The Rubik’s cube — a writer’s tool?

It happened one sultry summer morning; I was sipping my coffee and watching my nephew solve the Rubik’s cube in less than a minute and repeating the feat over and over again.

Somewhat captivated, I asked him, “How are you doing it. Can you teach me?”

A pair of bewildered eyes shot back: “I can’t. It’s tough. You won’t get it”, he said.

I stared into my coffee mug and thought to myself — how tough can it really be? After all, I’ve tackled calculus in college and waded through the murky waters of thermodynamics. What’s not to get in this toy puzzle.

With a bruised ego and a steely resolve, I set out to unravel the mysteries of the cube.

Solving the Rubik’s cube

Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian professor of architecture and inventor of the Rubik’s cube, initially created it as a working model to demonstrate how individual elements of a three-dimensional models can move independently without the entire model falling apart.

He made a prototype cube by arranging a bunch of smaller cubes on a central pivot. He painted each side of this prototype cube a different colour. When he moved the individual cubes from their starting position — to demonstrate how individual elements can be moved without the model coming apart — the colours got mixed up. It wasn’t easy for him to get smaller cubes back to their starting position; rumour has it that Ernő Rubik took more than a month to solve the prototype cube. Not surprising at all, since the smaller cubes can be arranged in 43 quintillion possible combinations.

26 individual cubes make up the Rubik’s cube. Current models have a standard colour scheme: white is opposite yellow, blue is opposite green and orange is opposite red. With the white side facing you, red comes on the top, green is on the right, orange at the bottom and blue on the left. The centre cube of each side works as an anchor and guide. The aim is to move the edge cubes and the corner cubes in a sequence of steps to eventually match the colour of the centre cube. These moves, also called algorithms, make the solution sound mathematical and scary. But these algorithms are just a sequence of steps to get the individual cubes back to their starting position.

Typing “how to solve the Rubik’s cube” will give you 8 million hits in Google — a deluge of videos, blogposts and guides will confuse and scare you further. Most of these solutions, posted by smug solvers expecting you to read their mind as they explain the process, are difficult to follow. Out of the eight million solutions, I found only ONE video helpful. Here’s the link to it:

Do Rubik’s cube solvers have a higher IQ than mere mortals like us? I disagree. For solving the cube, what you really need is patience, perseverance and a decent sense of spatial orientation.

What’s in it for writers (and translators)?

Our mind is a giant Rubik’s cube of thoughts. Within the confines of the mind, thoughts move between the logic, emotion and action centres depending on our mood and emotions. We are always thinking: we think thoughts and then think some more on thoughts about our thoughts. A portable thought sorter is what we need…

Solve the cube — sort your thoughts

Working with languages, managing deadlines and our business: at any given time, a zillion thoughts run through our mind — multitasking at its worse. Solving the cube, I inadvertently sort my thoughts out by imagining the different sides of a cube as different facets of my life. Sorting is good but sometimes a quick distraction is what will work the best…

A welcome distraction

Writers are a broody lot; scrupulously analysing thoughts and endlessly searching for the perfect word or phrase to describe them. To maintain sanity we need short, frequent breaks. Fiddling with a Rubik’s cube does just that. It serves as a quick distraction because solving the cube needs full concentration. This shift of focus helps to decouple our thoughts, giving the overactive mind a much-needed break…

A substitute for coffee (or tea)?

Long working hours, mental exhaustion and the 12th cup of coffee means a numb body and an unresponsive mind. In such situations, a quick round of sorting the coloured cubes shakes off our stupor.  The splash of colour; the swift, deliberate movements; the elation of solving the cube from one of the 43 quintillion possible combinations — priceless!

When words stop making sense I dive into the world of misaligned cubes and try to set them straight in the hopes of aligning my thoughts, generate new ones and stop feeling miserable. Solace is in the fact that there is at least one mystery I’m able to solve without having to tear my hair out.