IT has 43 quintillion possible configurations, but only one solution. For most people that solution comes after days, weeks, even years of twisting and fiddling with the world's most famous puzzle. Breandan Vallance from Beith, though, can solve a Rubik's Cube in under ten seconds. And he's only 18.
• Breandan Vallance's personal best time for solving a Rubik's Cube is an astonishing 9.28 seconds. Picture: TSPL
His fingers are so fast that in October he was crowned world champion at the annual Speedcubing Championships in Dusseldorf, with an average solving time of just 10.74 seconds.
Vallance wasn't born when the Rubik's Cube debuted in 1980 but is pleased that with the classic puzzle celebrating its 30th birthday on Monday, it hasn't lost any of its appeal.
At home in Ayrshire where he lives with his mother, he's just taken delivery of ten new Rubik's Cubes, ranging in size from 3x3in to 7x7in. Some require the user to place the famous coloured stickers on the sides, others come pre-stickered. They come from different manufacturers and in a range of price points. "I don't have a good speedcube at the moment, so I'm trying to find a new one," explains Vallance, who is coming to the end of a gap year before starting a chemical physics course at Glasgow University. "It's quite tricky to find one with just the right feel to it." He weighs one carefully in his hand.
In the run-up to a competition, Vallance practices for hours a day, solving a cube at least 100 times. After finding a favourite cube, he wears it out in just three weeks, and has over 100 cubes at home at any one time.
So how does he do it? It's a combination of learned patterns, mathematics, quick tricks with his fingers and muscle memory. When I time him he manages it in an impressive 10.1 seconds, his fingers moving at the rate of five moves a second. "You want to have practised enough that it's all second nature," he explains. "You want to have done a series of moves so many times that you don't know why they're right, you don't need to work out a sequence in your head, you just remember that it's the right one."
This weekend he is attending a competition in Vienna, which will serve as practice for the world championships in October. As he talks he twiddles casually at a couple of cubes, his fingers moving too fast for me to follow. "I was 14 when I first picked one up," he explains. "It was a gift from my sister. I saw a video on the internet of someone solving one quite fast, and I could see that it was possible to do it a lot faster so I thought I might as well start practising and see how I get on. It's worked out quite well. I think I'm more determined than anything. When I enjoy something I tend to not see the point of being at a normal level. I want to be the best at it. I never thought I'd be world champion. It's still sinking in. You get used to the nerves and you learn to manage shaky hands and sweaty fingers, but at the world championships my hands were so cold that I had to hold my mum's coffee to warm them up. That was a lot of pressure."
Vallance is not a savant. He is neither superhuman, nor obsessed with the Rubik's Cube. He has practised hard to become world champion, and knows that remaining at such a high level requires daily practice. Indeed, he's been known to drive his mother mad as he clicks away at his cube while she tries to read or watch television.
The key to his speed is a combination of a fast mind and even faster fingers. His personal record for solving a 3x3 cube is 9.28 seconds. The current world record holder for solving the Rubik's Cube in the fastest time is Dutch teenager Erik Akkersdijk who, in July 2008, achieved the "single solve" time of 7.08 seconds.
Invented in 1974 by Hungarian lecturer Erno Rubik, the world's best-selling toy was sold exclusively in then-communist Hungary (where it even appeared on a stamp) until 1980, when Ideal Toys brought it to the world. It became one of the defining icons of the decade. To date, 350 million have been sold (nearly a third in the first two years of its release), a decent percentage of which seem to be lying around Vallance's living room. The premise is, as almost everyone knows, a lot simpler than the execution: each of the cube's six sides has nine coloured squares. Once the cube has been scrambled it is solved by twisting these squares around a central axis until each face of the cube consists of a solid block of colour.
So does Vallance know why the cube has such enduring appeal. "There's a contrast between the simplicity of the idea and the complexity of the puzzle which I think is quite appealing," he says. "Visually as well, it's a beautiful thing, and everyone can have a go, because the premise is so simple. They might give up before they finish, but it takes all of ten seconds to explain to someone the aim of the game."
