Solving Puzzles Satisfies The Nimble Brain We've all had those satisfying "aha!" moments -- while poring over a crossword at the breakfast table, or adding up the Sudoku numbers during a long commute. Now, researchers are taking a closer look at those satisfying little breakthroughs to figure out how the brain works to solve problems.
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Solving Puzzles Satisfies The Nimble Brain

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Solving Puzzles Satisfies The Nimble Brain

Solving Puzzles Satisfies The Nimble Brain

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The front page of yesterday's Science Times section in the New York Times described a phenomenon that threatens to become a craze: crosswords, Sudoku, KenKen, Scrabble, riddles. We solve these puzzles for fun, sometimes to win. We solve them to stay sharp, or at least we think we do. And researchers are at work on the science of puzzles, how we come to those a-ha moments, ways the brain works to solve these problems, why some can finish a difficult crossword in five minutes while the rest of us take a little longer, and why so many of us love puzzles.

And we want to hear from crossword, Sudoku, anagram fanatics. Whatever your puzzle: What helps your brain to solve it? Is it analysis or insight, a quiet room or a crowded subway car? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, Amnesty International turns 50. But first, the science of puzzles. You know Will Shortz as NPR's Puzzlemaster. You hear him Sunday mornings on WEEKEND EDITION. His day job is crossword editor for the New York Times, and he's edited a special Science Times puzzle that ran in yesterday's puzzle edition, and he joins us from his home in New York. Hey, Will.

Mr. WILL SHORTZ (New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor): Hi, Neal, nice to talk to you again.

CONAN: Good to talk to you. As the editor, you're the interface between constructors, people who design the puzzles, and the solvers, people who take out their pens and pencils. Do you think their brains work the same way?

Mr. SHORTZ: Constructors and solvers? They are different kinds of minds. I think to be a good solver, well, you have to be smart, but just because you're smart doesn't mean you're going to be a good solver. Creating puzzles, that's a different skill altogether.

CONAN: And the - one - that you're a good constructor does not necessarily make you a good solver.

Mr. SHORTZ: That's right. There's, I don't know, there's a constructor in Boston that I know of who's one of the top constructors, and he says he's not very good at solving puzzles at all.

And I know out of the top 10, say, American crossword solvers, there's two or three, maybe four, who are good constructors. Otherwise they're just - no, they don't make puzzles. They're just good at solving them.

CONAN: And some of the top solvers are also good at math and music. Those all seem to be related.

Mr. SHORTZ: For some reason, it is. You know, being able to solve a difficult crossword, it involves an ability to quickly synthesize a lot of different information together, and it also involves pattern recognition, which is, I think, goes together with math and music.

CONAN: It's some of that, but there are also just dumb facts that you need know, capital of Kyrgyzstan or something like that. It's not going to help you, patterns aren't going to help you if you don't know it.

Mr. SHORTZ: Yeah, you have to know - with modern American crosswords, you have to know a lot of stuff. You have to know, you know, the old-fashioned stuff that you learned in school, you know, geography and history and literature and opera, and you have to know modern pop culture, from TV, movies, rock 'n' roll, and you have to know older pop culture too, older movies and songs. It helps to have just a grab-bag of knowledge.

But you know, even if you don't know everything, you can usually figure it out from what makes sense. And I know, Neil, you're a regular crossword doer. You know, if there's a crossing of two things you don't know, you're probably able to make a fairly educated guess what that letter is, just from your knowledge of how language works.

CONAN: And how puzzles work. It helps to know the mind of the crossword puzzle editor too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHORTZ: Yeah, well, that would be me. Yeah, that - that reminds me of something Will Wang(ph), who was one of my predecessors at the Times - he was crossword editor from 1969 to '77, had a great sense of humor.

Anyway, he once remarked he considered himself the DA of crosswords. You know, puzzle makers would send him the puzzles for publication, and he was the guy who policed them and said, yes, this is legitimate for people to have to know, and this isn't. And that's - yeah, I see that as part of my job.

