Aage Marcus - Piet Hein danish 20th century writers

To try and grasp the kaleidoscopic phenomenon called PIET HEIN it will be best to begin with his data.

He was born on 16 December 1905 as the son of graduate engineer Hjalmar Hein, whose family originally came from the Netherlands, and eye specialist Estrid Hein. Like Karen Blixen’s mother, she was a granddaughter of the merchant A.N. Hansen, and this meant that Piet Hein’s and Karen Blixen’s mothers were cousins. His childhood home was in Rungsted Skovhus, where he still lives.

Having passed his upper secondary leaving examination (mathematics line) from Metropolitanskolen in 1924 and his Part I philosophy course under Frithiof Brandt the following year, he moved to Stockholm in order to study to become a painter at the Royal Swedish College of Fine Arts, where his teachers included Albert Engström. He returned to Copenhagen, however, as early as 1927, where, apart from attending lectures in philosophy at the University he studied until 1931 at the Institute for Theoretical Physics under Niels Bohr. Here he constructed a model to visualise the theory of complementarity and apparatus, the atomarium, which aroused the interest of researchers. His participation in the symposiums, meetings where the new epoch-making discoveries within atomic theory were discussed, were also specially rewarding for him.

In the following years, he devoted most of his time and energy to various inventions, such as an ingenious rotor machine and the coloroscope, which can be described as a device for producing light effects in which the spectrum swings as it were from spatial to temporal existence.

Over the years, he has also invented numerous, often highly original puzzles and games. Worth singling out is his variant of an ancient oriental game which, under the name Hex, was much discussed in scientific journals, the beautiful teasing object he calls the Soma cube, the Polygon game – and several others. In addition, there is a whole range of new constructions of many types of articles of domestic use, including a lock that is as simple as it is sophisticated, and items within industrial design. Lastly, it should be mentioned that when the central square was to be designed in Stockholm, it was Piet Hein who pointed out the geometrical figure of the superellipse as that which would provide the optimum solution in terms of both traffic and aesthetics.

As well as such activities, he also actively took part in the liberal political movements for which there was so much justification in the 1930s. From 1935 to 1955, he was a board member of the Danish branch of The Open Door International, and from 1940 for the national association Liberal Cultural Struggle, as well as later for the national One World association and for the League for Tolerance. That he also is a member of the Adventurer’s Club has to do with his many extensive journeys and stays of several years in both North and South America and around Europe. But not until mentioning that he also is a member of the International P.E.N. Club do we approach that side of his activities that has to do with literature.

Already in the 1930s, Piet Hein had written a number of articles on humanistic and scientific subjects, but his literary production proper first began when the strange small poems he calls Grooks started to appear in Politiken shortly after the Nazi Occupation in April 1940.

The production of a whole series of interrelated short texts is, of course, nothing new. Fine examples of this genre are the witty lines of Fritz Jürgensen, the ingenious nursery rhymes of Louis Levy and Storm Petersen’s ‘Flies’. Similar examples from other countries have come from Christian Morgenstern and Erich Kästner as well as the American Ogden Nash. But when it comes to both quantity and quality, Piet Hein’s Grooks are, even so, something special.

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.

Obviously, since there are to date now over 7,000 – seven thousand! – Grooks, it is impossible to characterise this enormous literary corpus collectively. Innumerable facets glitter: caustic and sensitive, cheerful and serious, grotesque and proverbial. A large number are formulations of what everyone is just thinking, while others add new perspectives to the most everyday things. The touch and the always precise use of language and sophisticated rhythms and rhymes make not only the longer, more lyrical but also the aphoristic ones into true poetry.

He says in one of them:

I can’t help that my belief
is that verses should be brief.
If you think that I am wrong,
read mine twice
to make them long.

The brevity never feels fragmentary, however, for each Grook expresses fully what it sets out to. The following elementary though probably rather unnoticed truth can hardly be expressed more concisely that this:

A half is,
this never alters,
exactly two thirds
of three quarters.

Something he has experienced, because most Grooks need hours of work, he boils down to this: Writing poems is not done with ease. But who says it has to be a breeze?

One of the first Grooks was the justly famous one that goes: Little cat, little cat, walking so alone; tell me whose cat are you – I’m damned well my own. Like many others from the time of the Occupation, it referred to Denmark’s situation, and many of his so-called ‘underground’ Grooks could only be published illegally.

An important characteristic of the Grooks is that they are nearly always accompanied by a drawing. Not for nothing did Piet Hein, as mentioned, begin his career at the Swedish school of art, and countless drawings of the thousands made have been executed with sometimes baroque sometimes elegant lines as a pictorial supplement to texts that one would never have believed could be illustrated. As an example of this abilities in this direction, here is one of his best-known Grooks:

It ought also to be mentioned that he did not only translated a host of his Grooks into English – there is a whole collection of them with the title Grooks – but also a number into Spanish. A number of them were originally composed in these languages and there is no Danish version of them. The first collection came out in book form in 1941, since when a total of 20 volumes has appeared, the best of which – but which are the absolute best of 7,000? – have been collected in ‘Gruk fra all årene’ (Grooks from all the years), 1 and 2 (1963 and 1964). A particularly good Grook anthology appeared in 1949, published by Det danske Forlag with the title ‘Kumbels Fødselsdagskalender’ (Kumbel’s birthday calendar). It contains 377 Grooks, all of them with accompanying drawings.

