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Crossword Puzzle Playground

University of Minnesota professor teams with myriad experts to crank out puzzles about chemistry, other fields

by Susan J. Ainsworth
May 22, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 21

Like many chemistry professors, George Barany of the University of Minnesota loves to dole out a good challenge. He has found at least one unique way to accomplish that, and it extends his reach well beyond his classroom walls.

For more than a decade, Barany has been collaborating with an “ad hoc virtual group” of about 30 experts in myriad disciplines to create a growing compendium of crossword puzzles that explore themes in chemistry as well as in many other scientific and nonscientific fields, he says. “Any given puzzle involves as few as two or as many as a dozen” of these collaborators, who all “craft and critique crossword puzzles as a recreational sideline to their day jobs,” Barany adds.

Recently, Barany and Mark A. Lipton, associate professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University, constructed a crossword puzzle to commemorate the designation of Purdue’s R. B. Wetherill Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in April.

In creating the Wetherill puzzle as well as all others, Barany and his team aim to come up with puzzle titles that hint at the puzzles’ topic or theme but do not duplicate information that is gleaned by solving them, Barany explains.

“I was rather pleased with the title of the Purdue puzzle: ‘H–B Oration,’ ” says Barany, noting that HCB are the initials of the late Purdue chemistry professor Herbert C. Brown, who received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for inventing hydroboration. This technique involves addition of hydrogen to organoboranes (compounds with carbon-borane or C–B bonds), Barany explains.

Many of the puzzles that Barany and his fellow enthusiasts create deal with science, mostly chemistry and biochemistry, but also anthropology and other disciplines. Some of these puzzles refer to recent or historical scientific breakthroughs, and others focus on individuals or groups of scientists, Barany says. To access the entire collection of science puzzles, go to http://tinyurl.com/sciencepuz.

In addition, a good portion of the group’s puzzles are designed to appeal to general audiences. The puzzles delve into topics including sports, law, literature, politics, current events, and the performing arts. Several in the group have had puzzles published in the New York Times. The full portfolio of puzzles and information about the wordsmiths in Barany’s consortium can be found at tinyurl.com/gbpuzzle.

Regardless of the theme or scholarly rigor of a puzzle, each is designed to delight or entertain those who dare to take it on. Barany says he was particularly pleased to find that his group’s puzzles were recently provided to at least one recreation-hungry group: University of Minnesota students who were entrenched in an always-grueling finals week.

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