A few months ago I wrote an article here called an ounce of theory is worth a pound of search and I have a nice followup.

When I went looking for that article I couldn't find it, because I thought it was about how an ounce of search is worth a pound of theory, and that I was writing a counterexample. I am quite surprised to discover that that I have several times discussed how a little theory can replace a lot of searching, and not vice versa, but perhaps that is because the search is my default.

Anyway, the question came up on math StackExchange today:

John has 77 boxes each having dimensions 3×3×1. Is it possible for John to build one big box with dimensions 7×9×11?

OP opined no, but had no argument. The first answer that appeared was somewhat elaborate and outlined a computer search strategy which claimed to reduce the search space to only 14,553 items. (I think the analysis is wrong, but I agree that the search space is not too large.)

I almost wrote the search program. I have a program around that is something like what would be needed, although it is optimized to deal with a few oddly-shaped tiles instead of many similar tiles, and would need some work. Fortunately, I paused to think a little before diving in to the programming.

Order How to Solve It with kickback no kickback |

For there is an easy answer. Suppose John solved the problem. Look at just one of the 7×11 faces of the big box. It is a 7×11 rectangle that is completely filled by 1×3 and 3×3 rectangles. But 7×11 is not a multiple of 3. So there can be no solution.

Now how did I think of this? It was a very geometric line of reasoning. I imagined a 7×11×9 carton and imagined putting the small boxes into the carton. There can be no leftover space; every one of the 693 cells must be filled. So in particular, we must fill up the bottom 7×11 layer. I started considering how to pack the bottommost 7×11×1 slice with just the bottom parts of the small boxes and quickly realized it couldn't be done; there is always an empty cell left over somewhere, usually in the corner. The argument about considering just one face of the large box came later; I decided it was clearer than what I actually came up with.

I think this is a nice example of the Pólya strategy “solve a simpler
problem” from *How to Solve It*, but I was not thinking of that
specifically when I came up with the solution.

For a more interesting problem of the same sort, suppose you have six 2×2x1 slabs. It is possible to pack them into a 3×3x3 box? (There will, of course, be some space left over.)