One of my relatives gave my 15 year old son a Rubik’s cube as a Christmas gift. It came with some instructions that taught you a few things about the cube; strategies for solving it, etc. He played with it a few seconds, giving it a turn or two and then put it down to move on to the next gift. That was the last I had seen of it since Christmas Eve.
So, I’m sitting here on New Year’s Eve, researching IRA rollover options, investment strategies and looking at the list of online streams of Echoes. I like to occupy that side of my mind with space/ambient music when surfing the web–kind of like a soundtrack to my life. In the middle of this, my son walks up and says, "I’ve got it". With a big grin on his face he hands me the cube–solved.
I had forgotten what that feels like.
Of course, being the good father that I am, I had to pick it up and act like I was going to scramble it again to teach him the futility of solving it. His eyes widened with fear until he realized I was teasing. "Daaauuud" he says, dragging out my one syllable name.
It was fun to notice in him that air of satisfaction that comes with solving a hard and complex problem after working at it for days. I’ve been trying to get him to experience that with computers for a while. But, he really hasn’t showed much of an interest. He has VS 2005 on his box–doesn’t touch it. I think it is because he was introduced to computers at school as tools for writing papers, researching the web and playing games. He still hasn’t seen it as the "big cube"–but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
So, I said to him, "You know, that’s what I do every day; solve really neat problems like this only it’s a lot more fun and satisfying–especially when I get to create new things." Then I had to ask him if he had done his chores and how far he had gotten on his math packet he’s supposed to be working on over the break. He just looked at me and I could tell he didn’t want to hear another speech.
I decided instead to Google Rubik’s cube and found this nifty site that lets you play with the cube online. Oh, did I mention that it will solve a random cube for you? Huh. Man have times changed. We played with the cube online for a while and when the "wow" factor had worn off I said, "You know, there’s a lot of math behind this." I am a math major after all. Double whammy. Math major and Dad. Poor kid. I was surprised when he said, "Math? How’s there math in this?" The math had gotten his attention.
So, we quickly Googled "Rubik’s Cube Math" and started surfing and found a site called "Mathematics of the Rubik’s Cube". The first document on the page is a 45 page layman’s attempt at the math without talking about math. Unfortunately, I think they failed at it. How did they fail? Well, when you say, "We do not assume any knowledge of group theory" and then your proof for Proposition 4 is "This proposition is really obvious if one understands what it means" I think you’ve failed. I mean, really, is that a proof? I think not.
However, the document served the general purpose of my pursuit to illustrate how math is being used to describe and solve the cube. I never studied the cube in detail in college (so many years ago . . . ) but it was fun to see the college level math language for the first time in many years. Man I have forgotten a lot.
That was enough math for Curtis and he quickly slipped away with his cube contemplating the math of mappings, homomorphisms, sets, projections. And, as he left my room I heard him softly say, "How did they make it solve the cube? That was so cool!"
I smiled. Maybe there’s hope just yet.