SUNDAY PUZZLE — Our constructor today, Victor Barocas, is a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and (per Will Shortz’s print introduction) an author of more than 100 works in this future-looking field. It’s safe to say that Mr. Barocas is a thinker of Big Thoughts, which also jibes with his becoming a familiar and popular Big Sunday byline — this is his sixth consecutive Sunday. Today’s puzzle has a slight mutation, coincidentally, and is a little bit Bigger — it’s a column wider than normal, 22 X 21, to better fit a Really Big Theme.
As an English major from the 20th century, I was dazzled by how gracefully this theme wove its way through the fabric of the puzzle. But it’s a tough solve! This is definitely a grid for which crowdsourcing is warranted, a bit of cross-pollination among all of our strengths, if you will. And it’s worth doing what it takes to reach this puzzle’s very satisfying conclusion.
It took so many words for me to explain the theme today that I’ll keep this section short, even though the fill in this grid was really fun and chewy over all. Also, if you’re not in on the theme yet, and are scratching your head over certain entries that you cannot make heads or tails of, peek at the next section because the theme is widespread, is well concealed and creates several entries that look positively dysfunctional, until you get it.
It’s possible that the theme led Mr. Barocas to throw in a lot of kind of couply entries — you know, like REFI and REPO, or STOAT and STOLES — terms that would recall each other a bit while solving. Maybe it’s just me, going over everything after the fact. I did make a note of TIRANE and IRANIAN, SEAPLANE and SEALANT, and SWEENEY and SOO. You might have noticed others.
59A: This was a key spot for me, as I wavered between “petal” and SEPAL at 48D and know nothing about biplanes beyond Snoopy’s imaginary air battles. The French and Americans flew a plane known as a SPAD — pretty common fill in Times crosswords of the 20th century, but more recently quite rare.
93A: This is the bottom of a squarish area in this grid that’s free of theme, barring the revealer, but I got very stubborn with “encases,” thinking of sausage, and it kept me from figuring out some other stuff for a while. The term here is ENCYSTS, which ran once before in a puzzle back in 1985.
113A: Gruesome libations, cysts and podiatric fungus, all clinically presented: Science! This is a debut, but it’s often advertised, so with a couple of crosses, LOTRIMIN is within reach to most of us, I imagine. Then again, there are lots and lots of advertised drugs.
8D: I hope mention of Mike and Carol Brady still reminds people of the Bunch! I had “co” instead of TV in TV PARENTS, which is a debut.
29D: A lychee and a cherry, folks — that’s all it takes to make a very tasty and convincing fruit punch EYEBALL.
56D: This is probably my favorite self-contained (encysted?) wordplay of the day, as I was tickled by the vehicular misdirect (as high as my car insurance is, I often wonder what happens to people after a couple of fender-benders). Crashes happen onscreen, too, all the time, which is why a lot of programs have tacitly acknowledged their inevitability by adding an AUTOSAVE feature. I still manage to lose work, though! Can’t always undo those DELETES!
The theme for this “Biotechnology” puzzle takes a bit of unraveling, but that’s completely suitable.
First of all, you will notice four sets of four bubbles in today’s grid, one in each corner, running diagonally — an unusual configuration. There’s also a scattering of eight entries, running both across and down, that are simply clued with a “—”. They’re at 29A and 29D, 32A and 32D, 117A and 117D, and 120A and 120D. A pass through the grid will indicate to you that the clue numbers for those entries all correspond to the lowest bubbled letter in each quadrant. In other words, those entries start at the end, the bottom step of those four bubbles running downstairs.
But wait! There’s another set of scattered clues to worry about, these seemingly straightforward, that end at the start of those bubbled sequences. Look at 4D and 24A, 14D and 24A, 57D and 98A, and 84D and 101A. Notice how each of them shares a last letter, and that it’s the first circled letter in that corner?
If you haven’t gotten the full theme yet, I would be amazed if any of those entries made a lick of sense. That’s a lot of real estate, even on a bigger grid, and it also means that the first and last bubbles of every set of bubbles are hard to figure out. What I had, at one point, seemed to be suggestive — a lot of matching “E”s in the second spots and “N”s in the third spots — but inconclusive.
So thank goodness for the revealer in the center at 71A! It’s not the type of revealer that flings open the door to realization, or at least it wasn’t for me. But it does provide entry to the lobby of this grid, I guess you would say. Figuring it out prepares us to move forward, at least, although there are still choices to be made and more doors to unlock. Fortunately, the clue for the revealer isn’t too hard, and, fortunately, it’s crossed by normal fill, nothing to do with the theme, so it’s deducible. “Biological manipulation suggested four times by this puzzle” is GENE SPLICING.
This clue strongly recommended that G-E-N-E be the letters in each set of bubbled letters. So I did that, and that was the trick for slowly (very slowly) awakening to the function of all of those “—”s and impenetrable clues that also run through those bubbled letters.
