Portal 2 lets players warp the space-time continuum, and physics education may never be the same.

Heck, it even made the New York Times go ga-ga. Perhaps more astonishing, it made the New York Times write a video-game review.

Physics — the basic behavior of this particular reality —can be beautiful. Read Newton or Einstein. Or you could play Portal 2, the achingly brilliant new game from the Valve Corporation that wrings more fun out of physics than all of the shoot-’em-ups in the world….

The problem with physics for many people is that it has always been explained in the language of mathematics. [Yet] we all know physics, even if we don’t know we know it. But how can it be made elegant and enjoyable without the math?

Enter Portal 2….

One portal by itself does nothing; it is merely a swirling oval about the height and width of an adult. But when you create the other portal, the two ovals become linked. When you pass through one, you emerge from the other, no matter how far away it is. It is as if the portals formed opposite sides of a trans-dimensional hole.

Let’s say you are in a rectangular test chamber, standing on a platform separated from the exit by a deep pit that you cannot possibly leap over. All you have to do is create one portal on a wall next to you, then fire the gun across the chasm to create the corresponding portal on a wall next to the exit. You walk through the hole beside you and pop out by your destination. Voilà.

That’s easy, and that’s pretty much where you start in Portal 2. The game then begins to layer on more mind-bending situations that both elucidate, and take advantage of, basic physics. For example, an important concept is the conservation of momentum. When you enter one portal, you emerge from the corresponding portal at exactly the same speed. This means that gravity becomes your personal propulsion system.

Picture the same test chamber, but with one difference: the walls, floors and ceiling by the exit are not “portal-able.” Certain surfaces are designed to be impervious to the portal effect. How will you cross?

First you open a portal that’s above and behind you on the wall. Against all intuition, you then leap into the pit. As you fall, accelerating, you aim at the floor and open a portal where you are about to land and plummet through, only to be launched horizontally out of the portal you originally created. Your speed propels you across the pit to land by the exit.

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As Slashdot reports, you can even make your own Portal playground thanks to Valve, which is no stranger to open-sourcing game guts.

Portal 2 Authoring Tools Beta Released

Valve has announced the beta release of a set of authoring tools for Portal 2, allowing users to create their own puzzles and challenges in the name of science. “The Portal 2 Authoring Tools include versions of the same tools we used to make Portal 2. They’ll allow you to create your own singleplayer and co-op maps, new character skins, 3D models, sound effects, and music.” The tools are available for free to anyone who owns the PC version of the game.

Of course, if you want your physics straight from the horse’s mouth–er, voice synthesizer–there is this rare recent interview with Stephen Hawking:

http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f0748904214614b00443248bced49899

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