The Control Room Riddle

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As the nation’s top spy, you must infiltrate the headquarters of the evil syndicate and find the hidden control panel to stop the deadly rays. But your recon team is missing and you know only a limited number of things that can help you locate the control panel. Can you solve the puzzle of the control room and stop the beam in time? Dennis Shasha shows you how.


As your country’s top spy, you must infiltrate the headquarters of the evil syndicate, find the secret control panel, and deactivate their death ray. But all you have to go on is the following information picked up by your surveillance team. The headquarters is a massive pyramid with a single room at the top level, two rooms on the next, etc.

The control panel is hidden behind a painting on the highest floor that can satisfy the following conditions: Each room has precisely three doors to other rooms on that floor, except the control panel room, which connects to only one, there are no hallways, and you can ignore stairs. Unfortunately, you don’t have a floor plan, and you’ll only have enough time to search a single floor before the alarm system reactivates. Can you figure out which floor the control room is on?

To solve this problem, we need to visualize it. For starters, we know that on the correct floor, there’s one room, let’s call it room A, with one door to the control panel room, plus one door to room B and one to C. So there must be at least four rooms, which we can represent as circles, drawing lines between them for the doorways. But once we connect rooms B and C, there are no other connections, so the fourth floor down from the top is out.

We know the control panel has to be as high up as possible, so let’s make our way down the pyramid. The fifth highest floor doesn’t work either. We can figure that out by drawing it, but to ensure we haven’t missed any possibilities, here’s another way. Every door corresponds to a line in our graph that makes two rooms into neighbors. So, in the end, there has to be an even number of neighbors, no matter how many connections we make. On the fifth-highest floor, to fulfill our starting conditions, we’d need four rooms with three neighbors each, plus the control panel room with one neighbor, which makes 13 total neighbors. Since that’s an odd number, it’s not possible, and, in fact, this also rules out every floor that has an odd number of rooms. So let’s go one more floor down. When we draw out the rooms, low and behold, we can find an arrangement that works like this.

The study of such visual models that show the connections and relationships between different objects is known as graph theory. In a basic graph, the circles representing the objects are called nodes, while the connecting lines are called edges. Researchers studying such graphs ask questions like, “How far is this node from that one?” “How many edges does the most popular node have?” “Is there a route between these two nodes, and if so, how long is it?” Graphs like this are often used to map communication networks.

Still, they can represent almost any kind of network, from transport connections within a city and social relationships among people to chemical interactions between proteins or the spread of an epidemic through different locations. So, armed with these techniques, back to the pyramid. You avoid the guards and security cameras, infiltrate the sixth floor from the top, find the hidden panel, pull some conspicuous levers, and send the death ray crashing into the ocean.

Now, time to solve the mystery of why your surveillance team always gives you cryptic information. Hi everybody. If you liked this riddle, try solving these two.

Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.

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