Illustration by Faraz Ahmed
Illustration by Faraz Ahmed

One of the most mind-boggling toys that many of us have grown up trying to solve is the Rubik’s cube — a simple-looking mechanical puzzle, made from small square pieces called ‘cubies’. It consists of a 3x3x3 structure, that is nine cubies with a uniform colour on each side, such as red, green, yellow, orange, blue and white. By scrambling it, you are faced with one of the hardest challenges of all time, that is to bring it back to its original colour scheme of all sides having a uniform colour.

The Rubik’s cube has evolved from its humble beginnings as a simple puzzle for children, to its smart and ‘phantom’ addition recently. Let’s dig into the twisting tale of the cube from scratch.

In 1974, Erno Rubik, a young Hungarian inventor, architect and professor of architecture, was trying different methods to model three-dimensional movement to his students. After spending months fiddling with blocks of cubes — made from wood and paper, held by rubber bands, glue and paper clips — he finally created something he called the “buvos kocka,” or Magic Cube — a solid, static object as it was seen, but which could rotate smoothly.

According to Erno himself, it was initially a three-inch by three-inch-by-three-inch rotating cube made of wood. “There was a workshop in the school, and I just used wood as a material, because it is very simple to use and you don’t need any sophisticated machines. So, I made it by just using my hands — cutting the wood, drilling holes, using elastic bands and those kinds of very simple things,” he said in an interview.

Erno Rubik
Erno Rubik

He also said that when he gave it a twist, then another turn and then another, he kept twisting until he realised he might not be able to restore it to its original state. Erno was the one who created the puzzle, so he was also responsible for solving it himself first. It took him a whole month to solve his own puzzle.

Solving the puzzle was extremely difficult, “to find your way back, or to find your target — just to solve it as a combinatorical problem,” he said. “And I was without any background for that, because I was the first who tried.”

Rubik initially believed the cube would appeal to those with science, math, or engineering backgrounds, but he was shocked when “it found its way to people whom nobody would ever have thought might be attracted to it,” he said.

Soon, the little toy became a global craze. In March 1981, the cube surfaced on the cover of Scientific American, where Pulitzer-Prize winning scientist Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979), called it “one of the most amazing things ever invented for teaching mathematical ideas.”

Hofstadter took the cube as “paradoxical”, since it can be used as a tool to teach group theory, or the symmetries of objects. “Any twist of any face (clockwise 90 degrees, counter clockwise 90 degrees, or 180 degrees) is a group element, and so are arbitrary sequences of such twists,” he later explained.

The journey to stardom

Rubik’s cube has gained popularity in a variety of media over the years, from book covers to films and in art form. It has also been featured in various TV shows and sitcoms. During the same time, it found its way into a competitive sport called ‘speed-cubing’. This new kind of puzzle-solving competition literally filled arenas with kids, teenagers and adults racing to complete the puzzle in the shortest amount of time.

On June 5, 1982, the World Rubik’s Cube Championship was held in Budapest, Hungary; it was a competition for speed-solving the 3×3×3 Rubik’s cube. Nineteen people competed in the event and American Minh Thai won with a single solve time of 22.95 seconds, which was, at the time, the fastest Rubik’s cube solve ever recorded in competition.

Although the interest in this mindboggling puzzle never came to an end, it surprisingly has seen the upsurge during the past two decades, with a focus on speed-cubing. The World Cubing Association sanctions hundreds of tournaments each year. And thus there are even better cubes, faster algorithms and more finger-tricks that brought the world record of the 3x3x3 down to an astounding 3.47 seconds made by Yusheng Du from China recently. And yes, don’t forget, there is also a robot that solves the puzzle in under five seconds.

Solving a Rubik’s cube:

Several systematic strategies, or solution algorithms, have been devised; but cubers have made things quite easy to solve the puzzle with easy patterns that they remember while solving it. If you are a cuber, you know what a pattern is, but those having no idea, let me tell you that patterns are arrangements of cubies/tiles or a design-like looking order of colours.

These patterns are given names to things they resemble, you can create your own as well. Patterns help solving the cube faster, for instance, the arrangement of the tiles in a pattern makes it easy to bring other same coloured tiles to the same side.

Some of the famous patterns are:

The checkerboard: according to the cubers, checkerboard is one of the easiest and classic patterns. In this, every side of the cube is arranged in creating an X from tiles.

Cube in a cube: The tiles give the look of a cube being placed in a cube.

Cube in a cube in a cube: Looks like there are two cubes placed in a cube.

Six spots: This is yet another classic cube pattern, also known as six dots or snake eyes.

Zigzag: This easy-to-make pattern paints a zigzag stripe formed in the middle tiles of the cube.

Cross: It looks like a plus sign from all sides.

Anaconda: This pattern has a wiggly curve that passes through all six faces, and looks like a small L on all sides.

Superflip: You flip all edges.

Black Mamba: L and lines

Plus-Minus: Except two sides, every side has + and - symbol

Green Mamba: Lines on all sides

Four centres swap: Swap four centrepieces and there are still many more.

Rubik’s cube today!

The Rubik’s cube does look simple, but we all agree that it is a complex mathematical puzzle; therefore, it is also a great way to teach fractions, proportions, and permutation and combination to students. There are unlimited combinations to twisting and turning the cube. In fact, established studies show that there are 43 quintillion possible combinations of the cube.

The popularity of the puzzle hasn’t waned in the decades since its inception, with people continuing to try and break their own records, sometimes blindfolded and sometimes using a single hand, or even solving it with their feet. There is always something new and challenging coming out and breaking the records made previously. The iconic puzzle toy remains challenging and engaging for puzzle fans of all ages, and it is likely that the game will continue to be a puzzle icon for years to come.

