It’s Elementary

elementaryCalling all consulting detectives…grab your sparkle stem magnifying glass and examine this most intriguing collection of 18th and 19th century puzzle cards. And, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, the answers to these cards are at the end of the post (and you can print a set of your own)!

You’ll need:

Cut a drinking straw down to 3″. Gently fold a sparkle stem in half (soft fold, not hard) and thread the ends into the straw. Round the sparkle stem loop sticking out of the top of the straw. Done!

sparkle stem magnifying glassAnd what of those curious cards? They are reproductions of 18th and 19th century rebus puzzle cards in our library’s special collections. A rebus (also called a hieroglyphic) puzzle is created using pictures in place of syllables or entire words. Sometimes, the placement of an object is important to the puzzle as well.

Here are 6 cards from our vaults, all hailing from England. The top three cards are from Feronica’s Hieroglyphical Riddles (publisher unknown, circa 1840). Across the bottom row, from left to right, are cards from Peter Ponder’s First Pack of Puzzle Cards (J. Aldis, 1808), Wallis’s New Pack of Puzzles for 1798 (John Wallis and Champante & Whitrow, 1798), and An Entire Pack of New Puzzle Cards (W. and T. Darton, circa 1805).

Want to try these puzzle cards on a few young detectives? You’ll find a printable set here!

rebus cards, from the collections of the cotsen children's library, princeton university

The solutions, moving top row to bottom row, left to right:

Handsome is that handsome does
Better a little fish than empty dish
Awl is well that ends well
Two implements of an excellent sport: bat and ball (for Cricket, of course!)
What most people are fond of: toasted muffin
Troublesome insects: ant, caterpillar, snail, earwig, and ladybird



The objective? To arrange the books so that the top shelf is perfectly level. But you can only use certain books, in certain orientations, with a minimum of 2 books touching the top shelf at any time. Oh, and leave some room for a little black cat!

Today, I’m reviewing By The Book, a stacking puzzle for ages 8+ (Brainwright, $18). The game consists of 40 challenge cards, 12 wooden books, 2 wooden shelves, 1 plastic cat, and 1 balance level made to look like an adorable red flower pot.

by the book gameTo play, select a challenge card (which are graded as beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert). The face of the card tells you which books you can use, if they need to be placed horizontally or vertically, or if they can’t touch at all. Sometimes, the card will require the cat to be included on the shelf as well. The back side of the card has the solution. Here are a couple examples of card faces and solutions:

challenge cardsOnce you’ve gathered all the relevant pieces, lay the bottom shelf on a level surface, then try configuring the books to the card’s specifications. Put the top shelf in place when you think you’re done, then place the balance level on top to see if your solution measures up. And remember – a minimum of 2 books much be touching the top shelf at any time.

If your solution passes the level test, flip the card over to see if matches the official solution (and the rules do mention there may be other ways to solve the challenge). Some of the solutions, however, are not what you expect! Look at this creative configuration!

stacked solution

When playing this game, it’s important to work on a level surface. If your work table is tilted, you’ll never reach a solution. So use the level to make doubly sure you’re nice and even before you start playing.

So, what did our kid testers (ages 6, 8, and 10) think of By The Book? They loved it! The game requires analysis, trial & error, testing, and re-testing, but it’s very calm, non-competitive, and you can take as long as you like to reach the solution. By The Book is labeled as a 1 player game, but our kid testers found ways to collaborate. The cat adds a nice touch, and the kid tester found it very satisfying to put the level on the top shelf to see if their clever arranging worked!

testing a solution

By The Book is the best (a “bestseller,” if you will). It’s fun, intelligent, works with a large age range of kids, and the pieces are really nice quality. This would be a terrific classroom chill-out activity, the perfect addition to library game nights, or an awesome gift from that super cool librarian aunt or uncle. Plus, it comes with a CAT! Five out of five stars.

A Day in Digitopolis, Part II

Radiance by Matt ElsonWho knew infinity could be so beautiful? I’ve returned with Part II of the Digitopolis event post (Part I can be found here) and thought I would start it off with one of the stars of the show! The above image was taken inside an Infinity Box, one of multiple creations by Los Angeles-based artist, Matt Elson. Matt’s boxes have been exhibited at colleges, science centers, festivals, and museums. He generously loaned us two (titled Radiance, and You & Me Together) for our math event.

