Editorial: Puzzling through a Pandemic | AIChE

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Editorial: Puzzling through a Pandemic



During a pandemic, shortages of products like hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, personal protective equipment, and even toilet paper may be understandable, but a shortage of jigsaw puzzles might seem a bit, well, puzzling. While we are sheltering in place, my husband and I dug out some jigsaw puzzles that we happened to have lying around the house.

I start each puzzle by building the edges, and I work on it during my lunch breaks and occasionally in the evenings and on the weekends. My husband (who is retired) does most of the work, but when the puzzle is almost finished, I sweep in to add the last few pieces. (In case you’re wondering, no, he doesn’t get angry that I take all the glory after he does the hard work.)

As we were working on our fifth puzzle, we decided to order a few more. That’s when we learned that many other people are passing their quarantine time building jigsaw puzzles; sales had skyrocketed, demand was outstripping supply, and there were some reports of price gouging on eBay. I tried various online sites and encountered “out of stock” more than “add to cart.” I did, however, manage to score three new puzzles, and we will be starting one of them shortly.

Jigsaw puzzles can be educational. British cartographer John Spilsbury is credited with creating the first jigsaw puzzle around 1760. He mounted a map of Europe on wood and cut along the national borders of the countries. Known as dissected maps, these early puzzles served as educational tools; Lady Charlotte Finch used them to teach the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

Researchers in Malaysia showed that jigsaw puzzles could help high school students learn to write the formulas for ionic compounds. Ions are represented by puzzle pieces: Positive ion pieces have indentations representing the lack of electrons, while negative ion pieces have protrusions that represent excess electrons, and the number of each corresponds to the ion’s charge. By fitting the pieces together, students can visualize the combination of positive and negative ions that form a neutral compound, as the Mg(OH)2 puzzle below illustrates.

Communications consultant Robin Hardman often keeps a jigsaw puzzle going on a table near where she works. She writes on her blog that “working on the puzzle is a calming exercise when I’m thinking, or on hold, or taking a breather as I transition from one project to the next. Sometimes, the left-brain logic of fitting the pieces together is exactly what I need to kick-start the right-brain creativity I need for my work.”

Psychotherapist Jenny Maenpaa explains that “jigsaw puzzles are also meditative, in that you are focusing on one image for a long period of time in order to fit small pieces into a bigger picture. You subconsciously block out many other thoughts that might crowd your mind. These moments often allow ideas and emotions processing in the background to come together — whether that means a lightbulb “aha!” moment of solving a problem that was bothering you or coming to peace with a conflict or emotion that has been nagging at you.”


That explains why they are not only fun, but also helpful during the pandemic.

Cynthia F. Mascone, Editor-in-Chief



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