Countless Grooks contain observations of things that are overlooked by most people. In one of them he says:

He on whom God’s vision falls sees the great within the small. As an example that illustrates to what extent he possesses this vision, the following can be quoted:

A completely different type of Grook is this one:

Living in the moment

To live in the moment's a well-worn routine
that most of the world has perfected;
for some, it's the moment that's already been,
for others, - the one that's expected.

Yet no sort of magi can kindle anew
a past that is over forever,
nor summon the future before it is due:
our moment is now - or it's never.

So brief is the moment in which we may live,
and future or past it isn't.
Whoever would know of what life has to give
must gratefully welcome the present.

But any attempt to illustrate the overwhelming richness of the thousands of Grooks by picking out many types of samples is bound to fail. Despite their vast diversity, however, it is possible to indicate a couple of main tendencies. One is that which is characterised by the Grooks that are extrovert, which have a satirical barb or which contain experiences and observations of use to other people, and which more or less directly give guidance in the art of living. This applies to, among many others, a Grook like this one: Life takes care of what it means just until we ask, it seems, and Love while you’ve got love to give. Live while you’ve got life to live.

Although he explicitly says: Shun advice at any price – that’s what I call good advice, a vast number of his Grooks contain too wise maxims to be ignored!
The other tendency, or type, within the world of Grooks turns in the opposite direction, i.e. expresses what is taking place inside himself. There is a poem he calls Polymania, which sounds like this:

It must be that fate has played one of her tricks that I was born singly and not one of six.

And I’m never successful with what I’d attain, for all six think their own thoughts inside my one brain.

It is understandable that this split – which is probably simply a result of his versatility – sometimes gives rise to a longing for peace from outside impressions. This finds expression, for instance, in the following final lines of a Grook:

Company’s fine to be in, though I find that I cannot disown there’s only one thing I would rather be in and that’s mine when completely alone.

This urge for not only loneliness but liberation from the chaos of phenomena is expressed even more strongly thus:

I lie on my back in the soft waving grass and follow the clouds floating by,
were I but a cloud on a warm summer day reflecting the weather on high.

To just be a cloud sailing gracefully on warmed by sunshine or tossed by the wind
to melt into nothing in vast azure space leaving matter and form far behind.

To follow the law for the shifting of clouds – a law that’s not hard to recall,
to quite disappear in the warmth of the sun and never have been there at all.

Somewhere else he says that had he not been the person he was, he would like to be a white lilac blossoming in the wind, or a shining ball dancing on the top of a jet from a fountain. The same wish to vanish into thin air, for individuality to case, is found in the following, extremely beautiful poem published in 1941:

Alle små der i enge Fri for den strømmende stræben,
gemmer en underlig drøm fri for den dæmmende bred
om havet, det støre, det f rie. skal åen forløses i havet
som stilner den stridende strøm, og evig og fri vare ved

Når løbet er kæmpet til ende, Så går der en luftklar bølge
er havet det mål de skal nå, med vingehvid skumtop på.
havet der frier fra alle Så hvisker de andre bølger:
de kræfter, som tvinger en å. Se dér! Det er Muldmose å.

It cannot be denied that in many of the 90 poems contained in this book, the speculative tone dominates considerably over the emotional, but both the fertility of ideas and the sheer formal beauty are often so wonderful that it must be because of the enormous popularity of the Grooks that the purely lyrical side of Piet Hein’s production has been somewhat overshadowed.

‘Vers i verdensrummet’ (Verses in space) also contains a number of poems addressed to people who have meant something special for Piet Hein, including three of our time’s most prominent researchers: Niels Bohr, who has been a friend of his since youth, Albert Einstein, whom he regularly visited at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, who write in his last book, while staying at Rungsted Skovhus.

Other visitors to the house include Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Thor Heyerdahl and the two wonderful illustrators Albert Engström and the American Saul Steinberg. Among the poets he has characterised or celebrated in verse, and who were also among his friends, one could mention Herman Wildenwey, Arnulf Øverland and, here in Denmark, Johannes V. Jensen and Ludvig Holstein, who, by the way, was also responsible for the first Grooks appearing in book form.

A later collection of poems, ‘Vers af denne verden’ (Verses of this world), 1948, also includes brilliant poems, and the same applies to ‘Du skal plante et træ’ (Plant a tree to grow tall), which appeared in 1960. The two essential features that characterise everything he writes – the cosmic perspective and the fight against all prejudices, including racial ones – are strongly represented in this book, and his need of a larger, universal community forms the basis of a poem with the title ‘Call in the dark’, the first section of which is as follows:

Jeg vågner og lytter i mørket. Noget har rørt sig.
Noget har givet et næsten umærkeligt kny,
En iling har kruset den spejlblanke natlige stilhed.
Nu er den ubrudt påny.
Dær ligger mit barn i sin verden af hvile og drømme,
tryg i en lun lille seng med en bog og en bjørn.
Kalder han på mig i søvne? - Nej, alting er stille.
jeg lægger mig trygt. Da vågner jeg:
grædende børn!

Væggene viger og åbner sig ud mod alverden -
ud mod de dyb hvortil menneskefællesskab når.
Det synger af afstande, åbenhed, menneskets ansvar
for sine mindste, de kommendes menneskekår.
jeg k a n ikke lukke min verden om bare det nære.
jeg ligger og lytter i natten. Der grædes og kaldes.
Det e r ikke fremmede børn som er sultne og bange
og flygter og græder i mørket.
Det er vores alles.

Many poems in this book call out to be cited, but we must here make do with the following, which differs slightly from most of his others:


Vi plejede at vandre lange ture,
fru Andersens Hans Christian og jeg,
fra byens hårde sten og trange mure
ud ad en blomsterbræmmet landevej.

