Listen With Others

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Listener No 4497, Catechism: A Setter’s Blog by tnap

Posted by Listen With Others on 29 April 2018

I’d been wondering for some time about using the theory of special relativity as a Listener theme. As a mathematician, I had a good working knowledge of the theory and its implications, but I was concerned that general solvers might not be sufficiently aware of the ideas. However, after some discussions with some very non-scientific colleagues (and also my English graduate wife), I was finally convinced that Einstein, “something to do with going very fast” and in particular E=mc² were sufficiently well known. The Wikipedia entry for special relativity lists some of its consequences with links to separate entries on length contraction and time dilation, so I thought I could do something with removing L’s (contraction = becoming less) and adding T’s (dilation = spreading out).

Once I finally found a few hours with not much else to do, I started by looking for words for which E=MCC would be a viable substitution. C²=CC at least had the benefit of being algebraically correct, and I hoped that solvers would accept that I had few options for implementing that part of the theme. Obviously the substitution could not be a direct one so some letter jumbling would be required. My search for words containing MCC which when replaced by E gave a jumble of a real word revealed 12 options.

Albert Einstein was not an atheist, preferring as I understand it the term ‘agnostic’, and many scientists do hold religious beliefs. However, modern scientific thought has encouraged a trend towards atheism. Hence I was struck by the transformation of CATECHISM into ATHEISE, and the idea that special relativity and E=mc² had a part to play in atheising Christian teaching. So there was my title!

My first thought with the T’s and L’s was that there were real words where T could be replaced by TT and LL by L. Unfortunately most of these ended up being the same word, albeit with an alternate spelling. If I was going to do something with not-real words, then I’d need to be a bit more extreme, so I looked at T becoming TTT and LLL becoming L. Clearly there were lots of options for the former, and I managed to find 28 words with 3 consecutive L’s.

Finally, I needed something to hint at the theme. Looking up Einstein in my venerable edition of ODQ gave the quotation “Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht” in German with the English translation “God is subtle but he is not malicious”. I thought this tied in perfectly with the theme and the religious connotation of the title, and with 45 letters in the quotation it would fit easily with reading off one letter from each clue of a normally sized grid. It was only after getting the vetters’ comments that I realised that more recent editions of ODQ only had the quotation in English, so I must apologise to those who struggled to find it.

All of this had only taken me a couple of hours, so I was feeling pretty confident of putting it all together. My first idea was that the words SPECIAL and RELATIVITY would be unclued entries. However, after a few attempts, I thought that there would be too many unchecked letters, so I abandoned that idea, and went for a straightforward 45-entry grid with 4 each of the 3 thematic entry types. As it happened, I ended up with SPECIAL still in the grid, but I needed to clue it normally to complete the quotation. I thought it might provide a useful extra (albeit unannounced) hint at the theme.

The clue writing is for me the laborious bit. My first decision was how to indicate the letters that I would need for the quotation, and as most regular solvers will know there are quite a few choices for this. Thinking back over previous Listeners, there had at that time been quite a few with misprints in the definition or with extra/missing letters in the wordplay; however, I couldn’t recall any of the ‘misprint anywhere in the clue’ type, so I went for that option. I appreciated that my choice could make solving the clues a bit more challenging than usual, but I certainly wasn’t deliberately trying to be obscure. Looking back on the clues now, I can see that they were a bit on the hard side. I tend write one or two clues at a time whenever I get a spare moment, and then keep coming back to the clues to see if they still read well and make sense. As a result the whole process took about 2 months. Once I was satisfied, I sent the whole package off to the Listener team in April 2017.

Catechism was my second Listener submission, so I had some idea about what to expect from the vetting. When I got the vetters’ comments back on 22nd February, I was pleased to see that I’d graduated to a ‘good set’ of clues, although there were still quite a few suggestions for changes and improvements. Roger was concerned about underchecking on two 5-letter words, but had very helpfully suggested possible alterations to the grid to turn them into 6-letter words – wonderful! With a suggested publication date in April, there was then a flurry of clue-writing and rewriting activity to get everything ready for the publishing deadline of 1st March. A big thank you to Roger and Shane for all their hard work.

I must also thank all those who submitted comments with their solution. It is very gratifying that most, although not all, of you seemed to have enjoyed Catechism. A few people didn’t seem to have quite understood the time dilation part of the theme, although it seems like most got the E=MCC bit. The ‘Shape of ovals…’ clue, 29dn, seemed to be one of your favourites; sadly I cannot claim ownership as it was one of Roger’s suggested amendments that I also particularly liked.


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