I did a little problem-solving in my tutorial yesterday. Or rather, I got my student, Akihiro, to do a little problem-solving. I asked him to join nine circles in the form of a square with as few straight lines as possible (five is easy, four is excellent, three is cheating but resourceful), and to find a way to work out which of three identical light switches controls a bulb in the attic of a house, when you cannot see the bulb in question and when you can only look once to see if it is on or off (problem in full here).
It was all in the interests of lateral-thinking, of course. Akihiro had been at the weekend to the Science Museum in London, the Whipple Museum of Science in Cambridge, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science, and the Museum of Technology. Quite a haul. He saw functioning models of steam engines, actual steam engines, an experimental apparatus which belonged to the eminent James Clark Maxwell, bits and pieces of Darwin paraphernalia, and much besides. I am surprised he can remember any of it.
At some point in the he plans to go the Wren Library and examine Newton’s own copy of the Principia. And then he will be done.
For the record, however, he was baffled by both puzzles. Perhaps there’s too much raw information going around in his head just at the moment – not just museum data, either: language learning so often presents itself as a problem-solving exercise. And Akihiro is an engineer by trade, so perhaps he is taking a bit of a holiday from brain-teasers.
It took, I suppose, a similar sequence of problem-solving to get from the first powered flight, say, to the International Space Station. It is an invisible and forgotten constant in our skies at the moment, so here is a reminder of its extraordinary presence.