Han var så sær og sårbar, og han havde
så megen skyhed og så mange fejl.
Men hvor han dog faldt til blandt skræppeblade
og følte med en snirkelsnoet snegl.

Han såe det fælles just i det specielle.
I dyr og døde ting. Han nemmed vart
det almengyldigt individuelle.
For alt består af alskens egenart.

Jeg mødte ham en dag i Kongens Have ...
Guvé hvad der blev af ham sidenhen?
Han havde fantasiens nådegave.
Og hvad skal denne verden dog med den!

Han ville vist til scenen. Mon han kom det?
Den grimme ælling! Drengen hed tilsidst
kun Anders And blandt os, som spøgte om det.
Han endte vist ved filmen. Som statist.

Nu lever vi i trit og dør på tælling.
Og levefod er alt, hvad vi forstår.
Hvor er Hans Christian - den grimme ælling
i Danmarks svaneløse andegård?

Anonymous Piet Hein poem in Politiken’s ‘Day to Day’, 13.5. 1938, two years before Kumbel Kumbell began to supply Grooks. The poem is later used as a Grook. Vignette: Axel Nygaard.

The Grand Hotel is a hideous place
but has such a damn good situation.
You can sit all day at the Grand and gaze
at Stockholm Castle’s lousy location.

There in the window you see Sweden’s King
so vexed that he hardly can stand,
because Stockholm Castle is where he must bring
all his time gazing over at Grand.

Even though poetry takes pride of place in Piet Hein’s production, he has also outstanding achievements within other fields. In 1947, he published a little book ‘The Helicopter’, because he had become so interested in this new means of transport that he had acquainted himself with its complex technology. In June of the same year, he landed in the first of these machines to come to Denmark. Part of the book is admittedly a little special, although it can be read with enjoyment because of the enthusiasm and animation that characterises the presentation.

A special sort of book is his ‘Vis electrica’ from 1962. It is a festschrift published by the Issefjord Power Station Electricity Company and, even though most of its contents have a scientific purpose, his humanist attitude to things is there all the time. Between the more factual sections poems and Grooks have been added, while the illustrative material consists of some superb colour illustrations by Arne Ungermann. By the very nature of the assignment, most of the text has to do with the nature and utilisation of electricity. Of a more diversified nature is his only real collection of essays to date, that with the title ‘Kilden og Krukken’ (The source and the pot), which appeared in 1963. It contains small pieces which he calls fables – often slightly reminiscent of Johannes V. Jensen’s myths – and many other, widely differing contributions, including some of the speeches he has given over the years on various official occasions, such as at the Technical University of Denmark, the Academy of Fine Arts and as an honorary freshman in Oslo. The central theme in most of his speeches is his agitation for the ideals that underlie the organisations he, as mentioned, has been an active member of – and which characterise all his poems. A main section in the book is called Technocy and Cultism. It deals with the unfortunate split that has taken place between the scientific-technical and humanist-cultural views of life – a problem that occupies the minds of leading circles the world over.

To an interviewer who expressed surpise at his versatility, Piet Hein said that he, on the contrary, felt that he saw himself as being fairly one-sided, only equipped with a special kind of imagination. That is a modest characterisation of his special mental equipment, which is undeniably of a very unusual kind. Remarkable, first and foremost, is his ability to see things in a completely new light – as if looking behind them. It is presumably his freedom from traditional ways of looking at things that are the point of departure for his talent as an inventor. But that he has been able to come up with fertile new ideas within many areas, not only within science is hardly simply because he comes to the exact problems with a solid foundation within the cultural – and thus is himself an example of the union of the two views of life that is so sorely needed – but surely also because, when it comes to it, he is first and foremost a poet.

Knud Meister - each now is new - Piet Hein

PIET HEIN 80 YEARS OLD 16.12.1985

The fact that he is now 80 is so incredible that the most sensible thing to do must be to consider it as improbable.

On the one hand, Krak’s Who’s Who admittedly claims that HEIN, Piet, author, was born on 16 December 1905 in Copenhagen as the son of graduate engineer Hjalmar Hein (died 1922) and eye specialist Estrid Hein (died 1956). On the other hand, he is still characterised by a boylike curiosity to see what is inside things – and that is not something that regularly occurs in people who are four score years. On yet another hand, his artistic and scientific production is of a scope that makes it likely that his age cannot be 80 or 160, but rather 240. So we will settle for 16 December and let the claim about 1905 remain acceptable but absolutely undocumented.

When he was about to become 70, an enthusiastic and unsuspecting printer expressed the wish to duplicate an inspired speech that Piet Hein had given at Copenhagen Town Hall after having received the Honorary Craftsman of the Year award. The projected, modest piece of printed matter gradually expanded into a whole anthology, with the title ‘Menneskesag’ (Human Case). Piet Hein rang me up one evening shortly before midnight and asked if I would edit it. He promised me in return that I would not get a penny for my troubles, so I naturally agreed.

The agreement was adhered to in every detail.
I recall that at one of our preparatory meetings I asked him what it felt like to be 70 and received the answer that ‘time can only be used for boiling an egg’. When, eight years later, I rounded the 70 mark, these masterly words were a great consolation to me.

I am pretty sure that the first time I saw Piet Hein was when he walked onto the stage of the Folketeater to read a poetic tribute to the actress Petrine Sonne on her jubilee. He concluded with the words: ‘...and that, that is why we love Petrine!’, upon which he gave the little old lady a great hug. She was terrified and had no idea who the poet and hugger was. But she must have been able to heat from the warm applause of the audience that we all knew and found that the young man had been able in a talented way to express our admiration for the actress with the jubilee.

