Special Address – University of Copenhagen

Special Address

Piet Hein and John Nash: Beautiful Minds

Sat 20 May, 09:15 - 10:00 (KUA3, Room 4A.0.69)

Dr Bjarne Toft
Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

In 1942 the Danish designer, poet and scientist Piet Hein discovered and introduced the board game Hex, at first for students in the club Parentesen at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and later during Christmas in the national newspaper Politiken. In his talk in Parentesen Piet Hein focused on properties of good games, the mathematics of games and games as mathematics. Hex was widely played in Denmark during the war.

The game was rediscovered in 1948 by John Nash at Princeton University and played there in the mathematics common room. The interest in Hex was revived by Martin Gardner in his column on Mathematical Games in Scientific American in 1957. It is still played around the world, especially in mathematical circles.

Hex is of great interest, both for players and theoreticians, because its rules are so simple, but its strategy so complex. The strategy stealing argument tells us that there is a winning strategy for the first player, but even a first move in such a strategy is not known with mathematical certainty.

The talk will focus on the history of the game, what we know about it and what we do not know about it, mathematical problems related to it, variations, and literature about it. A book titled HEX Strategy was published by Cameron Brown (A.K. Peters 2000). A main author and Hex expert is computer science professor Ryan Hayward at the University of Alberta in Canada. The speaker recently contributed a chapter on Piet Hein's games (in particular Soma, Hex, Nimbi, Tac-Tix) to the book Piet Hein Verdensdanskeren (ed. Olaf Harsløf, Gyldendal 2015). The talk is partly based on studies in the archives of Anni and Hugo Piet Hein in Middelfart, Denmark, and the Martin Gardner archives at Stanford University, California.

Bjarne Toft has a master's degree from Aarhus University (1968) and a PhD from the University of London (1970). From 1973 to 2015 he served as associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, interrupted by longer stays in Canada (Waterloo and Regina), USA (Vanderbilt and Stanford) and at  the London School of Economics.

He has lectured for general audiences at a large variety of occasions, ranging from a Royal Library lecture (on natural science and the "modern breakthrough" in Danish cultural life) to a lecture for long term inmates at Nyborg State Prison (on lotto). Typical topics: the history of mathematics, optimization, games, mathematical economics, nonsense (Alice in Wonderland) and mathematics in literature.