CONAN: Joining us now to talk about puzzles and our brains is David Corcoran, science editor of the Times, and he oversaw this week's Science Times section on puzzles. He's with us from our bureau in New York. David Corcoran, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DAVID CORCORAN (Science Editor, New York Times): Hi, Neal. Hi, Will.

CONAN: And you're calling Will Shortz. Why are puzzles worth a special edition, section of the New York Times?

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, the dirty little secret, Neal, is that we just wanted to have some fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)


CONAN: You've got a hole there in December, yeah.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, it's, you know, with all the death and destruction and WikiLeaks and everything - we thought this up last summer, and somebody, one of our reporters, Denise Grady(ph), just said: Why don't you do a special issue on puzzles? And everybody kind of stopped, and then we thought, well, yeah, that would be great.

And the connection between puzzles and science, well, it's definitely there. There are tons and tons of puzzles about science. And then as you alluded - as you both alluded to, there is something in the brain that it carries a special talent or aptitude for puzzles.

And there has been quite a bit of research on that, and so we knew that we would get our behavior and neuroscience writer, Ben Carey(ph), to write a lead story on the neurology and so on of puzzles. And so we knew there was enough there to put a special section together.

CONAN: And one of the things he discovered was a study that suggests that having a good laugh can help you solve a puzzle.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, isn't that amazing? It is not necessarily intuitive. But what - it turns out that when you're trying to solve a puzzle that requires that a-ha moment, that insight where just something just seems to pop into your brain, it really helps to be in a playful frame of mind, kind of associative, where you spot connections or see things in the background that you might not otherwise pick up if you were feeling sober or serious. And there really does seem to be a connection there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, Let's start with Riley(ph), and Riley's on the line with us from Salt Lake City.

RILEY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

RILEY: Good. I have a couple things I wanted to say. The first thing is: I was born in 1990, and so I always find it really interesting, some of the historical questions or even just the pop-culture questions that I can't ever think of. And my mom is the first one on the phone that I always dial to, to ask her for help for those.

CONAN: I see, to mine her for information about 1950s rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. SHORTZ: She's your lifeline.

RILEY: Yeah, my mom is definitely my lifeline for those. The other thing is, I have a 7:30 in the morning class at the University of Utah here, and crossword puzzles help me keep awake during that class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RILEY: I always got the paper on the way to the library, and then I'm just there doing my puzzles, trying to stay awake.

CONAN: We hope you're not studying to be a surgeon.

RILEY: No, you don't have to worry about me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, Riley, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

RILEY: No problem. Have a great day.

CONAN: It's interesting, the demographics that she's talking about, puzzle solvers, Will Shortz. Is there reliable demographic information on who decides to answer puzzles, and is it different for different kinds of puzzles?

Mr. SHORTZ: The - crosswords used to have mainly an older demographic. I know from - well, Dell Puzzle magazines, for example, they did - they surveyed their readers once, and it was overwhelmingly female and over 50, probably with an average age of 60.

Nowadays I think the demographic has dropped a lot because crosswords are more fun today than they were 20 years ago, and I think there is something about crosswords that fits the modern age.

You know, the modern brain, we jump from one subject to the next very quickly nowadays, because of TV and all the other media, and that is - crosswords are ideally suited for that, because on a daily, a weekday crossword, traditionally you get 76 answers on 76 different topics. Your mind is jumping from one thing to the next, and I think that's perfect for the modern age and young people in particular.

Mr. CORCORAN: I think it's interesting too that people, different people have different predilections for puzzles. I'm not much of a crossword puzzle guy myself. I love Will's puzzle on your Sunday WEEKEND EDITION.

A colleague of mine almost wrote an essay, "Why I Don't Like Puzzles." We decided that would be too much of a downer for the section. But we did get an essay from a magician, Teller, who...

CONAN: Of Penn and Teller.

Mr. CORCORAN: Right, Penn and Teller act, and he wrote that he himself doesn't like to do puzzles, but then he kind of realized, well, that's what magic is, it's constructing puzzles that do very definitely have a solution.

CONAN: Let's get Terry(ph) on the line. Terry's with us from San Mateo, California.

