The Master Theorem: "members-only society of solvers"


Allison Kade says:

I'm not really sure what "normal" people do on Wednesday nights at midnight: Sleep? Have sex? Or, race against fellow nerds to earn point bonuses for solving online puzzles? When I say puzzle, I don't mean Sudoku or crosswords, but more James Bondian code-breaking fare at a website called The Master Theorem, a "members-only society of solvers."

Every week, there's a new puzzle, called a Theorem, on TMT (as devotees refer to The Master Theorem). To join, prospective members need to solve a given Theorem or be invited by a current member. The society is run by a mysterious figure known only as M, whom you can think of as a geeky version of Charlie from Charlie's Angels.

I first became involved with TMT back when I was an undergrad at Columbia. As a nerdy girl dreaming of secret societies that cared only about matters of the mind, it was paradise. TMT had it all: cryptic flyers with only a puzzle and a deadline. Induction ceremonies that involved approaching people hiding behind newspapers and nonchalantly telling them passphrases. An all-night puzzle hunt during which teams built bona fide devices out of breadboards and wires by following blueprints handed to them by "agents" stationed around campus.

So I'm sure you can imagine my glee when, years after exiting the ivory tower, M tapped me, my compatriot Shaun Salzberg, and a couple other senior members to help him launch TMT as a website. In his words, "We had a Dead Poets Society sort of thing going on for a while, but I don't make a great Robin Williams. For starters, I'm decidedly more badass." The new website, which launched just a month or two ago, is open to anyone with the perseverance to crack one of M's Theorems.

Once beyond the virtual curtain, members compete to solve additional mini-puzzles hidden throughout the website. In turn, they earn Seals, which are like web 2.0 badges. All the scores are ranked on an old-school high score list, with bonuses for solving each week's Theorem quickly. The new Theorem always goes up at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday, so a real web community has grown to wait up and see who can solve it first. The puzzles may seem a bit obscure in the beginning, but it's easy to catch on to M's style of puzzle-writing soon enough (and the help page has tips in the meantime).

The Master Theorem