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The Puzzler’s Dilemma – Derrick Niederman ****

For me, the best popular science books are those that get you actively involved and thinking about what’s being looked at, rather than merely allowing you to take in the information passively. Whether it’s through exercises to get stuck into, little experiments to try out for yourself, or puzzles which challenge you to think things through – it just makes a book more enjoyable and memorable, and allows you to get more from it.
I really enjoyed this book from Derrick Niederman, then – it’s jam packed full of puzzles and logic problems which really get you thinking, and which get across well the themes covered. The puzzles slot in around what the book fundamentally is – a collection of short reflections on all kinds of aspects of puzzles and puzzle solving. We look at, for instance, how puzzles can be categorised, strategies for solving puzzles, and what puzzles can reveal about the mind and human reasoning.
One thing I found fascinating was the way we often unnecessarily complicate problems by failing to see the simple solutions to them. Asked, for example, to work out the area of a triangle with sides of 6, 8, and 14 inches, many of us would at first massively overestimate the amount of calculations and thinking we’re going to need to do to solve the problem. Whereas, in fact, the answer is simple and no difficult calculations are required. 6 and 8 equal 14, so what we essentially have is the two smaller sides lying flat on top of the longest side – the area is 0.
I found it incredibly difficult to put this book down – I either wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to the puzzles, or was totally immersed in one of the many interesting stories the author tells about particular puzzles and their history. Add to this the author’s sense of humour, and this is one the most fun little books I have read in a long time.

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Review by Matt Chorley

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