Jun 12
Cubic Rube
icon4 Jun 12th, 2008 | icon2 Memories |

In March of 1981 I was nearly eleven years old. My sister Ruth was still living at home then, while she studied for a science degree. One day I wandered in to her room, and on her desk I noticed this magazine:

There was something about this image that fascinated me. Now we all recognise it, but at that time it was something very new. I asked my sister about it, and she explained that it was a new type of mathematical puzzle called Rubik’s Cube.

Ernő Rubik is a Hungarian sculptor, architect and inventor. He invented his Magic Cube – as he called it – in 1974, but it was not until 1980 that it appeared in the west under the name Rubik’s Cube. By 1981 it was a worldwide sensation.

Soon my sister had bought a cube and I was desperate to play with it. At first I had no idea what I was doing. I figured that the way to solve the cube would be to do one face at a time; the objective, after all, was to make each face a single colour.

I played with the cube for a while, eventually solving one face – something that seems trivial now – and this was a huge thrill. Eventually I was able to get three faces correct, and most of a fourth, but I never got further than that.

Around this time I began pestering mum to buy me a cube of my own. I think they were probably about $10 at the time, not a trivial sum, but mum soon relented and brought one home with the weekly grocery shopping. Cubes also began replacing yo-yos at school.

My brother Russell bought a cube too. He was working and had a bit of cash to burn, so he began collecting oddly shaped “cubes”, and soon had about half a dozen. (These were often no different internally to the regular square-sided cube; they might simply have had the corners cut off to form a different external shape.) One day Russell showed me a book he had bought called “Mastering Rubik’s Cube”.

“Mastering Rubik’s Cube” is a book by Australian mathematician Don Taylor, published in 1980. (He is now an associate professor in mathematics at the University of Sydney.) The book explains, using simple notation, how to completely solve Rubik’s Cube.

I immediately began devouring the book, figuring out the notation, and learning how to “master” the cube. I discovered that solving the cube is best done in “layers” rather than faces. So you can think of the cube as having three layers and solve them one at a time. The book provided sequences of moves which are used to move certain pieces of the cube in specific patterns. By using the correct sequences as required the cube could be solved from any starting configuration.

At first I needed the book beside me to solve the cube. But soon I began to memorise the moves simply by doing them over and over again. I was the only kid at my primary school who could solve the cube and was forever being asked by friends to fix theirs. I recently found a Christmas card from a schoolfriend which reads: “Merry Christmas Stuart, thanks for doing my cube all year, from Jamie.” One day, my buddy Dave arrived at school having freshly greased his cube with Vaseline, supposedly to make it super-fast. He moved a few sides and it fell apart in his hands, much to everyone’s amusement.

That same year – when I was in 6th class – a new kid called Marcel arrived at our school. Rumours soon began flying around that Marcel could also solve the cube. I talked to him about it and he claimed that he had invented his own solution! This seemed incredible to me at the time, so I asked him what his solution was. He explained that whereas the usual three-layer solution started from the bottom and worked up, he starts from the top and works down. This makes no sense, of course, cubes having no fixed “bottom” or “top”. Still I was curious to see his solution in action.

Before long, the schoolyard was buzzing with rumours of a Rubiks’ Cube showdown between me and Marcel. I was keen to accept the challenge, as with so much practice I had been getting faster and faster. My average time was around 90 seconds, roughly 30 seconds for each layer. If I was lucky I could solve it in under a minute. Sadly, the challenge never took place. Marcel eventually moved away to a different school and the mystery of his solution – if it existed – was lost to me.

I still have my original Rubik’s Cube. I occasionally get it out and play around with it, something which I have always found very soothing. After solving it so many times the sequences are well and truly in muscle memory, and I can still solve it first time after not picking it up for years at a stretch. But if I think about it too hard and don’t just let my hands do the moves instinctively, I will usually get muddled up. Ain’t the human brain a funny thing?

I just dug out my cube then and solved it in 1:54. In May 2008, Yu Nakajima set a world record single best time of 8.72 seconds:

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