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Do you think like a square or a cube?

Since the quarantine began, a Rubik’s Cube has sat unsolved on my bedside table. I’ve never solved one, and I’m not the most patient person out there. But hey, what else does an antsy, socially-distanced young man do in times like this?

I decided to approach this challenge the same way I do most of my projects — initiate the process, give it plenty of time to marinate, poke at it here and there, and then strike while it’s hot. But quickly I found there would be no striking, and not much marinating either.

After several aimless days of scrambling the cube (and my brain), the completed puzzle felt like a distant mirage: dreams of cleanly-colored faces somewhere over the rainbow. Meanwhile, I was stuck in sepia-tone Kansas, achieving nothing but finger calisthenics.

This disheartening ordeal reminded me of my childhood attempts at the same puzzle. In the mind of my sly youngster self, it seemed a good idea to simply remove the colored stickers and reapply them in solved form; or in other ill-conceived attempts, detaching the smaller “cubies” altogether. All the glory of solving it, with none of the work! Looking back, it was pretty naive of me — both as a child and today — to expect success in the puzzle without learning anything about it.

This three-inch beast has 43 quintillion possible alignments, but only one correct one. So unless you’re a savant, or have a spare year on your hands, the only one way to conquer it is by learning an algorithm.

Algorithm? No, not that mythical deity dropping content in your Instagram timeline. I’m talking about rules. Problem-solving operations. A memorized sequence leading you to a solution. When it comes to beating the cube, your key to success may look something like this:


There you go… ready to solve it yet?

Of course it’s more complicated than that, but what does it say about the puzzle if practically all paths to a solution require memorization? I did enough of that in middle-school math class!

The Rubik’s Cube is widely considered to be the world’s top-selling toy, but can it even be considered a “toy”? After all, toys are for playing, and memorizing moves doesn’t sound like playing to me. Similarly, I wouldn’t consider the puzzle “solved” it if it required disassembly or sticker-peeling to get there. Still, the cube sits there on my bedside table, beckoning. Thoughts turn over in my head: Should I learn the algorithms? Should I just peel the stickers?

The best-selling book of 1981 was a tutorial on solving the Rubik’s Cube. A gargantuan effort has been collectively devoted to defeating this puzzle — using hands, feet, blindfolded, while juggling, the list goes on. The “speedcubing” community, which seems to be thriving, according to my YouTube perusal, constantly pushes its own envelope, both in speed and ingenuity. The record time for the fastest cube solve is, as verified by the World Cube Association, 3.47 seconds.

Considering all these characteristics, the cubing world has more in common with Olympic competition than it does any “toy.” Whether it’s the maxed-out bodily exertion of the 100m sprint, or the clinically-sharp focus of archery, those at the top seem to exhibit some peak of human potential. High achievers demonstrate a blend of intense focus, rigorous training, obsessive tendencies, and certainly some natural ability in the mix. Who are these people anyway… Athletes? Geniuses? Both? Neither?

Don’t blink (source left, source right)

The closer I looked, the answer became clear: they are artists. Wait a second… maybe you’re thinking: this “left brain” discipline (or sport?) seerr ms far-flung from the realm of aesthetics and design you’d typically associate with art. Art and algorithms are beginning to seem like oil and water at this point, but bear with me…

As I mentioned, the Rubik’s Cube has only one solution, and all strategies of getting there involve sequences of algorithms. The method most apt for you depends on your level of expertise and your priorities, such as speed, minimizing move count, or doing it blindfolded. Each method bears its own affordances and shortcomings — just like any artistic medium. Pastel, acrylic, watercolor, and so on — it’s up to the artist to decide which one suits the vision. Generally, all cubing methods start with “broad strokes,” and become increasingly fine-tuned as you approach a solution.

Solving the cube, subsequent permutations advance like musical chord progressions — mathematical pathways from discordance to harmony. Much like the flow state experienced by jazz musicians or classical pianists, cubers solve complex mathematical problems in a seemingly fluid and effortless fashion. Whether it’s a piano or a Rubik’s Cube, the medium is a crucial factor: the interface between our minds and the metaphysical realm where solutions are found.

