Image via Wikimedia Commons // Graphic by Rebecca O'Connell
Image via Wikimedia Commons // Graphic by Rebecca O'Connell

The Ultimate 3D Puzzle—The Rare, 20-Sided Dogic

Image via Wikimedia Commons // Graphic by Rebecca O'Connell
Image via Wikimedia Commons // Graphic by Rebecca O'Connell

If you find the Rubik’s Cube bewildering, you'd be astounded by its cousins in the 3D puzzle world. From the colorful, twisty Pyraminx to the 12-sided Gigaminx to the seven-layered V-Cube, solving the basic '80s Cube is child’s play compared to the big leagues.

But then there’s the granddaddy of them all, in rarity if not complexity: The Dogic, a 12-color, 20-sided icosahedron that can cost upward of $500 on eBay. If you can find it, that is.

Ernő Rubik—the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube—might be the most famous puzzle designer, but he’s far from the most prolific. An entire cottage industry of DIY designers emerged in his wake, supported by a fervent online community. Everyone from casual cubers working on building up their puzzle collections to the near-professionals who compete in speedcubing competitions are intrigued by the constant challenge of solving these 3D games.

Rubik invented his 6-sided cube in Budapest in 1980, and nearly 20 years later and just 15 miles away, two Hungarian men named Zsolt and Robert Vecsei patented their own design for the incredibly intricate Dogic. Their patent took five years to be approved, and in 1998 they finally manufactured a short run under their toy company Vesco, a tiny business based in the small town of Piliscsaba, located in the forested Pilis Mountain hills northwest of Budapest.

The Vecseis had no idea how popular their creation would be, and at the time, neither did anyone else. News of the puzzle spread quickly: A 1998 message to the Cube Lovers listserv reported the Dogic was “a true must for anyone who likes cube-type Puzzles.” Three months later, another member used a computer simulator to uncover the puzzle’s solution. His diagnosis: “Despite having more permutations than most magic puzzles, Dogic seems to be fairly easy to solve.”

Simplicity didn’t quell its popularity though: American cubers bought theirs from overseas, sharing names and email addresses for German collectors and toy shops. No one knows exactly how many Vesco produced, but it was roughly 4,000 in total. Few enough that availability complaints were already rampant in 2001, when the Dogic cost around $70 on eBay and European toy shops could no longer replenish their stock. But because the puzzle fit an astonishing 267 tiny pieces into its small frame, it required skilled workers and specialized machines to assemble them. A massive production run would have been totally out of the question.

Production appeared to have stopped by 2001, when members of the Twisty Puzzles forums began begging bigger manufacturers to take up the cause of creating these rare toys. “Uwe Mèffert, are you there?” one asked.

To the cubing community, Uwe Mèffert is a cornerstone, a prolific German designer who is known as “one of the leading Rotating Puzzle Inventors / makers in the world.” His extensive online shop is an enthusiast’s wonderland. When he heard about the shortage, Mèffert traveled to Budapest to purchase the plastic Dogic molds from the Vecseis. His assured fans—who were not shy about emailing him for updates—that he was working to get all orders for the $39 special-edition Dogics in the mail before Christmas 2004. However, Mèffert noted that future runs would "need to be substantially higher because of extremely high raw material costs."

Unfortunately for Mèffert, manufacturing the quirky puzzle proved immensely difficult: "The molding has been almost completed and was a nightmare," he wrote after struggling to fit the Vecseis' Hungarian molds into his Japanese production machines, and them breaking more than 20 times in the process. "You can imagine not only has it been frightfully expensive, but also very time consuming."

Because of these setbacks, Mèffert had refused to manufacture the Dogic until he received 1000 orders. Enthusiasts encouraged each other to purchase in multiples to meet the quota: “Come 2007 we could very well be singing the familiar Dogic tune again: ‘I wish I bought more when they were available!’” wrote Twisty Puzzles moderator Sandy Thompson.

And so they were. It only took a few months before cubers bemoaned Mèffert’s Dogics. The new batch drove down the cost of the Vecsei originals—second-hand prices dropped instantly from $500-plus to $100. Nefarious eBay sellers marked the newest versions as “original,” to much consternation. And to top it off, the aforementioned manufacturing problems were revealing themselves in the assembly: Models fell apart in the hand, pieces were harder to keep aligned, and the turning mechanism wasn’t as smooth as the Vecsei originals. While Mèffert continued manufacturing the Dogic until 2010, producing around 2,000 total, interest fell off sharply.

