On May 19, 1974, a Hungarian professor of architecture figured out how to build just the right model to aid in teaching algebraic group theory to his students. The model was a cube, composed of 26 smaller cubes that could freely rotate around one another without falling apart.
And the model was useful, but there was a small problem. Because once the professor started moving the individual cubes, he quickly realized that what he really had on his hands was a pretty great puzzle that even he wasn’t sure how to solve.
It took Professor Erno Rubik over a month to sort out the solution to his wonderful new puzzle toy, which could be rearranged in 43 quintillion different ways. Now, personally I find his success pretty impressive, but given that the current world record for solving a single 3 x 3 Rubik’s Cube is a cool 4.9 seconds, and that a little girl who was not yet three did it unofficially in 70 seconds, it’s maybe a little embarrassing.
But no other toy has captured the imagination of the world in quite the same way as the Rubik’s Cube. It quickly became the most popular toy in Hungary in the late 70s, and when it launched onto the International scene in 1980, it became a defining image of a decade.
As of this time last year, Rubik’s Cube remains the single best selling toy of all time, with over 350 million cubes sold, at least .0004% of which have been solved. The rest have either been pulled apart with pliers, had their stickers removed, or been simply left for dead under a heavy piece of furniture.
Because the majority of us haven’t made it through all 43 quintillion possibilities yet in order to solve it. I admit, I was one of those kids who was never able to do it, and it’s possible I may have pulled off a sticker or two in an attempt to return it to its pristine state (which doesn’t work very well). And so I was never a big fan.
But I am a big fan of the Internet and YouTube, responsible most recently for teaching me important skills like how to tie a bow tie (which I can do, like a boss) and how to make a terrific balsamic chicken (which, not surprisingly, my children will not eat). So, a few years ago, I decided to recruit some Internet help and finally solve my Rubik’s cube problem. After all, if a mantis shrimp can solve the puzzle (It can’t. Don’t believe everything you see on YouTube.), then surely I can.
And I did. No, really, I did. I followed the instructions very carefully and I messed it up. A lot. I threw my cube across the room several times. And I started again. And I eventually got it to work out. It took me a little longer than 4.9 second, but shorter than a month.
Of course anyone who has ever owned a Rubik’s cube (and there’s a 1 in 7 chance that includes you), knows that you can’t just leave it done. Those colors call to you. They just have to be scrambled, and no matter how much you resist it will always happen.
So, I thought, just for the purpose of this blog post, I would give it another go. I’d done it once. How hard could it be?
Um, the answer to that is HARD. Like, really hard. I think I watched the official Rubik’s Cube solving guide videos somewhere in the neighborhood of 43 quintillion times before I threw the cube across the room where it disappeared under a heavy piece of furniture.
But as Erno Rubik once famously said, “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.” So, I think I’ll stick with it. I’ll solve it again someday. That is if I can ever find it.