones poster hung on the door, which she lifts to reveal map coordinates.

This sends them to a bowling alley, and then to the disused elevator shaft in Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building. A montage mentions further puzzles at the planetarium and the tar pits (and plans to attend a Neil Diamond concert for new chums Howard and Amy), before ending up in the laundry room at Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building.

Three bags of laundry await the players, and they quickly realize each bag contains only pants, except for a single shirt of Sheldon’s. A shirt with a spot on it.

Fans of the show, of course, know where their final destination — and the coin — awaits them. But when they tear apart the couch, there’s no coin.

In the end, we discover the final clue was a red herring, and Raj had slipped gold coins into everyone’s pockets earlier in the day. (Which is some pretty impressive sleight-of-hand, I must say.)

And although Raj’s big lesson — it’s getting together and playing that’s important, not the prize at the end — is lost on his fellow castmates, it really does encapsulate the best in group puzzling and gaming… the experience.

Maybe The Big Bang Theory gets puzzles after all.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Hats Off to You edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to revisit the subject of brain teasers.

A few years ago, we posted a riddle that had been making the rounds online. It centered around four men buried up to their necks in the ground, each one trying to figure out what color hat he is wearing.

It’s a great exercise in logic and deduction, one that most solvers unraveled after a few minutes.

As it turns out, there’s a more complex version of this riddle. But this one involves 100 people!

One hundred prisoners are lined up single file, facing in the same direction. Each prisoner will be randomly assigned either a red hat or a blue hat.

No one can see the color of his own hat. However, each person is able to see the color of the hat worn by every person in front of him. So the person at the head of the line cannot see the color of anyone’s hat, the second prisoner can see only the first prisoner’s hat, the third can see the first two prisoners’ hats, and so on. The last person in line — the 100th prisoner — can see the colors of the hats on all 99 people in front of him.

Beginning with the last person in line, and then moving to the 99th person, the 98th, etc., each will be asked to name the color of his own hat. If the color is correctly named, the person lives; if incorrectly named, the person is shot dead on the spot.

Everyone in line is able to hear every response as well as hear the gunshot; also, everyone in line is able to remember all that needs to be remembered and is able to compute all that needs to be computed.

Before being lined up and given their hats, the 100 prisoners are allowed to discuss strategy, with an eye toward developing a plan that will allow as many of them as possible to name the correct color of his or her own hat (and thus survive). They know all of the preceding information in this problem. Once lined up, each person is allowed only to say “Red” or “Blue” when his turn arrives, beginning with the last person in line.

What would your plan be to save as many people as possible? How many prisoners can you definitely save?

It’s an absolutely diabolical riddle, one that definitely taxed my puzzle skills. And different plans have different chances for success! Will you save half? 75%? Can you save everyone?

[Click here and scroll down for the solution, courtesy of the folks at IO9.]

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Riddled and Tippled edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of riddles and brain teasers!

We’ve featured plenty of them on the blog over the years, from this Parking Lot puzzler to Lewis Carroll’s most infamous riddle. But it never occurred to us to test our riddle-solving and brain-teasing skills under the influence of a few glasses of wine.

Thankfully, Sudoku enthusiast and YouTuber Hannah Hart (of My Drunk Kitchen fame) took it upon herself to ask her fans to submit riddles for her to unravel while tipsy.

Did you figure them out faster than Hannah? Do you think a glass of wine would help your puzzling? (Or perhaps I should ask “do puzzles drive you to drink?” *laughs*)

Since people were submitting more riddles for her to solve, I couldn’t resist tossing in one of my own:

Four jolly men sat down to play,
And played all night till break of day.
They played for cash and not for fun,
With a separate score for every one.
When it came time to square accounts,
they all had made quite fair amounts.
Now, not one has lost and all have gained –
Tell me now, this can you explain?

A little something to keep you busy on this lovely Friday. Enjoy.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Everyone loves a good scary story, especially around Halloween, myself included. In fact, the only thing I like better than a good scary story is a good scary story with some puzzling included.

So, in the spirit of the spooky season, I thought we could delve into one of my favorites from Nickelodeon’s Saturday night (SNick) lineup: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

[Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society…]

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was an anthology series, centered around a group of young storytellers who called themselves The Midnight Society. Each week, one of them would offer up a terrifying tale (but not too terrifying, because it was Nickelodeon, after all), oftentimes reminiscent of classic horror stories like “The Monkey’s Paw,” or episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

Most of them featured your standard horror tropes — vampires, ghosts, evil magicians, cursed items — but a few of them dove headfirst into the puzzle-game realm, pitting the protagonists against fiendish foes with only their puzzly wits to protect them.

