back to article How to solve a Rubik's Cube in five seconds

This week, 14-year-old Lucas Etter set a new world record for solving the classic Rubik’s cube in Clarksville, Maryland, in the US, solving the scrambled cube in an astonishing 4.904 seconds. The maximum number of face turns needed to solve the classic Rubik’s cube, one that is segmented into squares laid out 3x3 on each face …


  1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Very nice.

    And Group Theory is Good Stuff, though I still haven't quite understand Lie Groups ("continuous groups of transformations (generally linear ones)")

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      Lie groups are essentially just the same thing as all n x n invertible matrices, i.e., GL_n(k), where k is any field. If the field has a nice topology, say R or C, then you pull this topology back through the determinant map to get a topology on GL_n. All other Lie groups more or less look like this, in that they form a closed subgroup (i.e., inverse image of a closed subset of the reals under the determinant map) of GL_n(R) or GL_n(C). (This can be taken as a definition of a Lie group, but shouldn't if you are doing things properly. Which we aren't, since this is a comment thread on a news website.)

      1. G Watty What?

        I can read the words, it's just the sentences that are causing me problems.

        Would you be so kind as to try again, possibly with sock puppets, for those of us blessed with small brains but a keen interest?

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          Something like this: a group is a collection of symmetries of an object. Any object will do, as long as it has constituent parts that possess symmetry. An example of a group is the group of Rubik's cube: the symmetries here are all moves, which might not look like symmetries because we swap the colours around, but if we ignore the colours then they are symmetries, and the colours are simply there to show you that you are doing a symmetry. Solving Rubik's cube is equivalent to the following: given a symmetry of Rubik's cube, write it as a sequence of "easy" symmetries, i.e., quarter turns of the slices.

          This is an example of a finite group, where there are finitely many symmetries. Of course, there are objects with infinitely many symmetries, such as a disk. This has a rotation of any angle, and a reflection through any line passing through the centre. Another example of an infinite group is the real numbers, with addition being the way of combining objects. Here there is also a notion of closeness, in that two numbers are 'close' if their difference is 'small'. Of course, close and small are relative terms, and the appropriate mathematical concept to encapsulate this is a topology. A topology on a set, such as the real numbers, is a collection of subsets of it, called 'open sets', and they have to satisfy three basic properties: the empty set, the set with nothing in it, is open; the intersection of two open sets, so everything in both of them, is also open; the union of any number of open sets, so everything that's in any of them, is open.

          For the real numbers, the open sets are collections of open intervals (a,b), which means all numbers between a and b, but not a and b themselves. Two numbers are 'close' if they are in lots of open sets together, in some sense.

          If we have pairs of real numbers then we can put a topology on this, the 'product topology', which says that a set is open if it is the product of open sets in each variable, and then throwing in more open sets for this to be a topology. (Notice that, given any set of open sets, this can be a topology by including unions and intersections, so we can do this.)

          There was no reason to choose just pairs of real numbers, we could have chosen n^2 real numbers: then we can arrange these numbers as n by n arrays, and this gives us a topology on all matrices. The determinant map is 'continuous', meaning that if we take an open subset of the real numbers, U, then all matrices with determinant in U form an open subset of the set of matrices.

          With this topology, we can talk about matrices being close to one another, more or less their co-ordinates are close in the real numbers. If X is a group of invertible matrices, then it is closed if all other matrices form an open set, and closed groups of matrices are Lie groups.

          That's some more words, but it might not be any better.

          1. G Watty What?

            "That's some more words, but it might not be any better."

            You do yourself a disservice. That made a great deal of sense, thanks for taking the time to reply, really appreciated.

            Bravo sir, this ones on me ------>

  2. chivo243 Silver badge

    They're just colored stickers

    I found peeling them off and putting them back on in order was easier. Thanks Jim Kirk!

    1. Andrew Barr

      Re: They're just colored stickers

      Or just paint them with tipex and then they are all white - sovled

      1. Mint Sauce

        Re: They're just colored stickers

        I thought the itea was to very carefully swap over the stickers on two opposing middle squares, scramble the cube, then hand it to the nearest smug b'stard and watch them sweat... ;-)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: They're just colored stickers

          Spot on, the clever bastard who THOUGHT he could solve the cube now needs timing with a calendar...

          Most excellent..

    2. breakfast

      Re: They're just colored stickers

      I did that, but I didn't think it would be very believable if I completed the whole thing so I only switched around one face.

      Of course, the downside of this was I made it impossible to solve the cube after that. Wasn't until my cubemaster cousin tried and failed for some time that anybody realised my deceit...

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: They're just colored stickers

        Anyone who can 'do' the cube will spot that as they will know the near-completed colour combinations don't make sense.

  3. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Ah, happy memories ...

    back in 1981, buying David Singmasters bible to solving the cube.

    And then understanding it. Aged 14. Made some extra pocket money explaining it ...

    1. Graham Marsden

      Re: Ah, happy memories ...

      I went one better: I typed up my own version of how to solve the cube, got my uncle to photocopy off a load of them, then would sit in the nearby shopping centre and wait for someone to come along and watch me solve it.

