Best Job in Science: Rubik’s Cube Researcher
43 quintillion possible configurations, but only 27 moves required
PopSci’s annual “Worst Jobs in Science” issue hits stands this week, and let us tell you, it’s a lulu (whale-feces collector, anyone?). But a new study reveals two guys who just might have the _best job in science: Northeastern University computer science professor Gene Coopman and grad student Dan Kunkleput put grant money to good use during a study published last week that proves any Rubik’s cube configuration can be solved in 26 moves, beating the previously held record of 27 moves set in 1997.
They were working on a $200,000 endowment from the National Science Foundation to develop 20 terabytes of storage using new techniques in mathematical group theory—and 7 terabytes of RAM—to run single cube moves 100,000,000 times per second.
Why spend all that processing power, cash, and know-how on an obsolete children’s toy from the 1970’s, you might reasonably ask? “The Rubik’s cube is a testing ground for problems of search and enumeration,” Cooperman said in a press release. “Search and enumeration is a large research area encompassing many researchers working in different disciplines – from artificial intelligence to operations. The Rubik’s cube allows researchers from different disciplines to compare their methods on a single, well-known problem.”
The Rubik’s cube contains 43 quintillion possible configurations. In 1997, UCLA professor Richard Korf published a study showing that the optimal solution for the cube is 18 moves, but no one was ever able to do it in under 27. But the real questions: How many moves did it take Will Smith’s character in Pursuit of Happyness? And how do we get a grant to find easiest way to transform Optimus Prime from robot form to truck form? —Pieter VanNoordenen