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Rubik’s Cube’s mystique remains 40 years later

June 22, 2014 at 1:19 PM EST
In a classic Rubik’s Cube, twenty-six cubes are designed to interlock and rotate around an axis that can be shuffled 43-quintillion ways. It couldn’t be simpler invention, but for most of us, the Rubik's Cube poses a daunting task. This year, the famed cube turns 40 and a new exhibit is proving that time is only adding to the mystique of this cultural icon. NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It couldn’t be simpler or, for most of us, more difficult.

Twenty-six cubes designed to interlock and rotate around an axis that can be shuffled 43-quintillion ways. (That’s 43 with 18-zeros after it.)

And yet, all Rubik’s Cubes can be solved in 20 or fewer moves. It’s puzzled, pained, delighted and challenged millions — from young children to this robot.

PAUL HOFFMAN: I mean, it’s industrial strength. It normally paints cars on an assembly line, but it’s been programmed to do a Rubik’s Cube.

JEFFREY BROWN: The robot is part of a new exhibit called ‘Beyond Rubik’s Cube,’ that opened in April, at the Liberty Science Center – across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey – to celebrate the 40th birthday of the cube.

ERNO RUBIK: 40 years is it’s a very long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in a rare public appearance, inventor Erno Rubik was on hand to meet fans and talk about the impact of his work.

Rubik was a 29-year-old architecture professor in Budapest when he created the cube in 1974. What began as a teaching tool to demonstrate spatial relations for his students grew into something that, by his own account is, well, less practical.

ERNŐ RUBIK: And there is no practical use, so it’s something that you–

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s no practical use?

ERNŐ RUBIK: Yes. It’s– it’s– you can do it– very– it depend on just you and– for fun and– to spend some time, if you have some free time. So puzzles are interesting in general.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone who’s struggled with that object ever since will no doubt be happy to learn that it took the inventor more than a month to solve his own creation for the first time.

ERNŐ RUBIK: I remember it was really an emotional moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an emotional moment–

ERNŐ RUBIK: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was the emotion?

ERNŐ RUBIK: Emotion. If– if you have a very difficult task and you’re able to succeed, to– to– to do it, it’s a very strong feeling. And a good feeling. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s estimated that more than 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold since the puzzle was launched internationally in 1980, making it the best-selling toy of all time. About one-in-seven people have played with a Rubik’s Cube. In case you’re wondering, Rubik lives comfortably but, having invented the cube originally in then-communist Hungary, never got as rich as he might have.

PAUL HOFFMAN: What I love about Rubik’s Cube is Erno could have invented it 50 years earlier, okay? It didn’t depend on any scientific or technological advance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Hoffman is C.E.O and president of the Liberty Science Center, as well as creative director of the exhibit.

PAUL HOFFMAN: I think of it as an object that brings so many things together. First of all, it appeals to many of our senses. It’s tactile. It’s fun to play with. You see people playing with it who even have no intention to– of solving it, ’cause it’s pleasing to hold.

And then, of course, it appeals to our brain. And I think, we look at this object, it comes like this in the box, okay, with no instructions. And yet, you know what to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibit features everything from the original rubber-band and paper-clip prototype that Erno Rubik created in 1974, to a bedazzled cube of rubies, sapphires and diamonds.

PAUL HOFFMAN: What Rubik’s Cube has done is inspire people in all sorts of fields. Artists all over the world have used thousands of Rubik’s Cubes to make pixel portraits. So in this exhibit, we let our visitors do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to art, the exhibit reminds visitors how much the Rubik’s Cube has become ingrained in popular culture over the last few decades.

And even at 40 years old, the cube continues to inspire the next generation of curious minds, including competitive “speed cubers” like Michael Shao.

MICHAEL SHAO: No two solves for me are ever the exact same. Regardless of how you look at it, I’m always turning it in a different way. You always have to think about how to optimize and get faster, ‘cause there’s no perfect way to solve it. Even the world record holders right now will not be world record holders in five years from now. And so it’s always interesting to watch the scene change and watch how to get better and exactly how to iterate further from where you currently are now. And that’s exactly what keeps me interested.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shao’s personal best for solving the cube is 14-seconds. Not bad, you think? Well, he has a long way to go: the current world record for solving the Rubik’s cube is 5.55 seconds.