Raymond Smullyan, Puzzle-Creating Logician.
Raymond Smullyan teaches philosophy at Lehman in the Bronx.
Raymond Smullyan's merry, agile mind led him to be a philosopher, a musician, a magician, a mathematician and, most cunningly, a puzzle-creating logician.
He lives in Hudson, N.Y.
Smullyan was a serious philosopher, with the publications and the doctorate to prove it.
But his greatest legacy may be the devilishly clever logic puzzles that he devised, presenting them in numerous essays or just in casual conversation.
Sometimes they were one-offs, and sometimes they were embedded in longer narratives to explain mathematical concepts, such as Boolean logic, as he did in “The Magic Garden of George B and Other Logic Puzzles;" or retrograde analysis, as he explored in the “The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights."
He was also a character.
With his long hair and beard, Smullyan resembled Ian McKellen’s wizard, Gandalf, from the “Lord of the Rings” film series.
He was lanky, hated exercise and loved steak and eggs.
He studied Eastern religion.
He told corny jokes and performed close-up magic to anyone near him.
He played the piano with passion and talent.
A career in music had been derailed by tendinitis.
And he was fond of his philosophical, if silly, sayings, such as,
"Why should I worry about dying? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime!”
Melvin Fitting, of New York, a philosopher, recalled Smullyan’s demeanor as his teacher at Yeshiva while Fitting was pursuing his doctorate.
“He’d be smiling in anticipation of the many beautiful things he was going to show you,” the Fitting says.
Smullyan saw beauty in the puzzles that he created, seemingly nonstop, over the decades, and viewed them as tools to spread the gospel of philosophical logic.
In his essay, "The Lady or the Tiger? And Other Logic Puzzles,” he wrote about the greater popularity that Euclid’s “Elements” would have achieved had the Greek mathematician framed it as a puzzle book.
"Problem: Given a triangle with two equal sides, are two of the angles necessarily equal? Why, or why not?”
His puzzles were so much a part of his identity that he posed one on his first date with his future wife, Blanche de Grab.
What he posed to her was a statement that, in the way he framed it, could only result in a kiss from her.
Reminiscing about it, he wrote that it was a “pretty sneaky way of winning a kiss, wasn’t it?”
Jason Rosenhouse, of James Madison, who edited a compilation celebrating Smullyan, says the clarity of his puzzles could unveil the beauty of philosophical logic to those who could not previously grasp it.
“It was like fooling a kid into eating his vegetables,” Rosenhouse says, adding, “Raymond took something like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and used a string of logic puzzles as a device for presenting them.”
Martin Gardner, himself a renowned math puzzler, compares Smullyan to the Oxford logician Charles Dodgson, who also was an author better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll.
Smullyan pays tribute to Carroll in his essay “Alice in Puzzle-Land: A Carrollian Tale for Children Under Eighty.”
In one chapter, Smullyan wrote, Alice thinks to herself about how confusing, yet remarkably logical, Humpty Dumpty is.
“I wonder,” she says, “how he manages to be both confusing and logical?”
There was, it would seem, some confusing logic in the zigzagging path of Smullyan’s life.
Raymond Merrill Smullyan was born in Far Rockaway, Queens.
His father, Isidore, was a businessman; his mother, Rosina Freedman, a homemaker.
His education was peripatetic and eclectic.
He attended both Pacific and Reed in Oregon, then studied mathematics and logic on his own.
He learned magic.
He created chess puzzles that were more concerned about moves that had been made than the ones that should be made.
He put together a magic act, and performed under the stage name Five-Ace Merrill at nightclubs like the Pump Room in Chicago, where he worked for tips.
He went on to get his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Chicago and a Ph.D. from Princeton.
He taught at Princeton, Yeshiva, Lehman, and Indiana.
His philosophy of teaching was a little puzzling.
“My policy is to teach the student as much as possible and to require from him or her as little as possible,” he told Donald Albers and Gerald Alexanderson, the authors of “Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews."
But, he added, the impact of his apparent lenience was that many of his students worked harder in his course than in any other.
Smullyan is survived by his stepson, Jack Kotik; six step-grandchildren; and 16 step-great-grandchildren.
His wife Blanche, a pianist and music educator, died in 2006.
His first marriage ended in divorce.
Kotik recalled being with his wife at the Smullyans’ house in Elka Park, N.Y., and listening to a radio report about the high salaries of athletes.
His mother, Blanche, said they were excessive.
Smullyan said that to be paid so much was unfair.
“I said, ‘Raymond, isn’t it true that you’re more intelligent than most people?’ ” Kotik says.
""Yes,’ he said. So I said, ‘I think that’s unfair. We should take out part of your brain and distribute it to people who could use it.’
“He was silent for a minute, and finally he said, ‘I can’t give you any reason, but I wouldn’t do it.’ ”
Puzzles were an essential part of Smullyan’s patois — a logician’s way of greeting and testing people.
When he met his most recent editor, Rochelle Kronzek, he asked her to solve some problems.
“It intimidated me at first, but I came up with creative answers,” Kronzek, the executive editor of World Scientific Publishing, says, “and more than once he smiled because he liked the way I was thinking. He got a lot of joy out of seeing how other people thought.”