Piet Hein (16 December 1905 – 17 April 1996) was a Danish scientist, mathematician, inventor, designer, author, and poet, often writing under the Old Norse pseudonym “Kumbel” meaning “tombstone”. His short poems, known as grooks (gruk in Danish), first started to appear in the daily newspaper “Politiken” shortly after the Nazi occupation in April 1940 under the pseudonym “Kumbel Kumbell”.
Hein was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (later to become the Niels Bohr Institute), and Technical University of Denmark. Yale awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1972. He died in his home on Funen, Denmark in 1996.
Piet Hein, who, in his own words, “played mental ping-pong” with Niels Bohr in the inter-War period, found himself confronted with a dilemma when the Germans occupied Denmark. He felt that he had three choices: Do nothing, flee to “neutral” Sweden or join the Danish resistance movement. As he explained in 1968, “Sweden was out because I am not Swedish, but Danish. I could not remain at home because, if I had, every knock at the door would have sent shivers up my spine. So, I joined the Resistance.”
Taking as his first weapon the instrument with which he was most familiar, the pen, he wrote and had published his first “grook”. It passed the censors who did not grasp its real meaning.
Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
compared to the pain,
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
the first one again.
The Danes, however, understood its importance and soon it was found as graffiti all around the country. The deeper meaning of the grook was that even if you lose your freedom (“losing one glove”), do not lose your patriotism and self-respect by collaborating with the Nazis (“throwing away the other”), because that sense of having betrayed your country will be more painful when freedom has been found again someday.
Hein published “grooks” in over 20 volumes. Even if Hein’s mother tongue was Danish, he also translated his poems to English, German, Spanish and a number of other languages.
After Liberation, Scandinavian architects, tired of square buildings but cognizant that circular buildings were impractical, asked Piet Hein for a solution. Applying his mathematical prowess to the problem, Piet Hein proposed to use the superellipse – a form between the ellipse and the rectangle.
In addition to the thousands of grooks he wrote, Piet Hein devised the games of Hex, Tangloids, Tower, Polytaire, TacTix, Nimbi, Qrazy Qube, Pyramystery, and the Soma cube. He advocated the use of the superellipse curve in city planning, furniture making and other realms. He also invented a perpetual calendar called the Astro Calendar and marketed housewares based on the superellipse and Superegg.
Piet Hein was married four times and had five sons from his last three marriages.
His son Jotun Hein proved the Soma cube’s “Basalt Rock” construction impossible at age 12. This was published in the puzzle’s instruction manual as “Jotun’s Proof”. He was a Professor of Bioinformatics in the Department of Statistics of the University of Oxford and a professorial fellow of University College, Oxford.
Said by Piet Hein:
“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”
“After all, what is art? Art is the creative process and it goes through all fields. Einstein’s theory of relativity — now that is a work of art! Einstein was more of an artist in physics than on his violin.”
“Man is the animal that draws lines, which he himself then stumbles over. In the whole pattern of civilization there have been two tendencies, one toward straight lines and rectangular patterns and one toward circular lines. There are reasons, mechanical and psychological, for both tendencies. Things made with straight lines fit well together and save space. And we can move easily — physically or mentally — around things made with round lines. But we are in a straitjacket, having to accept one or the other, when often some intermediate form would be better.” The intermediate form proposed by Hein was the superellipse.
The equation Piet Hein considered was:
where a and b are two positive numbers and n is some real number. He called all solution curves with n greater than 2 for super-ellipses. In his current job, he found that the value n = 2½ gave the neatest and best visual effects. As the ratio between a and b Piet Hein used the ratio 6:5 for Sergels square in Stockholm.
Piet Hein’s webpage
Grooks 2 Paperback
More Grooks Paperback
Runaway Runes Short Grooks 1