Speeding cubing

Speed-cubing is a sport in which competitors compete to solve the Rubik’s cube in the shortest possible time. These puzzles vary in size, ranging from 2x2x2 all the way up to 7x7x7. People use speed cubes to compete in speed-cubing competitions.


The difference between speed cube and Rubik’s cube

While the regular Rubik’s cube is also very fast and smooth in twisting and turning the tiles, speed cube is designed specifically for people who want to complete the puzzle as quickly as possible. The speed cube has a redesigned internal mechanism, with magnets allowing the puzzle pieces to move in a smoother and faster manner, and then coming back to their places instantly.

These cubes are made of high quality soft plastic and efficient metals and magnets that reduce friction. The core of the cube is also made more flexible so that it makes rotation faster.

There are no local manufacturers who make speed cubes, but for the instant, main and famous manufactures include: GAN, MoYu, QiYi MoFangGe, DaYan, FangShi, YuXin, etc.


Adaptations to Rubik’s cube:

There have been many adaptations, ever since the Rubik’s cube has surfaced. While the original is 3x3x3, there are also cubes with 2x2x2, 4x4x4, 5x5x5, 6x6x6, 7x7x7 and other amalgamations.

Pocket cube

A Rubik’s cube of 2x2x2 is called a Pocket cube, invented by Erno Rubik. It is considered the ‘easy’ version of the Rubik’s cube, since solving the 2x2 cube is much easier than solving the classic 3x3x3 cube. The cube consists of eight pieces, that is all corners.

The classic 3x3x3

The classic cube, the 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube has approximately 43 quintillion 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 combinations. It depends solely on the cubers to develop strategies, observe the puzzle, and learn from their mistakes (trial and error), only then they will be able to solve the cube quickly.

Master cube or Rubik’s Revenge: 4x4x4

The Rubik’s Revenge (aka the Master Cube) has 4x4x4 blocks, making it harder to solve than the original Rubik’s Cube. This puzzle was released in 1981 and was actually invented not by professor Rubik himself, but by Péter Sebestény, another Hungarian-born inventor.

Professors’ cube: 5x5x5

A Rubik’s cube of 5x5x5 is called the Professor’s Cube, invented by Udo Krell in 1981. Several designs for the 5x5x5 were proposed at the time, but it was Krel’s design which was first manufactured in Hong Kong in 1983.

V-cube 6: 6x6x6 & V-cube 7:7x7x7

Both the cubes are larger versions of the original Rubik’s cube. V-Cube 6 is a multi-coloured, six-layered cube, rotating smoothly on based axes. The cube had a clicking mechanism and was invented by Panagiotis Verdes, a Greek inventor, also the founder of the company V-Cube.

Similarly, V-cube 7 was also created by Verdes, however, this time, the cube was made a bit rounded, probably due to the complexity of the mechanism. This puzzle is quite similar to the Rubik’s Professor’s cube only it has 7 parts per edge instead of 5.

Variations in Rubik’s cube

Pyraminx/Pyramid cube

Pyraminx is a regular tetrahedron puzzle with four triangle faces, divided into nine smaller identical triangles. It was invented by Uwe Meffert.

According to Cubers, solving a Pyraminx or triangle cube is much easier than solving a classic Rubik’s cube. You just need to understand the notations and the edges to solve it.

Megaminx

The megaminx is a dodecahedron-shaped, 12-face puzzle. It is said that the puzzle is quite simple as the main concepts are very similar to that of the 3x3. The puzzle is considered similar to Rubik’s cube having 50 movable pieces to rearrange.

Skewb

The Skewb is a corner-turning, twisting puzzle, consisting of eight corners and six square centrepieces. It was invented by Tony Durham and marketed by Uwe Mèffer.

Square–1

Previously called Cube 21 and Back to Square One, the unique thing about the puzzle is that it changes shape as it is twisted and turned. The scrambled look of the cube gives me creeps and I literally say a big no to even trying for just one time!

The puzzle was invented in 1990 by Czechoslovakian designers Karel Hršel and Vojtech Kopský. Square-1 is also officially included in the WCA competition event, the fastest solution being held by Martin Vædele Egdal (4.59 seconds).

Rubik’s Phantom

Technological advancement leaves no page unturned. The new addition in the cubes’ family is Phantom, posing a toughest challenge to the cubers. The idea behind Phantom is when you touch the cube tiles, the heat of your touch, makes it temporarily reveal colour. And there you are with very little time to solve before the colours fade. You will be amazed by the thermochromic technology of this cube.

Smart cube

Like many smart gadgets, we have a smart cube as well. Smart cube is a Rubik’s Cube that connects to a cell phone or tablet. This opens the door to a more interactive way of learning to solve the cube, as well as being able to compete with people from all over the world to see who can complete the puzzle in the fastest time.

Just like any other device, you can connect a smart cube to your phone, and track the duration of time you complete the puzzle. You can also learn how to improve and solve the puzzle more efficiently.

The Rubik’s Impossible

The Rubik’s Impossible is a 3x3 Rubik’s puzzle cube with a very high challenge level. For the novices, the classic Rubik’s cube is already difficult to solve, let alone the new types with new features. With the Rubik’s Impossible cube, it became impossible for even the experts to solve it. Reason: every time you twist it, it changes colours depending on the angle. So just when the cuber feels satisfied with solving the Impossible cube, the iridescent tiles change colour, making this portable puzzle more challenging than one can imagine.

Published in Dawn, Young World, January 28th, 2023

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