Piet Hein(1905) was an exceptionally gifted Danish thinker. It is not easy to classify him in any particular profession, as his achievements spread over many disciplines. The descendant of a famous Dutch naval hero of the 17th century, Piet Hein was a scientist, inventor, poet, author as well as a mathematician.
Piet Hein was a student at the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (later renamed the Niels Bohrs Institute). While at the university, he attended the lectures of Werner Heisenberg, an award winning physicist who was famous for his Uncertainty Principle. Hein conceived the idea of the Soma Cube during one of these lectures. Several years later, he joined Technical University of Denmark to study engineering, while at the same time creating industrial inventions. Piet Hein also received an honorary doctorate in 1972.
Piet Hein was respected as a scientist, not just because of his academic qualifications, but also due to his friendship with Albert Einstein, and his recognition by the mathematician Norbert Weiner, who dedicated a book to him. He is acclaimed as the creator of popular games such as the Soma Cube, Hex, Morra, Polytaire, TacTix, Qrazy Qube, Soma Cube and Pyramystery. In addition, Piet Hein came up with a new geometrical form, the super ellipse. Though it is one of the least known geometric figures, it has some novel features which are quite interesting. One could think of it as a circle inside a square, which is inflated to fill the square. These inflated circles resemble super circles, only being limited by the square. In the same way, inflating an ellipse inside a rectangle creates a super ellipse. These flattened curves were very common in the 1960s and 1970s, though they are rarely used nowadays.
As an artist and constructor in the 50s and 60s, Piet Hein used the super ellipse concept to create beautiful pieces of furniture, and he played a key part in making the ‘Scandinavian Design' an international concept. He also advocated the use of the super ellipse curve in city planning.
When German forces invaded Denmark during the Second World War, Piet Hein, who was an anti-Nazi union leader, was forced to go into hiding. It was while in hiding that he started writing short poems, otherwise known as Grooks (Gruk in Danish). These were published in a Danish daily, under the pen name Kumbel. Many of the poems were political in nature and contained subtle references to his anti-Nazi stance. Piet Hein went on to write thousand and thousands of poems, and even learnt several other languages so as to translate them himself.
It can be concluded that Piet Hein was neither a scientist nor an artist, but a combination of the two. His creations show that he was always attempting to reconcile the ‘hard' technical and natural sciences and the ‘soft' humanistic disciplines. After living a productive life and spending years in other countries, he passed away in his home on Funen, Denmark in 1996.
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