Rubik's Cube: 40 years of making us feel stupid

It looks so simple, so solvable. Six sides, six colors, each plastic click making you feel as if you're spinning closer to victory — which, of course, you're not.

Therein lies the lasting allure of the Rubik's Cube, which turns 40 years old this week — a confounding contraption whose chief selling point is making us feel like dunces as we try to align those white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow sides.

Talk about a dysfunctional relationship! More than 350 million have been sold, making the cube one of the bestselling toys of all time, according to Time. We adore that tough little cube — which can be had for about $10 these days — even as we hurl it in frustration with the ferocity of a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Ah, weird wacky love.

Hampton E. Black is the president of the Tampa Bay Cubers, which isn't exactly bursting with members these days.

"I thought there'd be more people interested," he says. But the 43-year-old aerospace engineer from Temple Terrace isn't giving up his dream of finding fellow passionate Cubers in the area. After all, his affection for speed cubing is just getting started.

"I couldn't solve it back in the '80s," Black says. But in 2008, as a retro lark, someone gave him one for Christmas. He bought a how-to DVD, did a little studying. He's now solved the famous cube thousands of times. His top time is 42 seconds, "but I'm hoping to get that under 30."

Black says solving the Rubik's Cube can easily be learned, but that's not why it's famous. That's not why it's permanently displayed in New York City's Museum of Modern Art. Or why it has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Or why the No. 1 comedy on TV, The Big Bang Theory, features a tissue box designed like a Rubik's Cube. It's revered because it's hard.

And to think it was a bit of a fluke. It was invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and architecture professor Erno Rubik. He wasn't trying to make a puzzle that would make your brain explode; he was merely trying to illustrate a point about moving parts to students. It took him a month to solve it after he scrambled it. Necessity — or madness — is the mother of invention.

Originally called the Magic Cube, the toy wouldn't become a puckishly perplexing pop-cultural touchstone until the '80s, when it spawned competitive championships, how-to-solve-it books, even a shoddily animated Saturday morning cartoon show called Rubik, the Amazing Cube. It's not so much that we bonded over the toy; we bonded over the fact that we were all stumped together.

Okay, we all knew that guy or girl who easily matched up all of the colors into blissfully solid sides, usually in some ridiculous time, as if the only way to win was a sneak attack before the cube knew what you were up to. We, the dumbfounded, made ourselves feel better by assuming these solvers were antisocial, unloved shut-ins.

No offense to Melbourne, Australia, teenager Feliks Zemdegs, who last year at age 17 solved his Rubik's Cube in an average 8.18 seconds at the World Rubik's Cube Championship, which is governed by the World Cube Association, the governing body of speed solving and speed cubing. (Yeah, who knew?)

"I don't know how to explain it," Zemdegs told London's Guardian, "but you don't, you don't really think. You just do it."

Not thinking is probably solid advice. Heck, most of us aren't smart enough to understand the various algorithms needed to get the job done. (The "Singmaster notation" is a favorite attack, apparently, although others prefer the "Wolstenholme notation.") We're much better at scrambling the whole dang thing, which can be done 45 quintillion ways (really).

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Rubik's Cube, Monday's Google "doodle" was an interactive digital facsimile of the toy. You could spin it; you could try to solve it. You just had to be careful when throwing your computer across the room.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

Rubik's Cube: 40 years of making us feel stupid 05/19/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 12:36pm]

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