Piet Hein (scientist)

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Piet Hein
Piet Hein (Kumbel) in front of the H.C. Andersen statue in Kongens Have, Copenhagen, 1983
Born(1905-12-16)16 December 1905
Died17 April 1996(1996-04-17) (aged 90)
Known forPuzzles, poems

Piet Hein (16 December 1905 – 17 April 1996) was a Danish polymath (mathematician, inventor, designer, writer and poet), often writing under the Old Norse pseudonym Kumbel, meaning "tombstone". His short poems, known as gruks or grooks (Danish: gruk), first started to appear in the daily newspaper Politiken shortly after the German occupation of Denmark in April 1940 under the pseudonym "Kumbel Kumbell".[1] He also invented the Soma cube and the board game Hex.


Hein, a direct descendant of Piet Pieterszoon Hein, the 17th century Dutch naval figure, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the Institute for Theoretical Physics (later to become the Niels Bohr Institute) of the University of Copenhagen, and Technical University of Denmark. Yale awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1972. He died in his home on Funen, Denmark in 1996.


Piet Hein, who, in his own words, "played mental ping-pong" with Niels Bohr[2] in the inter-War period, found himself confronted with a dilemma when the Germans occupied Denmark. He felt that he had three choices: Do nothing, flee to neutral Sweden or join the Danish resistance movement. As he explained in 1968, "Sweden was out because I am not Swedish, but Danish. I could not remain at home because, if I had, every knock at the door would have sent shivers up my spine. So, I joined the Resistance."[3]

Taking as his first weapon the instrument with which he was most familiar, the pen, he wrote and had published his first "grook" (Danish: gruk). It passed the censors who did not grasp its real meaning.


Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding

the first one again.

The Danes, however, understood its importance and soon it was found as graffiti all around the country. The deeper meaning of the grook was that even if you lose your freedom ("losing one glove"), do not lose your patriotism and self-respect by collaborating with the Nazis ("throwing away the other"), because that sense of having betrayed your country will be more painful when freedom has been found again someday.

Recreational mathematics[edit]

Piet Hein's superegg in brass

In 1959, city planners in Stockholm, Sweden announced a design challenge for a roundabout in their city square Sergels Torg. Piet Hein's winning proposal was based on a superellipse.[4] He went on to use the superellipse in the design of furniture and other artifacts. He also invented a perpetual calendar called the Astro Calendar and marketed housewares based on the superellipse and its three-dimensional analog, the superegg.

He invented the Soma cube and devised the games of Hex, Tangloids, Tower, Polytaire, TacTix, Nimbi, Qrazy Qube, and Pyramystery.

Hein was a close associate of Martin Gardner and his work was frequently featured in Gardner's Mathematical Games column in Scientific American.[5] At the age of 95, Gardner wrote his autobiography and titled it Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. Both the title and the dedication of this book come from one of Hein's grooks.[6]

See also[edit]


Piet Hein was married four times and had five sons from his last three marriages.[7]

  1. (1937) married Gunver Holck, divorced
  2. (1942) married Gerda Ruth (Nena) Conheim, divorced
    Sons: Juan Alvaro Hein, born 9 January 1943; Andrés Humberto Hein, born 30 December 1943
  3. (1947) married Anne Cathrina (Trine) Krøyer Pedersen, divorced
    Son: Lars Hein, born 20 May 1950
  4. (1955) married Gerd Ericsson, who died 3 November 1968
    Sons: Jotun Hein, born 19 July 1956; Hugo Piet Hein, born 16 November 1963


  • Grooks – 20 volumes, originally published between 1940 and 1963, all currently out-of-print.
  • Grooks (1966)[8]
  • Grooks 2 (1968)[9]
  • Grooks 3 (1970)[10]
  • Grooks 4 (1972)[11]
  • Grooks 5 (1973)[12]
  • Grooks 6 (1978)[13]
  • Grooks 7 (1984)[14]

The following books of grooks are available on this subpage[15] of the website "Piet Hein".