To the relief of collectors, once they were no longer on the assembly line, the price of existing Dogics rose accordingly. But if you want to score big, keep your eyes peeled at garage sales: While a Hungarian original will fetch much more, Ebay hasn't had a Dogic listed in six months, and that one was a Mèffert that sold for $550.

Cell Free Technology
This Pixel Kit Will Let You Play Tetris With Jellyfish DNA
Cell Free Technology
Cell Free Technology

Forget playing Tetris on your phone. Now you can play it with jellyfish DNA. Bixels is a DIY game kit that lets you code your own games using synthetic biology, lighting up a digital display with the help of DNA.

Its 8-by-8 pixel grid is programmed to turn on with the help of the same protein that makes jellyfish glow, called green fluorescent protein (GFP). But you can program it to do more than just passively shine. You can use your phone and the associated app to excite Bixels' fluorescent proteins and make them glow at different frequencies, producing red, blue, and green colors. Essentially, you can program it like you would any computer, but instead of electronics powering the system, it's DNA.

Two blue boxes hold Bixel pixel grids.

Researchers use green fluorescent protein all the time in lab experiments as an imaging agent to illuminate biological processes for study. With Bixels, all you need is a little programming to turn the colorful lights (tubes filled with GFP) into custom images or interactive games like Tetris or Snake. You can also use it to develop your own scientific experiments. (For experiment ideas, Bixels' creator, the Irish company Cell-Free Technology, suggests the curricula from BioBuilder.)

A screenshot shows a user assembling a Bixel kit on video.

A pixel kit is housed in a cardboard box that looks like a Game Boy.

Bixels is designed to be used by people with all levels of scientific knowledge, helping make the world of biotechnology more accessible to the public. Eventually, Cell-Free Technology wants to create a bio-computer even more advanced than Bixels. "Our ultimate goal is to build a personal bio-computer which, unlike current wearable devices, truly interacts with our bodies," co-founder Helene Steiner said in a press release.

Bixels - Play tetris with DNA from Cell-Free Technology on Vimeo.

You can buy your own Bixel kit on Kickstarter for roughly $118. It's expected to ship in May 2018.

All images courtesy Cell-Free Technology

Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
Play a Game to Help Scientists Defeat a Cancer-Causing Toxin
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images

If you're used to fighting virtual zombies or flying spaceships on your computer, a new series of games available on Foldit may sound a little unconventional. The object of the Aflatoxin Challenge is to rearrange protein structures and create new enzymes. But its impact on the real world could make it the most important game you've ever played: The scientists behind it hope it will lead to a new way to fight one of the most ruthless causes of liver cancer.

As Fast Company reports, the citizen science project is a collaboration between Mars, Inc. and U.C. Davis, the University of Washington, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The team's online puzzles, which debuted on Foldit earlier this month, invite the public to create a new enzyme capable of finding and destroying carcinogens known as aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins form when certain fungi grow on crops like corn, nuts, and grains. Developing countries often don't have the resources to detect it in food, leaving around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to it. When people do eat food with high aflatoxin levels unknowingly, they can contract liver cancer. Roughly a quarter of all liver cancer cases around the world can be traced back to aflatoxin exposure.

The toxin's connection to agriculture is why the food giant Mars is so interested in fighting it. By working on a way to stop aflatoxins on a molecular level, the company could prevent its spread more efficiently than they would with less direct methods like planting drought-resistant crops or removing mold by hand.

The easiest way for scientists to eradicate an aflatoxin before it causes real harm is by making an enzyme that does the work for them. With the Aflatoxin Challenge, the hope is that by manipulating protein structures, online players will come up with an enzyme that attacks aflatoxins at a susceptible portion of their molecular structure called a lactone ring. Destroying the lactone ring makes aflatoxin much less toxic and essentially safe to eat.

The University of Washington launched Foldit in 2008. Since then, the online puzzle platform has been used to study a wide range of diseases including AIDS and Chikungunya. Everyone is welcome to contribute to the Foldit's new aflatoxin project for the next several weeks or so, after which scientists will synthesize genes based on the most impressive results to be used in future studies.

[h/t Fast Company]


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