Sitting at the office, burning the midnight oil, I realize today’s blog post is going to be a poetry one. This one by Piet Hein:
Put up in a place
where it is easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time.
Piet Hein is the Renaissance Man of the 20th century. He was Danish, and he was Danish everything – writer, poet, philosopher, scientist, engineer, freedom fighter, socialite.
I came to be acquainted with Piet Hein because he designed one of the toys of my childhood – the Soma Cube. Piet Hein discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) that if you took all possible concave shapes that can be assembled with 4 or fewer unit cubes, you will find that there are seven of them; and more interestingly, you will find that these seven shapes can be reassembled to form a 3x3x3 cube. This reassembling can be done in a number of different ways, but if you eliminate all rotations and reflections, you come down to 2 ways. You can also assemble from the seven Soma cube cubelets a number of other shapes and figures, which is what makes them fun.
After having played with a lovely rosewood Soma cube for several years in my childhood, I came upon a ‘grook’. That’s what Piet Hein’s poems (like the one above) are called. The first grook I read was quite short:
Love is like
I was going through my ‘crazy rhymes’ period at that point in my life, so I found the rhyme for pineapple quite irresistible. I found out that Piet Hein had created thousands of grooks, and these were required reading (and required quoting) for pretty much all Danish people. I myself spent a lot of time memorizing a fairly sizeable number of grooks in those heady collegiate years.
When I discovered used book stores in the US, I also started collecting grook books. I have seven of them now, and am immensely proud of the effort with which that collection was assembled.
In addition, I found out, Piet Hein had invented a shape: the super-ellipse. This shape was invented in response to a competition to design a traffic roundabout in Stockholm, and Piet Hein’s winning proposal was a kind of squashed ellipse with a beautiful mathematical formula. Piet Hein said about the super-ellipse:
Man is the animal that draws lines which he himself then stumbles over. In the whole pattern of civilization there have been two tendencies, one toward straight lines and rectangular patterns and one toward circular lines. There are reasons, mechanical and psychological, for both tendencies. Things made with straight lines fit well together and save space. And we can move easily — physically or mentally — around things made with round lines. But we are in a straitjacket, having to accept one or the other, when often some intermediate form would be better. To draw something freehand — such as the patchwork traffic circle they tried in Stockholm — will not do. It isn’t fixed, isn’t definite like a circle or square. You don’t know what it is. It isn’t esthetically satisfying. The super-ellipse solved the problem. It is neither round nor rectangular, but in between. Yet it is fixed, it is definite — it has a unity.
Not content with a 2D shape, Piet Hein also invented the super-ellipsoid, which is a 3D variant of the same thing.
And with the super-ellipsoid, he made an interesting gadget: the superegg. The superegg is a small, stainless steel object the size of an egg and the shape of a super-ellipsoid. The inside of it is filled with water, but the outside is completely seamless; if you hold it to your ear and shake it, you will hear the water sloshing around in a faraway sort of way. What you do with a super-ellipsoid is that you keep it in your freezer.
And the purpose of the supereggs is that when you break out the scotch, or the expensive brandy, you pop out the supereggs and drop them in your drink. And voila! – your drink is cooled – without adding ice – without diluting it!
Quite obviously, Piet Hein also had a sense of humour, albeit a rather esoteric one. Needless to say, I am the proud owner of 4 super-eggs, and gladly offer to demonstrate them to anyone who wishes to share a drink with me.