The Friday Fillip: Chickens in the Air

Around my house we sometimes ask “Do chickens anticipate?”. This is a roundabout way of saying “No way,” of course. It’s one of a number of chicken questions that aim at the same thing, another being “Do chickens have lips?”. Or “Do chickens fly?”. But the answer to that last is, surprisingly, yes. Which fact makes the intro to this fillip somewhat plausible.

flying_chickenIt’s a fillip of four puzzlers, brain teasers — simple-seeming questions that have difficult or surprising answers. And the first has to do with a truckload of chickens:

  1. A truck transporting live chickens is overweight and will have to pay a road surtax. But as the truck is about to roll onto the weigh scale the driver bangs on the cabin wall and causes all the chickens to fly up into the air. Will that cause the truck and contents to weigh less?A plethora of answers can be found in comments to the puzzle question on this New Scientist website.


  2. This one’s known as the Monty Hall problem, because of he was the host of a TV show that asked contestants to elect to open this or that door and possibly win a prize. Here’s the classic question as originally posed by Steve Selvin in 1975:

    Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

    The answer, which is “yes,” is so counter intuitive that knowing the answer does nothing to relieve the puzzlement. It’s the explanations about probability that are important. And the best one I could find was this, from the BBC website.


  4. Here’s the setup to puzzler #3 from Roman Mars’ website 99% Invisible, which brings in body knowledge:

    If I asked you to close your eyes and mimic the action of using one of the simple human interfaces of everyday life, you could probably do it. Without having a button to push, you could close your eyes and pretend push a button, and that action would accurately reflect the action of pushing a real button[1]. The same goes for flipping a switch or turning a door knob. If you closed your eyes and faked the movement, it would sync up with its real world use.

    Now if I asked you to do the same with a car’s steering wheel, you’d think you’d be able to describe steering accurately and mime the correct movements with your hands in the air, but you’d be wrong. Very, very wrong. You’d probably kill a bunch of imaginary people.

    The explanation is in the transcript of a podcast on Mars’ site, as given by psychologist Steve Cloete.


  6. Number four is a classic — so much so that many of the statements of the problem are full of racist or otherwise objectionable language from an earlier time. The best version, then, is the one where the characters are a wolf, a goat, and some cabbages, originating in the eighth century. It goes like this:

    A traveller transporting a wolf, a goat, and some cabbages comes to a river that must be crossed by boat. The only boat available is one so small that it will cary only the traveller and one other object — either the cabbages, the goat, or the wolf. The difficulty, of course, is that left alone together, the wolf would eat the goat, and the goat would eat the cabbages. What is the minimum number of crossings the traveller must make in order to ferry all three objects safely to the far side of the river?

    The answer, along with some history and a whole host of complicated versions of the same puzzle idea, can be found on the Science News website.


  1. A real-life variation on your #4 involved a mother who had to decide which order they would swim from the rooftop of their submerged home (in Orleans?)… she might’ve had a teen who could swim, a toddler and a baby. (LSAT questions could be fashioned after real-life situations … the green bicycle traded for the blue hat, transforms to … )

  2. Simon, #2 figures prominently in Ian MacEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth – a great read, BTW, that explores the connection between literature, love, deception and of course, spying for the British secret service. (The novel details how MI5 recruited promising novelists as anti-communist propagandsits during the Cold War.) Here’s a link to a review: