Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

How to Solve a Rubik's Cube

by Katherine Yu

About Katherine Yu

If the unusual short story that captured first place in this year's teen category leaves readers feeling they've taken a stroll through someone's mind, it's no mistake.

Author Katherine Yu calls her narrative approach the "field guide" method, and her "How to Solve a Rubik's Cube" is nothing short of a vivid journey through an encounter between person and puzzle.

For Yu, a 14-year-old Gunn High School freshman, winning the competition was a psychological trip in itself.

"I was really surprised. I didn't think the topic was that interesting. It wasn't very focused," she said.

The story took three weeks to write.

"I started with the steps for learning how to solve it. And then I made it a story over days," she said.

Yu didn't base her writing solely on her own experience with the cube.

"I watched other people try to solve it," she said. Some people thought that if they could make all the squares on one side of the cube to match, the whole puzzle would be solved.

"They'd get really surprised when it didn't work," said Yu, whose own best time at figuring out the cube is a scant two minutes.

To develop the final story, Yu added clues and scientific terminology.

Yu learned the field-guide technique this past summer, as a creative non-fiction student at the Center for Talented Youth at The John Hopkins University. She also studied chemistry.

When not writing creative non-fiction, Yu enjoys playing club soccer and the viola. Her favorite book is "Catcher in the Rye."

Might more writing be part of Yu's future career? Perhaps.

"I like so many things; it's hard to choose," she said.

But one thing she admits to seeing herself doing is science.

Mr. Rubik would be proud.

Observe God's creations locked in a picture; the solid blue sky and white clouds, and the dark green moss that grows on the wide trunks of trees. You paint a still-life of a fruit bowl; orange, lemon, and bright apple.

Then observe the cube. You conclude that it is just a matter of getting the nine pieces of the same color on one side. Complete the white face and set the cube down. You are satisfied.

Go out into the sphere of the world again. A cloud shifts across the sky, circling around you. Follow it with your eyes; turn your body to keep it centered in your view. It becomes a line of dark green pine trees. On the matter of fruit, set an orange on your kitchen table. Wait for sun to set and listen to the clicking of the clock. As the light in the room becomes a bright yellow, notice how the orange casts a shadow across the wood. You notice its depth. You feel the tectonic plates shifting beneath your feet.

When you come back to the cube, 125 days later, you notice that the other sides of the cube are still scrambled. So you learn the 4 basic cube formulas from a physics major and use them to solve the cube. As you drill the moves into your thumbs, your fingers become locked in motion. Complete the cube 64 times in one sitting. Find yourself somehow wanting more.

Attend chemistry class. Write in chemical formulas for the decomposition and synthesis of sodium nitrate. But find yourself asking, "Does this quiz really mean anything?"

You compose your own cube formula. You spend 3 summer months locked in your room, digging away at it--listening to the clicking of the plastic. Your best time becomes 27 seconds.

When summer's over, unlock your door and return to the lab. Experiment with that sodium nitrate solution. Explore polyatomic ions and their charges. Make sense of the equations you memorized for that quiz last semester.

Maybe you end up teaching science at a middle school. Watch your 8 students write up their own experiments. Open the classroom cabinet, the one with the jungle of Bunsen burners. Hand them out and watch the kids stare in amazement as the green ocean in a beaker quickly turns to gas. Later, you tell them about your cubing days.

Perhaps you win a Nobel Prize for mathematical group theory. If you do, find that cube again--that 1 cube that taught you to explore the world. Hold it in your hands and thank Mr. Rubik.