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Monday, 2 October, 2000, 22:50 GMT 23:50 UK
The Eternity puzzle solved?
Eternity puzzle
Eternity redefined: It could be all over in 16 months
It was supposed to take four years to solve, but after little more than 12 months it seems someone may have cracked the Eternity puzzle, scooping 1m in prize money.

Computer experts and mathematicians are holding their breath.

This week, a challenge which has been puzzling them for 16 months could be declared officially over - leaving one of them to walk away with 1m prize money.

While some people may never have heard of the Eternity puzzle, it is a phenomenon which has, since its launch, been responsible for many an aching brain and overheated computer in the world of the fanatical problem-solver.

It appeals to anybody with a warped mind like mine

The Hon Christopher Monckton
The object of the puzzle is to put 209 irregular green plastic pieces together to fit a two-dimensional, 12-sided grid.

Each piece can sit 12 different ways; there are no pictures to offer guidance; and a maths professor has calculated the number of combinations for the way the pieces can be placed is a figure 621 digits long.

This mind-boggling task may seem too gargantuan to be worth attempting, but the generous prize offer appears to have been pulling in the punters.

The number of websites and the busy e-mail groups devoted to the subject is proof enough. And there is the fact that 250,000 puzzles (costing 29.99 each) have been sold.

The puzzle was devised by the Hon Christopher Monckton, a former special adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

If you thought the Rubik's Cube was hard, don't bother with Eternity
If you thought the Rubik's Cube was hard, don't bother with Eternity
He spent 14 years creating it, and believing it would take a long time to crack, offered 1m to anyone who got it right within four years.

But it now seems a winner will be found earlier than originally expected.

A handful of "solutions" were submitted by this year's annual closing date, 30 September.

Although Mr Monckton claims it would be impossible for a computer alone to crack the puzzle, he concedes that a combination of a specially-written solver program and human ingenuity could have already done the trick.

Among the "Eternity fraternity" - those who e-mail each other with theories and information about the puzzle - there is a strong belief that it has.

According to the 50/50 deal Mr Monckton struck with his insurers, Lloyd's, this means he could have to hand over 500,000.

'Eggheads and boffins'

He says that in turn he might have to sell his 19th century castle near Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, to foot the bill.

Nevertheless, he insists he will be "delighted" if a winner is announced this week, because a bigger, better Eternity II is already in the pipeline

"It's very likely we will have a winner. I couldn't have made it unsolvable, as that wouldn't have been legal," he said.

Man using computer in internet cafe
"Hold on, just making my last few calculations"
"I'm not disappointed, as the success has been enormous. I think it appeals to anybody with a warped mind like mine, anybody who likes a challenge - everybody from eggheads and boffins to grannies with no maths knowledge and children.

"It's been very successful in all the countries where it's been sold, including South Africa, Australia and even Turkey.

"They didn't want it in the United States, which I'm sad about. But when they see just how well this one has done, we hope they will go for Eternity II with more pieces and a larger prize."

David Eddy, who describes himself as a computer expert and mathematician, said he was waiting with "bated breath" for news of a possible winner.

"The concept of the puzzle is beautifully simple. The challenge is ideally suited to writing a computer program to solve it, and this is my chief hobby," he said.

"I have been working on it since February, but have still not launched an all-out attack by actually writing a solving program.

"Instead, I have been fascinated by the great variety of interesting problems of theory that it throws up."

'Not interested'

But not everyone is so impressed.

Computer programmer John Gibson says: "To solve it, you would need lots of computers running in parallel, and the cost of doing that would be greater than the prize money.

"I've never been that interested in the puzzle. I think it's an amusing way of raising money, and I'm sure it's done quite well.

"But I wouldn't want to put a lot of effort into it at the expense of doing my real work which pays me some money."

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