Friday, November 10, 2006

Ripley's Nightmare

The title of this post can just as easily be "Mulder's Nightmare", I think. Or "Ironhorse's Nightmare", if War of the Worlds is more of your thing.

I first read about "Alien Encounter" puzzles on Clifford Pickover's web site, you see. Pickover is known as a writer and inventor who has this penchant for strange and interesting solvers, but that probably only barely scratches the surface of his description. In any case, while I don't think that he was the first person to develop this category of puzzle, he's definitely popularized it to the point of giving it a name.

The puzzle actually has a relatively simple premise: Aliens have landed on earth, perhaps in your own backyard. They can only stay for a few minutes, and you happen to be the first (and only) person they meet. They ask you to give them a single gift that they can take home to the rest of their race. With this in mind, you walk into the nearest house/barn/building/whatever and find yourself in a situation where you have to choose from among a set of random items.

When I say "random", however, I don't mean that the items are haphazardly shortlisted by some strange search engine with a bad hiccup. By "random", I mean that your selection is composed of any items that exist as human or earthly artifacts, representative of a variety of cultures or fields. Every "Alien Encounter" puzzle features a different such selection, and every single time, you find yourself in the task of choosing one of those items to give to the aliens as a gift (as well as to justify your decision).

I'll cite an example from The Alien IQ Test -- one of Pickover's books -- for the purpose of this post. So, in this case, you walk into the nearest house/barn/building/whatever and find the following objects:
  • The Bible (Old Testament)
  • Physician's Desk Reference (PDR), 1990, edition 44 (lists drugs and drug interactions)
  • Mobil 1997 Travel Guide to the North East (lists hotels, restaurants, family activities, towns, parks, and colorful maps of the Northeastern United States)
  • One jar of Peter Pan-brand creamy peanut butter
  • Starry Night (an original oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh)
  • Sheet music for Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor
  • ChapStick lip balm
  • A Pentium computer
  • A severed human finger
You should have a good enough idea of the puzzle by now, I think. Now that I've planted the entire scenario in your heads, however, I must tell you that the heart of the puzzle does not necessarily lie in choosing something to give away.

Sharp-eyed solvers will probably have realized that there are no correct solutions for this type of puzzle, if only because we poor earthlings have yet to deal with alien beings in such a quick and open fashion. This is more of a speculative puzzle -- one that asks you to make a move for a hypothetical scenario. In order to get anything close to an answer on this one, we have to survey a multitude of responses and collate the results.

So it turns out that your true task is not to choose one item and justify your decision. Your secondary question with regards to an "Alien Encounter" puzzle lies more along the lines of: Which object do you think was chosen the most frequently? And for goodness' sake... why?

This wrinkle, I feel, makes the puzzle remarkably democratic. It is a collation of multiple answers to the first question -- with all their biases and preferences -- that determines the answer to the second question. You will have to set most of your personal preferences aside for the purposes of the latter query, yet still be aware of the fact that the "answer" is composed of personal preferences of all kinds, made by all other people who attempted to resolve the scenario before you did. That, and one's answer to the former question may very well cause a radical shift in responses for the latter.

This eventually places a premium on logic, I think: Logical answers to the first question are far more believable when the time comes to check on one's answer to the second question. I believe that the puzzle therefore rewards level-headedness and a sense of justifiable thought. (But then, this would still raise the question of whether or not the proceeding correspondents are logical enough to begin with.)

For that matter, "Alien Encounter" puzzles are not necessarily limited to "Alien Encounter" scenarios. You could theoretically insert any hypothetical situation into the problem, and then give potential solvers a distinct choice in order to see how their minds work. The common getting-to-know-you question of what five things one would bring to a stint on a deserted island comes to mind, for example. (You'd need to inject some form of logic into the item selection base in order for such things to work, mind you, but you'd still have the makings of a good mental exercise there.) On the flip side of the coin, I don't think that this would work as a blog meme -- you'd have no reliable method of collating your surveyed results.

Regardless of the analysis, however, this is one of those puzzles that's interesting to read up on, if only to see what everyone else thinks of the question. It's sort of like a more critical version of "Family Feud", if you go about thinking in terms of old game shows.

And, like most hypothetical questions, we'll probably shirk and hide if it ever comes true, leaving us little or no opportunity to see how things will really turn out. There's not much more you can ask from a puzzle, to be honest. :)


Anonymous said...

hi there! great blog, with compelling posts. mind a link-up? i've added you to my blogroll. :)

Sean said...

gibbs cadiz: You can go ahead, I suppose. I don't normally maintain a blogroll on my end, though...