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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, maddeningly frustrating one – have been known since soon after the modish, Mondrianish 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. In 1986, The New York Times said the cube had been “retired to the attic, the garbage heap and, with a bow to its elegance and ingeniousness, to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.” 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 each other. But some things have not changed. The typical Rubik’s cube still has nine squares on six sides, and the same eye-popping colors. And those unfathomable huge numbers in the first paragraph are still quintillions. “Four-point-three times ten to the nineteenth,” explained Paul Hoffman, the president and chief executive of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.
Rubik’s cubes have trailed Mr. 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 “fifty hours of work, distributed over several months,” to solve the “unscrambling problem.” He mentioned group theory, which has to do with algebraic structures, and something he called “cubitis magikia,” a “highly contagious” condition “accompanied by the itching of the fingertips that can be relieved only by prolonged contact” with a certain multicolored object.
Now Mr. Hoffman is capitalizing on the cube again, with a $5 million exhibition that opened to the public on 26 April 2014. It features an eighteen-karat gold Rubik’s cube said to be worth $2.5 million that pivots and swivels like an ordinary plastic one, and a cube-solving robot that is no match for speed cubers, as competitors who try to beat the clock are known. 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.
Speed cubers can memorize algorithms they have developed on their laptops and shared on websites or by email to unscramble a jumbled cube in less time than it takes to read a sentence like this one aloud. But Mr. Brooks said speed cubing also involved muscle memory and tricks, like breaking in a cube the way baseball players break in a glove with neatsfoot oil.“You can buy lubricants – cube lubes,” Mr. Brooks said. “Or regular silicon spray you can find in any hardware.”
In the forty years since it was invented, the cube has made some intriguing cameo appearances. Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has leaked intelligence secrets, told two journalists he had arranged to meet that they would recognize him outside a restaurant in Hong Kong because he would have a Rubik’s cube in his hand. Mr. Hoffman said that sounded like an homage to the 2009 film Duplicity, in which spies played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen realize who they are because they are both carrying Rubik’s cube key chains.
That could not have happened to the cube’s inventor, Ernő Rubik, 69. He said he did not travel with a cube. “I don’t need to,” Mr. Rubik said as he previewed the exhibition this week.
For the record, he calls it “my cube.” “From my mouth, it sounds strange to call it ‘Rubik’s cube,’ ” Mr. Rubik said. “If I have a child, I call it ‘my child,’ not ‘Rubik’s boy’ or ‘Rubik’s girl.’ Naturally, after forty years, I have a strong relationship with my cube.”
He passed a display case containing his original pride and joy, a wooden cube. It sat in front of the Hungarian patent he was issued for his “magic cube” in 1975. 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, a bowling-alley manager from Riverhead, NY. Mr. Hessler, 23, is a former United States speed cubing champion, whose fastest time unscrambling a standard three-by-three-by-three cube was 6.94 seconds. At the science center, Mr. Hessler did it in a seemingly effortless 9.69 seconds of twisting and pivoting. The only noise was the cube, clicking like bad dentures in a cartoon.
Mr. Rubik said he had not imagined when the ink on the patent was fresh that the cube would become so universal. “I had a feeling about the intellectual value of the cube” early on, he said, adding that items with intellectual value can be a hard sell in a material world. Mr. Rubik said he had thought that toy manufacturers would pigeonhole it as a puzzle. “Traditionally, the puzzle section in the toy business is very narrow,” he said, “and they don’t believe it’s possible to make a business. They’re not selling mass production.” He said the cube had changed that thinking.
Mr. Hoffman said one 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 twenty moves, no matter how it is scrambled. But speed cubers do not have time to think about the elegance of economy implied by minimizing moves. Mr. Hessler said speed cubers averaged about fifty; his lowest was thirty-one. For his part, Mr. Rubik declined an invitation to go up against Mr. Hessler, but he said he understood the appeal of speed cubing, even if it was not the sport for him. “The main group who is buying the cube is teenagers,” Mr. Rubik said, “and they are competitive and they have the time. When you are working, you don’t have the time.”