The Cube has been elevated to the position of a design classic, with references to it in pop art, sculpture and clothing. New York's Museum of Modern Art includes one in its permanent exhibition. Spin-offs include the Rubik's Snake and the 2-D Rubik's Magic in addition to 4x4 cubes and 7x7 cubes, but none have enjoyed the popularity of the classic, cheap and portable 3x3. Indeed, through the power of social networking and sites like YouTube, the cube is having a bit of a renaissance, thanks to the impressively fast fingers of people like Vallance, who enjoy mini-celebrity status online.
Indeed, when it was first released the name of the game was merely to complete the puzzle. For enthusiasts today, the goals are completion and speed. The learning curve for the cube is actually incredibly quick. It may look like it takes years of practice, but just a couple of days of dedication can see you master one of the world's best party tricks.
"I think that's another part of its appeal, and it's why so many speedcubers stick at it," says Vallance. "When you start off you improve really fast. In a few days you can get to under a minute, and then you can improve by about five seconds a week."
The advent of the internet has somewhat sullied the mystique of the cube and has definitely proved that it's far from 'unsolveable'.
Indeed, where once there were a couple of indecipherable guides to solving it, today frustrated cubers need only log on to YouTube for demonstrations. There are 40,000 video clips on the net for speed cubing enthusiasts, offering tips and advice. In addition there are numerous clips of Vallance and his peers managing it in a matter of seconds or solving it one-handed, even blindfolded.
He has attended 11 competitions so far, and been living off some of his winnings (he received €5000 for becoming World Championships) but is unsure how much further he'll take his hobby once he goes to university.
Friends and family have been universally supportive, but the reaction from others to his unique skill is not always so happy. "People sometimes think it's quite cool to know a world champion," he says. "But once they've seen me do it a few times, the novelty wears off very quickly.
"When I meet new friends I don't usually tell them. If they have a cube lying around I'll just solve it for them, which is quite funny. I've had people calling me 'sad' or telling me to 'get a life' but I don't see myself as someone who doesn't have a life. I see myself as someone who really enjoys getting really, really good at something."
I had hoped. I tell him, to learn from him how to solve my own Rubik's Cube, currently looking very scrambled on my bedside table. My unique approach has been to twist, turn and twiddle, then chuck it across the room in frustration.
"Ah," he says, picking up a box-fresh cube. "But there is one way to cheat …" He turns it around carefully in his hands, examining each side, then peels off the coloured stickers and re-sticks them in their correct positions before adding, "Not quite so satisfying, is it?"
• WHEN the Rubik's Cube first arrived in the US in 1980, Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor hosted a party to celebrate its launch.
• IT takes at least 22 twists to solve the cube. The least number of moves required to unscramble it from the worst disorder is often referred to as God's Algorithm.
• AT the tender age of 12, Patrick Bossert worked out his own solution and wrote a bestseller about it that sold 1.5 million copies.
• IN 1981 one Frau Schmidt of Dusseldorf divorced her husband, citing the cube as the cause. She complained: "Gundar no longer speaks to me and when he comes to bed he is too exhausted from playing with his cube to even give me a cuddle." Cubaholics Anonymous was founded in 1980 by Augustus Judd, a self-confessed addict.
• IN 1981, one of the youngest Cube solvers was seven-year-old Lars-Erik Anderson of Norway. He was unable to explain how he had managed it.
• AT the height of the cube craze, in the mid-1980s, it was estimated one in five people on the planet had tried to solve one.
• THE biggest cube in the world, on display in Knoxville, Tennessee, is three metres tall and weighs over 500 kilograms.
• THERE have been edible cubes, jewel-encrusted cubes and MP3 playing cubes. There was even a memorial cube for the wedding of Charles and Diana.
• FORMER Prime Minister John Major once used the cube to demonstrate the complexities of the Maastricht Treaty to a television audience.
• THERE is a dedicated art movement known as 'Rubikubism'.