Knights, Knaves, and Normal People

I first heard of Raymond Smullyan when I was ten years old.

I had just started taking an online formal logic class, and the beginning of the class had two modes: introductions to the formal meanings of things like and, or, and implies, along with truth tables, and Raymond Smullyan (and similar style) puzzles.

In particular, I made my way through what seemed like dozens of knights, knaves, and normal people puzzles. They were so much fun, and I was fascinated. My mom checked Smullyan’s The Riddle of Scheherazade out from the library, and we did some of the puzzles in it, as well.

I know a lot of people who grew up loving math who lived on puzzles. Physical puzzles, Martin Gardner puzzles, Smullyan puzzles. I did Smullyan puzzles young, and I enjoyed them, and then I didn’t do them anymore, not really. Not for a number of years.

But fast forward to the summer I was seventeen. It was the summer before college, and I was spending it at home, working as a grader for Art of Problem Solving, watching lots of sports (live and on TV), and taking a few dance classes. I had one other major project: in June, I participated in Camp NaNo, something like National Novel Writing Month (run by the same group) with a bit more built-in flexibility and a different online social structure.

I didn’t have a particularly strong plot idea, like I sometimes did going into NaNo and similar challenges. I just wanted to write. Somehow, I ended up with the plan of writing about a group of friends who discovered and fell in love with logic puzzles. In particular, they happened upon a copy of Smullyan’s “What Is the Name of This Book?”

So, yes, I have written thousands — over fifty thousand — words largely inspired by Smullyan. (It’s not a good piece of writing, and it would be an odd thing for anyone else to read. It gives away the answers, which is just wrong. But it was an interesting piece to write, and that’s what was important at the time.) Even though, before that June, I hadn’t really done Smullyan puzzles in a number of years, that experience stayed with me.

I don’t really have a strong story to tell about Smullyan or his puzzles. They weren’t big or defining for me. But they were present, and they were part of my mathematical journey; they’re part of my love for math and for logic in particular, enough that I thought it was natural to write about other people discovering and experiencing that love. And with Smullyan having died this past week, I wanted to remember even these small ways in which he and his work mattered in my life.

Thank you, Raymond Smullyan.

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