The mathematics of Sudoku, a puzzle that boasts "No math required!"
A few years ago, if you had noticed someone filling in a crossword
puzzle with numbers instead of letters, you might well have looked
askance. Today you would know that the puzzle is not a crossword but
a Sudoku. The craze has circled the globe. It's in the newspaper,
the bookstore, the supermarket checkout line; Web sites offer
puzzles on demand; you can even play it on your cell phone.
Just in case this column might fall into the hands of the last
person in North America who hasn't seen a Sudoku, an example is
given on the opposite page. The standard puzzle grid has 81 cells,
organized into nine rows and nine columns and also marked off into
nine three-by-three blocks. Some of the cells are already filled in
with numbers called givens. The aim is to complete the grid
in such a way that every row, every column and every block has
exactly one instance of each number from 1 to 9. A well-formed
puzzle has one and only one solution.
The instructions that accompany Sudoku often reassure the number-shy
solver that "No mathematics is required." What this really
means is that no arithmetic is required. You don't have to
add up columns of figures; you don't even have to count. As a matter
of fact, the symbols in the grid need not be numbers at all; letters
or colors or fruits would do as well. In this sense it's true that
solving the puzzle is not a test of skill in arithmetic. On the
other hand, if we look into Sudoku a little more deeply, we may well
find some mathematical ideas lurking in the background.