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Expert comment: Happy 40th anniversary to the world’s most famous puzzle

Rubiks Cube fan and Lecturer in Mathematics Dr Andrew Foulkes celebrates 40 years since the first puzzle was sold.

2017 marks 40 years since the first 'Magic Cube' - to be known as the Rubiks Cube - was sold in a Budapest toyshop. Ernö Rubik created the cube in 1974 as a tool for education and made it available to the public in 1977 to purchase as the ‘Magic Cube’. Little did he know just how popular this puzzle would be.

We’ve all heard about the Rubik’s Cube, and many regard it as a retro 80’s toy. However, sales are still strong with well over 350 million cubes sold, and almost a million last year in France alone, making it one of the most popular toys on the market today. Puzzles now come in all shapes and sizes. The original cube is the 3x3x3 - each puzzle has six faces with 9 coloured squares (known as cubies) on each face - but there are 2x2x2 cubes, 4x4x4 cubes, and even higher order cubes, as well as puzzles of different shapes (pyraminx, megaminx) and cubie sizes (mirror cube, which is my favourite puzzle at the moment). Competitions to see who can solve the puzzle the fastest have existed for 35 years, and the current record for the standard 3x3x3 cubes is 4.73 seconds, set in 2016 by Feliks Zemdegs from Australia, who coincidently set his first world record of 7.03 seconds not long after his 14th birthday. In April 2017, a maths student at the University of Leicester set a new UK record of 6.54 seconds.

But what makes this puzzle so popular? To some it is a thing of beauty, mystery and attraction. To others (like my wife) it is difficult, time consuming, and very 80’s (and should have stayed in the 1980’s!). To most people, it is perceived as difficult. There are over 43 quintillion (43 million million million or 43 with 18 zero’s after it) possible configurations of the cubies, but it has been mathematically proven that any of these configurations can be solved in 20 moves or fewer. However, by learning just a few combinations of moves, you can get to solve the puzzle in just a few minutes, and this is one of the attractions – anyone can do it.

To me, it is a beautiful collaboration of education, mathematics, and engineering that has many health benefits too. I use it in my mathematics classes at Level I to teach group theory (it even has its own group, the Rubik’s Group). Each combination of twist and turn (known as a permutation) comes with an order (the number of times you execute a permutation to get the puzzle back to its initial starting configuration), and the key to solving the Rubik’s Cube quickly (in other words, speedcubing), is to find permutations with a low cyclic order. This may mean that even though a low order permutation has several twists and turns (even as many as 15), you can solve the Rubik’s much quicker using these permutations than you would with permutations with high orders.

It has also been used in politics as analogy. A cube is solved when each face of the cube has only one colour on it. However, even just a couple of turns completely mixes the colours up. Then, solving one of the faces can mean that the other five faces are still completely messed up. An excellent article in the NY Times in April 2017 compared President Trump’s job of solving the US tax reform problem to solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many parties at stake during a reformation of tax, and if each one of these is a face on a mixed up Rubik’s Cube, then even though one side can get solved, the others may then be in a worse, or better, position than before. So there are always winners and losers. But the big question is, can the tax reformation in the US be completely solved like a Rubik’s Cube?

I could go on about the many more mathematics concepts buried in the Rubik’s Cube (combinatorics, probability, game theory – to name just a few) and its uses elsewhere, but I want to end with a few words about the health benefits of this puzzle. The first time you solve the puzzle legitimately (not my wife’s way of peeling the stickers off – which is why my cubes at home are of the stickerless brands!!), you get a buzz of excitement and self-pride about solving what is considered by many to be one of the hardest puzzles. It can help to develop logic and problem solving skills, as well as spatial reasoning. In other words, it is a good brain workout. As Brian Rohrig says in his superb article about teaching and Rubik’s Cubes, what has running through tyres got to do with playing football? Well, nothing, but that exercise is a good way to develop strength, speed and agility – things that are needed to play at the top level of football. The same can be said of the Rubik’s Cube when it comes to exercising our brains. I have personally found the Rubik’s puzzles to be a great stress relief (although some can say it brings it on!!). I find that solving it (particularly my 2x2x2 cube, which I can now do in under 10 secs) relaxes me and sets me up to other tasks.

Next academic year, I am hoping to start up a Rubik’s Cube club at Hope, meeting initially just once a week to learn and practice cubing. So, keep an eye on the news pages for when we will be starting that up. In the meantime, if anyone wants to have a go at cubing, drop me an email to see when I am free. It’s great fun! Honest! 

Image by Lars Karlsson (Keqs) (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Published on 20/03/2018