A ‘Hungry Caterpillar’ Puzzle You Can Solve With Your Kids
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week’s Conundrum honors Eric Carle, the beloved children’s book illustrator and author who, sadly, passed away this week. His work explored the natural world through a bright and whimsical illustration style using layered-paper collage. There is a friendly warmth to every one of his pages.
One of Carle’s earliest and best-known works is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” which follows the adventures of a caterpillar who starts small and then gradually eats his way through a variety of foods, growing in size as he does so. Following the story, young readers learn to recognize different types of food and also practice counting — on the first day, the caterpillar eats one apple; on the second day, he eats two pears; and so forth. And in many printings, the caterpillar is shown to have literally eaten through each item, leaving a hole in the page.
Here, we’ve reimagined the story in the form of a puzzle — with the help of Conundrums illustrator Lara Williams. Our hungry caterpillar has worked his way through all the delicious-looking food items below, taking a couple bites out of each.
Can you figure out what he transformed this massive smorgasbord into? Like in the original, you’ll need to practice your food recognition — and also do a bit of counting. But once you’ve managed that, you should be able to identify a pair of nine-letter words that together comprise this week’s answer.
This puzzle might look a bit confusing at first because it comes with very few instructions about how to start solving — it’s mostly just a series of illustrations. But like many children’s books, that can actually make it more approachable. Indeed, the solution mechanism is sufficiently intuitive that it might provide a good introduction for first-time puzzlers. Maybe try solving this one with the whole family!
Programming note: The next Conundrums will run on June 6.
Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums…
We introduced a game called “word stoichiometry,” in which words could “react” together like chemicals to produce new ones. Solvers had to work out the underlying mechanisms behind seven example reactions, and then use those mechanisms to solve seven new word equations.
The mechanisms were as follows:
- In “ONE + STAG = ONSTAGE,” the words react by inserting the second word (“STAG”) right before the last letter of the first word (“ONE”).
- In “NICHE + RACER = NICER,” the start of the first word merges into the end of the second word at the letter in which they overlap (“C”).
- In “ELEPHANT + DELETION = ED,” the vast majority of each word is deleted, leaving just the first letters of each.
- In “YEATS + STEWARD = YARD,” a word is extracted from the end of the first word and the start of the second word (“EATS” and STEW,” respectively), leaving the letters that make up the resulting word.
- In “NETS + RATE = EASE,” the reaction leaves every other letter in place, reading backwards from the end of the second word (“ETAR STEN”).
- In “AIMS + RANT = AIRMAN,” the resultant word is constructed by putting together the first two letters of the first word, the first letter of the second word, the third letter of the first word, and the second two letters of the second word.
- In “RUN + UP = RUNDOWN,” the second word is replaced with its opposite (“UP” flips to “DOWN”).
With those mechanisms sorted out, you could move on to the new equations, and solve them as follows:
- BRED + PLANETARIUM = BARIUM, using the “YARD” mechanism and removing the words “RED” and “PLANET.”
- ESAU + SLIP = PLUS, using the “EASE” mechanism (“PILS UASE”).
- TWIST + SPLICE = TWICE, using the “NICER” mechanism (“TW[I]CE”).
- SOIL + DUMB = SODIUM, using the “AIRMAN” mechanism (“SO,” “D,” “I,” and “UM”).
- INTRA + NIGHT = IN, using the “ED” mechanism (“I” and “N”).
- BAD + LANCE = BALANCED, using the “ONSTAGE” mechanism (“BA|LANCE|D”).
- BREAK + SLOW = BREAKFAST, using the “RUNDOWN” mechanism (converting “SLOW” into “FAST”).
Putting those solutions together gave the phrase “BARIUM PLUS TWICE SODIUM IN BALANCED BREAKFAST.” That clued the answer to the full conundrum, which we had indicated was “a particular brain food well-known in part for its chemical makeup.”
In fact, this was one last round of chemistry wordplay: in the periodic table, barium has the symbol “Ba,” and sodium is “Na.” So barium plus twice sodium is “Ba + Na + Na,” or “BaNaNa” — resulting in a balanced equation that certainly can be a part of a balanced breakfast. That of course was the answer.
On top of that, there was one small bonus: an Easter egg commemorating the 52nd edition of Conundrums. That was hidden in the original word equations — reading the first letters of each resultant word spelled out “ONE YEAR.” (Thanks so much for reading and solving over our past 52 weeks of puzzles! Looking forward to many more.)
Zoz* figured out word stoichiometry first, followed by Noam D. Elkies*; Michael Thaler; Nathaniel Ver Steeg; Daniel Kramarsky; Zarin Pathan*; Filbert Cua; Lazar Ilic*; Franklyn Wang, Cindy Yang & Sha-Mayn Teh; and Luke Harney*. The other 17 solvers were Tamara Brenner, Alexander Haberman, Maya Kaczorowski, Ellen & William Kominers, Vikrant Kulkarni, Eric Mannes, Dave Matuskey, Tamar Oostrom & Kathryn Nutting, Ross Rheingans-Yoo, Melissa Shirley, Adam Slomoi, Spaceman Spiff, Nancy & Murray Stern, Sanandan Swaminathan, Michaela Wilson, Dylan Zabell, and Rostyslav Zatserkovnyi. (Asterisks denote solvers who also found the “ONE YEAR” Easter egg.) Many solvers submitted emoji solutions or photos of the minions from “Despicable Me”. And Kramarsky sent in this A+ joke: “What's Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Ba-na-na NAAAAA. Ba-na-na NAAAAA.” Meanwhile, Rheingans-Yoo pointed us to this short story, in which a form of word stoichiometry plays a central role. Plus thanks especially to my brother, Paul Kominers, for test-solving!
The Bonus Round
A quick parabola geometry puzzle; controversies over “Samurai Pizza Cats”. RIP Samuel E. Wright, a.k.a. Sebastian the crab (hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers). Garfield, randomized; explore the Ayala museum virtually; make dorodango; or spectate the cat vs. dog obstacle challenge. Mastodons, gomphotheres, and 400-pound salmon — with online discovery tour here (also hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers). Finally, inquiring minds need help calculating: How many seconds are there in six weeks (hat tip: Yannai Gonczarowski)?
The words “ELEPHANT” and “DELETION” themselves hinted at this mechanism.
This equation was accidentally omitted in the initial posting of the puzzle. Really sorry for the glitch, and special thanks to Eric Mannes for being the first to point out this error!
Although kudos to the group of solvers who submitted the answer "Brazil nuts," on the basis that they have been found to contain barium.
I did not originate this corny chemistry joke. It seems to be well known, and I first came across it in high school, when I competed in the University of Maryland's “Chemathon."
And bananas are quite a popular fruit – beloved by Minions everywhere, and possibly even by the caterpillar in this week’s Conundrum.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.
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