In an age where women are once again wearing skinny, tapered jeans, it's not surprising that the cube has made a comeback as well — that's Rubik's Cube, of course.
But Rubik's revivalists are confident that 21st-century “Cubism” isn't just another 1980s flashback in the pan.
“People are beginning to realize that they're possible [to solve],” said Tyson Mao, a recent California Institute of Technology astrophysics graduate, former "Beauty and the Geek" contestant and founder of the World Cube Association (he can solve a traditional Rubik's Cube in 12.89 seconds).
"It's no longer an epitome of being a nerd nor is it a cult for socially awkward geniuses. The Rubik's Cube has been making a comeback because it's finding fans in the typical average Joe walking on the street.”
And Mao isn't exaggerating when he says the cube can now be found far from the rarefied air of computer labs and math-and-science libraries.
The Broadway musical ”The Wedding Singer," based on the Adam Sandler movie, gets audiences in the 1980s mood with a Rubik's matrix on the opening curtains, and the lobby gift shop sells branded Rubik's Cubes as souvenirs.
And on Friday at AT&T Park in San Francisco, everyone watching the San Francisco Giants play the Oakland Athletics in '80s uniforms gets to play along with a Rubik's Cube solver during the seventh-inning stretch.
But the definitive proof of the rebirth is the competitions. In 2003, after a lapse of nearly 20 years, an international tournament was held in Toronto. That Rubik's Cube World Championship saw some 70 competitors — or “cubers” — but the next, held in 2005 in Orlando, Fla., more than doubled that number, with some 170 players and plenty of media attention.
The next scheduled championship, in 2007, is expected to draw even more. Mao's Caltech group holds competitions quarterly, helps organize competitions in Southern California, Dallas and San Francisco and has supported events in New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
And there are now regular meets in France, Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic.
“It's funny, the community gets bigger every Christmas,” said 22-year-old math tutor Chris Hardwick of Raleigh, N.C., who set the world cubing record for solving a 5x5x5 Rubik's Cube blindfolded in 55 minutes and 21.21 seconds. “People get them as presents, go online to figure them out and suddenly they're going to competitions.”
It's the second part of that formula that many observers of and participants in the Rubik's renaissance agree is key to its comeback. The Internet has not only provided a forum for longtime Rubik's fans who would otherwise suffer in silence, it's also allowed neophytes to avoid the initial fumbling and almost get straight into breaking world records.
“This generation is a lot better, and they have more information available,” said Jessica Fridrich, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the State University of New York, Binghamton, who was Czechoslovakian national champion as a 17-year-old in 1982 and 10th best speed cuber in the 1983 international championship.
“Back then there were no computers available, so everything had to be found out by hand, algorithms had to be worked out by hand and by trial and error. Now the best cubers are typically teenagers, very young, 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old, and they're so fast that I would never think something like this would be possible back in 1982.”
Fridrich helped jumpstart the Rubik's resurgence when, in 1997, she put up on her Web site a paper with a number of methods of solving the cube.
She promptly forgot about her Web page, but it became a Rosetta Stone for cubers trying to decipher the puzzle as fast as possible, and in 2001 she was asked to join the cubing community. She took second place in Toronto in 2003.
“In the late '90s, the community was still small, real small,” Hardwick said. “And then it got bigger and bigger, and then in 2001 — boom!”
Mao said the new generation's got definite advantages over the first generation of cubers, thanks to the Internet and Web sites such as www.speedcubing.com.
“Back in 1980, the winning time was 22.95 seconds at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary,” he said.
“In 2006, the world record for solving a Rubik's Cube was 20.09 seconds — with one hand! Currently the world record [with both hands] is 11.13 seconds. People are simply better than ever at the Rubik's Cube today.”
And that's something Fridrich, whose best average time hovers around 17 seconds, won't begrudge the new guard.
“Imagine if the best person ran the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds these days and then somebody else suddenly could do it in seven seconds,” she said. "It's absolutely outrageous. The decrease from 17 to 14 seconds is huge.”
Internet entrepreneur Jan Jannink, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and puzzles out such heady Rubik's esoterica as five-dimensional cubes, theorized that other popular brainy activities may be behind the return as well.
“The recent sudoku craze has played into that quite a bit and followed a similar trajectory,” he said. “These things tend to reinforce each other somehow.”
And you can't discount the influence ”The Da Vinci Code” has had, according to New York-based marketing strategist Rob Hecht.
“The cryptex puzzle became an underlying theme of the entire best-selling novel,” he said. “The closest consumer culture can get to a low-cost and brain-teasing cryptex is the well-branded Rubik's Cube. What better way to practice to be a Robert Langdon?”
Hardwick is optimistic that the newly rediscovered sport will be here to stay.
“It may not get much bigger, but this time it isn't going to go away,” he said. “We competitors are here to stay.”
Mao has even higher hopes — he envisions the possibility that Rubik's Cube competitions will eventually go mainstream enough to be televised. He does, however, admit that there's one way in which the current world of cubing could be improved dramatically.
“It is most certain that Rubik's Cube competitions are not the place to meet girls,” Mao said. “Perhaps only one in 20 cubers is female.”