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Solving a cube comes full circle

February 27, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette February 27, 2019

It started with a gift. It was not the biggest package under the tree, but, in time, perhaps one that brought the most joy — and frustration.

As our son, Adam, peeled back the wrapping paper, a smile filled his face and he triumphantly thrust the object upward, arm fully stretched, “A Rubik’s Cube,” he declared.

Later that day, after the gifts had been opened; the homemade pancakes, locally crafted maple syrup and seasoned turkey sausage had been consumed; and we had returned from a hike, Adam began to play with his cube.

Each face of the six-sided object included three rows, each with three small squares. At the start, the nine small squares on each face are a uniform color — red, blue, green, yellow, orange and white. As Adam twisted and turned the vertical columns and horizontal rows — up, down, left, right — the Basic 3 x 3 Cube transformed into a random mix of colors all-around.

Adam was instantly intrigued by the mystery of the cube, seeking to understand how it could be manipulated back to its original form. It did not take long for his eight-year-old mind to reach a level of frustration and defeat that I recall experiencing as a teenager, when the cube craze emerged in the U.S. during the 1980s.

Word of Adam’s gift, along with his joy and mounting frustration, reached my father-in-law, Ken, when we video conferenced from our living room in Massachusetts to their home in Florida. Seeing the cube in Adam’s hands rekindled Ken’s interest in the mind-bending puzzle, recounting how he, too, had been captured by its allure years ago.

When our family traveled to Florida in February, Ken, affectionately known to Adam and big sister, Zoe, as Poppy, encouraged Adam to bring his new toy. Poppy had bought his own cube in anticipation of our visit and, according to Granny, had become obsessed with solving it.

So, shortly after our arrival, Poppy sat with Adam and showed him written formulas and patterns — algorithms — he retrieved from the internet that are used to solve the cube. This methodical approach suited Poppy, who in the 1950s was first schooled in electronics and electrical engineering while serving in the U.S. Navy, aboard one of the first nuclear submarines.

The Beginner’s Cube Sequence includes a series of nine formulas, which are written as strings of letters, including — F (front), U (up), R (right), B (back), L (left) and D (down). Each letter by itself represents a 90-degree clockwise turn and a letter followed by an apostrophe means a 90-degree-counter-clockwise turn.

The first of nine algorithms read:  U’ L’ U L U F U’ F’, whereby one holds the cube in the left hand, puts the right hand in the top corner and proceeds — up counter-clockwise, left counter-clockwise, up clockwise, left clockwise, up clockwise, forward clockwise, up counter-clockwise and forward counter-clockwise. In step two, while holding the cube horizontally, complete the second formula: F R U R’ U’ F. After completing all nine formulas, without any mistakes, the cube is solved, back to six faces of uniform color.

Adam quickly grew frustrated as he attempted to practice the algorithms. My own mind struggled to grasp the mathematical sequencing, too, and I quickly concluded that despite Poppy’s best intentions, Adam was not quite ready for such sophisticated methods. By the end of the trip, however, while Adam had not solved the cube, he was increasingly able to memorize and apply the patterned moves, with lots of patient coaching from Poppy, which was a gift in itself.

Back home, Adam continued to follow the written formulas, occasionally seeking additional coaching during weekly video conference calls, and within a couple months was victorious in his quest to solve the cube. After some weeks and a number of successes, the cube sat on Adam’s desk collecting dust, until summer when he and Poppy reengaged their growing love of cubing at the family beach house in Connecticut. Adam became more proficient, but come fall the cube, once again, sat unused in his room.

A year after receiving the gift, Adam reportedly bored during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, returned to his cube. Resourcefully, he used the family iPad to find the formulas he had lost, writing them down in his notebook and proceeding to find and view YouTube videos about solving the cube.

This time, success came more quickly and easily and, inspired by videos of international competitions he found online, Adam began to time his efforts in what is referred to as speedcubing, where the world record for solving the Basic 3 x 3 is 4.22 seconds! Soon, what initially had taken Adam months, he could routinely accomplish in under two minutes.

With the money he earned shoveling snow for a neighbor, Adam logged onto Amazon and bought a set of speedcubes, which are designed to spin quickly; it was a four-pack with 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 4 x 4, and 5 x 5 cubes. More YouTube videos and new algorithms furthered Adam’s cubing obsession. Then, in a very sweet gesture, Adam logged onto Amazon and purchased a 2 x 2 speed cube and had it sent to Florida so that he can teach Poppy how to speedcube during our next visit.

I am fond of saying to Zoe and Adam that there is always more than one way to solve a problem or a puzzle. In this case, one gift led to another, and another, showing that for Adam and his Poppy, a circle — the circle of giving — is the best way to solve a cube.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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