Easy Eight / Hard Eight
As I've described before, there's a marvelous biennial conference in honor of Martin Gardner called, appropriately enough, the Gathering for Gardner. It brings together three communities that Martin was active in, and in which Martin was very influential: mathematicians, puzzle people, and stage magicians.
Each conference has a theme, and that theme is the sequence number of that conference. My first Gathering was the eighth one, so its theme was the number 8. (Did I mention the mathematician connection?) Anyway, everyone who comes to the conference is supposed to bring something for everybody else, all 300 or so of us, and ideally it will be something related to the theme number. I thought I was pretty clever when I came up with a very eight-related puzzle to give everyone.
My friend Bob Hearn, though, took literal-mindedness to a whole new level: he designed and gave out a puzzle that was entirely built out of the word "EIGHT". He found a clever style in which to draw the letters in "EIGHT" so that there are lots and lots of ways to neatly link those letters together, and then he picked a particularly cute couple of those ways and turned each one into a tray-packing puzzle.
The "Easy Eight" side of the tray appears perfectly straightforward, just a simple square. The problem is that it's kind of tricky to figure out how to get all five letters to lie flat in there at the same time: so many cute ways to fit the letters together, only one way to actually pack them into the tray.
Bob couldn't just leave it at that, though. No, it wasn't enough for him to create a really clever and elegant puzzle. He had to do it twice, with the same set of pieces. The (unique) solution to the "Hard Eight" side of the tray is equally clever, and equally elegant, and awfully tricky to find! It probably never occurred to you before, but an ellipse doesn't have any corners. None at all. There's no obvious way to start on this side, no clear surety that you're making any progress at all until, suddenly, there it is: the pieces are really, really close to fitting in. A little more tweaking, some tiny adjustments, and then you realize you're still not putting them in correctly!
Ahem. Sorry, got a little carried away there. Just a little puzzle-frustration flashback. I'm fine now.
As soon as I finally solved both of Bob's lovely Eights, I started talking with him about offering a version of his puzzle on this website. It's taken me a long time to pull it together (the tolerances for the "Hard Eight" side are pretty tight), but I've finally succeeded, and now I can make this wonderful creation available to you. This is a puzzle you'll enjoy solving yourself, and then really enjoy torturing your friends with. Really, what more could you ask?