The Rubik's Cube and the meaning of life

Why try to plan when even simple things are complicated?

I have discovered the meaning of life. All right, the secret of a happy life, rather than the full-on ‘core truth of the universe'. But it's a valuable insight nevertheless. I learned it from a Rubik's Cube ...

The Rubik's Cube and the meaning of life

You might have noticed, elsewhere on this site, the statistic about a Rubik’s Cube having more combinations than light travels inches in a century. Perhaps like me your first reaction was that it must be a mistake. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. How many inches is that? And how many seconds are there in a day, never mind a century? No, there's no way a silly little kids’ toy, measuring just three squares in each of its three dimensions, can have that many combinations.

Except it does. With 12 inches to a foot, 5280 feet to a mile, 186,000 miles per second, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year and 100 years in a century, you get a grand total of 37,165,049,856,000,000,000. Or, if you want the correct technical term, 37 quintillion and change.

The number of permutations into which a Rubik’s Cube can be arranged, on the other hand, is 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 (43 quintillion and change). The cube does indeed have more combinations than light travels inches in a century. This, incidentally, is just the number achieveable by turning the cube as it is meant to be turned. By breaking it apart and rearranging the pieces – in other words, by cheating – you can achieve 12 times as many.

In fact the cube’s manufacturers simply claimed ‘billions’ of possibilities in their advertising, on the grounds that people wouldn’t know what a quintillion was. (It’s a billion billion.) Forget holding a Rubik’s Cube in your hand, you feel as though you’ve entered William Blake territory and are holding infinity in your hand.


This is where the ‘happy life’ realisation occurred. So much of our time on this planet is spent planning, scheming, analysing, predicting, jockeying, preparing and assessing. Faced with the cluttered landscape of people and events that make up our existence, we try to work out how we can control it. We spend our whole life trying to plan our life, in all its aspects. Peace of mind, we tell ourselves, is simply a matter of weighing up the odds and making our moves.

But stop for a second. Survey that landscape once more. How many people do you see? There are your nearest and dearest, your friends, acquaintances, work colleagues. And this is even before we’ve got to the hundreds, thousands – no, let’s be honest, it’s millions – of people whose presence in your life may only be fleeting but who can have a dramatic effect on it. The driver whose wing mirror remains unchecked as he crosses your bicycle’s path. The goalkeeper who saves the penalty that keeps your team in the FA Cup. And that’s just the people. The events? Well, we all know what that butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world can do …

And you think you can plan all this? You think you can subvert Life to your will, arrange its pieces to your satisfaction, much less your happiness? Look how many elements there are in it. Think of all the ways those elements can interact. The Rubik’s Cube, with just three times three times three elements (some of which don’t move), has 43 quintillion possibilities. And you are in complete control of that cube. You can take as long as you like to decide your next move. Imagine how many possibilities can result from the factors in your life, most of which are outside your control, and all of which change in real-time, giving you no chance to pause the game while you try and work things out. Or rather don’t. Don’t imagine how many, because you can’t.

Of course it would be absurd not to make any plans, to live your life totally at the whim of chance. We all do our best to look ahead, to spot and avoid danger, to spot and take opportunities. But in doing so we should remember how much the odds are stacked against us, how little chance we have of playing Mystic Meg when the number of variables is so huge. The next time you formulate a plan and put it into action, picture a Rubik’s Cube in the palm of your hand. That way if the plan fails you’ll be comforted by how unlikely it was to succeed in the first place. If by chance it succeeds, you’ll be all the happier.

As the old Yiddish proverb puts it: ‘Man makes plans, and God laughs.'



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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.