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Cracking the code at MIT

Got a knack for translating chunks of text from Bengali, Minoan Linear B, and Klingon? Know how to step the duty cycle of a pulse source? Memorized the date of every unassisted triple play in major-league history? Get thee to Lobby 7 on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this Friday at high noon. Itís time once again for the MIT Mystery Hunt, your chance to spend more than 48 straight hours delving into fiendishly devised, often purposely deceptive riddles, puzzles, and head-scratchers of every conceivable stripe. Why? To divine clues that will lead you through the skywalks and subbasements and empty hallways of the sprawling campus, all in search of a hidden coin. It might be secreted away in an elevator shaft, or taped beneath a drawer of fossilized worms; find it first and youíll be rewarded with the opportunity to take charge of the hunt next year ó and to make it even more diabolically difficult.

In 1980, during MITís January "Independent Activity Period," grad student and puzzle geek Brad Schaefer stashed an Indian-head penny in a secret spot, then drew up a double-sided mimeographed sheet of conundrums whose answers would reveal the coinís location. In the 25 years since, the hunt has grown exponentially in complexity, difficulty, and size. Its popularity has spawned imitators ó Stanford sponsors one, so does Microsoft ó but MITís is the first and the best. "This year, itís certainly a record already. I think there are 32 teams preregistered," says Chris Morse, captain of the crew who designed the 2005 edition (theyíve won the thing three times ó no small feat). "Some teams are all undergraduates, some have alumni, some have very little connection to MIT or none at all." There are two groups whoíll be participating remotely, via e-mail and instant messaging, from Australia, he says. Another team has 100 members, many of whom will be manning computers and cell phones out in Berkeley, California, "so they can span more time zones and make good use of working hours. Some people take this thing very, very seriously."

And why shouldnít they? "Some of these puzzles take seven people eight hours to solve," Morse says. "Theyíre not quick little things." Predictably, heís mum about what heís got in store this year, but promises to maintain a "devilish, evil way of looking at puzzles. Many things donít have instructions; the fact that you donít know whatís going on is part of the puzzle itself. Sometimes, something looks like something, but itís masking something else. Some things will never get solved."

Number theory, crosswords, cryptograms, meta puzzles, even physical challenges ó anything goes. Morse remembers a hunt where "the only way you could see the answers to one of the puzzles was to hold the map to an ultraviolet light." The instructions for one of his own creations read simply: "Our mothers know the answer to this." (Relatively easy, in hindsight: all contestants had to do was somehow get in touch with the mom of someone from Morseís team.)

Technology has changed the Mystery Hunt dramatically. In one of the early years, a quizmaster thought up an abstruse riddle based on an arcane area of study ó then checked the only two books relating to it out of the library. These days, itís not as easy to stanch the flow of information. "You canít shut down the Internet," says Morse. "A person sitting in front of Google could probably solve the first Mystery Hunt by themselves in an hour." So now one key to maintaining a depraved level of difficulty is "new ways of presenting information. Thereís a lot thatís very visual. Sound clips. Last yearís hunt, the whole final portion of it was done on a PDA."

Now a chemistry professor at Tufts, Morse spent most of the past two weeks on the campus of his alma mater, testing, checking facts, and editing dozens and dozens of puzzles. But this is it for him. With winners expected to up the ante each year, he doesnít think he could handle putting together a fourth hunt. "Itís like a full-time job on top of my full-time job," Morse says. "Iím kind of glad itís going to be over in a week. Iíll probably still play, but Iíll make sure that my team will never win again."

Still, itís worth it when so many people relish the jaw-dropping complexity of these riddles, reveling in the thrill of decoding them. But, Morse says with a laugh, "part of me wonders what would happen if every year we took all these people who fly in from all over the world, all these people who have this amazing brainpower, and made them work on curing cancer. If you think about it, youíre talking about a 50-hour-long hunt, and 1000 people working on it for all that time. What could have been accomplished? Does this actually produce any good for the universe?"

The MIT Mystery Hunt starts at noon on Friday, January 14. Learn more at www.mit.edu/~puzzle. Register a team (or sign on with one thatís accepting stragglers) by e-mailing puzzle@mit.edu.

Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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