Jun 022011

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.


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:


May 222011

The Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) is hiring someone with writing, technical and graphics skills at the MERI Center for Marine Studies in Blue Hill, Maine. Meanwhile this Tuesday the Bangor Chamber of Commerce is showcasing business advice from L. L. Bean, Black Dinah Chocolatiers, and yes, Shipyard Brewing Company.

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Sep 142010

In an age when the Canadian government is muzzling scientists, religious groups are using special search engines like Jewogle to filter out unwanted results, and one in five Americans believes the earth is at the center of the solar system…you might just want to hear Randy Olson speak.

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Apr 182010

Wired magazine spoke with Science writer and Hack the Planet author Eli Kintisch about the moral and scientific dilemmas of considering global interventions to solve climate change. On reading the interview, I’m terrified to learn how many companies are itching to get into the geoengineering business, by marketing sun-absorbing aerosols to disperse in clouds or patenting new types of algae that munch up carbon in the oceans.

Kintisch makes the analogy between nuclear weapons and geoengineering as two horrific projects that scientists research, all the while hoping they will never be used. If that analogy is justified, then we should no sooner entrust private enterprise with saving the planet than we should put them in charge of building and deploying atomic bombs.

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Jan 132010

Intermedia MFA students might be interested in the InterMedia Patterns blog. Here artists Jack Ox and Paul Herz aim to provide a foundation for intermedia artists drawn from cognitive psychology.

Much of the thinking is abstract, but the approach does help connect intermedia art to practices in other disciplines–like the idea of a “pattern language” popularized by architect Christopher Alexander and picked up by Permaculture designers. The broad strokes can be seen in the InterMedia Toolkit.

Nov 272009

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Here’s more fuel to vaccine skeptics who claim that bugs introduced intravenously don’t engage the immune system in the deeper way of bugs introduced via the skin.

The Slashdot comments touch on another revelation of recent research: that autoimmune disorders such as Lupus tend to appear in societies that have artificially blocked their citizens’ natural exposure to germs.

From Slashdot:

Researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of California have shown that the more germs a child is exposed to, the better their immune system in later life. Their study found that keeping a child’s skin too clean impaired the skin’s ability to heal itself. From the article: “‘These germs are actually good for us,’ said Professor Richard Gallo, who led the research. Common bacterial species, known as staphylococci, which can cause inflammation when under the skin, are ‘good bacteria’ when on the surface, where they can reduce inflammation.”