That was at the time when Piet Hein was Kumbel Kumbell in Politiken’s ‘Just Think’. The Nazis had occupied the country and took jokes seriously though not in any desirable way, while the rest of us sought a mental haven in the air-raid shelter of humour. How ingenious we were then. We dispensed with ingenuity later, when it was our own benefactors who, in offended seriousness, began to create the ideal society.


This article is not to be some sort of ‘Gesta Danorum’, however, nor in any way a Piet Hein biography. It is simply going to mark a special birthday by means of fragmentary memories of a person who has been exclusively different to such an extent that all of us have been able to find something of ourselves in him. On closer inspection, this paradox is sensible enough, also because Piet Hein has liberally given us a share of his counterverifications of existence – and done so in such a way that we have constantly been able to nod in recognition to thoughts which we had not had but which he had thought on our behalf.

Our pleasant experience of recognition was naturally due to the fact that Piet Hein’s word released locked-up perceptions that were so typically Danish that they could found all over the world. (This relationship between the national and the international is also something he has convincingly pointed out.)

All artists base their art on personal models, which enables their work to be identified without any real difficulty. There is nothing strange about that. Brahms and Haydn and Wagner and Gershwin can easily be recognised by anyone with ears to listen – and who can mistake a Picasso, a Miró, a Braque or a Matisse?

Piet Hein’s art is not only characteristic for its intelligent lucidity but also for the mirroring effect that not only can reverse right and left but also up and down. The verse which can justly be called the ‘original Grook’ (from April 1940) and which deals with the complementarity of the unserious and the serious immediately set the tone and announced what we could expect.

Piet Hein was a virtuoso (which, in this context, means intuitive) user of this model during conversations. When I once told him that I had read somewhere or other that Graham Bell was the first man to have used the word ‘hello’, Piet Hein said: ‘Yes, and when he had invented that word, he was also obliged to make a machine where he could use it, and so he invented the telephone!’

I recall a letter he sent me from an international convention where he was to give a lecture. He wrote, among other things: ‘It is so delightful to get questions to one’s answers.’


It would grieve me it what I have said so far should be interpreted as though I feel that Piet Hein simply seeks and cultivates the paradox. His method is in fact purely scientific, and the purpose of the counterverification is to promote awareness and to make ‘the subject matter’ reveal its secret.

With many a smile I recall the time he and I were among the students at Denmark’s first course for TV producers. It was led by the pioneer Jens F. Lawaetz and was characterised by the ‘infant stage’ of television as well as Lawaetz’s never admitted uncertainty regarding the brand-new medium. In addition, those of us on the course were a bad bunch of individualists with opinions that were so cocksure as they can only be when applied to conditions one understands nothing about.

I almost owe it to the history of Danish culture to mention a couple of those on the course: Gabriel Axel, Ib Koch Olsen, Inger Lassen, Bjørn Rasmussen, Palle Koch ... and, of course, Piet Hein, who was really the most peaceable of us. When during one of the many altercations with the state TV authorities we discovered that things had to be this or that, no matter how much we shouted or sang, Piet Hein’s quiet descant was heard to say: ‘Well, in that case we might as well sing.’ It had a calming effect – on me at any rate.


Having reached this point, I ought to just mention at this point that if one were to conclude from what I have said that Piet Hein is the most peaceable and easy-going person on this earth, then we ought perhaps to start all over again. Many people find him difficult, also because he does not buy opinions that are irreconcilable with his own view of things. There is nothing facile about him, on the contrary, and like all strong loners doubting his own standpoint is not something he wastes all that much time on.

In a Grook he has talked about being true to what one believes in, and that is at any rate a maxim he himself has been able to follow. Apart from that, he is no better or worse than the rest of us. I asked him recently if he felt himself obliged to observe the worldly-wise advice he had given the entire world with such a formidable sense of form. He smiled and was of course able to quote himself regarding the liberal scattering of ‘advice on living that one does not follow oneself’.

But if one deals for a short while with his way of being a human being (and that must surely be permitted in a birthday speech), one finds oneself thinking of the phrase he himself has used about the reason behind certain sudden, sharp ripostes. The phrase was ‘devil of repartee’.

He came up with such a line one day a few years ago when he was passing an antique shop in the centre of Copenhagen, and the lady who had the shop stood in the doorway and nodded to him. After taking a couple more steps, he stopped, went back and said: ‘I am sure I know you, but I am so bad at faces and names. Won’t you tell me who you are? Otherwise, I’ll spend the rest of the day wondering about it.’
The lady replied: ‘No, you don’t know me, but I thought for a moment that you were Piet Hein.’ It was then that the devil of repartee surfaced, for Piet Hein said: ‘Ah, I don’t know about that, I’m pretty sure I’m a bit more handsome than he is!’ At this, the lady, indignant and with raised finger, retorted: ‘You are not to say a word against him. You ought to wish you had his brain!’ And the devil swung into action once again, for Piet Hein answered: ‘Thank you very much, but I’ll make do with my own!’ – and continued on his way.

When he told me the story, he said: ‘It might be considered as unfriendly if she were to discover the truth, but it was almost irresistible, as the joke was so obvious.’ And the story had a coda. A couple of days after this sharp exchange of views, he happened to pass the shop again, the lady came out and said – once more with a raised finger, but this time with a broad smile: ‘Now I’ve worked it out!’


Piet Hein’s model of complementarity. As colleagues of Niels Bohr said: It explained complementarity to Niels Bohr.

