The 39-year-old electrical engineering
research professor takes a Rubik's Cube out of her desk and begins
twisting and turning the colorful plastic puzzle.
She knows some people find working on the cube an infuriating
exercise in futility. Not her. She finds it therapeutic and
"It's a silent challenge to your intellectual abilities," she
The Binghamton University faculty member recently put her
expertise to the test at the World Rubik's Games Championship in
Toronto, Canada. And she passed the test with flying colors,
finishing second in the contest.
A total of 83 "speed cubers" from more than 20 countries competed
in the Toronto event -- the first worldwide tournament in more than
The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian
professor who wanted a teaching aid for his design students. To
solve the puzzle, a person moves a jumble of colors around the
cube's axis until each side is a solid color.
Fridrich first picked up Rubik's Cube 22 years ago in her native
Czechoslovakia and was hooked immediately. She competed in the first
international championship back in 1982 at the height of the Rubik's
Cube fad, finishing 10th.
In the world of speed cubers, it's seconds, not minutes, that
Fridrich posted the two fastest times in the finals, solving the
puzzle in 17.12 and 17.33 seconds respectively.
But she placed second because the average of three of her five
scores -- judges threw out the fastest and slowest time for each of
the eight finalists placed her behind Dan Knights, a San Francisco
Fridrich's average was 20.48 seconds, compared to Knights' 20
The competition was rewarding, not only because of her
second-place finish, but also because Knights, who has called
Fridrich his mentor, used a method the Binghamton University
professor developed as the basis for solving the puzzle.
Fridrich posted her system, which involves a complex series of
algorithms, on the Web in 1997.
"I didn't think anybody in their right mind would learn all the
algorithms," she said with a laugh.
But it's caught on in the world of cubing.
Six of the eight finalists, including the top five finishers,
used it in Toronto, she said.
While the Rubik's Cube fad ended in the mid-1980s, word of mouth
and the Internet have given it new life in recent years.
Whether it's hot, or not, Fridrich is a cuber for life.
"I think it's a fascinating puzzle," she said. "It's very simple,
yet so incredibly complex."
Speed cubers need to know more than a system, she emphasized.
They have to recognize instantly what they need to do to solve a
particular scramble, and they need the physical dexterity to do it.
Equally important, they have to battle nerves and be relaxed as
they deal with the sound of clicking cubes and the pressure of doing
something so incredibly complex so incredibly fast.
Some of the "young guys" at the world championships practiced
long hours, Fridrich said. Knights, the winner, hired a
hypnotherapist to keep him relaxed, she said.
Fridrich took a more low-key approach.
"With my busy schedule and family, I didn't have too much time to
prepare," she said. "I worked more on becoming relaxed."
At Binghamton University, Fridrich works on developing
mathematical theory and appropriate equipment to hide information
communications. She also works on ways to crack secret communication
Fridrich and her research team, using a $1.1 million grant from
the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., are working on
developing and refining algorithms to detect hidden information in
The Rubik's Cube will always be a hobby, Fridrich said.
Meanwhile, organizers are planning the next World Rubik's Games
Championship for 2005.
Fridrich hopes to be there.