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Goodbye, Puzzle for Today

Millions woke up to it. Now it's been quietly axed

Three years ago, the newly appointed editor of Radio 4's flagship Today programme introduced a novel feature: a daily mathematical puzzle.

The idea had some merit.  The Today audience of several million is generally well-educated and enjoys mental stimulation, and the editor recognised that numeracy and mathematical thinking is a skill that is vital to the nation's future. The slot would expose maths to an audience that includes many of the country's top influencers and decision-makers.

But a news programme is not the best medium for puzzles, which fit more naturally on conversational shows with audience phone-ins. Would this experiment work?

The puzzle stimulated a lot of reaction from the start.  

There were early fans.  Teachers tweeted about how they were using the daily puzzle as a challenge for their pupils, and the occasional puzzle would spark animated discussion on social media.  The feature was newsworthy enough to feature in comedy shows such as Dead Ringers and The News Quiz.

But the fans were vastly out-numbered by those who were either indifferent to the puzzle, or were actively annoyed by it.

There were several fundamental flaws, which I highlighted in a couple of blogs back in 2018: Puzzles On The Radio  and Puzzles v. Maths Questions

Among the occasional gems, numerous puzzles were broadcast that were not fit for Radio 4, either because they were too complicated to grasp in a single listen, or too basic, or in many cases because they contained errors.  But perhaps the biggest flaw was that the presenters clearly didn't care about the puzzles, and usually read them out in a dismissive tone.

By the end, few listeners cared either. You can get an idea of how popular a puzzle is from the reaction on Twitter. A puzzle by geometry-lover Catriona Shearer might get dozens of retweets and hundreds of 'likes'.  But on the rare occasions when Today tweeted about their puzzle, despite the programme's huge number of followers the most common reaction was along the lines of 'please stop this rubbish'.

Today now has a new editor, and one of her first acts seems to have been to axe the puzzle.  

Some in the maths community will be disappointed.  When I criticised the feature in its early days, several mathematicians argued that at least this was raising the profile of maths, and that something is better than nothing.  But my view remains that the puzzle (in the way it was handled) probably harmed the image of maths more than it helped.  Many of the puzzles were little more than dull, contrived questions with no 'aha' element, which appealed to only a limited audience, and which for many people merely reinforced the notion that maths is a collection of difficult problems that nobody cares about.

I'm not sorry that the Today puzzle has gone, because a maths question read out by news journalists before 7am just didn't work.  But I am sorry that an opportunity has been lost to present mathematical ideas in an engaging and inclusive way to a daily audience of millions.