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Puzzle Master of Wabash

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• Cornell Returns a Favor

The message from math professor Mike Axtell slips into campus email inboxes every two weeks: "The Problem of the Fortnight," the College's longest running all-campus puzzler.

The brainchild of Wabash math professor Bob Foote in the 1980s, the problems and logic puzzles draw dozens of answers from students and faculty across the disciplines. Successful solvers are dubbed "fort knights" and are listed on the math department's website. Two-time winners get a t-shirt.

Axtell took over the role of puzzle master soon after his arrival at Wabash:

WM: How do you come up with the puzzles?

I look all over the place! I hunt on the web, I purchase one or two puzzle/problem books a year, and I try to keep track of interesting problems that have arisen during class.

I certainly take submissions from faculty, students, and alumni, and I would encourage anyone out there with a fun and challenging problem to drop me a note.

WM: Many of the fort knights are NOT math majors or mathematicians. Is the puzzle more a "liberal arts" activity than simply a math/logic problem?

Many of the problems would certainly fit this description—what is required to solve the problem is simply a clear way of looking at the situation and not necessarily proficiency with specific mathematical tools.

I admit that these are my favorite type of problems.

However, there are some really wonderful problems that will require some understanding of specific mathematical skills. For these problems, I can only encourage everyone out there to study more math!

WM: Has being the puzzle master been a good entre for you into the Wabash community?

It has allowed me to get to know quite a few students I probably would not have met.

WM: What are some of your other favorite ways of immersing yourself in the Wabash community?

Volleyball club practice and games are a far more informal and relaxed way to get to know students. It is fun to compete and be a teammate with the students, and it keeps me in shape!

Most of our students live within the Greek system, and being faculty advisor to the Lambda Chi house has really helped me to understand part of what is occurring in these students' lives outside of the classroom. It has also given me the chance to watch young men struggle as they seek to govern themselves. I really admire the College for allowing these young men the freedom to engage in this struggle.

And I particularly like office hours as a way to get to know students better than we get to know them in the classroom. It's more of a one-on-one situation-we have the time to let the conversation drift from subject to subject.

WM: Anything else we should know about the problem of the fortnight?

The t-shirts are the must-have fashion item of the year—solve two problems and it is yours!

Also, anyone who wants to get on the mailing list for the problem can simply drop me an email at

See past puzzles and reigning Fort knights at Mike Axtell's website: fortnight.html