A man recently said to me that he was surprised that Piet Hein had not continued along the path of atomic physics. In the period when he was working at the Niels Bohr Institute he displayed quite unusual abilities, and he would have been an excellent scientist.
I told Piet Hein that, and he replied: ‘I actually think that could also have become an economist and a chess player too, but not at the same time. The same talents are involved, but they have to be channelled.’

And a little later he added:
‘I am probably some sort of specialist, but my speciality cuts across traditional subject boundaries which keep experts apart. That was why I gained much pleasure from the discussions in the international group of scientists which I called “Ten Wise Men – and Me”, for we dealt with the possibility of building bridges between the sciences. The interconnectedness of things has always been terribly important to me.’

For the same reason, he has been involved in many different scientific circles. He was once invited to take part in an international astronomical convention in Rome. On the programme was an audience with Pope Pius XII.
Before those at the convention, a group of Catholic pilgrims was admitted to the audience chamber, and Piet Hein came to be positioned so unfortunately that this cluster of enthusiastic pilgrims shoved him in the pope’s direction as they stormed towards the holy father. Piet Hein angrily broke free of them, and this must have surprised Pius XII a great deal, for he followed him to a window niche, where Pope and Piet had a brief conversation.

Afterwards, the others at the convention asked him: ‘How did it go? Did he get your autograph?’ Well, stranger things have happened. Once, at any rate, when Charlie Chaplin married off one of his beautiful daughters and held a wedding at his large house down by Lake Geneva, Piet Hein was invited. Sitting at dinner among an impressive array of celebrities from the world of art, he was approached by a well-groomed man who complimented him and spoke of the pleasure he had gained from reading the Hein Grooks in an English version (published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). When the man had returned to his seat, Piet Hein turned to his dinner partner and asked: ‘Who on earth was that charming person?’
‘Don’t you know?’, the lady exclaimed. ‘That is the film-actor James Mason.’ And the devil of repartee was there on Piet Hein’s shoulder, for he replied: ‘Well now, isn’t that grand? There are only world celebrities here – and I am the only person all of them know!’


I am convinced that his swift and sometimes biting repartee in actual fact has a defensive and not offensive purpose. It also ought always to be remembered that humour is something at which some people do not laugh, while others find existence impassable if not levelled and illuminated by something humorous.

G.K. Chesterton has dealt with this somewhere, and has testified that, with the best will in the world, he is unable to comprehend that a truth is any the less true because one attempts to express it in as amusing way as one can.

The Copenhagen Art Gallery held an exhibition with the title ‘Piet Hein in words and space’. There, Piet Hein met the director of a large Swedish business concern. The compliments which the Swede showered on him were well-meant, but difficult to respond to, especially the line:
‘When I have shaken the hand of such a famous man, I hardly feel I can wash afterwards.’ Piet Hein replied: ‘When you have done so, I will gladly shake hands with you again.’
I know many people who would use this exchange of remarks as evidence of Heinlike arrogance; so to them I dedicate the following account:
The Laboratory of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen once used Piet Hein as a guinea pig. They were looking at the highly different ways in which different people experience things and motion. The experiment was carried out with the aid of different-coloured discs that rotated at changing speeds. Those in the experiment were then to describe their experiences when looking at them.
Later, Piet Hein talked about this, saying with self-deprecating pride: ‘I was the one who experienced most. That was what the psychologists maintained, at any rate. And it is true that I experienced enough to fill nine sheets of paper in the scientific protocol that was written. The next-best only filled seven pages, and he even had to be fetched directly from Sankt Hans’ mental hospital and be taken back there immediately after the experiment!’


Being a loner is not for free. The cost includes a greater or lesser degree of loneliness, and many of those who find it easy to admire the work of the loner are unable to accept the prerequisites of the results achieved.

There was once a man of my acquaintance who, not without pride, told me that during a conversation with the ship owner A.P. Møller, he had happened to mention that it was precisely the decimal people that made great loners great. I asked him: ‘What did A.P. Møller reply to that?’
‘He smiled but did not say anything.’
‘No, precisely,’ I remarked, but my reply was lost on the decimal man.

Nor, when it comes to it, does the loner really have the right to be understood. He hardly expects to be, either. He has to find his satisfaction in his respectful relationship to his task. It is that, and nothing else, which is the boss. When Piet Hein advises us to be true to what we believe in, he speaks with authority, and he is able in full accordance with the truth to say about his own work: ‘I have always had all the difficulties included.’

Basically, it is precisely this aspect of the contribution of the artist and scientist that decimal people are unable to understand. To write is probably the loneliest job in the world. My great boss for more than twenty years, the American magazine innovator Henry R. Luce, who was a journalist with an insatiable demand for good quality, once said during one of our conversations:

‘Well, there’s the typewriter, and there’s the paper, and there are you – and no one on this earth can help you!’

Piet Hein has described the nature of art and its demands in masterly fashion, both when he stated in a Grook that the difference between writers is on the white paper between the blots, and when he drew our aroused attention to the fact that art is: the solution to assignments that cannot be precisely formulated before they have been solved.

You do not arrive at that sort of perception by choosing the line of least resistance or by seeking to become a popular man in a request programme. The task is boss, and the task is inexorable. But the true artist recognises that the difficulties are inevitable. As Piet Hein once put is in a speech to young craftsmen:
‘One must choose a material that can say no!’
This applies when he draws. It applies when he writes. No material is more intractable than language (and he does not make do with just one, but has managed to write poems in the world languages with eminent results). It naturally applies first and foremost when he wrestles with scientific problems, whether they are to do with the natural sciences (e.g. the superellipse) or the humanities.

