Google Doodle Celebrates Rubik’s Cube 40th Birthday

For its 40th Birthday, the cube goes digital

Rubik's Cube
Bernd Thissen/dpa/Corbis

Millions of workers will be less productive this morning: Today's Google Doodle—a digital Rubik’s Cube that can be manipulated on your screen—is "the most extensive use of 3D that we’ve ever done," says Ryan Germik, the team lead says. As if you needed an incentive to keep playing, Germik and Richard The, the lead designer on the project, say that there is a special surprise waiting for people who manage to solve the Cube.

It took Ernö Rubik, the Hungarian professor of interior design who invented the cube, more than a month to solve his own creation the first time he tried. He told CNN in 2012:

It took more than a month of research, facing the problem, trying to understand it, building up theories, testing them, thinking to myself things like: "I have one side and one turn is 90 degrees and if you turn it four times I'll be back where I was," and so on. You have to find rules and then you find the law of symmetry, the law of movements.

In the mid-70s, Rubik began developing the cube as a geometrical plaything—a cube in which the parts could move independently of one another. Once he had hit on a mechanism that worked, he labeled the blocks with little bits of colorful tape and started playing with it. Only then did he realize what he had created. Puzzlesolver:

''It was wonderful,'' he wrote, ''to see how, after only a few turns, the colors became mixed, apparently in random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. Like after a nice walk when you have seen many lovely sights you decide to go home, after a while I decided it was time to go home, let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the Big Challenge: What is the way home?'' 

Soon, the toy was being sold in Budapest, and by 1980, it was being exported around the world.

Over time, Rubik's cube enthusiasts have developed all manner of variations, from a cube that can be solved by touch alone to this one, that can never be solved. The Google Doodle team had wanted to create their own version for some time. Google already had a connection to the cube. In 2010, researchers using Google’s computers figured out that starting from any position, the Rubik’s Cube could be solved in 20 moves or less. But the technology needed to create a realistic 3D image of the cube wasn’t really advanced enough, until now. The code they used is now available, though, so there's now a whole new world of possibilities for 3D, internet-based Rubik's cubes, including, already, "musical and typography based cubes," The says.

Though the Rubik’s cube was invented 40 years ago, there isn’t really a single date associated with its invention. The Google team chose May 19 because there are 519 quintillion different orientations of the cubelets, hence 5/19.

If you just can’t get enough Rubik’s cube birthday celebrations, the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City is hosting a massive Rubik’s Cube exhibit open to visitors through November 2014.* 

Oh, and if you're frustrated with Google's version of the cube but want to see the surprise, you can cheat by watching what happens when someone else solves it.

*This sentence has been updated to clarify that the Liberty Science Center is the host, not a sponsor, of the exhibit.

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