Of Puzzles and Enigmas

Puzzles and enigmas never existed – but we humans have found the knack to complicate our intellect in a bid to give meaning to our life!

There are some puzzles and enigmas, which will haunt us for long, even though they have been understood and solved; they will come back at us – as the tongue will to an aching tooth.

In the 60s, as I stood in the 3rd Class “Gradin” of George V Stadium for the usual highly electric, tense football match between Hindu Cadets and Muslim Scouts, I happened to hear, during the half time period, the conversation of the two middle-aged men standing one row in front of me. As a riddle was the gist of conversation, I committed the crime of stretching my ears for a better eavesdropping session. One of the men was testing the wit of his companion: it appeared that in one of the Arabic kingdoms there was a famous annual camel race day, the equivalent of the Derby in Britain. The particularity of that competition was that the princes participating in that race must see to it that their camel comes out last, and that last one wins it all! I smiled to myself, and racked my brain there and then to find the best modus operandi to apply to make that camel come out last. I tried in vain.

Later, at undergraduate school, many more such hard to crack riddles would haunt us. After a hard day’s work, many of us would take a walk together at night to socialize and forget the warm weather. One evening, as we sat at the central roundabout of the campus, there came our friend Dan to give us company, and tease our IQ with his enigmas. It seemed that in an ancient kingdom, there was a cruel king who suddenly turned soft-hearted for his 60th birthday.

Visiting his dungeon he ordered all prisoners to be pardoned and freed. However, the exception was a notorious criminal C; he was so vicious that the king had to think twice – but finally he decided to give even that prisoner a chance, to prove his newly-found magnanimity. That defaulter had to find the solution to the king’s riddle and pit his wit against the Majesty’s: “I’ll free you if you find the answer to a problem,” he told that man. “You must tell me something; anything you want – only once; if whatever you tell me is false, I’ll have you hanged. If it is true, then I’ll have you shot. It is up to you to find the solution.”

The king left, giving the wretched fellow 24 hours to rack his brain. Dan would give us the answer days later; meanwhile he did give us a second headache.

We may innovate on the last one and complete the second of Dan’s puzzle: before leaving his prison, which was in the middle of nowhere, as that of the 4 Daltons brothers, the criminal C was warned by his guards before being set free. There was only one road leading away from jail. Miles away that road would fork into two, one branch X would lead definitely to town and the other, Y, to the jungle. But fortunately for him there would be two intimate friends, A and B, open to each other’s secrets, each sitting along X and Y. One of them is a total LIAR, while the other swears by TRUTH only. And C would be given only one chance to accost either A or B and ask him only ONE question so as to find out the correct branch road leading to town. Yet again, Dan kept us in suspense until our next roundabout rendezvous.

If you think that Dan’s questions were easy to crack, then you can have a go at them; unless you are a mathematician, because those innocently looking puzzles obey certain well-established mathematical principles. Recently we discovered that Dan’s second puzzle was first enunciated by a certain Mr Gardner in the 1950s in a scientific magazine. And a modern critic suggested that we might have offered A or B a pint of beer to find the way to town and safety!

And what could we say of capital punishment? Sometimes we are acutely aware that every individual, even the most cruel of murderers, is a product of society and nature. Yet how can we kill him for his misdeeds? Is the concept of free will solid enough to make us forget that environmental influence is a potent factor in everyone’s life? On the other hand, could we refrain to take deterrent measures to protect society, while knowing quite well that we are sending another human being to the guillotine? Sometimes we have doubts about our own intelligent stands. But here we may have the benefit of doubt; the above puzzles need only our reasoning faculty for a solution, while capital punishment plays Russian roulette with both our intelligence, sensitivity and emotions.

True to our nature, we are martyrizing ourselves by flushing out some more scientific and philosophical enigmas. Darwinians, who believe that we started life, as thorough egoist creatures living only for our progenies and family tree, are hard to tell us how come we are becoming more and more altruistic. How come we even have compassion for our dumb friends the animals; some of us would even risk our life to save an unknown person from certain death. How come we sacrifice ourselves for others, contrary to what Darwinism would expect us to do? What has instilled such behaviour and reaction within us? Evolutionary psychologists are struggling to find the right answer.

The “hard problem” of neuroscience is another enigma: what is consciousness or self-awareness? At dusk I see the western sky exploding into a yellowish orange tinge, but you see a reddish hue rather. Our experiences are different. What elicits such different appreciations? So far neuroscientists are agreeing that consciousness does arise from the whole brain, but where and how? The solution is hard to come by.

While Nature, now and then, spurns out some unlucky newborn with all sorts of horrible defects, as if earmarking them to be rejected, yet we humans do our best to do just the opposite, arming ourselves with compassion and love to keep them alive, and in the process overloading ourselves with unhappiness. Where do these contrary feelings come from? Being a product of Nature, where did we acquire our anti-Nature feelings? Why are we so much in dissonance with Her? Some people are asking these questions, hoping to find an answer which may help us to understand ourselves better. Are these paradoxical qualities the source for our belief in a different being or a divine spirit? Which is the cause, which is the effect?

Other scientists, astronomers or cosmologists, have come up with similar baffling questions in their field. The theory of Big Bang, which seems to be well supported by facts, enunciates that our universe was very puny some 13.7 billion years ago; then it suddenly flares up into a gigantic, gargantuan explosion. Since then our universe is expanding. But to our logic it should be slowing down, as all explosions do; or, at best, it goes on inflating at a reduced speed. But our cosmos is doing just the opposite: expanding with accelerating speed. The question is where is it getting that extra energy to do so; dark, invisible energy is one, we are told, but where is it coming from? Some cosmologists are suggesting that space itself is seething with that energy! But many are amazed by that enigma, and are offering all sorts of theories.

One of the longest Russian mathematical enigmas since 1742 – the “Goldbach’s conjecture” — is still unsolved. The theorem states: Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes. We can have a go at it and collect one million dollars!

All these puzzles and enigmas never existed – but we humans have found the knack to complicate our intellect in a bid to give meaning to our life!

It would be unfair to pen off without supplying the answers. If we were princes and riding in that camel race, it would be common sense for us to switch camels: I’ll ride yours as fast as possible so that mine, which you are riding, will come out last. And you would do likewise. As for Dan’s first enigma, the prisoner C had to say, “Tomorrow I’ll be hanged”! As for his second question, the prisoner C can go to either A or B and ask, “If I go and ask your friend, sitting over there, which way to take to go to town, what will he answer?” Whichever branch road A or B would point to, take the opposite one. That, it seems, is enshrined in a mathematical axiom.

  • Published in print edition on 13 November 2015

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