Usually the president of Johns Hopkins, like most college leaders, sends a video at the holidays thanking members of the university community for all their contributions. This year, Ronald J. Daniels sent everyone a crossword puzzle, one built by a graduate student in cognitive science whose research interests dovetail with this hobby. Tom McCoy studies computational linguistics and is a puzzle constructor of such skill that he has had multiple crosswords published in the New York Times. He agreed to craft a puzzle that gives lots of shout-outs to his school.
Such as: What a particle discovered by a team including Johns Hopkins physicists is not named. (Answer: Higg boson.)
“I thought it was brilliant,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, who has seen a lot of year-end videos come across his desk over the years. It can be hard to convey a message in a way that grabs attention and speaks to all of a university’s constituencies. “It was innovative, charming, a thoughtful way of engaging the university community."
Ribeiro also had some advice: Don’t try to do it in pen.
Some of the questions are far easier for people with a Hopkins connection, but some clues include hints, such as, “JHU-run gifted education program that sounds like a body of water plus a beverage plus a question.” (The answer is the acronym commonly used for the school’s Center for Talented Youth.)
Or: “Sport JHU excels in, with a crossword term as its middle six letters.”
Within just a few days, 21,000 people had looked at the puzzle online — spending an average of more than 40 minutes on the page — and 1,800 people had solved the puzzle.
“I was very proud to have this crossword make it onto the meme page” that students run, McCoy said. “That’s a very different kind of recognition than I usually get.”
Those who solved the puzzle got a congratulatory video from Daniels and his wife applauding, and a certificate that had some students joking on social media that with this diploma they could go home, skipping final exams.
McCoy loves Hopkins, which he chose in part because of his faculty advisers, so he enjoyed making the puzzle. It was difficult because he was trying to fit so many school-related words in that he worried the last ones would be aggravatingly obscure, random crossword-y words with lots of vowels like “etui” (a French needle case, obviously) and “Omoo” (the super-popular Herman Melville novel).
He grew up solving crosswords with his large family and started designing them in high school. At the same time, he was entering competitions that used logic puzzles to solve linguistics problems — and puzzling over the curious local dialect in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
By the time he was at Yale University, he knew what he wanted to study. And he got an idea for a crossword from a class there, in which a professor explained there are very few words in English that sound the same — except for the stress placed on a syllable — but have very different meanings, such as “conquered” and “concurred.” That led McCoy to try to think of puns such as, “Summary of an easy negotiation,” when the phrase was, “I came, I saw, I concurred.”
“If you’re a linguist or a crossword constructor,” McCoy said, “part of your brain is analyzing every part of language you encounter.”
Kyle Mahowald, a postdoctoral researcher in computer science at Stanford University, pursues academic questions similar to those considered by McCoy — and also makes crosswords. He said he knows McCoy through his research and his puzzles, both of which he admires. Making a crossword draws on computational, quantitative skills and a more creative linguistic side, he said.
“There’s a similar mixture that goes into being a computational linguistics researcher,” with lots of coding, math and empirical work, Mahowald said. “It certainly helps to have a love of language and be interested in the quirks of language.”
Paul Smolensky, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins, a partner researcher at Microsoft and one of McCoy’s academic advisers, said the theoretical learning McCoy does “is really a puzzle-solving exercise: You see a pattern in a set of words, or a pattern in a set of sentences. You have to try to figure out what the rules are that explain the patterns.”
The field of cognitive science itself is a puzzle, Smolensky said, piecing together what has been learned about the mind from linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and computer science with the development of artificial intelligence. And because the questions raised are difficult to measure and observe directly, cognitive scientists have to be creative in devising ways to try to understand what people are thinking, like watching where babies look to glean what grabs their attention.
“Tom himself,” he added, “is truly exceptional and amazing.”