Design masters: Happy 40th birthday to Rubik's Cube

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"Oh that's shit, that's shit!" No, not a line from a rap song or a complaint from some disaffected yoof that they're misunderstood...or even Charlie Brooker commenting on something or other that actually does demand a bit of snorty ridicule. No, the pretty generic expletives were uttered by one Feliks Zemdegs...at the  Rubik's Cube World Championships. Why? Because at the competition in Las Vegas, he managed only a paltry 9.12 seconds when trying to solve a puzzle. Nonetheless, he went on to win.

If you've been on Google today, you'll have noticed the Doodle – the image replacing the word “Google” on the homepage – which today takes the form of a Rubik's Cube. For today is the 40th birthday of Hungarian designer Ernő Rubik's creation – one of the most successful toys ever made.

It wasn't always the case, though. In fact, after the tidal wave of popularity back in the early Eighties, it did more or less die a rather clunky death, apart from the odd weirdy beardy (or weirdy bum-fluffy) in a Star Trek T-shirt with disconcertingly fast fingers whom you wouldn't necessarily invite for a drink. Oh, and Ed Miliband, who can apparently solve the puzzle in a rather impressive 90 seconds. But then, back in the Eighties, I imagine he may well have been even more geeky than he still is. I mean, let's face it, the man apparently confessed to not having had a girlfriend at university. Hm, figures.

But in the late Nineties and into the 2000s, Rubik's Cube started to make a comeback. And the solvers of the “code” began to achieve celebrity status.

Looking at the speed of Feliks Zemdegs and his lightning-fast fingers, the time in which he – and the other world championship contenders – can solve Rubik's Cube is astonishing. The record is a superlative 5.55 seconds. So fast are their fingers that, during the championships, they can no longer use Rubik's original design. They have to use models revamped in China which incorporate a special frictionless motion. The old style too often got stuck. But in extreme cases, the newer models can even explode.

How cool is that?! Your fingers work so fast that they cause toys to blow up! That's like a superpower!

But anyway, those at the top of the Rubik's Cube hall of fame are not the geeks or nerds one might suspect they are. Yes, they do tend to be male and massively intelligent; many study maths or science. But far from the Dr Sheldon Cooper stereotype of Big Bang Theory fame, they are well-adjusted and socially savvy “normal” guys. They just happen to be very big fans of a really quite astonishing creation.

What is remarkable about the creation of the Cube is that Ernő Rubik himself had trouble cracking his own code. There are many ways to solve the puzzle, but even though he was the creator, he didn't work out the quickest way. What he did know is that if one started with the corners, that would be a good way to go – hence the “corners first” method. But these days, the fastest solvers of the puzzle use a layer by layer technique called the Fridrich Method, which can be likened to building up the layers of a cake.

When one considers that it takes on average 56 turns to solve a puzzle (and no two puzzles will be the same – there are actually more than 43 quintillion different combinations), and the record is 5.55 seconds, that means that these guys are spinning the Cube ten times per second. Or, to put it another way, in the time it's taken you to read this sentence, they've just solved another puzzle.

Lord knows what they'd achieve in “real life” during the time it's taken you to read this article...

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a blogger, copywriter and editor

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