You and Me Together by Matt ElsonThe boxes are designed to be infinite, interactive environments that play with your perception and inspire inquisitiveness and wonder. They were in constant use during the event, and there were lots of shrieks of amazement, enthusiastic explosions of “Cool!” and long, drawn out utterances of “Woooooow…”

infinity marissaDigitopolis was not without its celebrities, including the King of Numbers himself. I speak, of course, of the Mathamagician.

mathamagiciansThat’s real-life mathamagician Brent Ferguson on the right, grinning away under the pointy hat covered with equations. He’s math faculty at the Lawrenceville School, and in 2013, he was awarded the National Museum of Mathamatics’ Rosenthal Prize for innovation in math teaching. On the left is Dr. Dan Fishman, a high school math teacher, who, like Brent, has unbridled enthusiasm for all things math.

Together, Brent and Dan staffed the “Ask the Mathamagician” table. Kids could walk up and ask them any question they could possibly think of involving math. We had prompt cards on the table to get things started:

Why do you like math?
What’s an irrational number?
What’s the biggest number there is?
Why is math important?
Why does a negative times a negative equal a positive?
Is zero a number?
What’s a perfect number?
What’s that crazy math thing with the exclamation point?
What’s an imaginary number?
Know any good math jokes?
What’s your favorite equation?

Brent and Dan brought a whole bunch of math toys and puzzles with them. It was an irresistible treasure trove of numerical goodies.

mathamagician 2Also at the Mathamagican’s table were three Digitopolis “tourism” posters for families to take home (the posters were inspired by this fantastic NASA concept). The first two posters are by Princeton University senior, Aliisa Lee. The third poster is by freshman Demi Zhang.

city poster by aliisa leemines poster by aliisa leeevent poster by demi zhangA quick word about the Mathamagician’s costume. The robes and hat were made by freshman James Jared, who ingeniously modified this Jedi robe. Then Casandra used silver and gold metallic fabric markers to draw real, honest-to-goodness math equations on them. We snapped a couple shots so you can get the full effect!

robes 2robes 1The Mathamagician wasn’t the only celebrity in Digitopolis that day. Does this gentleman look familiar to you?

albert einsteinYup, it’s Albert Einstein. Or rather, professional reenactor Bill Agress playing Albert Einstein. Mr. Einstein circulated the event floor, chatted with kids, answered questions about his life and work, tried an activity or two, and posed for pictures. And yes – he wasn’t wearing any socks.

In addition to being one of world’s most famous theoretical physicists (and no slouch at mathematics either), did you know that Einstein was a resident of Princeton? He emigrated here in 1933 to join the faculty of at the newly-created Institute for Advanced Study.

The Historical Society of Princeton put together a terrific mini-exhibit on Einstein in Princeton (my favorite is that photo of him wearing the fuzzy slippers). Families were invited to take home a map of notable Einstein haunts around town as well.

historical societyThey also whipped up an Einstein quiz for kids to try (the answers, by the way are B, A, B, C, B, C). The prize was a cool little puzzle. I found some terrific ones at Oriental Trading Company (the ones below are from the “Mind Teaser Game Assortment”).

maze prizesElsewhere in Digitopolis, another math wizard was hard at work. This is Emile Oshima, a junior at Princeton and master of the Japanese abacus. Next to him is senior Rei Mastsuura.

abacus races 1In addition to having Emile and Rei teaching kids how to use an abacus, Emile raced kids (and parents!) armed with electronic calculators to see who could reach the product of 3 x 3 multiplication problems faster. Emile always won. He was lightning fast!

abacus races 2Meanwhile, at another event table, another calculator was keeping kids busy. But this calculator was rather…odd.

crazy calculator 1The “Crazy Calculator” was designed by the Princeton Society of Women Engineers using 2 Makey Makey sets. Have you seen Makey Makey? It’s pretty awesome. Each set consists of wired alligator clips, a small central board, and computer software.

Attach the alligator clip to anything that conducts electricity, and you can do all sorts of crazy things. Turn bananas into a keyboard, or use Play-doe like a video game controller. The Women Engineers used all sorts of things to build their calculator – tin foil, wet sponges, water, metal objects, shaving cream, flowers, even high fives!

crazy calculator 2Interspersed with the other event tables were five “Pop Up History” activities that tied together math and history. These tables were designed to be simple, stand-alone, and un-staffed.

global counting 1At “Global Counting,” kids could see diverse numerical systems on a big display board (the book Go Figure: A Totally Cool Book About Numbers (DK, 2005) was very helpful in this regard). Then, kids copied their favorite number system on a 3.5″ x 17″ strip of paper, and used yarn to turn it into a little scroll.

global counting 2At another table were Möbius strips, a must-have for any hands-on math event. Discovered in 1858 by German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius, the strip demonstrates how a piece of paper can have only one side! All it takes is a 2.5″ x 28″ piece of poster board, tape, and some instructions.

mobius stripsAnother hands-on math must-have? Tangram puzzles. Originating in China, tangram puzzles were first introduced to Europe in the 19th century. There are plenty of inexpensive tabletop tangrams out there, but we decided to splurge on some giant foam floor size versions (thinner ones purchased from SimplyFun, chunkier ones from Fat Brain Toys). Later, these were donated to a local non-profit family shelter.

tangram puzzlesThe fourth Pop Up History table was called “Tally Hides.” Some American Indian tribes kept track of important things by making tally marks on animal hides and tree bark. Definitely a cool way to count!

tally hides 1Before the event, we cut 9″ x 12″ pieces of brown paper into the shape of a hide. During the event, kids wrinkled the paper, flattened it out, and used markers to draw the wildlife they’ve seen around their homes and town. Then, they estimated how many times they’d seen each critter, and made a tally mark next to it. The project is originally from The Secret Life of Math (Williamson Books, 2005).

tally hides 2The final history table was called “Tile Tessellations.” Decorating surfaces with tiles spans many cultures, and many centuries. But did you know that the geometry in Early Islamic art was so intricate, it was unrivaled for over 500 years?

tiles 1Kids put their tiling and tessellating skills to work by gluing 3/4″ paper tiles to a 6″ x 6″ square of tagboard. This project was really bright and beautiful.

tiles 2That’s it for history – how about some games? JaZams, our local family-owned toy store hosted a event area called “The Game is Afoot.” JaZams chose 8 math games for various age ranges, and set each of them up on a series of tables. Kids could drop by to play the waaaaay popular Rubik’s Race…

game is afoot 1Or entire families could take a break and play Number Ninjas.

game is afoot 2Heck, maybe you could even beat Einstein at Qbitz! After the event, the games were donated to a local non-profit family shelter.

games is afoot 3For the musically adventurous, there was “Musical Fractions,” an activity composed by senior Matt Smith and freshman Demi Zhang. Kids used percussion instruments (assorted floor drums, wood blocks, maracas, a wooden fish, claves, and sand blocks) to learn how to play, and recognize, wholes, halves, quarters, and eighths. They also learned about musical structure and patterns.

musical fractionsEach instructional session ranged between 10 to 15 minutes. I wasn’t able to catch an entire one, but I did manage to grab a few seconds of this one. Just listen to those fractions!

I have one last thing to share with you. Team Digitopolis in their awesome event t-shirts.

front of shirtsAt big events like this, my staff and I wear costumes so that people can find us quickly in the crowds (helloooo Victorian Steampunk spelunker). For Digitopolis, however, I decided to go with t-shirts, and asked student artist Aliisa Lee to design them. Here’s a closer look at her beautiful cityscape!

digitopolis by aliisa leeOn the backs were our favorite numbers. Let’s hear it for 9, 2, and 11! Woot woot!

back of shirtsI’d like to send a million, trillion, zillion, googolplex thanks to everyone who made this event possible, and who generously gave their time to make math fun, approachable, unusual and fun. An extra shout out to the Princeton University students, and the student athletes who volunteered so energetically and enthusiastically! Thank you so much, everyone!