TERRY (Caller): Pleasure to be here, Neal. It's great to have a show with both you and Will on it.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TERRY: (Unintelligible) missing is Ira Glass. Question for the panelist and for your experts: It seems to me that the brain is hardwired to discover cause-effect relationships. And in fact, that is a tool or an attribute that has led to the survival and the proliferation of the human species as the dominant species on the Earth. I'm just interested in your comments.

CONAN: Well, David Corcoran, I'll put that one in your court.

Mr. CORCORAN: I don't know enough about brain science to be able to tell you whether the ability to solve puzzles is adaptive, you know, that it somehow arose through evolution. I do know that the satisfaction in solving puzzles and the intelligence that you need to solve them and the analytical skills are all very important.

So it may be that puzzles evolved out of that, out of those forms of development, rather than the other way around.

CONAN: Well, you do have Benedict Carey in your science section yesterday, writes: Let lightning strike. Let (unintelligible) suddenly coalesce in the brain field, as they do so often for young children solving a riddle. As they must have done, for that matter, in the minds of those early humans who outfoxed nature well before the advent of deduction, abstraction or SAT prep courses.

Problem-solving does seem to be innate to human nature.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, they were inventing fire and the wheel. Now we're filling in the answer to 26-down.

CONAN: We're trying to deal with all the problems they created by inventing all those things. Terry, thanks very much for the phone call.

TERRY: Thank you so much for you time.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we'll have more about the science of puzzle-solving, plus more of your calls. What is your solution? What do you need to solve your favorite puzzles? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Drop us an email, the address is Or you can get in touch with us on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

You know the feeling: Your pencil or pen hovers above the crossword. Suddenly, an obscure fact comes back to you: Ty Cobb, 367. It's 24-down, you've solved it.

We're talking about puzzles of all kinds this hour with NPR puzzlemaster Will Shortz and David Corcoran, science editor of the New York Times. If you're ready to play with your brain, you can find a maze at our website. That's at -go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from puzzle fanatics. Whatever your puzzle, what helps your brain to solve it? 800-989-8255. Email

We hear a lot of claims about what games and puzzles can do to make our brains better. Molly Wagster studies those issues at the National Institute on Aging. She heads the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch there and joins us by phone from her office in Baltimore. Nice to have you with us today.

Dr. MOLLY WAGSTER (Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch, National Institute on Aging): Good afternoon. Thank you.

CONAN: So do we know whether solving crosswords and other puzzles, mental games, can make us smarter or improve our memories?

Dr. WAGSTER: Well, what we know is it probably makes us better at puzzle-solving. But it may not necessarily make us better at other types of cognitive activities or in other types of mentally stimulating activities.

CONAN: A number of studies claim to show that people who often do mentally stimulating things, like going to art galleries, are at less risk for Alzheimer's. Does that hold up under scrutiny?

Dr. WAGSTER: Those are predominately what we call observational studies. So they interrogate individuals, asking them, you know, what types of activities they engage in, such as listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, playing games, and then perhaps follow them for a period of time. And it seems that these individuals are at reduced risk, those who engage in higher levels of mentally stimulating activities, that is, are at reduced risk for development of Alzheimer's disease.

But I caution that these are, indeed, observational studies, not what we would call empirical or cause and effect. And so we don't know for sure if these particular activities really are the things that are impacting their reduced risk for dementing illnesses as they age.

CONAN: So what you're suggesting is we still need a lot of work.

Dr. WAGSTER: Yes, we do. In fact, the National Institute on Aging really has been committed, the last several years, for understanding the possibility, and if so, the extent to which mentally stimulating activities, or for that matter, other lifestyle interventions that may help us maintain our cognitive function as we age.

And in partnership with the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, NIA has initiated a program to fund studies to examine the potential of things such as computer games, other mentally stimulating activities, physical activity to remediate age-related cognitive decline.

So we're really trying very hard to push the envelope on doing these very cause-and-effect types of studies that I mentioned to determine to the extent to which, what type, when to initiate, how long we should engage in these activities to gather some benefit.

CONAN: I wonder, do you - are you a solver? Do you do puzzles?

Dr. WAGSTER: I have to say that I do not. My mother does. But I have never been a crossword puzzle enthusiast as much as she.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of possible results on your work.

