Rubik's snake. HirschCo Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., says the U.S. model is made by Tomy in Japan and will be available initially at The Hecht Co., Sears, K mart and Toys R Us. HirschCo says the suggested price is about $10.

The Hungarian professor who has challenged tens of millions of people to solve the puzzle of his cube is now offering a snake of infinite esthetic possibilities.

"The cube is a puzzle, and wanting to find its solution reflects an inner compulsion," said Erno Rubik in his office at the Budapest Academy of Applied Arts, where he teaches design. "To find the solution means to take possession of the cube. The sanke is not a problem to be solved; it offers infinite possibilities of combination. It is a tool to test out ideas of shape in space.

"Speaking theoretically, the number of the sanke's combinations is limited. But speaking practically, that number is limitless, and a lifetime is not sufficient to realize all of its possibilities."

The snake's distributor claims that the snake is capable of "over 23 trillion combinations." The European press predicts that the snake may become more popular than the cube, which is acclaimed "the toy of the century." b

Rubik says that it takes him up to two minutes to solve his cube puzzle -- slow by current standards. For next year's Rubik's Cube world championship, 30 seconds is the minimum qualification. But Rubik no longer plays with his cube or his snake. He has his mind on other inventions. A globe may be his next project. Or perhaps a series of spheres.

"The specific shape -- cube, pyramid, globe -- is irrelevant," he said. "What matters is space which is flexible, and means motion and time."

Rubik is never at loss for an answer; his face is a mask unmoved by surprise, annoyance or joy. There seems to be nothing playful about him. His blue eyes fix on the person he is talking to -- and they are without a toymaker's twinkle.

At 37, he is trim, athletic and a chain-smoker. Dressed in a well-tailored black leather jacket, blue turtleneck sweater and neatly pressed blue corduroy slacks, he looks like an airplane pilot in mufti. Or an astronaut.

The word in Budapest is that the government failed to register properly the cube's patent, enabling several firms to pirate the cube and thus rob Rubik of royalties he should have earned. Rubik does not want to discuss the subject. He says only that "there is no such thing as an international patent valid for every country."

Rubik said that "people are attracted [to his inventions] for different reasons, one of them esthetic. The cube has some esthetic content, but the snake offers far more. It is close to nonfigurative sculpture, such as mobiles."

A compulsive analyst, Rubik can go on talking for hours. By the end of the year, he will have his book ready explaining what his inventions mean in terms of mathematics, esthetics and epistemology.

The words space, sequence and system repeatedly turn up in a Rubik interview. His office has a maze of flat files and one decoration: a poster of Brueghel's 16 century painting of the Tower of Babel. He raises a disapproving eyebrow at the suggestion that the magic of his hinged planes has overcome the world's confusion of tongues.

"There is nothing in the world that we could not express in a logical sequence," he said. "Even miracles can be enclosed in a logical system."