  • Collected Grooks I[16]
  • Collected Grooks II[17]
  • Runaway Runes: Short Grooks I[18]
  • Viking Vistas: Short Grooks II[19]


  1. ^ piethein.com Archived 4 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine "For a long time they appeared under the signature Kumbel Kumbell. Here is the reason why: Piet is the Dutch form of the name Peter or Petrus, which means rock, stone, and Hein is a way of spelling 'hen', the old Danish word for a whetstone. 'Kumbel', or 'kumbl' as it strictly speaking should be written, also means stone, though more a grave monument. In other words, Piet Hein, or Stone Stone can, in a way, be translated by Kumbel Kumbel. He originally wrote the second word with two Ls, also later the signature became just Kumbel – the name he is at least as well known by as his own."
  2. ^ "LIFE". Time Inc. 14 October 1966. Archived from the original on 10 July 2023.
  3. ^ "Peit Hein biography". Archived from the original on 10 December 2022.
  4. ^ Gardner, Martin (1977), "Piet Hein's Superellipse", Mathematical Carnival. A New Round-Up of Tantalizers and Puzzles from Scientific American, New York: Vintage Press, pp. 240–254, ISBN 978-0-394-72349-5
  5. ^ The game of Hex (July 1957), the Soma cube (Sep 1958), the game of Tangloids (Dec 1959), and The Superellipse (Sep 1965)
  6. ^ "Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner". Queensland Reviewers Collective. Archived from the original on 6 December 2022.
  7. ^ Thorleif. "Thorleif's SOMA page". Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  8. ^ Hein, Piet (15 November 1966). Grooks. Translated by Jens Arup. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262580076.
  9. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1968). Grooks 2. Translated by Jens Arup. Doubleday. ISBN 978-8741810942.
  10. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1970). Grooks 3. Translated by Jens Arup. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0773610040.
  11. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1972). Grooks 4. Translated by Jens Arup. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385006590.
  12. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1973). Grooks 5. Translated by Jens Arup. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385029681.
  13. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1978). Grooks VI. Translated by Jens Arup. Borgen's Pocketbooks. ISBN 978-8741846811.
  14. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1984). Grooks VII. Translated by Jens Arup. Borgen's Pocketbooks. ISBN 978-8741871639.
  15. ^ "Books in other languages". piethein.com. Retrieved 4 July 2023.
  16. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 2002). Hugo Piet Hein (ed.). Collected Grooks I (2 ed.). Borgen. ISBN 87-21-01859-6.
  17. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 2002). Hugo Piet Hein (ed.). Collected Grooks II (2 ed.). Borgen. ISBN 87-21-01861-8.
  18. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1968). Jens Arup (ed.). Runaway Runes: Short Grooks I. Borgen. ISBN 87-418-2620-5.
  19. ^ Hein, Piet (1 January 1968). Jens Arup (ed.). Viking Vistas: Short Grooks II. Borgen. ISBN 87-418-5639-2.

Other References[edit]

  • Gardner, Martin: Piet Hein's Superellipse. – in Gardner, Martin: Mathematical Carnival. A New Round-Up of Tantalizers and Puzzles from Scientific American. New York: Vintage, 1977, pp. 240–254.
  • Johan Gielis: Inventing the circle. The geometry of nature. – Antwerpen : Geniaal Press, 2003. – ISBN 90-807756-1-4
  • "A Poet with a Slide Rule: Piet Hein Bestrides Art and Science," by Jim Hicks, Life Magazine, Vol. 61 No. 16, 10/14/66, pp. 55–66
  • "Piet Hein Biographical Details", by Nils Aas, tr. by Roger Stevenson. The Papers of the Medford Educational Institute 3.
  • "To and by Piet Hein on the Occasion of Piet Hein's Election as the Student Organization's Twelfth Honorary Member", tr. by Roger Stevenson. The Papers of the Medford Educational Institute 2.

External links[edit]