Rubik's Cube Turns 40: A Conversation With Its Inventor

Erno Rubik explains what inspired him to design that singular brain-and-fingers toy that has sold billions, and may be more relevant than ever in our digital world.

43,252,003,274,489,856,000 combinations but only one Erno Rubik
43,252,003,274,489,856,000 combinations but only one Erno Rubik
Paolo Mastrolilli

JERSEY CITY — Erno Rubik interlaces his fingers, thinks for a moment and then explains, “I wanted to convince human beings that there are no unsolvable problems.” Then he smiles and adds, “Maybe it’s not exactly like that, in reality. But if we don’t have the courage to venture towards the unknown, then surely we’ll never get anywhere.”

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1974, the unknown for Erno Rubik was a cube made of 54 colored squares. Rubik, a Hungarian-born architect and professor, thought of it as a puzzle to keep his students busy: There are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations but only one right solution.

It wasn’t long before this academic gag became the best-selling toy in the world — an estimated 2.5 billion cubes have been made, not including the many counterfeits.

For some it has become a mania, to the point of international competitions to see who could solve it the fastest. The current record stands at 5.5 seconds.

It’s truly an icon of our time. When Edward Snowden went to meet journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in the Hong Kong restaurant to leak the NSA documents, he told them they’d recognize him because he’d be holding a Rubik’s Cube.

The legendary puzzle’s 40th birthday was recently celebrated at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ, with an exhibit that included an 18-carat gold cube worth $2.5 million, as well as a robot able to solve the puzzle in a snap.

It’s here, on the terrace that looks towards the Statue of Liberty, that I have my appointment with the 70-year-old Rubik, with plenty of questions to ask — and problems to solve.

LA STAMPA: What first gave you the idea to make the cube?
RUBIK: There’s not just one response to that. I have always been fascinated by the capabilities of the human mind to solve problems. Think back to the Ancient Greeks, who were successfully able to determine the diameter of the Earth without any satellites or any modern equipment. I liked technology and the gadgets that I learned about from my father, who was an engineer. So I created something that trains the mind to solve problems, with the belief that it was possible to solve them.

Could you imagine it would turn into such a success?
Absolutely not. I often ask myself: What is success? Making money? Becoming famous? Yes, but it’s not enough. For me, it means finding inner peace, and doing things that keep yourself interested.

Why do you think, 40 years later, millions of people are still interested in playing with this puzzle?
At the heart of it, it’s a small model of the universe, where simple elements combine to become very complicated forms. At the beginning, you think that the only way to solve the cube is to go back to where you started from, but it’s not like that. There’s only one solution, but there are an infinite amount of ways to get there, and that’s the fascination of life. Having the courage to explore the unknown.

You are currently working in video game development, and run Rubik Stúdió, which designs furniture and games. In a time when children and adults alike are surrounded by technology, how can your cube still be relevant?
The cube finds itself at the confines of many things: science, art, as well as the digital and analogue worlds. I think that it represents an anticipation of the digital revolution.

What do you think of the way technology is taking over our everyday lives?Computers aren’t gods, but just instruments that help us reach our goals. The border between the real and the virtual is very ephemeral. When we dream, our dreams seem real, but when we then wake up we know that we’re not actually able to fly. When it comes to computers, though, we can actually operate computers that truly allow us to fly. So, this is the aspect of the digital revolution that interests me most: the capability to connect things together. Taking the virtual, and through technology turning it into reality. Solving problems and getting results, responding to the needs of humans, which remains our primary objective. In other worlds, the same reason I invented the cube.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!