When I think of crosswords, I think of young and old alike gathered around a couch, scribbling away on a freshly arrived newspaper on a clear Sunday morning. When I think of math, I think of passionate professors covered in chalk dust from a hard day’s work of etching out complicated Greek symbols and numbers on a huge blackboard. These two visions had always been comfortably separate from each other (disjoint sets, if you will) – until I met Dr. Adam Levine.
Levine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Duke who studies low-dimensional topology, surfaces, knots and manifolds, using something called Heegaard Floer homology. But apart, from his incredible passion for his field, numerous grants and tongue-twister-esque research interests, Levine has one accomplishment that sets him apart.
He published a crossword puzzle in the New York Times on Sept. 25!
In our Zoom conversation, Levine was bright, chirpy and incredibly excited to talk about his unique love for crosswords and how he’s kept his hobby alive even under the pressures of academic life. As a teenager he loved working on puzzles like Scrabble, playing around with words and etymology, and of course, crosswords. As he grew older, he continued to be fascinated by words.
As an undergrad taking a History of Life class at Harvard, Levine learned about the the impact site of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, the Chicxulub crater. His first thought was, “That’s a fantastic word– that would make the perfect crossword entry!” His fascination with the word would stay alive for years, until it became the seed entry (the word that anchors the puzzle) for his first crossword to be published in the Times. His love for wordplay through the years is clear, from a self-composed song on Heegaard Floer homology, to a sonnet summary of his PhD thesis.
Levine continued to solve puzzles as he earned his multiple graduate degrees in mathematics, and began publishing his own puzzles a few years on his aptly named blog – Knotty Grids. Crosswords have been a fun and necessary hobby for him – a way to de-stress or take his mind off his academic work. He thinks it is an important example to set for undergraduate students hoping to pursue a career in math – to show them that it is possible to be “full human beings” and have diverse and unique hobbies, interests and a life outside of your research.
Levine often intertwines his puzzles with his primary interest. Some of his puzzles are “themed” – with “Tying Up Loose Ends” built around topological concepts, and the math-y “Indivisible” which was published in The Mathematical Intelligencer. His personal favorites, however, delve into the meta-puzzle genre with “The Queen’s Gambit” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
When I talked to him shortly after the NYT puzzle appeared, Levine was still visibly excited. He compared the puzzle-publishing journey to that of submitting his mathematical research to academic journals – tedious, long and not very fast-moving. Having submitted the crossword to the newspaper more than a year ago, he heard back from them early this year, at which point they began editing and working on the final publication.
As Levine spoke about the editing process, he brought up an issue that has been important to him – diversity in the puzzle world. Because most crosswords have been written by white men, clues and answers are often tilted towards what that demographic considers common knowledge, and minority and female creators have remained a very small voice. Erasure of their identities is common, and Levine related a firsthand experience. His clue for “ROBIN” was “the first Black woman to host Jeopardy.” But it was initially edited to be a reference to the bird.
Levine says he pushed back on the parts of the puzzle that were important to him, and was glad with the final published result.
He says he was amazed by the outpouring of support and congratulations he received after the crossword came out. His parents were “really pumped,” family excited, and colleagues incredibly surprised to see his name in print (on a non-academic paper). Unfortunately, the weekend that the crossword was published, his undergraduate students were cramming for a midterm scheduled that Monday, which Levine figures might be the reason some of his crossword-fanatic students seem to have missed his big moment of glory.
In the following week, I spoke to one of Levine’s academic advisees and other Duke students passionate about puzzles, who shared an initial shock and an immediate subsequent joy in the Blue Devil puzzle representation that this publication debuted.
While Levine has no imminent plans of writing another NYT puzzle, he continues to write for his personal blog. Hopefully, his unique journey inspires students and faculty from different fields and of varied backgrounds to contribute, create and participate, helping make his dream of a diverse puzzle world a reality.
Post by Nidhi Srivaths, Class of 2024