Just as the person who has got a bit closer to the actual man (you don’t get any further than that!) realises that a host of emotions are raging behind that controlled exterior, one senses in his poetry a deep and constructive human understanding, also sympathetic understanding, behind the concise and lucid form. I have never caught him using a rhyme to help things out. Each word in his verse has a function and meaning – and is therefore indispensable.

But the danger involved in reading him is that one is so spellbound by the form that one becomes a bad, superficial reader. The important things are on the white paper between the blots.

Even some of the prominent intellectuals who have praised Piet Hein over the years have tended to a particular degree to concentrate on the amazing sense of form – and, heaven knows, it is formidable enough. But when the important Norwegian publisher and writer Henrik Groth stated that tenderness and love are just as important ingredients in Hein as wit, his characterisation managed to include everything.

With feminine intuition, Astrid Lindgren described Piet Hein as not only witty, worldly-wise and philosophical, and not only as a humorist, but also as a boundless lover of nature.

Here in Denmark, writers have apparently paid less attention to Piet Hein’s poetry, but then again, it is not amusing to have to see a fellow-countryman and colleague become world-famous. Furthermore, Piet Hein’s poetic life-work has become part of the Danish national heritage to such an extent that there is not really anything a critic can add.


The Student Association in Copenhagen made him an honorary member, as did the Association of Scientific Students and the Association for the Promotion of Inventions. The Association of Craftsmen in Copenhagen made him an Honorary Craftsman, and he also became an extraordinary member of The Royal Copenhagen Shooting Society and the Danish Brotherhood.

The Artists’ Association and the Friends of Limericks, both from Norway, also awarded Piet Hein honorary memberships. Over the years, an honorary doctor’s degree at Yale University, USA, has been one of many honorary awards.
No less an honour has been the fact that great, seeking minds have confided in him. He visited Albert Einstein in Princeton. He travelled round Ireland with Charlie Chaplin. He was advisor for the great thinker Norbert Wiener, who, in his book ‘God and Golem inc.’ (a title Piet Hein came up with), gave an account of the cognitive-theoretical factors of the science underlying computers.

And he also was closely acquainted with many other of the brilliant minds of the age. It is so beneficial to hear him speak of these great personalities now, because – naturally – all of them were extremely human.

During a visit to Einstein at his institute, a discussion began that would need some considerable time, so Einstein said:

‘Let up walk over to my place and have some tea and talk some more about this.’

‘Walk?’ said Piet Hein, adding: ‘I have a cab waiting outside.’

‘Oh, what a pity,’ Einstein exclaimed. ‘I had so looked forward to walking.’

Piet Hein objected that it was of course not impossible to walk, even though a cab was ready outside, but the great professor shook his mane of white hair.

‘It is a psychological impossibility,’ he said with a little smile.

Sadruddin Aga Khan invited Piet Hein to stay with him at Château de Bellerive down by Lake Geneva. I received a letter from there in which Piet Hein wrote:
‘There are vast numbers of Nubian servants here. And 5-6 cars at my disposal. I sleep every night on a cloud of pink candy floss. Everything reflected the culture of several continents. And actually took me a whole day to get used to all this luxuriousness!’

He had plans to bring together the Aga Khan and Chaplin, but this was not possible, as the prince was on a journey that took longer than expected. Piet Hein drove in one of the large cars over to the other side of Lake Geneva to eat dinner with Chaplin and his wife, Oona. It was a Tuesday, that day of the week when all the eighteen servants had their day off, so Oona and Chaplin prepared the meal themselves. At table, the talk was of the postponed meeting with the prince, and Chaplin said: ‘Oh well, I don’t really like being the guest of people who are very rich.’
Piet Hein raised his glass, saluted his host and said: ‘Just think, I don’t mind that at all!’
A reply can in itself be an entire story, and the anecdote is a telling illustration. What is central is that a message is got across.

When Albert Einstein, for example, once said to Piet Hein that imagination is more important than knowledge, he was raising something of the essence. He enlarged on his idea by saying: ‘Knowledge often assumes too narrow a form, and imagination is often right in thinking that there is something more, and that everything could be completely different.’

And Norbert Wiener precisely described the situation in which he had once found himself at a symposium. He said: ‘I felt like a lion in a den full of Daniels.’

The devil of repartee also suddenly appeared once when Sadruddin Aga Khan, after everyone was completely preoccupied with the fact that someone had sawn off the head of The Little Mermaid, asked those taking part in a foreign ministry lunch in Copenhagen if special measures had been adopted to ensure that the act of vandalism would not be repeated.
No one had an answer to this question, before Piet Hein said: ‘Probably not. After all, we have a vast supply of empty heads here in this country!’

The episode could suitably illustrate Hein’s own words:

‘I believe in the great moral value of saying the wrong thing at the right time!’

By the way, he has also told me about another situation when he practised this conviction. When fourteen, he was at a birthday party of a schoolfriend whose father, a scientist long since deceased, was a convinced anti-Semite. At the party table, the professor aired his unpleasant points of view, and when he paused for a moment, Piet Hein said:
‘I am one-sixteenth Jewish, by the way. Rumour has it that I have an illegitimate great-great-grandfather who was a Jew.’
There followed what Piet Hein himself has described as ‘the world’s second-longest silence’, upon which the professor stated his conviction with the words: ‘That is precisely the right fraction.’
Young Piet remarked in turn: ‘So you think, then, that my mother has too much.’
Nothing more (said Piet Hein, on recounting the story to me) was said at that dinner table.


