Three Dimensional Science

The World Science Forum currently underway in Budapest is a summit of academics who have traded their lab coats for leadership positions atop agencies that promote and fund scientific research. These are fine people who support some of the best work in the world — balancing real, complex science with often Byzantine organizational and national politics to advance the intellectual work that drives our world forward. To an outsider (that would be me), they are also convivially self-parodying academic Eurocrats who could have walked off the pages of a David Lodge novel.

The United States maintains posh embassies around the world to host worthies from events such as these and our current ambassador to Hungary did not disappoint. Obama’s emissary is Eleni Tsakopoulous Kounalakis, a Berkeley grad who donates to Stanford for all the wrong reasons, daughter of a real estate tycoon and a California-based Democratic activist of the Phil Angelides school of progressive realtors. A Democratic Donald Trump. She raised more than a million bucks for Hillary, which made her ambassador material.

She was a fine hostess and thoughtfully included entrepreneurs from interesting Hungarian startups including Prezi, UStream, Logmein, and NNG (formerly iGo). But the highlight of the reception and dinner hosted at the embassy came when Koualakis tapped my shoulder to introduce a short, shy, graying fellow “I’d like you to meet Erno Rubik”. I fought back the urge to bow, shook his hand, and realized that he, like many others in the room, would rather be working.

Rubik is, of course, the inventor of the world’s most popular toy — the maddening twistable puzzle instantly understood by any child and rarely solved even by accomplished adults. It has spawned an industry of competitions, including speed-cubing, foot cubing (current world record for solving a Rubik’s cube using only your feet is a bit over a minute), and blindfold cubing (look at the scrambled cube, get blindfolded, and work from memory. Good luck with that.)

We were all challenged to complete a scrambled cube (yeah, I know. There is an app for that. You photograph the cube and it shows you how to solve it. Erno even earns royalties on every download. But for once, I resisted). Personally, I always thought that the real innovation behind the cube was the weird bit of plastic in the middle that can be twisted every which way without breaking. And yes, I have taken a cube apart to see it, although I admit that there was a hammer involved. (If you want to try it, just twist the top 45 degrees and you can pop the thing apart pretty easily. Of course, you can reassemble it solved — that’s how many people do it).

Naturally neither Rubik, America’s top scientists nor Hungary’s top entrepreneurs, people who solve three dimensional problems in their sleep, could restore a scrambled cube, which got me to wondering: which came first, the mathematics of the cube, or the puzzle itself? Surely a brilliant Hungarian mathematician like Rubik had computed the various solutions to a cube. Perhaps he had even tried to solve the “God number” question: what is the fewest number of moves that will restore any cube? The God number turns out to be 20 for a 3*3 cube, and a lot of mathematics together with 35 years of Google-donated CPU time went into figuring that out. Rubik confessed that he is by training an architect and game designer, not a mathematician.

There are of course, people who make solving Rubik’s cubes look incredibly easy. For example, the world’s record for solving a cube is….you won’t believe it.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.