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Riddles of the Sphinx and Other Mathematical Puzzle Tales

Martin Gardner
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
New Mathematical Library Series 32
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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Martin Gardner’s Riddles span tessellations, algebra, infinity, and geometry. The comic-illustrated problem-tales often include a light-hearted science fiction theme, such as the adventures of the spaceship Bagel and planar alien life. An engaging set of First through Fourth Answers sections draws the reader on to deeper exploration of the accessible problems. It takes no more than a high school education to understand and tackle the puzzles here, even though they often illuminate higher principles that one may have encountered in high school.

Drawn from Gardner's column in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, the riddles presented remind me much of the tone of the puzzles of “Shadow,” “Sid Shady” and “Sam Sham”, and tricks performed by magician “Dee Sceptor” in the Mindtrap game. Gardner’s nearly always come layered in a thick application of sci-fi humor. Some are small and concise enough to carry around in the head for day’s musing while for others Gardner directs the reader to get such supplies as scissors and string. This last pair of items will have you exploring the behavior of subatomic particles in “Dirac’s Scissors”.

The reader of such a book is naturally drawn from the questions to their answers, but Gardner often presents the reader with new riddles or a follow-up question via his layered answer sections. The tangram-like game of the title piece goes the deepest. While the first answer may get you cutting out shapes to explore a new riddle, at the fourth answer you will consider an algebraic model. The final page of the book offers a $100 reward for a third-order magic square of consecutive primes.

Anyone should find they can solve some of these riddles. Some will stump nearly everyone. There are many that are purely logical and require no mathematics. They run from the age-old chicken and the egg issue to calculator tricks to relativistic velocities. The thirty-six puzzles are entertaining, each being worth at least a chuckle, and many impart enlightenment. Martin Gardner’s joy is infectious and when the infection is insight, you will never forget it.


Tom Schulte falls asleep every night with a conundrum to dream upon in Michigan.

The table of contents is not available.