Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Solving the Pouring Water Puzzle

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomSome time back, we came across a GMAT Data Sufficiency word problem question based on the “pouring water puzzle”. That made us think that it is probably a good idea to be comfortable with the various standard puzzle types. From this week on, we will look at some fundamental puzzles to acquaint ourselves with these mind benders in case we encounter them on test day.

Today, we will look at the popular “pouring water puzzle”. You may remember a similar puzzle from the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance, where Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson had to diffuse a bomb by placing a 4 gallon jug of water on a set of scales.

Here is the puzzle:

You have a 3- and a 5-liter water container – each container has no markings except for that which gives us its total volume. We also have a running tap. We must use the containers and the tap in such a way that we measure out exactly 4 liters of water. How can this be done?

Don’t worry that this question is not written in a traditional GMAT format! We need to worry only about the logic behind the puzzle – we can then answer any question about it that is given in any GMAT format.

Let’s break down what we are given. We have only two containers – one of 3-liter and the other of 5-liter capacity. The containers have absolutely no markings on them other than those which give us the total volumes, i.e. the markings for 3 liters and 5 liters respectively. There is no other container. We also have a tap/faucet of running water, so basically, we have an unlimited supply of water. Environmentalists may not like my saying this, but this fact means we can throw out water when we need to and just refill again.

Now think about it:

STEP 1: Let’s fill up the 5-liter container with water from the tap. Now we are at (5, 0), with 5 being the liters of water in the 5-liter container, and 0 being the liters of water in the 3-liter container.

STEP 2: Now, there is nothing we can do with this water except transfer it to the 3-liter container (there is no other container and throwing out the water will bring us back to where we started). After we fill up the 3-liter container, we are left with 2 liters of water in the 5-liter container. This brings us to (2, 3).

STEP 3: We gain nothing from transferring the 3 liters of water back to 5-liter container, so let’s throw out the 3 liters that are in the 3-liter container. Because we just threw out the water from the 3-liter container, we will gain nothing by simply refilling it with 3 liters of water again. So now we are at (2, 0).

STEP 4: The next logical step is to transfer the 2 liters of water we have from the 5-liter container to the 3-liter container. This means the 3-liter container has space for 1 liter more until it reaches its maximum volume mark. This brings us to (0, 2).

STEP 5: Now fill up the 5-liter container with water from the tap and transfer 1 liter to the 3-liter container (which previously had 2 liters of water in it). This means we are left with 4 liters of water in the 5-liter container. Now we are at (4, 3).

This is how we are able to separate out exactly 4 liters of water without having any markings on the two containers. We hope you understand the logic behind solving this puzzle. Let’s take a look at another question to help us practice:

We are given three bowls of 7-, 4- and 3-liter capacity. Only the 7-liter bowl is full of water. Pouring the water the fewest number of times, separate out the 7 liters into 2, 2, and 3 liters (in the three bowls).

This question is a little different in that we are not given an unlimited supply of water. We have only 7 liters of water and we need to split it into 2, 2 and 3 liters. This means we can neither throw away any water, nor can we add any water. We just need to work with what we have.

We start off with (7, 0, 0) – with 7 being the liters of water in the 7-liter bowl, the first 0 being the liters of water in the 4-liter bowl, and the second 0 being the liters of water in the 3-liter bowl – and we need to go to (2, 2, 3). Let’s break this down:

STEP 1: The first step would obviously be to pour water from the 7-liter bowl into the 4-liter bowl. Now you will have 3 liters of water left in the 7-liter bowl. We are now at (3, 4, 0).

STEP 2: From the 4-liter bowl, we can now pour water into the 3-liter bowl. Now we have 1 liter in the 4-liter bowl, bringing us to (3, 1, 3).

STEP 3: Empty out the 3-liter bowl, which is full, into the 7-liter bowl for a total of 6 liters – no other transfer makes sense [if we transfer 1 liter of water to the 7-liter bowl, we will be back at the (4, 0, 3) split, which gives us nothing new]. This brings us to (6, 1, 0).

STEP 4: Shift the 1 liter of water from the 4-liter bowl to the 3-liter bowl. We are now at (6, 0, 1).

STEP 5: From the 7-liter bowl, we can now shift 4 liters of water into the 4-liter bowl. This leaves us with with 2 liters of water in the 7-liter bowl. Again, no other transfer makes sense – pouring 1 liter of water into some other bowl takes us back to a previous step. This gives us (2, 4, 1).

STEP 6: Finally, pour water from the 4-liter bowl into the 3-liter bowl to fill it up. 2 liters will be shifted, bringing us to (2, 2, 3). This is what we wanted.

We took a total of 6 steps to solve this problem. At each step, the point is to look for what helps us advance forward. If our next step takes us back to a place at which we have already been, then we shouldn’t take it.

Keeping these tips in mind, we should be able to solve most of these pouring water puzzles in the future!

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!