Beating the Rubik's Cube as fast as possible is one thing, but the real creativity is finding art in the solution itself. In contrast to speedcubing, another discipline tests a different form of mastery: solving the cube with the fewest moves. Instead of crushing it in a 4-second brain-blast, cubers spend up to an hour thinking through the most efficient solution. In this setting, cubing looks less like a 100m sprint, and more like a classical ballet performance— demanding not only technical prowess, but also an intuition of how to use it most gracefully. Taking it further, researchers with Google determined “God’s number” (the minimum possible moves required to solve a cube, given any possible permutation) for a regular 3x3x3 cube: 20 moves. Surely there’s something creative going on here!

He hath spoken (source)

Normally I wouldn’t use the word “art” to classify an undertaking with a single solution. Yet in the quest of that solution, an immensely rich culture and knowledge base has emerged. But still, even if there’s an art to solving it, should the Rubik’s Cube really be considered a toy? Well, it depends what you consider “play.”

Ernő Rubik never set out to build the Rubik’s Cube, or a toy for that matter. A student of architecture and design, his intention was to solve “the structural problem of moving the parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart.” It wasn’t until he scrambled his new prototype and tried to restore it, that he realized he created a puzzle.

Rubik’s accidental discovery sheds light on the creative process. Setting out on any creative project, your goal probably isn’t creating a puzzle for yourself. But faced with competing demands of medium and message, amending the parts while retaining cohesion becomes quite puzzling indeed.

The design of the Rubik’s Cube itself may extend these insights. Solving any problem, your range of solutions is determined by your perspective. You can’t compose a song with nothing but a bassline, nor can you bake a cake with only flour. Mix in some piano, some sugar… let the elements mingle and eventually something starts working. In the same way, the six faces of the Rubik’s Cube aren’t meant to be solved independently. After all, it’s a cube, not a square. You won’t get anywhere until you see it for the multidimensional object it is.

It’s unsurprising, given the tenacious spirit of the cubing community, that many challengers aren’t satisfied with the 3x3x3 cubes. From modest 4x4x4 cubes, to the 22x22x22 “Yottaminx,” the 28x28x28 “Megaminx” and beyond, these daunting puzzles represent a ceaseless push towards a multidimensional perspective (at least in my mind). Bump up the number of faces, and the pool of wrong answers grows exponentially, but so do the possible paths to a solution.

The peculiar thing about these higher-order puzzles is that the more complex they get, the more they begin to resemble spheres. Imagine taking a blocky 8 bit basketball icon and pumping up the resolution — contours begin to emerge. If a 2D square represents a singular perspective, then what’s the sphere? Perfect omniscience? Level 99 Zen Mode? Nirvana? Regardless, we’re not achieving it anytime soon, but it’s worth striving towards.

In Ernő Rubik’s own words, the solved cube is a sight of terror: ‘’There is something terrifying in its calm state, like a wild beast at rest, a tiger in repose, its power lurking.” Following that illustration, the mega-cubes could be seen as a pack of 100 tigers (especially with names like Megaminx). Confronted with this fight-or-flight moment, the conquest of the Megaminx epitomizes the “fight” disposition. But what does that make “flight”? What about those of us (er… me) who would more readily peel off and rearrange the stickers?

While I never got the satisfaction of solving the puzzle with my own hands, I did find a unique joy in taking it out of the box and scrambling it up. Is that “flight”? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely a release of potential energy. The boulder is already at the top of the hill, all it needs is a little push. That’s what art is to me: taking a world of puzzles still in their boxes, or better yet, seemingly “solved puzzles,” and scrambling them up to unleash the wild beasts within.

43 quintillion is a BIG number. Paring those possibilities down to a single solution undoubtedly requires both art and reason. Maybe it even suggests they’re in fact the same thing. But whether you’re “solving” or “playing,” dimensionality matters. Just as the higher-order cubes create more challenge, scrambling a cube lot more fun than scribbling on a square.

Whatever you’re working on, that fight-or-flight moment will arrive. When it comes, harness the tenacity of the speedcubers, but don’t be too sacred about the “solution” you arrive at. If you don’t find joy in mixing it back up again, then you’ll never have another puzzle to solve. At risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, I’d like to conclude with three lessons we can learn from all this:

Master your cube, strive for the sphere, but whatever you do, beware of the square.

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