And while we are talking about the family, we owe it to the Hein saga to mention the Dutch admiral Piet Hein, who in 1628 conquered what is referred to as ‘The Spanish Silver Fleet’ – a convoy laden with staggering riches that the arch-enemy of the Netherlands, Spain, had stolen in Mexico. When the naval hero returned home after this unique achievement, his mother’s first remark to him was: ‘Piet! Have you remembered to wipe your feet on the mat?’
For what use is it to an admiral that he has conquered a silver fleet if he dirties his mother’s carpet?
The story has therefore exerted a considerable influence on the entire family’s attitude to existence, and of even greater importance to our Piet Hein, the basic principle of the admiral was:
‘One must show one’s destiny that one does not relent – then it relents!’
From time to time, genealogists have claimed that admiral Piet Hein died childless.
‘There are, of course, limits for what one can demand of an ancestor,’ Piet Hein says now, ‘but one can expect in all modesty that he did not die childless. That would give one such an odd feeling!’
The old admiral was laid to rest in Het oude Kerk (the old church) in Delft. His sarcophagus lies in a marble temple positioned where the altar normally is in the church. Piet the Younger says:
‘Here he lies in marble on his back, on a marble mattress, and with his goatee beard he resembles me in the same way that a Q resembles an O!’


When I was recently talking to Piet Hein about his approaching birthday, he made what was for him a characteristic remark that he feels he has actually only just begun his life’s work and in actual fact has only managed to do one per cent of what he should.

It is such a statement that can cause me to doubt the fact that he has reached such an old age. Apart from his indefatigable thirst for knowledge and his unique ability to render thoughts intelligible and to formulate truths, he still has that youthful urge to experience things which makes each day a new, valuable experience – a new piece in the great puzzle.

He has said that he is actually a bit jealous of his Grooks (there are about 9,000 all told), because many people have thereby been distracted from the other things he has created. But here he need not worry. His philosophical works and his scientific contributions, along with his drawings and excellent talents as a designer, will continue to command respect and admiration.

But a Grook is so wonderfully easy to remember!

Deliberately – and with a considerable degree of calculated effort – I have refrained from quoting any of Piet Hein’s verse in this small mosaic of anecdotes. This is because, like a bad football player, I wanted to go for the man instead of the ball.

But one small verse of a poem has to be included, because it deals precisely with the young 80-year-old’s indefatigable ability to view life with eyes that are both new and experienced. It goes like this:

How bright, how clear
each day appears.
Each now is new,
if you are too.


In 1978, the Danish Foreign Ministry became aware of the pitiful lack of knowledge that existed in the world about Denmark. Among other things, a Gallup survey in England revealed than less than 16% had no idea that Denmark had any industry. The Foreign Ministry and the Industrial Council therefore asked Piet Hein to write a film about Denmark in the world, one that dealt in particular with industry.

For the opening scenes of the film Piet Hein designed his subsequently so famous ‘Denmark globe’, where Denmark fills almost one whole side of the globe, and a pendant, where Denmark is only a tiny dot on the European continent. The former can represent how Danes view their own importance in the world, the latter how other countries do. Or, as Piet Hein makes clear in the film, they show Denmark’s true size judged by various yardsticks: when it comes to raw materials, sources of power and things measured completely quantitatively we are small, but when it comes to processing raw materials, innovation and things measured qualitatively we are big.

Reproduced with kind permission from Birgit Meister/©Knud Meister.
ISBN: 87-418-7659-8
Forlaget Borgen.


Two of the great delights of my life have been knowing Piet Hein and enjoying the privilege of reporting on some of his mathematical creations when I wrote a monthly column on mathematical recreations for Scientific American.

My first contact with Piet Hein was by mail when I inquired about his now classic board game called Hex. My column on Hex ran in Scientific American's July 1957 issue and was later re-printed in the first book collection of columns, The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. The column stimulated many technical papers analyzing the game. It re-mains unsolved in the general sense that no one has yet discovered a strategy by which the second player can always win on boards larger than a very small size. There is a clever proof, formulated by the American game theorist John Nash (who in-dependently invented the game many years after it had become popular in Denmark) that the second player can always win. Unfortunately, the proof sheds no light on how he can win.

My second column about Piet Hein explained his take-away counter game called Bulo in Denmark. It uses a square array of sixteen counters. A player may on his turn remove any number of adjacent counters from any row or column. The person forced to take the last counter loses. The column ran in the February 1958 issue and is also included in the first book collection of columns. It has been shown that the second player can always win on the four-by-four board, but the game remains unsolved for larger square fields.

In 1957 Piet Hein marketed in Denmark a variant of Bulo that he named Nimbi. The rules are the same, but the board consists of twelve counters in an equilateral triangle array, with three corner counters missing. Avieri Fraenkel, an Israeli mathematician, and his associate Hans Herda, were able to show that the second player can force a win. Their proof was given in »Never Rush to judgment in Playing Nimbi«, a paper in Mathematics Magazine (January 1980, pages 21-26).

My next column about Piet Hein (September 1958) introduced American readers to his famous Soma Cube. First sold in Denmark, this puzzle consists of seven polycubes - pieces formed by joining unit cubes at their faces. The main task is to put them together to make a three-by-three cube. Like the seven flat polygons on the Oriental game of Tangrams, the seven Soma pieces will also form an endless variety of artistic shapes that resemble animals, furniture, and other familiar objects.

