Kristin and the Cube

The very first time I ever saw my wife was on December 7, 1981. That was the night she appeared on a popular early '80s TV show called "That's Incredible!" Of course, I had no idea then that I would ever even meet that girl, let alone marry her. But she was the only girl among the group of nine Rubik's Cube solving contestants, and I do remember seeing that program, since I had learned to solve the cube myself and therefore found the show interesting enough to tune into.

The next time I saw her was in 1986, when I was introduced to her in Jim Chesney's original VLSI lab in Goddard's building 23 during my job interview. The story of Kristin and the cube was something Chesney was impressed about enough to tell everyone he introduced her to.

In fact, it still is. Back at Goddard, just before he finally found funding to start TSI TelSys, Jim called her in to a meeting with some out-of-towners in suits, on what sounded like technical issues, only to be handed a scrambled cube while a guy with a stop watch looked on. She solved it in just 52.17 seconds.

Anyway, I was looking through the scrapbook from those days when she got her 15 minutes of fame, and I thought, "Hey! I should put some of this stuff on the web!"

For example, here's the page from her diary on the day she first encountered the cube:

Saturday, August 23rd, 1980: The corn boil was today. It was pretty fun. Better than another boring day. I bought a bracelet that matches my rainbow necklace & ring. It matches great except it has clouds while the others have suns. Dad brought home a puzzle. It's a cube with 6 colored sides that moves in all directions. You have to get the colors together. It's driving me crazy. : )

Kristin was among the first people in America to get hooked on the cube. Her father had heard about it at the annual summer meeting of the American Mathematical Association in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and bought one immediately, long before it became a craze. By the time I got a cube, some months later, there were lots of slender books for sale that provided methods for solving it. But for Kristin and her family, no such books yet existed, which means they took the puzzle's challenge far more seriously than I ever did.

When you're actually attempting to figure out a solution to the cube, you need to have complete control over it. You can't let someone else mess with it, even when you aren't actively using it, since that would disrupt your on-going efforts. But with 4 people in the family eager to play with it, a time-sharing system had to be developed. So, each member of the family got control of the cube for a given length of time, first for one day, then for one week, going in rotation.

Kristin put her day with the cube to good use, but one day wasn't quite enough time for her to crack the puzzle. All she could do while waiting for her week to roll around was to conduct thought experiments. In fact, she even dreamed about it. For Kristin at least, the question of whether one dreams in black and white or in color was definitively answered, as she saw the colored sides of the cube in her dreams.

Then one day during her sister's week with the cube, Kristin noticed that Ruth was ignoring the cube in order to watch TV. So Kristin asked if she could bend the rules and work on the cube until Ruth's show was over. Ruth agreed, and in that hour, Kristin solved the cube for the very first time. (She then had quite a struggle keeping Ruth from scrambling it again before their parents came home.)

As it turns out, Kristin had been lucky that first time; the corners fell into place without requiring any special moves. It wasn't until she got her full week with the cube that she worked out a complete solution.

I myself learned from a book, and learned the more commonly used top-middle-bottom approach. But Kristin's method, which starts with the corners, is much more efficient, and allowed her to win lots of competitions even though her hands weren't always as fast as her opponent's. In fact, the fellow who won the contest on TV that night when I first saw her also used her method, but had much faster hands.

When Kristin was growing up, her dad would often tell her that it didn't matter what she decided to be or do with her life, as long as she always strived to be one of the top five in the nation in her chosen field. So although she didn't win that night in 1981, it was still a victory for her: she came in fifth, making her one of the top five cubists in the nation.

She solved that cube in just 35.3 seconds.



Copyright © 1997 by Andrew Looney.


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Last Modified: Aug 30 2014 at 16:13