The package I’ve been eagerly waiting for has finally arrived: a cardboard box about as tall as your average Olympic gymnast. It is covered in yellow packing tape, delicately stamped, and has a return address to a city in the Netherlands.
There is a thing of beauty and absurdity inside this box. This is a unique puzzle made just for me by one of the greatest puzzle makers in the world. This is almost certainly the hardest puzzle ever. But before I open the box, let me tell you how the puzzle came to be, and why I think it’s not a trivial discovery.
To do this, I have to start with the Chinese ring puzzle. I was introduced to Wei Zhang, a puzzle collector who, along with her husband, Peter Rasmussen, is well-known in the puzzle community for having one of the world’s best collections of Chinese puzzles. Also called the “patience puzzle”, the ring puzzle dates back nearly 2,000 years, at least in its simplest form. What particularly fascinates me about this kind of puzzle is that it’s recursive: the more it happens, the more difficult it gets.
The goal is simple: remove a set of rings from a bar to which they are attached. But the catch is that, for each additional ring, you’ll have to make an increasingly large number of moves. It only takes five moves to solve a three-ring puzzle. But the six-ring puzzle takes 42 moves. The nine-ring puzzle consists of 341 moves. This is because, to remove the ninth ring, you have to repeat the whole process of removing the first ring, the second ring, the third ring, etc. Imagine if you had to run a marathon, but every extra mile, you had to return to the starting line and repeat the entire sequence you got there.
You see how many miles you have to run to get to the third-mile marker? If I actually did the diagram for 26 miles, the book this article cited would be taller than the Eiffel Tower. This is a recurring pattern.
Turns out, the ring puzzle has several cousins in the puzzle family tree. They are called “generation puzzles” because they take generations to solve. You are supposed to pass them on to your children, who pass them to your children, who pass them to their children, and so forth.
I love the idea- ambitious scope, connecting with my descendants. I’ve always wanted an inheritance that I could pass on to my sons on their deathbeds. I have a blazer that my grandfather gave me—it’s checkered red and white and can double as a tablecloth at an Italian bistro. It’s scary and won’t last. But a generational puzzle? that would be perfect. It will be a wonderful reminder of the enormity of time. I recently interviewed a mathematician who told me that looking at space makes her feel like she is touching infinity. This would be my version of him.
But first, I needed an ally. A friend suggested that I contact a man named Oscar van Deventer, a Dutch puzzle maker. I’ve often heard the name of Oscar dropped in puzzle circles. He is considered one of the greats. He has created several famous puzzles, including a fractal puzzle and a Rubik-type cube with gears and cogs on the outside. (He caused a minor kerfuffle when he posted a video of the penis-shaped puzzle, a copy of which is now kept at the Kinsey Institute, a sex-research center.)
I called Oscar in the Netherlands and asked him if he could puzzle a generation for me. “Let me think about it,” he said with a hint of Dutch accent. “I don’t want to just make a big Chinese ring puzzle. That would be boring.”
A few days later, Oscar emailed me a sketch. It looked like a cross between a Jenga tower, a giant corkscrew and a girder from a skyscraper. The main wooden column of the puzzle was covered from top to bottom with 55 interlocking wooden pegs, which together held a black corkscrew rod stuck inside. The goal was to turn the pegs in the proper order to remove the rod. But the catch was that you had to turn the pegs many, many, many, many times.
The solver will start by rotating the bottom couple in the proper order, allowing the corkscrew to move an inch or so up before getting stuck again. To pull the corkscrew further, you’ll have to start over and repeat the sequence, and then add an additional sequence for the third peg as well. And so on, until the 55th. It will be even more recursive than the Chinese Ring Puzzle: with each new level, instead of doubling, the number of moves required will increase by a factor of four. “We might call it the ‘Jacobs’ ladder,” Oscar said.
I’m sold “Will this break the record?” I asked
“I don’t know if I can do that,” he said. “but I can try.”
The current record for the most difficult-to-solve generation puzzle was a 65-ring Chinese puzzle owned by collector Jerry Slocum. It will take 18 quintal moves to solve it. it is one 1 After that there are 19 zeros.
In the weeks that followed, Oscar sent me updates. Things were not going well. He tried to 3-D-print the puzzle out of gold-colored plastic, but it melted and deformed. He was concerned that it would be too large to ship to the United States. He had to take a week off to paint his house.
And then, on Friday morning, I woke up to an email from Oscar. He had finished making the puzzle – and it worked. He created the 55-pin Jacobs Ladder. It would take 1.2 decilian moves to solve this (number 1 33 points after that). Written, that is: 1,298,074,214,633,706,907,132,624,082,305,023 moves.
We crushed the old record by 13 orders of magnitude. Oscar happily did some calculations on how long it would take to solve this puzzle. If you rotated one peg per second, he explained, the puzzle would take about 40 septillion years. By the time you sorted this out, the Sun would have long ago destroyed and burned the Earth. In fact, all the light in the universe would have been extinguished. Only black holes will remain. Furthermore, Oskar said, if only one atom has to be rubbed off due to friction for each move, it will be destroyed before you can solve it.
On a hot summer day, in our living room, with my wife and three sons, I open cardboard boxes. I took out the Jacobs ladder and placed it on the floor. It is about four feet long. “One decillion walks to solve it,” I say. “It is impossible for our brains to imagine how many there are.”
What I love about Jacob’s Ladder puzzles is a physical manifestation of it. Doing them can make us better thinkers—more creative and more decisive. Jacobs’s Ladder probably doesn’t offer the same logical and creative challenges that the problems of cryptics or chess do, but like all great puzzles, it includes lessons about ingenuity, fresh perspectives, and optimism. And for me, it’s another thing I value in puzzles: a meditative angle.
I’m terrible at sitting and breathing meditation, but Jacobs’ Ladder would be my version of meditation. As I calmly turn the peg, I allow my thoughts to flow in and out of my mind. And it will teach me to be okay with my lack of closure. As the late Maki Kaji—widely known as the godfather of Sudoku—told me in 2020, puzzles are a journey. He presented the experience in three symbols:
Kazi said the key is to embrace the middle part, the arrow, the journey. Don’t be attached to the end and the perfection.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination!” My youngest son says with his eyes closed.
“of course!” I say. “Except for the eye-roll part.” I bend one of the plastic pegs. It doesn’t bend easily. It gives resistance, like a cap on a soda bottle, makes a soft clunking sound, and then locks into place. I turn to my wife. “Okay, it’s your turn.”
One by one, each member of the family dutifully turns a peg. At least to me, it feels like a sacred ritual, like we’re lighting candles on a menorah, or ringing a bell in a temple. I resolve to turn one peg every day. Or at least every week. Maybe every month. But we will.
“We’re on our way,” says my middle son.
this is true. Only 1,298,074,214,633,706,907,132,624,082,305,018 moves to go.
This article was adapted from a forthcoming book by AJ Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles, From Crosswords to Jigsaw to the Meaning of Life,