A cube with a twist

Its popularity faded fast. By 1982, the cube was so last year, doomed to Hula-Hoop faddishness.

By: New York Times | Updated: May 3, 2014 11:34:16 pm

The must-have toy during the ‘80s has undergone a resurrection.

A Rubik’s cube can be twisted and twiddled in 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different ways, and 43,252,003,274,489,855,999 of them are wrong.

Those truths — especially the second frustrating one — have been known since soon after the modish plastic object was invented in 1974. The cube went on to become the must-have toy of 1980 and 1981.

Its popularity faded fast. By 1982, the cube was so last year, doomed to Hula-Hoop faddishness.

Lately it has undergone a resurrection in a world in which engineers and computers can generate helpful algorithms that would-be cube solvers can share with one another. But some things have not changed. The typical Rubik’s cube still has nine squares on six sides, and the same eye-popping colours. And those unfathomable huge numbers in the first paragraph are still quintillions. “Four-point-three times 10 to the 19th,” explained Paul Hoffman, the president and chief executive of the Liberty Science Centre in Jersey City.

Rubik’s cubes have trailed Hoffman for his entire career. On his first job after college, as an editor at Scientific American, he shepherded a March 1981 cover story about Rubik’s “magic cubology” into print. It was written by Douglas R Hofstadter, the professor known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller Gödel, Escher, Bach, who said it had taken him “50 hours of work, distributed over several months”, to solve the “unscrambling problem”.

Now Hoffman is capitalising on the cube again with a $5 million exhibition that opens to the public this week. It features an 18-karat gold Rubik’s cube said to be worth $2.5 million that pivots and swivels, and a cube-solving robot. It took the machine a minute to unscramble a jumbled cube. In that time, Anthony Brooks, a speed cuber with several records to his name, did it three times, once using only one hand.

In the 40 years since it was invented, the cube has made some intriguing appearances. Edward J Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked intelligence secrets, told two journalists that they would recognise him outside a restaurant in Hong Kong because of the Rubik’s cube in his hand.

A display case at the exhibition contains a wooden cube, the original pride and joy of Rubik’s cube inventor Erno Rubik, 69. He invented the cube as the solution to the kind of structural problem that could bedevil an architecture professor, which is what he was at the time. The structural problem was how to keep a mechanism with many moving parts from tumbling to the floor.

Do not expect him to face off against a speed cuber like Rowe Hessler, 23, a former US speed cubing champion, whose fastest time unscrambling a standard cube was 6.94 seconds.

Rubik said he had not imagined that the cube would become so universal.

Hoffman said 1 billion to 2.5 billion cubes had been manufactured, assuming there were five counterfeits for every legitimate one sold. “They’ve seized whole 747s full of illegal knockoffs,” he said.

Experts have calculated that a cube could be solved in as few as 20 moves, no matter how it is scrambled. Hessler said speed cubers averaged about 50; his lowest was 31. For his part, Rubik declined an invitation to go up against Hessler.


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