March 16, 2006

C.U. Prof Solves Sudoku

Print More

Cornell’s own physicist, Prof. Veit Elser, has discovered the algorithm that solves all Sudoku puzzles within a matter of seconds. The solver invokes the use of a difference map, which breaks apart the puzzle into two constraints. Such an algorithm can be applied to solve problems in various fields of biology physics such as diffraction microscopy, protein folding and X-ray crystallography.

Elser, who has been working at Cornell since 1988 and performing diffraction microscopy research for the past few years, stumbled on the Sudoku puzzle in the Ithaca Journal one Saturday afternoon during Thanksgiving break. Previously, he had heard of Sudoku puzzles but had not tried to solve one.

“I thought there’s something to these puzzles that deserves my serious attention. They are not the frivolous entertainment I thought them to be,” Elser said.

Within half an hour, Elser was able to transform his imagining software used for his diffraction microscopy research into a Sudoku solver.

But it hasn’t stopped there. Since then, Elser has been experimenting with various forms of the solver and composing puzzles.

“Solving [the Sudoku puzzles] is only half the challenge,” he said.

In addition, Elser’s graduate research assistants, who are part of the Elser Group – a research group established several years under Elser’s advising – have also expressed interest.

Pierre Thibault grad, a member of the Elser Group, wrote his own version of the solver. There are also plans to make the solver accessible to everyone online, which Thibault is currently working on.

The algorithm can not only solve puzzles of any size but can be applied to his research in microscopy and has potential applications for cryptography and determining the structure of protein molecules; these applications are being overlooked, according to Elser.

Elser, who claims that the Sudoku puzzle was never supposed to be the focus of any of his research, is nonetheless reaping its unexpected benefits.

“This was never something I set out to do,” said Elser, but he welcomes the many unexpected emails he has gotten from people all around the world attempting to create their own version of the solver.

“I’m still getting more and more surprised by [the publicity it’s gotten],” Thibault said.

Ivan Rankenburg grad, the third member of the Elser Group, said that once the press was told, the publicity was expected.

“Sudoku is very popular in this country and in others,” Rankenburg said.

Still, he did not expect this to become as large of a project as it has developed into.

“It was just entertainment then,” he said, adding that it all started for him with a bunch of Sudoku puzzle books he received for Christmas.

But despite the perks, Elser has concerns that his other research, of which the Sudoku puzle solver has been an accidental by-product, has not gotten any of the attention it deserves.

“It’s frustrating,” Elser said. He describes his other discoveries as a “silent victory.”

“It may be annoying that it’s harder to publicize something that’s more scientifically relevant but less accessible to the public,” Thibault said.

If nothing else, this research has bridged the gap between the common man and the academic elite. Elser fully intends to make full use of the connection, recruiting more graduate students for his research by using the Sudoku solver pitch.

“I now have a nice way of explaining to the man on the street what it is that I do. I no longer have to use words like Fourier Transform,” Elser said.

Archived article by Nadia Chernyak
Sun Contributor