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Book Review: Cracking the Cube

Explore why the Rubik's Cube, invented in the 1970s by a professor of architecture, continues to test the wits of college students, engineering professors, math wizards and 'speedcubers'
BY Uttara Choudhury |   05-10-2017

Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik’s Cube Solving by Ian Scheffler, published by Simon & Schuster

Author Ian Scheffler is an aspiring speed cuber

There are a number of ways to test your spatial and problem-solving abilities, but the Rubik’s Cube is perhaps the most popular. The twisty puzzle continues to spawn speedcubers on college campuses who take part in speed solving competitions across Ivy League universities like MIT.

In 1974, Hungarian architecture professor Ernö Rubik was teaching design at the Academy of Applied Arts in Budapest. He was looking for a way to demonstrate 3D movement to his students and found himself staring into the River Danube, looking at how the water moved around the pebbles. This became the inspiration for the Rubik’s Cube’s twisting mechanism. The fact that it can do this without falling apart is part of its magic. Professor Rubik designed a small puzzle for his students made from wood blocks and paper clips. A year later, he would patent the Rubik’s Cube, which is the most successful puzzle game the world has ever known. 

In Cracking the Cube, Ian Scheffler, journalist and aspiring speedcuber, attempts to break into the international phenomenon of speed solving the Rubik’s Cube. Scheffler asks readers to “think chess played at the speed of Ping-Pong” while exploring the greater lessons that can be learned through speed solving the Rubik’s Cube.

The author gets engrossed in solving the Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds, the quasi-mystical barrier known as “sub-20”, which is to cubing what four minutes is to the mile: the difference between the best and everyone else. You have to bear in mind that there are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s Cube so it can take some weeks to crack it, if at all.

“Most people will likely never solve Rubik’s Cube, so going under 20 seconds may not mean much if you haven’t cubed, but in competitions, a few seconds make all the difference,” writes Scheffler.    

The world record for speed cubing was broken in December by Australian Feliks A. Zemdegs, and now stands at an astonishing 4.73 seconds.

“Everyone knows who stands a chance of winning the big competitions: Feliks, Mats, Cornelius. They are the professional athletes — they go by one name only, like Messi and Ronaldo — and have the sponsorships and devoted fan base to prove it,” writes Scheffler.

Feliks, who has studied advanced math, is now focusing on his engineering degree at university — although he is still keeping a hand in the game. Pro speedcubers like Feliks are flown around the world for competitions, earn sponsorship deals, and have a huge social media following. Feliks’ YouTube page has nearly 200,000 subscribers, and provides a revenue stream via the ads on the site.

Feliks’ preferred method for speed solving the Rubik’s Cube is the popular Fridrich Method, also known as the CFOP method, developed by Binghamton University professor Dr Jessica Fridrich. This is the method that most top speedcubers use, and involves building the cube from the bottom upwards. Dr Fridrich first cracked the colorful walls of the Rubik’s Cube in 1981 as a teenager living in a Czech coal mining city. She then spent decades decoding the mathematically intricate plastic block. She became the architect of the Fridrich Method, which is basically a roadmap that requires a speedcuber to memorize and unleash at least 53 algorithms, each of which is a series of turns of the cube’s rows and columns in a given sequence. The CFOP method consists of four big steps: Cross, F2L (First Two Layers), OLL (Orient Last Layer), and PLL (Permute Last Layer).

While expanding on the Fridrich Method, the book tells readers that the method requires first solving the top two layers of the three-tiered Rubik’s Cube, selecting the face with the central white square as the roof. Most speedcubers learn to do this by intuition, improvising until the white face remains intact and other squares fall into place on their correctly colored sides. The crux of the Fridrich Method lies in solving the third and last layer of the cube without compromising the color scheme put into place in the initial steps.

To solve the third layer, the speedcuber must assemble all of the yellow squares on the bottom face by applying one of 40 algorithms in a phase called “orientation.” The cuber must instantly recognize which algorithm to apply in order to have any hope of solving it with haste. In the final step, permutation, one of 13 algorithms restores the cube’s chromatic harmony, one color per face. The world’s fastest speedcubers, like Feliks and Dr Fridrich, know more than 100 algorithms to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

What are the benefits of solving the Rubik’s Cube anyway? It keeps your brain alert, sharp and nimble. Sure. Then there are more subtle benefits. Dr Fridrich says she was drawn to camera ballistics because of its inscrutable mysteries, similar to those held by the Rubik’s Cube. In her research in digital forensics, Dr Fridrich uses computers to tackle another seemingly intractable puzzle: matching a photograph with the individual camera that took it. Law enforcement agencies have started using the techniques to track down child pornographers and movie pirates.

The author notes that the Rubik’s Cube plays an important role in opening people’s minds. “The Rubik’s Cube has become a symbol of the world today. It’s hard to solve. It doesn’t submit to easy answers. And once you solve it, you have to start all over again,” writes Scheffler pertinently.

 

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

 
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