You see, there are four pairs of theme entries, one for each corner. In each case, one entry runs down — through diagonal G-E-N-E — and down; one runs across — through diagonal G-E-N-E — and across. For example, let’s look at the northwest corner.
There are FOUR entries at play here: 24A and 4D, and 39A and 39D. For each pair, you’ve got a real clue to work with, and a dash (which indicates, I believe, a continuation).
First we have 24A: “Wildflower with spiky, purplish blooms.” With crosses, you can see that this short entry, four letters, reads H-E-D-G. Follow the G down the stairs of E-N-E (in GENE); then continue at 39A, which lacks a clue, to get E-T-T-L-E: HEDGE NETTLE. Yes, it’s a thing, a common wildflower (which, to some, probably means weed). It’s often advertised as “Dead nettle,” and also goes by its Latin name, Stachys. I’m a plant buff, and this entry was new to me (and it’s a debut), but it’s a compound of two common words, so it seems fair enough.
Second, let’s look at 4D: “As a rule,” given only three letters (and knowing the last one is G). This was actually one of the few theme entries that gave me confidence. At the beginning of the solve, I had misentered “reno” for REFI at 1A, but knowing the presence and location of the G-E-N-E turned me in the right direction, so I tried I-N-G here. You have to share those bubbles with the across themer; I-N-G goes down and to the right — I-N-G-E-N-E — and ends at the unclued 39D. What could it be? IN GENERAL: You have ING at 4D, ERAL at 39D and GENE splicing those two word segments into a common phrase.
So that’s the gist. If you can see it — HEDGE NETTLE running across and IN GENERAL running down, sharing those four bubbled letters — you’re good.
All of the other pairs are challenging, with debuts galore. The other entries at the top of the page are very academic, both debuts, although drawn from history and drama rather than science.
26A and 42A; 14D and 42D
PLANTAGENETS; EUGENE IONESCO
The southwest corner has a side that was very helpful to me, the “Remarkable ability of a starfish.” I was pretty sure what that answer had to be, and was right. The other entry is also relevant to my profession, but only in hindsight, as it took me a while to put “Big story” together.
98A and 117A; 57D and 117D
REGENERATION; FRONT PAGE NEWS
Finally, half of the southeast corner might be accessible if you’re a car person, and the other half is a term we all probably know, more basic science.
101A and 120A; 84D and 120D
HOMOGENEITY; DODGE NEON
Occasionally, I’m sorry for the people solving electronically, because they don’t end up with a forensic record of their struggles (erasures and scribbles) and because they don’t get a grid to further scribble on when there is an interesting visual effect present. After I read Mr. Barocas’s notes, I ran a highlighter through each theme answer and was delighted to find what clearly resembles a chromosome to me — with that diagonal G-E-N-E the shared middle region (the centromere, don’t ya know), which is perfectly fitting, and the tail ends of each theme entry trailing off in four directions. To be perfectly honest, I would dissolve into various phosphates and sugars if prevailed upon to explain the actual splicing of genes, but we know what splicing is, basically: mingling pieces from different sources in a continuous line, like film. Oh, and like these theme entries.
Mr. Barocas is operating on a deeper level, as he refers to the double helix that makes up DNA, the building block of life, which consists of two pairs of chemicals whose varied arrangements create myriad genetic traits by lining up sequentially on genes, which then form chromosomes. There’s evidence online that Mr. Barocas has a scientific interest in these different scales of existence. Heavy stuff!
This idea took a long time and a lot of false starts before it became the thing solvers saw. The big break was when Will Shortz allowed me to expand it to 22 columns, which both gave me more maneuvering room for my space-intensive theme and let me put the revealer in the middle, which fit a lot better than in the lower right, where I had tried to put it initially. Thanks to Will for giving me that opportunity, which led to a much better puzzle. I was really happy with the visual of the theme, which reminded me of images of the DNA double helix. In case anyone cares, my favorite clue was probably “It doesn’t need land to land” for SEAPLANE. I hope that everyone enjoyed solving the puzzle as much as I liked making it.
I’ll let myself digress a little bit about the clue for LOLA (“The ‘she’ in the lyric ‘She would merengue and do the cha-cha’”). I love “Copacabana” (who doesn’t?), but that’s not the point. I had a friend some years ago who was a high school Latin teacher and hated (both regular and Latin) quiz bowl because it encourages factual knowledge over understanding. At one point, he commented to me that the literature questions are usually not about literature, but they are what he called “about about literature.” That is, you learn the answers to them by reading a book about literature rather than by reading literature. That comment inspired me to try to write clues that, say, reward the solver for listening to the song rather than for learning that LOLA is the showgirl in the song. Not that there are a lot of people cramming from their Barry Manilow study guides, but you get the idea.