Dr. WAGSTER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Molly Wagster heads the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute on Aging, with us by phone from her office in Baltimore. And David Corcoran, was that pretty much the answer when you called scientists and said: What do we actually know about this?

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, there is not a lot to suggest that doing puzzles is going to fend off Alzheimer's disease. The causes of Alzheimer's are complex and not very well understood, even. And we've been doing a big series in the paper called "The Vanishing Mind," and most of the research now is focusing on genetics and the way the brain is put up, is put together.

So what puzzles can do - and it almost goes without saying - is they're fun. They're a form of recreation. It's - they're satisfying to do. And as our behavior writer, Ben Carey, wrote in one of his stories: Well, you know, if you can solve a puzzle, you know you're still pretty much intact.

CONAN: On the other hand, if you can't, it can ruin your whole day.

SHORTZ: Yeah, really, tell me about it.

CONAN: Curse you, Will Shortz. I will occasionally find myself, writes Pat Costa(ph) by email from Gaston, Oregon - I will occasionally find myself working a puzzle, particularly the New York Times crossword - curse you, Will Shortz - and when I do, one of the tricks that seems to work is to switch the pen from my normally used right hand and start writing left-handed. For some reason, this often gets the puzzle moving again, maybe engaging the other hemisphere of the brain.

Will, you obviously engage a lot with puzzle-solvers, not just crossword puzzlers but Sudoku and that sort of thing and various other more complicated. What can you tell us about motivation?

SHORTZ: Motivation, what do you mean?

CONAN: Why do people do them?

SHORTZ: A-ha. Oh, boy, well, there's lots of reasons. I think there's general reasons why we do puzzles. One is because they give us a sense of empowerment. We're faced with problems every day in life. Most of them don't have clear-cut solutions, and most of them, we don't see the whole process through from start to end.

With human-made puzzles like crossword, Sudoku, KenKen and everything else, first of all, we feel in control. We are in charge of the whole process. And when we fill in that last letter in a crossword or the last digit in the Sudoku or KenKen, we feel that we have achieved something that - and we get a sense of satisfaction we don't get often in everyday life.

Now, every kind of puzzle has its own separate appeal. Crosswords are popular because they test our knowledge and vocabulary. And KenKen and Sudoku test our reasoning abilities. I think as humans, we feel a compulsion to fill empty spaces, and this is part of the reason why crosswords and Sudoku are popular: We're filling in blank squares.

CONAN: It's interesting. We have an email from David(ph) in St. Louis, who says: I love Sudoku. I despise anagrams. It really depends on what interests the puzzlers. My favorite Sudoku technique is to prove what it is not. It can't be seven. It can't be nine. It must be two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORTZ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, and good crosswords will have a sense of humor. They test your mental flexibility, and they twist your brain in a satisfying way.

And another thing I found: In good puzzles, often there's a rush to fill in the last few spaces. Like in a crossword or a Sudoku, you know, we may be stumped along the way. Then we rush to fill in the last few squares. I think there's probably some chemical that's released in the brain that gives you satisfaction. And then we want to do another puzzle immediately.

Mr. CORCORAN: That we know. It is - it's called dopamine, and it's associated with depression or lack thereof.

CONAN: Let's get Steve(ph) on the line, Steve with us from San Rafael in California.

STEVE (Caller): Oh, hi. Can you hear me all right?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

STEVE: Oh, great. Well, yeah, let's see. I like the show - I've been doing crosswords. I did Sudoku. Now I'm into KenKen. I think I do it to unwind at the end of the day. I usually do one, and I limit it to one because I feel like after that - when you're learning a puzzle, you're learning the rules of - you know, you sort of have to figure out what the rules of solving it are. And I feel that that's probably pretty helpful for your brain. After that, it feels sort of like I'm just indulging some addiction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: And you're filling in these boxes when I could be sleeping.

CONAN: The dealer, Will Shortz, is with us here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORTZ: I'll keep feeding the - I'll be your drug dealer, yeah.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call, and good luck on Saturdays.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Deborah(ph) in Mantua, Ohio: I had an observant math instructor who, having observed both my difficulty with a lot of math and the fact that I carried and enjoyed puzzles, told me the secret to math: Math is not composed of problems and answers. It's a puzzle with a solution. I may never become a math whiz, but I stopped hating and fearing it.

