Puzzling Over A Man And His Cube

Professor Erno Rubik's iconic puzzle, a simple, yet complex multicolored cube, took the world by storm in the 1980s and sold millions of copies. The inventor will receive a Lifetime Science Education Achievement Award from the USA Science & Engineering Festival this weekend.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

A bit later in the hour, water on the moon and a chat with Dean Kamen, but first, it was 30 years ago, 30 hard to believe, a simple but difficult puzzle took the world by storm: a cube with different colors on each of the six faces, and each face was subdivided into nine squares that could be rotated into different positions.

I'm talking of course about Rubik's Cube, and the challenge of Rubik's Cube, of course, was first you mix up all the colors because they come all aligned, and then you find a way to restore the colored squares to that correct place on the cube.

And for a while in the 1980s, Rubik's Cube was everywhere. And the puzzle is still popular today, with competitions to see who can solve the puzzle in the least amount of time. And, oh, by the way, if you are feeling competitive, you'll need to crack the 10-second barrier. Whoa.

Joining me now is the cube's inventor, Professor Erno Rubik. He's normally based in Budapest, Hungary, but he's in Washington, D.C., today receiving the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Lifetime Science Education Achievement Award there. He joins us from NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor ERNO RUBIK (Inventor, Rubik's Cube): Hi.

FLATOW: Are you tired of talking about the cube by now?

Prof. RUBIK: I don't think so. I find all the time something else to speak about. I'm really happy to share with people. But I think about why it's interesting, why is useful, why it's all the time is wondering how many people and how many different ways they find the contact with the cube, and the cube is capable to generate emotions.

FLATOW: Tell us how you how the idea popped into your head.

Prof. RUBIK: It was a long time ago. It was more 36 years ago. These (unintelligible) that we have now, it's only the introduction of the international market of the cube.

I was here in New York in 1980. But before, six years, I was thinking to generate something that is really three-dimensional and simple and capable to illustrate the rule of space and how we can structure elements moving in space.

I was teaching at that time, and I was teaching more than 20 years in the university in Hungary, and I found it useful to get the right tool to illustrate the ideas of design in space.

FLATOW: And why did you choose a cube and why nine little boxes? Why not four? Those sorts of details.

Prof. RUBIK: I was looking for the simplest possibility. So probably that is the most difficult task, what is as a designer, I found out that if you are thinking about generating a system, a system of the furnitures, a system of building, you need to find out the simple elements which are capable to form a complicated system.

And the cube is a very good example of that. So it's hard to find out a simple one.

FLATOW: Is there a formula for solving the cube?

Prof. RUBIK: There are so many formulas. That's again the interesting part of the cube. From the very beginning, it was a very difficult task for me because in that time, there was no literature on the Net. There was no Net in that time, yes? And it was necessary to find this out independently. But right now, you can find help, and that's why you can do the cube (unintelligible) started several years ago to help the user to learn. And we found out it's a very useful tool in the math Net class.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Did you view this as an exercise in creativity? And what do you think the state of creativity and invention is today compared to 30 years ago?

Prof. RUBIK: I think creativity is a capability of human being. When we're born, we're all of us has this capability. But part of us forget to use it. And I think that's a very important task for the schools to keep that capability and help to get the skill on this.

The cube is a very good example because the cube inspire people, and that's what you can see, the cube is part of the new type of geometrical puzzles, mechanical puzzles, what we call twisty puzzles. And hundreds and thousands of people around the world are working on different type of modifications and dreaming of new possibilities.

FLATOW: And what do you attribute because I'm sure you did not anticipate such a great success for your cube? What do you anticipate the reason was for that? Why was it so popular?

Prof. RUBIK: I'm very happy because of that because it's proves my idea that people are much more what usually we think about. They are really open. They are they would like to discover. And it's how can I say? On the other hand, they can enjoy what they are doing.

So math, in a classical sense, in the class, lots of kids have a distance from math, and because it's necessary to discover the possibility to play with math and to have fun with it.

And there are so many types of what we call recreational math, so many good example for that. And one of the greatest author of this is (unintelligible), for example, and you can find good books on it, and it is very good if you can give your kids the books and play with them on this.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Joe(ph) in Tallahassee. Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JOE: I had two questions. One, how many possible starting combinations are there?

Prof. RUBIK: That's a very huge number.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RUBIK: At the very beginning because the real number is too high on the box, it was writing over three million combinations, but it is only a very small fraction of the real number, which is four times three up multiplied 19.

FLATOW: Four times three to the 19th power.

Prof. RUBIK: So it's a huge, huge number. So that's, it's very hard to imagine that size of number.

JOE: And the other one is from a purely random start, what's the fewest number of moves it takes to solve it?

Prof. RUBIK: It was a very hard for - it's a mathematical question, and only in this year finalized the solution. The number is 20.

JOE: Twenty moves.

Prof. RUBIK: So from any position, you can find 20 moves to get to the other one.

FLATOW: All right, Joe, thanks.

JOE: It took me a lot more than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Mine is a doorstop, so - thanks for calling, Joe. 1-800-989-8255. And I understand that there are people who can do this in under 10 seconds.

Prof. RUBIK: Yeah, these kids are really competitive, and they really have a hard wish to win. And they're practicing, and they are working very hard, and it's amazing to see that.

FLATOW: Well, you know, when you invented it, this was before the age of the Internet and people sitting at home, you know, coach potatoes, their computers. They would be playing with a Rubik's Cube. Has the world changed enough that these manual, tactile things are not in vogue so much?

Prof. RUBIK: I think the present situation has proved that it's all the times, it is very important to keep the touch with the real world, to use our hands and to have the feelings of a form and movement.

So it's really interesting because it's more than three decades, and in the world, there are so many different so many things changed. The economic techniques, there was no mobile phone, for example, and many other things.

But the feeling to succeed a difficult task and to have the result, it's the same however you can get some kind of happiness.

FLATOW: Is there another puzzle in your future, or are you...

Prof. RUBIK: That continues. I think I'm relieved. The possibilities are endless.

FLATOW: So you're done making new puzzles?

Prof. RUBIK: Sure, sure.

FLATOW: And you're leaving that up to other people?

Prof. RUBIK: Yeah, I love to share what I've got in my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Can you play Rubik's Cube on the Internet?

Prof. RUBIK: Yeah, sure.

FLATOW: You can turn it around, and...?

Prof. RUBIK: There are thousands of different sites. There are really lots of people are involved, and they like to share.

FLATOW: Do you ever go to the contests?

Prof. RUBIK: Yes, yes, yes.

FLATOW: Are you a judge?

Prof. RUBIK: No, not really, no, but I like to see the kids.

FLATOW: Can you do it under 10 seconds?

Prof. RUBIK: I'm sure not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RUBIK: It's not for my age.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you, and congratulations on your award there at the festival.

Prof. RUBIK: Thank you very much. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: You're welcome. That was kind of interesting. We were talking with Erno Rubik. He is normally based in Budapest, Hungary. He's in Washington, receiving the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Lifetime Science Education Achievement Award there.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, a puzzle - sort of a puzzle of another sort. How much water is on the moon? If you'd like to guess, you could phone in. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be talking about, well, they found a few gallons of it, a lot more than a few gallons of water on the moon.

And that famous crash of the space probe, it's now been analyzed, published, and we'll talk about it with us - or you can talk about it with us. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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