      They'd say "I wish I could do that" or some such, at which point I'd flog them a copy of my solution for a quid (this was back in the days when a pound was actually real money, rather than small change!)

      Made a tidy sum (which I'd then blow on video games in the local arcade, but that's another story!)

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        Re: Ah, happy memories ...

        real money as in a little green note? Ahh the days when a 5p mixture paid was paid by a shilling coin or maybe 2 shilling coin and 10 half pennies in change....

        Later on in life I worked in a call center at Christmas breaks. Rubiks cubes were great to while away the hours, we too had a "cheat sheet" for doing cubes (it was fairly long winded but worked every time). cant remember it now, might get one at Christmas and teach the kids.

      2. Martin Budden
        Thumb Up

        Re: Ah, happy memories ... @ Graham Marsden

        My dad and I did the same, selling our A4 solution sheet for a quid. I also offered a cube-solving service at the school fête for 50p, I could deal with one customer per minute (without referring to the sheet). Some customers came back 3 or 4 times during the fête because they kept messing their cubes up again... they should have coughed up the extra for a sheet.

  4. x 7 Silver badge

    I prefer Gordian Knot theory. Gives a far simpler solution

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      "I prefer Gordian Knot theory. Gives a far simpler solution"

      Ah, the branch cut. Not a very complex solution.

      (A Polish mathematician was on a flight when the pilot fell ill, and nobody else could fly. The crew asked him if he knew how to fly the aircraft: he said "alas no, I am but a simple Pole on a complex plane.")

      1. Peter Simpson 1

        "I am but a simple Pole on a complex plane."

        Left or right side of the plane?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          If he was on the right side, the plane would have been unstable, so we probably wouldn't have heard about the story (due to the crash, ya know).

      2. John H Woods Silver badge

        Simple Pole on a complex plane...

        yeah, anyone care to apply the method of steepest descents?

        1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

          Re: Simple Pole on a complex plane...

          Mornington Crescent!

  5. Ed@theregister

    Hey, Bishop. Do the thing with the knife

    That's pretty amazing. I thought a banjo player's fingers on a fret board were quick. I wonder how long it would take to arrange the each side of the cube in every possible combination, one after the other, using only the human hand and mind. Don't desert me boffins!

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Hey, Bishop. Do the thing with the knife

      I wonder how long it would take to arrange the each side of the cube in every possible combination, one after the other, using only the human hand and mind.

      Well, that's easier than arranging a cube in every possible combination simultaneously.


      Let's assume Etter can in general iterate overy 27 configurations in 5 seconds. That's the starting configuration, plus 26 quarter-turn moves at worst to reach the solved configuration. Etter presumably uses half-turns as well as quarter-turns, but half-turns pass momentarily through their intermediate quarter-turn configuration, so we can assume quarter-turns with no loss of generality.

      We can assume those 27 configurations are distinct, because if he reached the same configuration twice then he has a loop and he's not using an optimal path.

      There are roughly 4.3e19 configurations. (4.3e19 / 27) * 5 gives us ~ 8.0e18 seconds to complete, or somewhere around a quarter of a million million years, plus some time for pee breaks.

      If anyone's curious, a little back-of-the-envelope shows a Rubic's Cube has about 65 bits of entropy, assuming all configurations are equally probable. (They are, mechanically, but since RCs are sold in solved form, and many people manage to solve them and then leave them that way, at any given time the solved configuration probably appears disproportionately often across the entire state of extant RCs. So don't use the solved configuration as your Rubic's Passcube.)

  6. r_c_a_d

    Planning and Recognition

    In competition you get 15 seconds to inspect the cube before starting the solve. That is not long enough to plan the whole solve. Therefore an important part of solving is being able to quickly recognise which algorithm you are going to need next, after the one you are doing.

    Recognition and look-ahead are what makes the difference between a quick solver and a fast solver.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Planning and Recognition

      Huh, and which is better: the fast solver or the quick solver?

      1. r_c_a_d

        Re: Planning and Recognition

        Ouch, my lack of clarity bites again.

        Quick = under 30 seconds

        Fast = under 15 seconds

        Very Fast = under 12 seconds

        Contender = under 10 seconds

        Amazing = under 8 seconds

        The best cubers I have seen average 6 to 8 seconds. That's over 5 solves, discarding the fastest and slowest solve, averaging the middle 3.

        World records usually happen when an Amazing solver gets a skip on the last layer (the last layer just happens to be solved by luck when the first two layers are solved).

        That's why competitions use the average rather than a single solve.

  7. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Maybe, just maybe.. takes a certain view of the world to do this.

    I never solved a Rubik cube, but then neither did I ever pick one up to try.

    And had I done so would have run out of patience after about three turns.

    But then I do have the attention span of goldfish.

    I do know people who would persevere with one of these infernal devices. None of them have much conversation, though.

    1. James Hughes 1

      Re: Maybe, just maybe..

      I have plenty of conversation, much to other half's annoyance. I used to be able to solve the cube in about a minute. Forgotten how to now - it was 35 years ago.