So I guess we have different approaches to - if we could see things as puzzles and solutions rather than problems to be solved, it might help.

Let's see if we can go next to John(ph), John with us from Tulsa.

JOHN (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

JOHN: Well, don't tell my boss, but a lot of my day at work is spent flipping between my work tasks, which get pretty hectic and busy, and Sudoku. And it's almost exclusively Sudoku, between that and maybe a logic puzzle here and there and stuff like that.

But I love the multi-tasking capability that that throws at me. I think it creates more problems, in a way, and it'll help me solve those problems. So it's a lot of fun to do it that way.

And I also found that when I, you know, I'm on a Sudoku puzzle and I'm forced to stop working on my puzzle and actually do work that I'm supposed to do, actually when I come back to the Sudoku after 10 minutes or so, it's kind of given me a breather and kind of given me a break, and that little bit of mental stretching, I guess, helps me finish the puzzle and find new solutions that I overlooked.

CONAN: Similarly, does time spent on the puzzle help with your difficult jobs, tasks at work?

JOHN: And actually, I think it does work in a reverse way. It, you know, gets my mind away from work, and I get back to a task at hand, and all of a sudden, hey, I know exactly what I'm supposed to be doing at work. It's pretty neat how it works both ways.

CONAN: Well, John, thanks very much, and we'll not tell anyone that you ever said this.

JOHN: Unless my boss is listening to NPR. Thank you.

CONAN: Well, then you've got him or her. Let's see if we can - oh this, by the way, a tweet from our friend Mickey Maynard(ph) at Changing Gears: Puzzles are like speaking French. With experience, you get to a point where you know the answers instinctively rather than parsing them.

Would you agree with that, David Corcoran? You can eventually learn to speak KENKEN?

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, there certainly is a language, and Will can testify about this. There are - crossword puzzles have all sorts of unwritten rules. And actually it's - I've talked to Will about this, it's quite interesting, some of the things that you're allowed to do and are not allowed to do.

CONAN: Like what?

SHORTZ: In constructing a crossword, you mean?

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah. I'm...

CONAN: Oh, I think - the rules like no two letter words and then - well, I guess there are some other rules about which kind of words you can use.

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, yeah, exactly. There's a word, olla, O-L-L-A, which - it means something, I forgot what, but it occurs only in crossword puzzles.

SHORTZ: It's Spanish pot(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORCORAN: Oya(ph), I guess. But it occurs only in crossword puzzles. And Will told me that puzzle makers hate to use that word.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SHORTZ: Yeah, there's all sorts of words we hate to use. But you know, if you're back against the wall and it's going to take an olla or an esni to complete an otherwise fantastic puzzle, then you might say, okay.

CONAN: You'll bite your lip hard and look away and write it in.

SHORTZ: That's right.

Mr. CORCORAN: And we profiled a guy named Dan Feyer, who's like the world crossword champion.

CONAN: Saw him last year at the American Crossword Puzzle Championships, yes.

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, it's just kind of astounding what he does. But he must have all of this in his head. He must just be able to refer to this great database of, not only of words but of sort of the language, of the syntax of a crossword puzzle.

CONAN: And, Will, it was interesting to watch his progress through the ranks. The year before, well, you know, showing startling progress, but nevertheless not up at the very top.

SHORTZ: That's right. He was way down his first year. His second year, I think he finished fourth. And his third year, he won the championship. And, really, his third year, he blew everyone else away, including Tyler Hinman, who...

CONAN: Who had blown everybody else away for the previous five years or something.

SHORTZ: Exactly. And...

Mr. CORCORAN: Dan Feyer...


Mr. CORCORAN: Dan Feyer is a musician. And it's kind of interesting that he associates his musical ability with his ability to do crosswords. And the thing he seized on was pattern recognition.

CONAN: We're talking about puzzles and our brains and the science of puzzles with David Corcoran, science editor of The New York Times, and Will Shortz, NPR's Puzzlemaster and crossword editor of The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we get another caller on the line. This is John, John with us from San Jose.

