The Moldy Square Grid

This puzzle is part of the Monthly Topic Challenge #14: Think inside the (very small) box!.

What is in the middle space?

Hint:

The answer can be easily "read off" without computer assistance or special knowledge.
However, for the diehard puzzling enthusiasts, yes there is an optional secret message/hint hidden in the pixel ornamentation (THE extra dots and bars on the tAll nodes).

Hint 2:

Although the question only asks about the middle one, each space holds a word. There is no cipher used, unless you are looking for a very helpful hint, in which case you should consult Samuel.

Hint 3:

Seem hard? Reread everything. The way forward is hiding in plain sight. Also, web adventurer had the right idea to count things but I am not sure why they only counted some of the nodes.

Hint 4:

The specifically worded question is very important to solving this. If you know the length, you can answer the question. And probably even if you don't.

• A red question mark. Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 4:45
• rot13(Vf vg whfg pbvapvqrapr gung rnpu fdhner vf N-V va n cvtcra pvcure?) Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 15:08
• Not sure if it's even useful, but here is a version of the image where each cell is exactly one pixel - Maybe for image manipulation purposes for the optional hint Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 8:50
• @Mesentery When you find the answer, it will be undoubtedly correct and clearly the answer to the puzzle. If you are uncertain, then it's not it.
– Amoz
Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 20:08
• Don't suppose it's too early for a hint? Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 20:14

What is in the middle space?

The Sun

How did I figure that out?

Because of how many cipher puzzles I've done, the first thing I thought of upon seeing the puzzle was:
- Each grid cell contains a word
- Because the two or more mold patterns in each cell have the same number of humps, that number of humps must be the number of letters in the word
- Because the tall humps are in the same positions in the corresponding mold of every pair of adjacent cells, those tall humps must correspond to letters which are shared between the two words. So, the answer must be nine words which have those particular letters in common between adjacent pairs of words.

It was not until several months later that I looked at the word "space" in the question and finally figured out what it says, starting by placing "SUN" above "SATURN". I hope this illustration shows what is going on:

If I were a different kind of puzzler, I might have put the word lengths in order going clockwise and recognized them: 7, 5, 5, 4, 7, 6, 6, 7. I didn't even notice they were in order until I had placed all of the names! I'll feel a bit of shame on behalf of everyone that we didn't get this one sooner.

• Well done! So "something something" really meant "mouldy square". ;) Commented Jan 3 at 9:08
• "Oh no, not again! – Amoz" 🤣🤣🤣 Commented Jan 3 at 9:10
• ^ Ah, now everything makes sense! Here, throw my shame into the mix for that final comment in your post...
– Stiv
Commented Jan 3 at 9:17
• @msh210: Do you mean the different shapes at the tips? They form a hint, but are not important to the solution itself, which only distinguishes between small and large "nodes". Commented Jan 3 at 11:27
• 'not again' was actually referring to puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/122385/… which also followed this one; I saw the gimmick for both puzzles immediately but dared not answer either (although I had an argument for "Straw"). Great work! I have an unofficial bounty for anyone solving one of my long outstanding puzzles, so that should be coming your way.
– Amoz
Commented Jan 3 at 14:23