      1. Proud Father

        Re: Maybe, just maybe..

        Back in 6th form (in 1983!) we had an unofficial Rubik's competition.

        I came 2nd with 1m 20s, 1st place was 58s.

        Long time ago now, completely forgotten how to do it now :(

        1. ravenviz Silver badge

          Re: Maybe, just maybe..

          I still use the same algorithm I used in 1983, and have had many cubes that have become destroyed by constant solving. I sometimes use a completed cube to make nice patterns and leave it on my desk for people to see (wow, how did he do that / smug git), or just therapy when talking to my IT department. I'm usually 2 - 4 minutes in slow mode, but then 'the real McCoy' official cube is not very good for speed cubing as it is actually quite stiff. Inferior models / copies actually tend to break!

          1. linicks

            Re: Maybe, just maybe..

            I used to be able to do it in under 30 seconds (I remember using silicone grease to lube the thing to make it rotate easir - ha!), but again that was 35 odd years ago too, and I have forgotten how.

            One think I always wondered about though - if you mix the cube in say, 10 turns, then surely the fastest solve is 10 turns?

            1. DavCrav Silver badge

              Re: Maybe, just maybe..

              "One think I always wondered about though - if you mix the cube in say, 10 turns, then surely the fastest solve is 10 turns?"

              Definitely not. All it shows is that there is a way to solve it in ten turns. Suppose that you scramble it five times and unscramble five times, for example. You have a solved cube at the end, so the solution is 0 turns.

              To see another reason why such thinking has to be wrong, mix the cube for, instead of ten turns, a million. It is never going to need a million turns to solve it then.

              1. linicks

                Re: Maybe, just maybe..

                But surely after a million turns (or 50, or 100, or 500 etc.) you will end up the same as doing say 10 or 5 or 15?

                1. DavCrav Silver badge

                  Re: Maybe, just maybe..

                  "But surely after a million turns (or 50, or 100, or 500 etc.) you will end up the same as doing say 10 or 5 or 15?"

                  That's my point. You must start undoing things at that point, so the way you came is not the best path back to the start.

            2. VinceH Silver badge

              Re: Maybe, just maybe..

              "(I remember using silicone grease to lube the thing to make it rotate easir - ha!)"

              We tended to use butter or margarine. IIRC it wasn't the best substance, but it worked well enough.

      2. VinceH Silver badge

        Re: Maybe, just maybe..

        "I used to be able to solve the cube in about a minute. Forgotten how to now - it was 35 years ago."

        Not quite as long on both counts: closer to 32 years ago, give or take, and I had it down to about 40 seconds.

        The last time I picked one up, several years ago, I could only solve it some of the time. And much, much more slowly!

  8. steamrunner

    It's Monday morning

    This is far too much for a Monday morning... I'm still struggling with simple config tasks...

    1. Your alien overlord - fear me

      Re: It's Monday morning

      I'm still struggling with the aftermath of the weekend. And yes, lots of coloured squares spinning don't help.

  9. Thaumaturge

    I figured this out years ago...

    Simple! You just peel off the colored stickers and restick them all on sides they belong on.

    (Do it where you can't be seen to preserve genius reputation)

    1. r_c_a_d

      Re: I figured this out years ago...

      So you can pick the stickers off and put them back on in 5 seconds?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A more interesting approach...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    These competitions have been annoying me for over 30 years.

    Different configurations of the cube take different amounts of time to solve. Sometimes you're just lucky and you can do it quicker!

    1. AndyS

      I agree. Isn't it a bit like a race "to the nearest pub?" Depends very much on where you start.

      Do all cubes used in a single competition have the same starting configuration? Then at least the results from one competition might tell you something useful.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But as I recall, for any given round of competition, each contestant begins with an identical cube configuration. Now, if I recall, they don't hold a world record on solving the cube for the reason you state.

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        "Isn't it a bit like a race "to the nearest pub?" Depends very much on where you start."

        TBH it depends on what shit the nearest pub serves. Reminds me of the film "the worlds end" and the pub crawl they do from one pub to the next cookie cutter pub. I even think the bandits were the same....

  12. Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face

    Seems to me that there are a lot of people filming themselves quickly messing up a Rubik's cube, reversing the footage, then putting it on YouTube.

  13. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    When I finally got round to buying a Rubik's Cube it came with a 'cheat sheet' which explained the sequence of twists required to move pieces around. I did eventually solve a jumbled cube but had no desire to memorise the algorithms nor perfect executing them at speed.

    Despite having such little interest in Rubik's Cubes I do however enjoy wasting my time untangling topological puzzles. Each to their own I guess.

  14. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Thinking of the labyrinth

    43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations. Add game theory to that, RPG with a dash of FPS for good measure.

    You have 9 x 6 rooms to create, and where the player goes defines the setup of the next room. Equate player moves to rotations, jumble the initial settings at start, and you've got a really infinite game (for practical values of infinite, of course).

  15. Nigel Brown

    Or you could

    just go out and get a girlfriend.....

    1. It wasnt me

      Re: Or you could

      I tried. Its pretty hard to find one who can beat the rubiks cube in under a minute....


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