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Piet Hein - Danish Renaissance Man

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Piet Hein

Piet Hein was an extremely gifted Danish thinker, though his fame has generally not spread far beyond Denmark. It is difficult to say exactly what his profession was, as his accomplishments spread over so many disciplines. As a poet he created thousands of Grooks (see below), as a philosopher he wrote about the cultures of 'knows' and 'know nots', as a designer he popularized (and named) the superellipse, and as an engineer and inventor he created several games and puzzles, the most famous of which are Hex and the Soma Cube.

Piet Hein - Poet and Scientist 1905 - 1996

Piet Hein was born in Denmark, a direct descendant of the 17th Century Dutch naval hero1 of the same name.

In 1924 he started studying at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (later to become the Niels Bohr Institute). While there, studying quantum physics, he invented the Soma Cube. Some years later he changed direction and studied engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, while creating industrial inventions.

In 1940, early in the Second World War, German forces invaded Denmark, and Piet Hein twice had to go underground, as he had been president of an anti-Nazi union. Although he could no longer manufacture his inventions, this did not stop him working, and he became a prolific poet, much appreciated by other Danes.

After a full life, having spent years in other countries, he died in Copenhagen, the same city he was born in.

What follows is a little more detail on his better known creations:


While in hiding during the War he started having epigrammatic poems published in Politiken, the leading Danish newspaper, using the pseudonym Kumbel2. These short poems, along with the sketches he penned beside them, he called Grooks3 (Danish: Gruk). They frequently had a double meaning, and could be interpreted as continuing his resistance to the Nazis, and providing Danes some subtle encouragement.

It has been estimated he wrote about 10,000 Grooks expounding his stoic philosophy. He learned several other languages in order to translate them himself. This is one of the better known ones:


Put up in a place
where it's easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it's well to remember that
Things Take Time.

The Superellipse

The superellipse is one of the less well-known geometrical figures. It nevertheless has some unique features that are quite intriguing. The following analogy gives a rough4 idea of what a superellipse looks like...

Imagine a square. Inside the square touching it at the midpoints of each side is a circle. If you inflate the circle as if it were a balloon it will gradually fill the whole square. These inflated circles look similar to supercircles, with the limit being a square. If you could start with a rectangle and an ellipse in the same way you would create superellipses.

These 'flattened curves' were used in many places in the 1960s and 1970s, though they aren't seen much nowadays.

The Soma Cube

While at the University of Copenhagen in the 1930s Piet Hein went to lectures of the physicist Werner Heisenberg - famous for his Uncertainty Principle, for which he received the Nobel prize in 1932. It was during one of these lectures that Hein developed the idea for the Soma Cube.

This is a 3x3x3 cube (ie, made of 27 unit cubes) that can be built out of seven different pieces, each composed of three or four small cubes. Trying to recreate the larger cube from the pieces can be very frustrating, but surprisingly there are numerous different ways it can be done.


Hex is a game where two players alternate placing counters on a diamond of hexagons, with the aim of completing an unbroken line from one of their sides to the other. Hein said he invented it while thinking about the four-colour map topology problem, which is all to do with how many colours are needed to colour in a map without adjacent areas having the same colour5.

Hex was used as the basis for the TV gameshow Blockbusters first hosted by Bob Holness in the UK in 19836.

Art and Science

In trying to decide whether Piet Hein was a scientist or an artist, one reaches the conclusion that like his superellipse he was neither one thing nor the other, but was a beautiful blend of the two.

He turned his hand to many different arts, always trying to build bridges between the 'hard' technical and natural sciences and the 'soft' humanistic subjects. His scientific credentials are good, due to his academic studies, his friendship with Albert Einstein7, and the respect of the mathematician Norbert Weiner, who dedicated a book to him. His artistic talents go beyond his poetry and mathematical puzzles and designs, as for him art was not limited to non-scientific endeavours.

Piet Hein defined art as a way of thinking about all subjects, so for him being a poet was only one outlet for his astonishing creativity. His philosophical writings in the 1940s asserted that the great cultural divide was not between the haves and the have-nots, but between the knows and the know-nots. He said:

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. Art is this: art is the solution of a problem which cannot be expressed explicitly until it is solved.
The man who is only a poet is not even that.

References and Other Links

  • Martin Gardner has written several chapters about the puzzles and games Piet Hein created, as well as a chapter on superellipses that inspired this collection of h2g2 entries. The only game invented by Piet Hein not mentioned here is TacTix (also known as Nimbi) which is in both Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions and Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Bewilderments.

  • Piet Hein's achievements will be celebrated at PietHein.com.

1Pieter Pieterszoon Hein or Heyn (1577-1629) who captured the Spanish Silver fleet near Cuba in 1628.2He had had essays and poetry published under his own name in this paper before the war.3He came to regret giving them this meaningless name when their numbers grew into the thousands.4The genuine superellipse only touches the enclosing box tangentially at the axes, the rest of it just comes 'very close' to the sides.5The answer is four, but it took a long time for anyone to rigorously prove it (Piet Hein didn't).6Blockbusters actually started life even earlier in the USA.7With whom he worked for a number of years according to the biography on Thorlief's Soma Page.

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