Solving Problems – the Cambridge Entrance Examination


I once spoke to a child of a lawyer and asked her what her Daddy did. She told me her Daddy was a lawyer. She was very young, and so I asked her if she knew what lawyers did. Perhaps I could learn what lawyers did; I am a lawyer and I do not always know what I do and what I am doing.

She replied that her Daddy solved problems, and that reply was a perfect answer to my question.

In 1966 I sat the examination for entrance to Cambridge University to study law. I was seventeen. One question (which was an optional question) was a problem to be solved. It started “If Ado comes from Doland”…and with small amounts of information about five people whose names began with the first four letters of the alphabet, who had five characteristics which also began with the first four letters of the alphabet – well I expect you can figure out the nature of the question. You had to find who came from where with what characteristics and so forth with very limited clues.

I found it intriguing. I knew that my mathematics was not good enough to figure out the answer devising an equation, but playing around with the question for twenty or so minutes of the examination was a welcome break even knowing that I would be unlikely to find the answer.

Of course I failed the examination. The whole point of problem solving is to ensure that you have enough tools to solve the problem that you are given. Solutions do not appear because you want them to appear, but because you work them out.

I suppose the little girl’s answer about what her Daddy did is true of all professions, vocations and indeed most jobs. Work is fun when we do things that are enjoyable and problem solving is enjoyable. It is both a science and an art; it requires tools and intuition.

Problems stick in the mind until they are solved. I do not have that question in the Cambridge Entrance Examination. I wonder what it was and I wonder if I could find the answer today.

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