I was amazed by the interest my column on the Soma Cube aroused. Thousands of readers made their own Soma pieces by gluing small cubes together. Several Soma Cube sets went on sale in the United States, including a handsome wooden set ma-de by Parker Brothers, and sold with a pamphlet written by Piet Hein. For a while Parker Brothers issued a periodical devoted to new Soma figures created by Soma addicts.

John Conway, an eminent, British mathematician now at Princeton University, and his friend M.J.T. Guy, were the first to prove (and without a computer!) that the Soma pieces will form a cube in just 240 ways, not counting rotations and reflections. In Winning Ways (Volume 2, pages 802-03), by Conway, Elwyn Ber-lekamp, and Richard Guy (M.J.T.'s father) you will find Con-way's remarkable Somap. This is a complicated graph of 239 solutions of the cube, with lines connecting all pairs having the property that one can be changed to the other by shifting the positions of no more than three pieces. The 240th solution is an anomaly that doesn't fit on the graph.

Many imitations of the Soma Cube, have been made and sold around the world using different sets of polycubes. One version uses the original Soma pieces except that the cube has been squashed along a space diagonal. The distorted pieces will then form a cube in only one way. This is no improvement because the squashing eliminates so many ways the pieces will go together that the puzzle is easily solved. I wrote a second column on the Soma Cube (September 1972) that is reprinted in Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments. The earlier column can be found in The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions.

Piet Hein was again featured in a column on the mathematics of braiding (Scientific American, December 1959), reprinted in New Mathematical Diversions from Scientific American. The column discussed Piet Hein's game of Tangloids. He was at a meeting in Niels Bohr's Institute in the early thirties when he first heard of a topological curiosity known as »Paul Dirac's scissors«. It involves a pair of scissors attached by three cords to the back of a chair. It occurred to Piet Hein that a pleasant game results if two plaques are attached to each other by three strings. One player rotates his plaque several times to tangle the strings, then players take turns to see who can first untangle the resulting braid by moving their plaque through the cords without rotating it.

Piet Hein's marvelous superellipse was the topic of my September 1965 column, later included in Mathematical Carnival. The superellipse is a closed curve, generated by a simple formula, that is midway between a rectangle and an ellipse. As everyone in Denmark knows, the superellipse became the basis for Piet Hein's superegg, which balances precariously on one end, and a variety of attractive furniture made in Denmark and sold around the world, as well as superelliptical dishes, coasters, silverware, textile patterns, and other items. The superellipse became the pattern of Stockholm's center of underground shops and restaurants at the heart of the city.

An enormous stone superegg stands in front of a hotel in Princeton, New Jersey. The Schweppes Building, in Stamford, Connecticut, has the overall shape of a superellipse. A typeface called Melior - it meliorates between ellipse and rectangle - is based on the superellipse. You'll find it pictured in Douglas Hofstadter's Mathematical Themas.

In 1972 Gabriel Industries, an American toy company, marketed five unusual mechanical puzzles invented by Piet Hein. I described them at the end of a February 1973 column. Especially intriguing is Boxblox, a three-dimensional version of Sam Loyd's famous puzzle of fifteen sliding blocks inside a four-by-four box. Boxblox is a transparent plastic cube containing seven unit cubes, each with three black and three white sides. The task is to slide the little cubes by tilting the box until the interior structure (a cube with one missing corner) has sides that are all the same color, or that has other specified patterns that mix black and white.

Since I ceased writing the Mathematical Games column it has been difficult to keep track of Piet Hein s later inventions. I own his Denmark Globe on which Denmark is greatly enlarged to symbolize the worldwide importance of that nation. I have photographs of his amazing sundial that consists of a single tall piece of sculpture.

Needless to add, Piet Hein is not only one of the world's most ingenious inventors of puzzles and mathematical board games, he is also one of the world's finest writers of light verse. His many book collections of »grooks«, as he calls his verse form, have enjoyed enormous popularity in Denmark, as well as in English speaking countries. Piet Hein has given them superb English translations. A skillful artist, each grook is also charmingly illustrated by the author. Wall plaques with grooks and their pictures have been popular in Denmark and wherever English is understood. On my wall hangs one of my favorites:

Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

Another favorite grook:

We glibly talk
of nature's laws,
but do things have
a natural cause?

Black earth turned into
yellow crocus
is undiluted

Now for a few personal memories of Piet Hein s quick wit and sense of humor. I accompanied him one morning to a bank in the New York City suburb where I then lived. A male cashier had forgotten to remove his name from a window where Piet Hein wished to cash a check. A young woman was behind the window, but the name on the counter still read William Smith. Piet Hein greeted the cashier with »Good morning Mr. Smith«. The woman was startled and mystified until she realized Smith's name was still there.

When Piet Hein s beautiful wife Gerd was starring in a production of Tennessee Williams' American play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he asked me to send him a copy of the play in English. He reimbursed me with American currency, mentioning in the letter that he was enclosing a picture of his home in Copenhagen where I could stay if I visited him. I could find no such picture in the envelope. When I wrote him about this, he responded by saying he was referring to a picture of the huge Lincoln Memorial building on the back of our five-dollar bill!

Piet Hein's English is so excellent that he often indulges in whimsical on-the-spot puns. I recall taking him to an American restaurant where a waitress was responsible for carrying pop-overs, a type of roll, to each table. Piet Hein thanked her for »popping over« to our table. I think it was on this occasion that he said the mathematical concept of continuity is explained in Denmark by saying that between any two meals in that country there is always another meal.

Inventor, mathematician, philosopher, poet, artist, designer, Piet Hein is one of very few geniuses I have come to know personally as a friend. May he long flourish as one of his nation's unique national treasures. Denmark will never see anyone quite like him again.