December 20, 2005
Su Doku sidetrack
Sorry, this is going to be horribly off-topic. (What do you expect? It's a blog.)
But, like the rest of the world, I have been caught up in the Su Doku craze. (If you are the last person who hasn't, here is the Wikipedia entry.)
The thing I enjoy most about them is their clarity and simplicity. There are about three Su Doku-solving techniques that you need to learn or pick up for yourself. After that, as long as you apply them systematically, even the 'fiendish' ones they publish in the Times unravel eventually. (The 'killer' ones without any numbers at all in the grid are a different matter all together.)
You are not proving anything by solving a Su Doku (as opposed to crosswords where you prove your powers of lateral thinking, general knowledge and vocabulary by finishing a puzzle). You are simply enjoying the slow and inevitable countdown to a solution.
Su Doku publishers have done their best to highlight this selling point. Many puzzles in the US are apparently published next to the slogan "No math required".
That is not the same thing as "no math involved". The American Scientist has just published a fascinating article by Brian Hayes titled Unwed Numbers: The mathematics of Sudoku. It describes how mathematicians around the world are finding extra levels of interest in the humble Su Doku. I am no mathematician so you will have to read it for yourself to find out exactly what they are doing.
What they are not doing is creating a different level of Su Doku puzzle for clever people. The mathematicians seem to be enjoying the simplicity of them like anyone else. They are working out exactly what sort of puzzles they are, how to classify them, what happens if you add more squares, what happens if you take some away. The essential clarity of the puzzles is left untouched.
One downside to that clarity is that you know that a computer will always be able to beat you hands down. As Brian Hayes says:
...competing against a computer in Sudoku is never going to be much fun. Does that ruin the puzzle for the rest of us? In moments of frustration, when I'm struggling with a recalcitrant diabolical, the thought that the machine across the room could instantly sweep away all my cobwebs of logic is indeed dispiriting. I begin to wonder whether this cross-correlation of columns, rows and blocks is a fit task for the human mind. But when I do make a breakthrough, I take more pleasure in my success than the computer would.
His article also clears up the misconception that Su Doku puzzles are Japanese. Publishers like The Times have made a lot of the puzzles' alleged Far Eastern origin, giving them a kind of Zen aura. But it turns out the first one was designed by Howard Garns, an architect from Indianapolis who died in 1989.
Posted by aheavens at December 20, 2005 8:09 AM