The first time I was allowed to travel beyond the Iron Curtain and visit the West was in 1980. I ventured from Hungary to New York for the International Toy Fair, where a puzzle I had invented was making its American debut. The Cube's popularity was contagious — not just in the United States but around the world.
The challenge of this six-sided, multicolored object infected so many people, regardless of age, education or nationality, with a desire to play with it, share it with friends or, sometimes, throw it against the wall in frustration. Trying to solve the puzzle became a metaphor, alternately, for intelligence, complexity or vexing problems. To my surprise, in political and journalistic circles the Cube also became shorthand for (seemingly) impossible difficulties and complications. Commentators reference the "Rubik Cube of the Wider Middle East," of health care, economic policies or other perplexing predicaments. No doubt, someone will eventually dub the coronavirus the "Rubik's Cube of pandemics."
Clearly, that shorthand can't adequately address what the world faces right now. But perhaps there is one aspect of the Cube that might be helpful in framing the challenge the coronavirus poses: A Rubik's Cube is engaged individually, but solving it is about human solidarity.
The Cube contains more than 43 quintillion possible combinations, but only one is the starting, or solved, position. The sheer scope can make you feel paralyzed. Anyone who has ever received a new Cube finds it a perfectly ordered object with each side a single color. But it doesn't take much — one turn, then another — to transform that tranquil landscape into a chaotic, multicolored jumble. Making matters worse, trying to see the puzzle in its entirety is hopeless, and yet you need to know what is going on with all the sides to solve it. Order can't just be imposed, and the more we try to force it, the less likely we are to succeed.
A scrambled Cube can elicit frustration, anger, anxiety and the sinking feeling of being lost. In this way, 2020 makes us all feel a bit like we're trapped in a diabolical Rubik's Cube.
Yet my Cube is never impossible to solve: It rewards focus and perseverance, it encourages openness, intellectual honesty and curiosity. It punishes prejudice and impatience. No hidden agendas will take you any closer to the solution, either. In fact, the Cube's real message is not one of being mired in the impossible but of the triumph of human ingenuity over utmost complexity. It is not hopeless oblivion in the face of imploding chaos but the cheerful endorsement of open-ended, creative innovation.
Tackling and understanding unnerving problems is not for everyone. It takes resolve and an unusual level of tolerance for multiple failures in the dim hope of a distant reward. As Netflix's "Speed Cubers" poignantly shows us, the most dedicated can solve it in seconds. There are only a few people who can figure out the Cube on their own. It took me a month to unscramble the first Cube.
But as daunting as it can be to solve the Cube, almost anyone can learn the right strategies and algorithms from others and then succeed. Most of those who rejoice over the last pieces falling in place acquired the method from books, YouTube tutorials or friends. That is how solutions become contagious — one Cuber puts the bug in the ear of another. If true innovation is the calling of the few, teaching and learning is the realm of the many. And it matters how teaching can emotionally capture and intellectually stimulate its audience.
Although at its core the Cube is a solitary challenge, it still celebrates a kind of basic human accord, a kind of empathy. Yes, it's a math problem. It's also a shared intellectual journey. With the Cube as my escort, I have witnessed people all over the world, their expressions transfixed as they turn the Cube's sides and try to master it: They may appear lost at first, but in actuality they are intensely engaged and active. They are suspended within a rare moment of peaceful coexistence between order and chaos. Fascination with the Cube has nothing to do with status, age or race. It's not about where we were born or how we live. It's about curiosity, perseverance and something more fundamental.
These are unusually perplexing times with grave problems and far-reaching consequences — none more important than cracking the code on halting the pandemic. When humanity faces a crisis, we must always remember that we are more alike than different; it is our similarities that make us human in the first place. Grand scale and innovative solutions require open discourse and close attention to detail, like the Cube. At the same time, just as critical is an appreciation for complexity and a resolve to carry on. No matter how seemingly expedient the alternatives might appear to be, the successful approach will be based on comprehending our shared humanity. We're all trying to solve a puzzle. In the face of challenges (metaphorically speaking) as complex as the Rubik's Cube, it takes bravery to rely on our curious, resourceful minds.
Rubik is an architect, the inventor of the Rubik's Cube and author of "Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All." This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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