Science novice, Sudoku master

A Stanford postdoc rules the Sudoku world

Megan Scudellari
Sep 10, 2008
Airplane trips can get awkward for linkurl:Thomas Snyder.;http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2008spring/dr_puzzle.html The 28-year-old Stanford linkurl:bioengineering;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/12597/ postdoc loves to bring along Sudoku puzzles as in-flight entertainment, but hates when the passenger next to him does the same. "When I'm next to someone with a puzzle book, I have this internal monologue: 'Should I go really fast, or solve more normally?'" It's a fair question for someone who can solve a Sudoku in 52 seconds.linkurl:Snyder;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMNal53nBtE is the reigning linkurl:World Sudoku Champion.;http://www.wsc2008.com/ This past April, he repeated his dominance in Goa, India after sweeping the 2007 competition in Prague. Last October, the young scientist also won the first national US Sudoku Championship, which came with a $10,000 prize - "The most I've ever gotten for solving one puzzle," he laughed. Add on three previous linkurl:US Puzzle Championships;http://wpc.puzzles.com/ (which involve a variety of math and logic puzzles in addition to Sudokus), and Snyder has quite the puzzle-solving...
gineering;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/12597/ postdoc loves to bring along Sudoku puzzles as in-flight entertainment, but hates when the passenger next to him does the same. "When I'm next to someone with a puzzle book, I have this internal monologue: 'Should I go really fast, or solve more normally?'" It's a fair question for someone who can solve a Sudoku in 52 seconds.linkurl:Snyder;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMNal53nBtE is the reigning linkurl:World Sudoku Champion.;http://www.wsc2008.com/ This past April, he repeated his dominance in Goa, India after sweeping the 2007 competition in Prague. Last October, the young scientist also won the first national US Sudoku Championship, which came with a $10,000 prize - "The most I've ever gotten for solving one puzzle," he laughed. Add on three previous linkurl:US Puzzle Championships;http://wpc.puzzles.com/ (which involve a variety of math and logic puzzles in addition to Sudokus), and Snyder has quite the puzzle-solving resume.
__Snyder wins the World Sudoku Championship__
Puzzle-solving has taken Snyder around the world: Bulgaria, Hungary, Brazil, Italy, and soon, Belarus. And sponsors, such as linkurl:Google,;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/22999/ linkurl:ThinkFun,;http://www.thinkfun.com/ and St. Martin's Press, which publishes Sudoku and crossword puzzles, are paying for it. "I get a bit of a kick out of it," said Snyder. "I'm getting a real sense of the world on someone else's dime...just because I have some uncanny skills for a number puzzle."But before the crowns, cash, and glory, Snyder was a tyke devouring puzzle magazines in the backseat of his parents' car, oblivious to the world around him. But puzzles weren't all he was interested in: Snyder has fond memories of mixing test tubes of food coloring at his father's lab bench. With Dad a biologist at SUNY Buffalo and an older brother an organic chemist at Columbia, it came as no surprise that Snyder pursued a career in science. Following an undergrad degree in chemistry and economics at CalTech, Snyder completed a PhD in chemistry at Harvard last year. Today, the whiz kid builds linkurl:microfluidics;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15778/ chips designed for gene assembly in linkurl:Stephen Quake's Stanford lab.;http://thebigone.stanford.edu/people.htm And though Snyder works to keep his career (science) separate from his hobby (puzzles), he can't deny that the two have quite a bit in common. For Snyder, puzzles aren't just fun and games: They're training exercises. Snyder has a routine that begins with a stopwatch. Click. He starts. Block after block, each column, each row, each square must have one of each digit. Click. Time. Snyder records times to see if he's getting faster. "Then I look back and find what it is about solving it that was slow, where I wasn't making progress." Once he pinpoints the problem, the puzzle master works to devise a better strategy, a more creative way to solve the puzzle. That's the connection to science, said Snyder. "You have a goal in mind and don't know the steps to get it finished," he explains. "It comes up in both science and puzzles: Creative problem solving techniques are invaluable to both endeavors."But though Snyder recognizes parallels between his hobby and career, he is not about to let them intermingle. "In the lab, the focus is specifically on my work. Collaborators need to know I'm not secretly thinking about a puzzle," he said. "I set up boundaries." That means an agreement with his PI: No puzzles in the lab. Once, when the rule was relaxed, the consequences were evident. Snyder presented a Sudoku seminar for his fellow bioengineers and passed out a puzzle he had designed - a United States jigsaw. A few days later, "I got a couple Emails," Snyder laughed, "saying, 'This really wasted the whole week for science, but, hey, how do you do this one?'"Since there's nothing calming about stopwatch Sudoku, Snyder relaxes by writing puzzles. His first book, linkurl:__BATTLESHIP Sudoku__,;http://www.amazon.com/BATTLESHIP-Sudoku-Thomas-Snyder/dp/1402749384 was published this year, and another is on the way.

Think you have what it takes to compete with Snyder's Sudoku skills? Try these puzzles Snyder wrote for us by clicking on the images above.
So what's left to do for this scientist-author-Sudoku world champ? After completing his postdoc at Stanford, Snyder will seek an academic appointment in bioengineering and plans to develop new medical technologies. But more immediately, this puzzle pro has his sights set on Belarus in late October - the World Puzzle Championships, an elusive competition he's yet to win (he took second place last year to Pal Madarassy from Hungary). Of course, he'll have to get on a plane again. Which begs the question; will he restrain himself or scare his seat-mate with his Sudoku voodoo? It varies by passenger, said Snyder. "Depends on how well we get along."

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