[Nope, not THAT pinball wizard.]

In “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard,” a young man named Ross gets a job at the mall, only to disobey his new boss by playing a pinball machine he discovered in the back room. Playing well past closing time, he leaves the store and finds himself locked inside the mall, where the storyline of the pinball game has come to life!

Battling the dark knight and trying to ensure the princess reaches the throne, Ross outwits the villains (with a bit of puzzly tactical finesse) and wins the game, forgetting a classic video game trope: when the game’s over, you go back to start. As his wronged boss looks down on him from outside the pinball game, Ross realizes he’s trapped… just in time for a giant pinball to loom menacingly from the top of the mall escalator.

(Yes, most of the “morals” of each story involved listening to your elders, not venturing off on your own, and generally being less of a brat.)

They would return to the game-comes-to-life gimmick later in “The Tale of the Forever Game,” where a jerkish young man plays a Jumanji-like game with his friends as the unwitting pieces. If he loses, he takes the place of his cursed opponent, condemned to lure other unsuspecting jerks into playing weird, poorly-scripted board games.

In one game-inspired story, “The Tale of the Zombie Dice,” a young gambler named Tate wagers a year’s worth of free arcade games against the not-in-any-way-transparently-evil Mr. Click, the arcade’s owner.

[Nope, not these Zombie Dice.]

As you might expect, Tate loses, and ends up shrunk down and locked away, intended to be sold overseas as a pet! (I know, very weird.) It’s up to his friend Alex to save the day (but not before first losing a round of Zombie Dice, because, you know, high stakes and all that).

Alex goes in double-or-nothing against Mr. Click, and gets to choose the wager. Alex, while not a gambler, employs an old-school bar bet brain teaser, betting that he can finish two big mugs of soda before Mr. Click can finish one small glass.

(His only condition? Mr. Click can’t start drinking until Alex has finished the first of his mugs. Mr. Click suspects Alex has a trick up his sleeve, like he’ll move Mr. Click’s glass, so Alex lays down a new rule: neither player can touch the other’s drinking glass.)

When Mr. Click agrees on the condition that Alex drink three mugs of soda, Alex instantly accepts, because crafty villains are rarely crafty enough to see a good guy scamming them. The bet is on!

If you figured out that Alex finishes his first mug and puts it down right over Click’s glass, congratulations! You’re smarter than this week’s villain.

Thwarted by the wager he accepted, Mr. Click is defeated and Tate is freed. (They never mention if Alex gets any free games at the arcade.)

But when it comes to puzzly stories, you have to go all the way back to the very first episode for the best one: “The Tale of the Phantom Cab.”

It’s a slightly-convoluted tale of two boys taken to a house in the woods by a strange cab, and confronting the weirdo who lives there, Dr. Vink. Said weirdo challenges the boys to answer riddles like “How far can you walk into the woods?” (To the credit of our protagonists, they knock out most of the riddles with ease.)

But when one riddle proves too tricky, the boys end up back in the cab. You see, the cab is actually a ghost cab, reliving the same deadly crash over and over again, and if the boys don’t solve the last riddle, their fate is sealed.

Thankfully, one of the boys solves the riddle in the nick of time, and they escape. But, seriously who would want their life resting on the riddle “what has no weight, can be seen by the naked eye, and if put in a barrel it will make the barrel lighter?”

It just goes to show you: it’s always good to keep your puzzly skills sharp, because you never know when you’ll have to outwit monsters, villains, and things that go bump in the night.

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Alice in Wonderland edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I want to follow up on a classic unsolved riddle from Lewis Carroll.

Last week, I mentioned in my mondegreens and malaprops post that I often preferred the nonsensical, silly misheard lyrics of songs to the actual lyrics. And I received a private comment from author Mary Hammond, who likened my position on mondegreens to a topic that deeply interested her: Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

You see, many Carroll fans and scholars believe that the riddle is purposely nonsensical, taking Carroll’s word at face value when he claimed that the riddle was designed with no answer in mind. But Hammond believes that Carroll, wordsmith and gamesman that he was, hid the true answer to the riddle in plain sight.

Check out her solution to Carroll’s riddle, wonderfully summed up in this short YouTube clip:

Now, this is a Follow-Up Friday post not only because it calls back to my mondegreens post, but because over a year ago, I penned a post where I presented my own solution to Carroll’s riddle.

