You may not know the name Paul Hertzel, but enthusiasts of the popular 80’s puzzle game Rubik’s Cube do. He was the first person to ever solve the Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. This feat led to him being interviewed by Omni magazine in 1983. But seriously, how can someone solve the Rubik’s Cube blindfolded? Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? How can you straighten out the colors of the 6-sided, 9 cubes per side, puzzle if you can’t even see it? Hertzel explains the solution begins with one simple word: math.
Hertzel’s first experience with Rubik and his amazing cube came, not surprisingly, during the 80’s. “I worked on it, on and off, by trial and error and experimentation, trying to discover what, if anything, specific sequences of rotations accomplished. I learned that there are neat sets of rotations that will distribute or interchange certain cubes in predictable ways, without disturbing the other cubes (Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts call these “algorithms”). Once I had learned how to relocate the various combinations of each type of cube (there are three types), then I found I could rearrange any mixed up cube however I wanted, in particular, to the “original” position. My recollection is this took me several months to figure out,” Hertzel said.
Not bad, considering there are literally 43 quintillion ways in which a classic Rubik’s Cube can be scrambled. Attempting to solve the Rubik’s Cube without looking requires more than simple calculations. Hertzel said his brother was instrumental to his ability to learn the mysteries of the cube, which involves intensive study of how “messed up” it is. “Anyone who does this has to first study the cube in order to comprehend how badly it is mixed up. In fact, part of what you study is which orientation results in the least amount of chaos. I mean, in whatever way you are currently holding the cube, should the “top” face be considered the green face, or should it be the blue face? You study it to make sense of the mix, and then to memorize the sequence of algorithms that will unscramble that mix. Once you believe you have the right set of algorithms, you don’t need to look at what you are doing to make the moves. The first time I was successful, I spent about two hours examining the mixed up cube, and only about five minutes actually performing rotations to restore the original order. [There’s] No secret [to solving the cube]. Just study and learning. But even so, that was a long time ago, and people have gone way past what I did, ” Hertzel said.
The 3 x 3 Rubik’s cube is far from the only puzzle invented by Erno Rubik, but it remains the favorite of Paul Hertzel. Follow up games such as the Rubik’s Snake and Rubik’s Triamid haven’t been quite as popular as the Amazing Cube and its many variations. Still, 80’s kids remember these permutations well. The Triamid is particularly interesting since it resembles the landscape of popular 80’s videogame Q-Bert. Never played Q-Bert? Yahoo Games offers Q-Bert as one of their many game options. You might want to give it a try.
The original cube is still the most famous. But variations to accommodate color blindness, or even total blindness exist. Virtually anyone can find a Rubik’s Cube they can try to solve.
When asked what he found most compelling about the Rubik’s Cube, Hertzel explained, “The Cube is way more than a puzzle. It’s a hands-on window into an abstract branch of mathematics – group theory. This might sound kind of corny, but that’s what is so admirable about it. Not many popular puzzles contain such clear uses of deeper mathematics as the Cube. It can give the non-mathematician a peek into what pure mathematics is really all about. I guess, as a mathematics instructor, that is what most impresses me about the Cube.”
The ability to solve the Rubik’s Cube with speed has come a long way since Hertzel first delved into the puzzles mathematical dungeon. The 2015 World Rubik’s Cube Championship’s were recently held in Brazil. A 19-year-old Australian, Feliks Zemdegs, missed beating the single time world record by a half of a second with a time of 5.695 seconds. The current single time record is held by American Collin Burns. Zemdegs did take the World Championship title for the second straight time with an average solving time of 7.56 seconds.