Dr James Wootton


Don’t know what to do with your grandparents this Christmas? Let me use their brain for science!

A gift idea for parents and grandparents. Don’t worry. They might even enjoy it!

The computers that we have in our lives are immensely powerful. At any other time in human history, the computational power of a simple smartphone would have been enough to start a worldwide revolution in science. But now they mostly just sit in our pockets, and occasionally simulate the sound of a fart.

One way to make our computers more useful is by taking part in a distributed computing project. These take big problems that need a lot of computing power, split them up into little chunks and send these off to be processed by the idle home computers of anyone who signs up.

Another awesome computational device we have is our brain. We can do a lot with the mushy mess of neurons between our ears. But sometimes we just need to keep it busy not thinking about stressful stuff. And so we fill it with TV. Or playing sport. Or Super Mario Run. Or Sudoku.

It’s always nice when these activities do something useful. It’s not clear exactly what useful stuff Super Mario Run does, but Sudoku seems like it should be doing something. It’s a puzzle based on a grid of numbers. It’s maths. And maths is useful, despite what your experience at school might tell you.

The trouble is that the puzzle in Sudoku doesn’t actually correspond to any useful problem in the world. Doing Sudoku won’t magically get your finances in order, or help cure cancer. It keeps you busy, and might keep you clever. But not much else.

This is a bit of a shame. Imagine how many hours of human effort every day go into solving the Sudoku problems in the newspapers. And the crosswords. And all the other useful seeming and yet ultimately useless teasers of brains.

What if we could change this? What we could make a distributed computing project for brains? So when we want to keep ourselves from reflecting upon the absurdity of existence, we could give them a fun task that actually helps science.

This has actually been done! Starting with Galaxy Zoo and moving on to Zooniverse you can use your brain to classify images of galaxies, penguins and even aardwolves (whatever they are).

But classifying pictures, as fun as it may be, does not appeal to all. What about the many people obsessed with puzzles like Sudoku? The people who obsessively do the ones in newspapers, and then go and buy big books full of them? Can we harness their brains for science?

That’s what I’m trying to do with a project I call Decodoku. We take an actual problem from quantum mechanics, namely the design of decoding algorithms for quantum error correction. We then strip out all the complicated seeming stuff until we’re left with a straightforward puzzle based on a grid of numbers. Just like Sudoku.

The numbers come in groups that add up to a multiple of 10. Work out what’s in the ? squares. That’s all there is too it!

So if you want to give your puzzle loving relatives a new challenge for Christmas, give them the free book I made. You can download it here (did I mention it was free?), and then turn it into a pile of paper and ink using the usual methods (not free).

To help science, those who solve the puzzles just need to give us a few tips on how it should be done. If they help out before the end of the year, they could even win a prize in our competition.

So there you go. A present for some of your relatives. It’ll only cost you a bit of printer toner, and it’ll help science.

Merry Christmas!

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