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Once a physicist: Fausto Morales

Puzzle-games designer Fausto Morales describes his career as "a nomadic adventure in pursuit of interesting problems".

His book, Zigzagrams was published by AuthorHouse in 2009.

Why did you decide to study physics?
While reading books like Paul Davies' The Edge of Infinity, I gradually felt the urge to explore the laws that rule our universe. I anticipated a fascinating journey filled with beauty on both sides of the road, and my dream came true in the late 1980s thanks to the extraordinary faculty and curriculum at Sonoma State University in California. As an undergraduate student there, I had the rare opportunity to engage in serious research on binary-star systems. Once I started doing graduate work at the University of Michigan, this experience enabled me to work in a high-energy-astrophysics research team led by James Cronin, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize for Physics.

What led you to switch to pure mathematics?
A superb graduate series of lectures on group theory for physicists, taught by Karl Hecht at Michigan in 1990, helped me realize that I was better equipped to understand and enjoy algebraic structures in pure form, devoid of the complexity introduced by their advanced applications in physics. By the end of the course, I concluded that I had become far more interested in groups for their structural properties than for their contributions to theoretical physics. It was time for me to switch gears and explore group theory.

What did you do next?
My eclectic academic background – an undergraduate physics degree, graduate work in physics and computer science, and finally a doctoral programme in pure mathematics – has allowed me to hop from one field to the next whenever I have been tempted by an interesting challenge. Initially, I used physics, mathematics and object-oriented computer programming to tackle intriguing problems for the aerospace industry, such as automating aircraft route generation to maximize pilot safety in hostile scenarios. Next, I worked on speech-recognition systems aimed at automating the interpretation of messages uttered by humans, without help from intervening menus. Then I moved on to develop data-mining methodology, mainly for financial applications, an activity that I currently juggle with logic-game design.

What are zigzagrams and how did you come up with them?
A zigzagram is an extension of Sudoku. Each column and row in a zigzagram contains the numbers from one to nine, but with the additional condition that every compartment must contain an odd number of odd numbers. Because the new condition would be redundant in the familiar square-box partition, zigzagrams incorporate compartments of varying sizes – named "zigzagons" because of their twisting appearance. The rule about odd numbers introduces a new dimension into the thinking mix, enhancing the "systematic search" themes of Sudoku by combining them with elementary ideas that emerge from the logical implications of this odd–even parity rule.

What are you working on now?
In my "day job" I am currently working as an independent consultant on decision algorithms for financial applications such as e-trading. But I am also progressing towards publishing two other number-placement games that, like zigzagrams, involve repartitioning the 9 × 9 square and extending the rules of Sudoku so as to provide players with a wider variety of logical themes to mix into their reasoning processes.

What was it that sparked your interest in puzzles?
It must be innate, since I have always enjoyed solving original problems. I like chess puzzles just as much as word or number puzzles, as long as they call for creativity.

If you could offer one piece of careers advice to physics students today, what would it be?
I would say, quoting Albert Einstein, that "in moments of crisis, only creativity is more important than knowledge". All physics graduates have been thoroughly trained to adapt to any kind of job market – and even thrive in it – by virtue of their superior ability to tackle new problems. I think that an open mind is the best career asset for a physics student today.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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