Written by Raymond Nakamura
Once upon a time, Raymond earned his doctorate studying the hydrodynamics of sand dollars. Nowadays, when he’s not employed as personal assistant to his lovely and demanding daughter, he enjoys creating fun and educational experiences in science and history using facts and fiction, words, pictures and whatever else is handy. Follow him on Twitter @raymondsbrain

Rubik's cubes

Created date

Sunday, September 13, 2015 - 8:00am

Ever Wonder About the Rubik's Cube?

After thirty-five years, I finally "solved" a Rubik's Cube. I was in high school when they first came out and, try as I might, I never got beyond one face. Fast forward to middle age and my daughter buys a dollar store knock-off "magic cube." It came with a sheet of illustrated instructions but didn't move very smoothly and kept falling apart. 

So we broke down and invested in an official Rubik's Cube. It moved much more smoothly and has not fallen apart yet. My daughter fiddled with it for a while until she gave up. But for me, the mixed up cube remained an itch I had to scratch. Every day after dinner, I would work on the cube until I messed something up. Finally after solving only one face, I resorted to reading the instructions. I told myself that this was more like following a cooking recipe than cheating.

The official Rubik's Cube website has a downloadable illustrated manual and a series of videos in six stages. They use specific terms or symbols for the different components and arrangements and they highlight the faces of interest for a particular strategical move. And of course, the internet is overflowing with various approaches in various media. In the end, I found it more convenient to follow the piece of paper that came with the dollar store knock-off, which mostly relied on pictures. Perhaps I am a visual learner. 

If you do the math, the cube has over 43 quintillion (18 zeroes in Canada and the US) possible configurations. That's why they don't have a single series of moves to follow; it depends on the particular arrangement of your cube. 

Researchers have figured out that in the worse case scenario, the optimum number of moves to a solution (sometimes absurdly called God's number) will be 20. Approaches for beginners, like the one I followed, will usually result in more moves.

I finally did it after about six days. Surely you can do better. If you plan on giving it a try, here are a few newbie things I discovered:

  1. Keep the cube in the same orientation: As you do a series of moves, you have to be careful to keep the cube in the same orientation. If you change it then, it gets messed up.

  2. Keep track of what step you are on: If you don't do all the steps in the right order, you'll get messed up.

  3. Do one step at a time. My biggest problem was that I thought the instructions showed only ninety-degree moves, but some of them were combined into one-eighty moves that I hadn't noticed and got messed up.

If you are the sort of person keen enough to actually learn how to recognize the different configurations and remember which series of movements to use for that situation, the world record is now under six seconds (5.25). People can do it blindfolded or with their feet in less than thirty seconds. If you are one of these kind of people, please share some of your tips in the comments.

If you love puzzles, you're in luck because we love puzzles too. In fact, we have a whole Puzzles and Illusions Gallery to prove it. Be sure to try out some of these brain twisters next time you're at TELUS World of Science. If you're the kind of person who likes to do their homework first, checkout our puzzle busting videos for the Soma Cube and the Red Goose before your visit.

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