The reclusive inventor of the Rubik's Cube wants to do more than amuse you

Math, man vs. nature, and me.

Rubik's cube solution puzzles
43 quintillion possible combinations—and one correct solution.Deposit Photos

For those outside the fold, the Rubik's cube is cognitive kryptonite. Until this week, I'd certainly never solved one. Even now, saying that I solved a Rubik's cube feels like a grievous overstatement of my accomplishments. The truth is that we—a patient pre-teen "cuber" whose solve time is 47 seconds, her slightly-less-patient middle school teacher (whose solve time, she's embarrassed to admit, is closer to a minute and a half), and me—completed a cube together. Our collective solve time? One stressful hour.

The site of my public humiliation could not have been more incongruous with the task at hand. This week, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted groups of elite, would-be, and reluctant cubers for oohs, ahhs, personal guidance, and the gospel of the Rubik’s cube.

Scrunched into a private dining room at the museum’s incomprehensibly fancy Michelin-starred restaurant, observers and acolytes alternated between trying to convince a chunk of colored plastic to give up its closely-guarded secrets, and sitting briefly at the knee of its reclusive inventor. Hungarian professor Ernő Rubik developed the confounding game in 1974, largely for his own intellectual amusement. Not one for public appearances, his presence at the event was the central draw. In our brief two-question conversation, Rubik’s eyes, which were bluer than the blue of his cube, pierced my puzzle-hating soul, but he spoke softly about art, the struggle between man and nature, and the horrors of too much success.

He would know. At the outset, Rubik's cube looked like another '80s fad. Between 1980 and 1982, the toy's first years on the market, its distributor sold 150 million cubes. But, like a dying technicolor star, it quickly faded into obscurity. However, the new millennium has seen a resurgence of the cube, which is, a representative of the company tells us, the greatest selling toy of all time.

More than 60 percent of people polled report having played with one (“more than the iPhone!”), she tells us. This six-sided conqueror, which has people in the room vigorously sighing with excitement, has made its way around the world. But she’s not here just to tell us about cornered markets and global dominance. It quickly becomes clear that few to zero toy companies believe in their product with the evangelical fervor of the Rubik’s company, which moved $250 million dollars worth of perplexing product last year, by the way.

From a business perspective, the cube's simple inscrutability is a boon. Mattel spends most of its time defending Barbie from concerned parents, educators, and activists, who criticize the little creature's proportions, fearing its influence on the body image of real human children. More mind-full companies aren't immune. Baby Einstein has come under fire for producing educational videos that don't actually educate. After acquiring the company for $25 million in 2002, Disney had, by 2009, admitted there was no actual value to the video series and offered helicopter parents a refund. (The lost hypothetical IQ points, however, could never be returned.)

Rubik's cubes, by contrast, get few complaints. Geometry, last I checked, remains un-politicized. The colors, while bright, are strictly regimented, lending them the soothing effect of a Mondrian painting. In popular culture, it's depicted as the key to the universe; solve it, like Will Smith's character did in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, and the world reveals itself to you. No wonder, in an era of unmitigated chaos, this plastic idol is increasingly the center of vaguely religious gatherings like these.

The company representative then reads a note from a teacher in sixth grade teacher in Washington state who had a student speak for the first time after solving a Rubik's cube (he said "thank you" in response to his classmate's applause). The room gasps. But this shock-inducing anecdote speaks to a remarkable and well-documented truth about the Rubik's cube's resurgence: It's created a vibrant community. As the New York Times reported last month, many teens, almost all of them boys, who might otherwise be socially adrift—maybe they're on the Autism spectrum, or have hyperactivity disorders, or just struggle to fit in—have found acceptance and stimulation in the world of competitive cubing.

But that, we're assured, is just the half of it, as two teachers take the makeshift stage, donning shirts that say "Did It!" The Rubik's cube, they explain, is fundamentally algorithmic. Some people can solve it through trial and error, or Beautiful Mind their way to some magic solution, but today most learn with an instruction book, like the one sitting atop our white cloth napkins.

Once you’ve defined your goal—“I want to align this orange face with this other orange face”—you can follow a series of steps to accomplish it. An ease with algorithms, they note, is increasingly important in a world dominated by science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. The logic of the Rubik’s cube has, after all, been used by software developers to craft encryption schemes for software for decades. It has 43 quintillion possible combinations—and only one solution.

Puzzling out this 3-D game can also help students hone their spatial thinking skills, according to the presenters. And spatial thinking skills are intimately connected to success in any STEM field. "To think spatially," the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine write, "entails knowing about" space, representation, and reasoning. This is the kind of knowledge we tap into every day, when timing our commutes or taking detours, reading maps, and, yes, solving Rubik's cubes.

In STEM fields, spatial thinking is essential for comprehending the DNA’s double helix, or designing the wings of a new airplane. There are many ways to hone these abilities, like building model airplanes, or even playing sports, each of which is jam-packed with lessons in physics. While I couldn’t find any independent, peer-reviewed studies on the Rubik’s cube/spatial reasoning connection, the commonsense connection set the room buzzing.

Rubik's cube solution
43 quintillion possible combinations—and one solution.Deposit Photos

Now that the speech-making is over, we set about our "journey," as the company representative calls it. But holding my Rubik's cube over a gourmet pear and pink radicchio salad, I feel totally helpless. Fortunately, the personalized coaching promised in the PR email arrives, and we set about making a "daisy": one yellow dot centered between four white cubes. But when she leaves me to it, I don't know how to proceed. Memories of avoiding these contraptions like an intellectual plague—in childhood and more recently, in the PopSci office, where at least one cube seems to always making the rounds—flood back to me. Given I'm in public, where waterworks are discouraged, and a child is solving a Rubik's cube in record time next to me without breaking a sweat, I persevere.

The next step, which required excessive assistance from the middle schooler teacher, was to create the famed “white cross.” This trick allows you to bring all of the white into alignment, forming the “bottom” face of the cube from which all other sides can be tackled. What I hadn’t realized was just how many sides there were. A cube, of course, has six faces, but the Rubik’s cube is further divided into three horizontal and goes three vertical rows deep. For any given “algorithm,” you must distinguish between the front face and the back, compromised of the farthest set of vertical rows, the right and left sides, the top and the bottom—it’s dizzying.

In another decade, I would have given up, or had to ask a prodigious friend who'd figured it out themselves. But in 2018, I have the benefit of a Rubik's-produced manual (which you can find online here) that guides me as I slowly work my way up, row by row, three blue, three red, three yellow, three orange, three green. Repeat once in the middle, and once at the top.

Completing my first Rubik’s brought what one teacher in the room termed “that solved cube smile.” As much as I had resisted the oohing, ahhing, and clapping that the early speeches had elicited from other participants, I couldn’t resist telling her how right she was. I was proud. The “journey” had been worth it.

Back in the office, looking at the Ernő Rubik-signed Rubik’s cube on my desk, I can’t say for sure what I’ve learned. If I kept practicing, would I just get really good at Rubik’s cubes? Or would I find that other, related skills grew, as atrophied parts of my brain bulked up, and all manner of spatial solutions made themselves known to me? I don’t know. But in that moment when all the pieces locked into place, when I’d restored order to this scrambled shape, my mind was clear for a moment. Instead of the regular worries of the day, I was filled with a sense of endless potential.

What puzzle should I try next?