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Updated 1:30 PM November 24, 2004




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Spotlight: Rubik's magic

Remember the Rubik's Cube? The colorful puzzle that fascinated the world in the early 1980s—the cube that was a source of great fun and frustration for a whole generation of people.
Becker (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Among those who remember the cube as an enjoyable game rather than as an annoying object to be thrown against walls is Sandra Becker, a research secretary in the Department of Psychology. "When I was 6 or 7, I got a Rubik's Cube. I liked puzzles, and the more complicated it was the more I liked it. The Rubik's Cube was certainly a very complicated puzzle," she says.

The cube's popularity waned in the late 1980s, and Becker was among those who didn't play with it as much, if at all. She picked it up again when one of her professors in graduate school at Eastern Michigan University suggested that she study Rubik's Cubes for her thesis in mathematics.

"I wanted to write a thesis on permutation groups. I studied the different moves, what kinds of permutations they created and how you can solve the cube with permutations," Becker says. "And when I got my hands on the cube I loved playing with it as much as I did when I was a child."

Becker is no ordinary player. She was pretty quick two decades ago, but now she's lightning fast. Her personal best time for solving the cube is 2 minutes and 46 seconds, no easy feat when you consider that the cube has 43 quintillion permutations.

For those who want to join the championships or just solve the Rubik's Cube, Becker suggests that patience, good pattern recognition and the application of formulas are the secrets to solving the puzzle. A formula is a series of moves that one can apply, given the pattern that the cubes are in.

Becker says there are two general ways of solving the puzzle. The manual instructs users to solve the top face first, then work their way down by applying the given formulas until they get the edge pieces in place, and then finish the rest.

Becker favors a second method and solves the cube in 2 x 2 x 2 corners by applying the appropriate formulas until she has two-thirds of the cube done, and then she solves the bottom third.

She counts herself among the 600 fastest cubers based on an unofficial list. But she has no intention of challenging the winner of the second World Rubik's Game Championships held in Toronto last year, who solved the puzzle in 16.53 seconds.

That this second championship was held 21 years after the first one speaks of the cube's comeback. "With the Internet," Becker says, "all the people good with cubes found each other."

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