An Interview with Ernő Rubik

G4G is pleased to announce the long anticipated release of an interview done a year ago with Professor Ernő Rubik. The Hungarian inventor of the iconic Rubik’s Cube was one of three featured speakers at G4G13 in Atlanta.  Professor Rubik appeared at Georgia Tech on the evening of Wednesday, April 11, 2018, drawing a crowd of close to 700 people of all ages.  He was also part of a panel discussion for G4G13 attendees at the Ritz-Carlton on the morning of Friday, April 13. Between those two events and some other more public activities, Professor Rubik found himself to be very popular, and graciously signed hundreds of cubes for appreciative fans.

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a senior editor at Mother Jones, was in Atlanta to host the Georgia Tech event. A few hours before the Georgia Tech appearance, she kindly agreed to put some questions (suggested by Colm Mulcahy) to the visiting inventor of the iconic puzzle toy on behalf of G4G. The resulting interview was recorded (linked below) in slightly edited transcribed form. Thanks to cube puzzler David Plaxco (Clayton State College) for help with the transcription.

Interview

1. Good afternoon, my name is Marianne Szegedy-Maszak and I am sitting here with Ernő Rubik, the famous inventor of the Rubik’s cube. It’s very nice to have you here in Georgia. I have a few questions to ask you. One of them is, what gave you the idea for your famous cube?

Nobody pressed me to do such a thing. So I was interested about puzzles, puzzle solving, from my early childhood and I studied design and architecture in the university. I feel all of them are connected. The cube was not created as a puzzle. I discovered the potential of a puzzle, creating an object, which contains many pieces which work together, which remains one unit. I was bored with jigsaw type of bottles. Hundreds of thousands of pieces work together. When it’s finished, it’s really finished. You’ll never want to repeat it. But if you have such an object which I dream of, you can do it endlessly. And it was not an easy task to find a solution, for the technical side, to make a construction that is capable to create such possibilities, but finally I found it. After that, I found a potential to manufacture it as a puzzle, because the plastic molding makes it cheap and capable to produce in mass production. Naturally it was a long time to achieve the final goal, and more than three years to get the first prototype productions in the shop. It was another three years to achieve the worldwide distribution. 

2. But before all of the distribution, you were just playing with the cube, with these little objects, right? I mean, having an idea for putting this together was… To just go back to what might have inspired your play with this?

I made my prototype using wood, and it was capable to work. I carved the pieces to identify them and to see what’s happened and how it works. That was the time I discovered the potential of the puzzle. I had, not a mathematical, but a practical feeling about endless possibilities, of different arrangements, and find difficulties to go way back or to find a solution. If we call the starting point as a solution, go back to a position, all side has only one color, each of them. It was more than a month I find my practical solution, not a theoretical one.  From that time, a serious science was built up on this, working out the mathematical background of the potential of the cubes. It took more than 30 years till it was proved that 20 moves (are) enough, from any position to any position. As a number, then, maximum number of moves. 

3. So did you, I mean, the mathematics of the cube is so complex and interesting, and led to all sorts of questions that mathematicians are still exploring today. Did that surprise you?

I had the feeling it’s the complexity of the cube, and when I’m speaking about the complexity, I’m not speaking about the structure because it’s simple.  The complexity of the result of the capability of the structure. I’m wondering if that’s because of the huge number of potential of arrangements.  It’s so huge that the very fast new computers have not enough time to go through all of the different positions. It was needed to reduce that task of the computers, and after that they were capable to prove that 20 moves is the number. Till now there is no theoretical answer for that, that type of solution, they call it brute force. So that means go through and count every potential positions and movements. And because of the astronomical number, it takes very much time. The cleverness of the mathematical was of thinking was to reduce that number till the supercomputers can do it. 

4. Do you think 20 moves is plausible? 

Yes, yes, sure. But there is no theoretical definition how we can find these 20. 

5. That’s interesting. David Singmaster seems to think he has come up with it.  So, of the many toys and puzzles you’ve invented since the cube, which ones are you most proud of? 

It’s hard to say, I’m part of my creations. I like them, and if somebody else likes them, it makes me happy. That’s because they find that similar value of the object and potential. That I like. I like very much the Snake. It was born before the cube, but it had a slower, a longer way to go to the market, but it’s on the market still now. And I like very much what’s called the Magic, a foldable puzzle with different kind of hinges. These two, in my view, are really not puzzles, because you can play with them. You can create interesting shapes and forms, they are really three dimensional. They have surprising capabilities to find new ones. I think that it is very important, especially if you give it to a child, what they find, to play with them. 

6. What do you think the role of play is, what do you believe that the role of play and experimentation is in creativity and invention? 

I think they are connected! They are not independent terms. I think play, how can I say it, is a form of living, and it’s good because we have the freedom.  But, this freedom is in a framework, we call it the rule of the play. And if you play fairplay, that’s perfect. 

7. So what is the role of the play?

It depends on the play!  There are different rules for American football or soccer!  All of them, it’s to win, these type of games. In connection with puzzles, to play with the puzzles, you have no opponent.  Your opponent is the problem that you are working on.   In a good puzzle, this problem is created by nature. 

8. As it did, certainly with the cube, it was.  But if there are rules, then don’t those act as constraints on creativity and experimentation?

There are rules all the time.  Physics, and the existence of the world, the world itself, the universe, it has the rules. There are so many rules, my task is to find out the rules!  And how we can, according to the rules we are capable to achieve our goals.  Usually to achieve our goals is not to break the rules.  It’s to keep the rules, and using their potentials. 

9. That is a nice transition to the next question, which is what advice you would give to young people today who would like to make a positive contribution to STEAM – STEM plus Arts?

It’s nice if you have some kind of goal to achieve, and not finish till you are able to achieve it. Never give up till that.  You need patience to do that.  To achieve something, it’s not possible without hard work. Sometimes it looks it’s happened accidentally, but it’s not true, it’s only on the surface. All the time hard work. And in the same time, the good thing, if you are enjoying what you are doing.  The process is connected, to make something that by itself, it’s a very enjoyable thing. Naturally, the final result gives you the reward.

10. It does, doesn’t it? Well, that leads to the last question, which is about rewards and curiosity. How does curiosity take us on these seemingly impossible tasks, and very difficult tasks, when there isn’t a clear reward in sight?

Curiosity is the starting impulse. Curiosity is why we move from one position to another, to have a look what is there. Not all the time, if find interesting questions and find answers for that, mostly we find more interesting questions, and so on and so forth. 

11. It keeps going.  Thank you very much Mr. Rubik.

It keeps going.  Thank you.

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