JOHN (Caller): Yes. I solve all kinds of puzzles and do pretty well at them, except I'm very slow. I can solve any Rubik's cube puzzle and I just love the mathematics of it, the conjugation, the beautiful things that happen with it. But my favorite solution of any puzzle was the time I was in Washington, D.C., and my wife and I wanted to go different directions and then meet at the airport, and I was to drive the car to the airport. Well, we got on the underground in opposite directions and she had the keys to the car.

CONAN: Oops.

JOHN: And the puzzle was to find her. And I just reasoned where she would go, much like I'd solve a puzzle. And I went directly to her. She was going to the Library of Congress or Smithsonian or someplace. I didn't know where, but I just figured it out.

CONAN: Congratulations. And so the problem was solved. And I guess, David Corcoran, these kinds of very specific manmade puzzles are a byproduct of our -it was fascinating to me that you had an article about this ancient Egyptian puzzle that - these things are quite old. They go very far back in human history.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah. And the forerunner of - you know, the St. Ives riddle. As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives and so on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CORCORAN: And the question is kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many are going to St. Ives? And it turns out that this puzzle was invented or seemingly invented by an Egyptian mathematician. And it was mice and grains, I guess, but the same idea.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email from Judy in Denver: I often find the answers to individual crossword clues that I am unable to solve on day one will easily pop into my head on day two. I assume my subconscious has worked on the puzzle in my sleep. And, Will, it gets back to that question: How much of this is analysis and how much of this is insight?

SHORTZ: Yeah, I hear that all the time and I experience it myself. It's possible that the mind has been working on it in the interim. Something also, I had a professor at college once who compared his brain to an old-fashioned slide carousel. And when the carousel is going around, sometimes the slides drop down and sometimes they don't. And you just get(ph) to get that carousel to go around for the slide to drop in the right spot.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ginny(ph) in Anne Harbor: How timely, I'm a solver trying to make my first crossword today. What size grid do you recommend? Any other hints? I'm getting frustrated, six hours into it.

SHORTZ: Three-by-three.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What, the standard size, Will, is 17-by-17?

SHORTZ: Of a daily crossword?

CONAN: Yeah.

SHORTZ: Would be 15-by-15 squares.

CONAN: Fifteen.

SHORTZ: And Sunday is traditionally 21-by-21.

CONAN: Okay. You know that I do solve them, but I clearly have problems remembering how - the size they are. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Stacy(ph), Stacy with us from Nashville.

STACY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

STACY: Good. Just a quick note. I've been doing The New York Times crossword puzzle addictively since I was teenager, so that's now, you know, about 40 years or so. And, Will, I had actually sent you an email about this, and you had very nicely emailed me back. Because the greatest day of my life was when I picked up The New York Times crossword, I think it was within the last couple of years, and a song that I wrote was one of the clues.

CONAN: Wow. That's recognition. That's arriving.

STACY: Yeah. It was the - the clue was singer of "She's Like the Wind," and the answer was Patrick Swayze. And I swear, it was, you know, over and above having written that song, it was a greater thrill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STACY: To just see a song of mine in The New York Times crossword puzzle, it's like my life was complete. So I just wanted to share that with you. And thanks for the years of entertainment.

SHORTZ: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Stacy.

SHORTZ: Thanks, Stacy.

CONAN: And we've got this tweet from someone who identified as the DNA of Math: I am presently creating the largest Sudoku puzzle in the word, 961-by-961, by hand, he writes, not by computer. He or she, I don't know whether that's right.

But we will try to solve that one. Will Shortz, thanks very much. We'll listen to you again on Sunday morning on WEEKEND EDITION, the puzzles editor of The New York Times. And we meet again in Brooklyn for the crossword puzzle tournament, when again this year?

SHORTZ: March 18 to 20.

CONAN: March - right after St. Patrick's Day. David Corcoran, thanks for your time today as well.

Mr. CORCORAN: Thank you.

CONAN: David Corcoran, science editor of The New York Times. When we come back, Amnesty International turns 50. This is NPR News.

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