So I leave it up to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did Mary crack Carroll’s riddle? Did I? Or is the riddle simply destined to baffle and delight more puzzlers and scholars in the years to come?

[Thank you, Mary, for reaching out and sharing your solution with the PN readership. Click here to check out Mary’s book The Mad Hatter: The Role of Mercury in the Life of Lewis Carroll, and be sure to follow her on Twitter (@Hg4words) for all things Hammond (and Carroll).]

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Die Hard With a Vengeance

die-hard-with-a-vengeance-original

It’s summer, and when it comes to Hollywood, summer means big blockbuster action movies. One of my favorites is the Bruce Willis / Samuel L. Jackson modern classic Die Hard With a Vengeance.

For those who are unfamiliar with the film — shame on you! — it’s the third installment of the Die Hard franchise, featuring catchphrase-spouting New York City cop John McClane battling terrorists, criminals, and all sorts of unsavory characters.

In Die Hard With a Vengeance, a bomber named Simon is terrorizing the city and McClane is one of his playthings, forced to play Simon Says and accomplish increasingly difficult tasks that Simon sets before him. As McClane (and electrician Zeus Carver, who saves McClane from the first of Simon’s games) race around the city trying to prevent other bombs from going off, Simon enacts an elaborate scheme to rob the city.

Thankfully, McClane and Zeus have a knack for brain teasers and riddles, because several of Simon’s devious tasks require quick thinking and sharp puzzle skills.

diehardwithavengeance1

[One of the last movies to feature payphones as a key plot point…]

First, Simon hits them with a math problem:

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, every sack had seven cats, every cat had seven kittens. Kittens, cats, sacks, wives. How many were going to St. Ives?

As McClane fervently tries to do multiplication in his head, Zeus realizes this isn’t a word problem, it’s a riddle. The man was going to St. Ives when he met this man, meaning the man was coming from St. Ives. So the wives, sacks, cats, and kittens are irrelevant. Only the narrator is going to St. Ives, so the answer to the riddle is 1.

stives-1886892

[Seems like a nice place to take your many wives…]

In their second puzzly task, Simon offers the following question:

“What has four legs and always ready to travel?”

McClane doesn’t get it, but Zeus immediately identifies it as an elephant joke for kids (although he doesn’t actually deliver the punchline: an elephant, because it has four legs and a trunk).

They quickly spot a nearby fountain with an elephant statue. Awaiting them is a suitcase bomb and two empty jugs. When McClane opens the suitcase, he accidentally arms the bomb, and Simon calls to inform them that the only way to disarm the bomb is to fill one of the jugs with exactly four gallons of water and place it on the scale in the suitcase.

die-hard-vengeance-laptop

[And they say what we learn in school has no practical, real-world applications…]

The problem is the two jugs hold 3 gallons and 5 gallons, respectively. Simon has set them up with another brain teaser, but one with a dire time limit to solve.

Thankfully, there are two ways to solve this brain teaser.

Method #1

  • Fill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug.
  • Refill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug until the 5-gallon jug is full, leaving 1 gallon in the 3-gallon jug.
  • Empty the 5-gallon jug and pour the 1 gallon of water from the 3-gallon jug into the 5-gallon jug.
  • Fill the 3-gallon jug again and empty it into the 5-gallon jug, leaving exactly 4 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.

Method #2

  • Fill the 5-gallon jug and pour that water into the 3-gallon jug until the 3-gallon jug is full, leaving 2 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.
  • Empty the 3-gallon jug and pour the 2 gallons of water from 5-gallon jug into the 3-gallon jug.
  • Refill the 5-gallon jug and pour that water into the 3-gallon jug until the 3-gallon jug is full, leaving 4 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.

Either way, you’ve disarmed the bomb. Good job!

140-billion-die-hard

[While Simon has McClane and Zeus run
all over the city, he has one specific goal…]

The final riddle Simon gives Zeus and McClane is another brain teaser masquerading as a math problem:

“What is 21 out of 42?”

At the time of the film’s release, there had been 42 presidents, so 21 out of 42 was President Chester A. Arthur, and Chester A. Arthur Elementary School was where Simon had hidden one of his bombs (a fake one, as it turns out) as a distraction.

In the end, McClane and Zeus outwit the cunning Simon, and once again, puzzle-solving skills save the day! Hooray!

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