The prompt that got me off the sidelines in order to break a six-month hiatus in blog-posting was a conversation with my thirty-something son. He was telling me that one of the online games he used to play ‘back in the day’ was being re-released in its original form in response to prolonged lobbying by older gamers. Apparently these old-school players wanted to roll back the changes which, they feel, have made the game too easy. Thus, the classic version of ‘World of Warcraft’ is wowing its loyal fans even as I type. However, the current exploits of his balding Guild are not what I want to write about here. How could I, given that I know near-to-nothing about the game. No, what the conversation actually reminded me of was another game he used to play a lot: 'EVE'. EVE is set within a simulated space-based environment that attracted – and presumably still attracts – those who value the potential for internet-based gaming that relies on alliance-building and calculated risk-taking. I can remember listening with admiration outside his door to the disciplined voice traffic of the Corp and corp alliances my son played within as they organised and managed themselves: players from four or more countries and time zones learning the art of cross-border collaborative effort. He was evidently exceptionally good at it if one can take the entry from the Urban Dictionary I show below as any guide. But I digress …
My son chose the name Evecrumble for his online avatar.
This image is a screen capture from urbandictionary.com
|Science News was, and I believe still is, an American science magazine published by the Society of Science and the Public.|
It just so happened that, whilst all this was developing, Evecrumble began to make videos centred on his various multi-national Corps’ activities. What a gift: now I could add online gaming to my portfolio of teaching aids. Armed with a CD copy of one such video I would encourage groups of students to watch, analyse and then voice their appraisal as physicists.
This really is rocket science, of a sort. Watch a few minutes and see what you can spot – good, bad or ugly – that might prompt a question or two about the physics of the game. You’ll ideally need a full-sized computer screen since the tactical displays are small, and a darkened room (space is black); sound is optional. The full-length video runs for about 15 minutes; I have extracted about six minutes. Each of the campaigns portrayed will probably have lasted for several hours in ‘reality’.
Between them, and across the several years I used it, my lovely students found much to praise:
- the gas/dust clouds illuminated by stars within – might there be star formation occurring? See my post here for more;
- the fact that spaceship trails appeared curved as they altered course – the exhaust will leave along the axis of the ship from moment to moment; thus, as the ship turns the trail will appear to curve. This is reminiscent of the creation of cometary dust trails: the comet’s path might be an eccentric ellipse around the Sun, but the ‘engine’ propelling the dust is the solar wind and so the direction of the comet’s travel and that of its trail will not coincide.
- The conceptual design of spacecraft and of space stations created much discussion regarding the lack of frictional forces and the effect of reduced/micro-gravity on freeing one up to move beyond streamlined shapes. There have been plenty of images in the press/media of late marking the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon: immediately obvious is the fact that the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module – the bit that actually landed, part of which later took off again; see NASA library image below) could be light and ‘spindly’. It’s a bit of a tangent, but I wrote about the effect on my interests and passions of things like the Apollo programme in a previous post, here.
- A whole swathe of these relate to the confusion between weight and mass: mass is intrinsic to any physical entity but weight arises from the action of gravity on the entity’s mass. For example, like the LEM shown above, whilst a spaceship need not adopt a streamlined (aircraft-like) design, its movement will still be affected by its shape – specifically, the distribution of its mass. The same formulae describe moments of inertia in space as pertain here on Earth: try to rotate the ship/station and those parts furthest from its centre of gravity will exert the most force on the connecting struts or framework. Now that I’ve introduced the ‘g word’ we need also to consider the matter of effective weights: as Einstein pointed out, an object which is being accelerated will, in effect, increase in weight. You can try this yourself the next time you travel in a moderately fast lift, although this is an experiment best tried in the company of understanding friends. You’ll need to fool your legs that there’s nothing unusual about to happen by walking gently around the lift before it takes off – we tend to tense our muscles without thinking and it’s important to avoid that. When the lift starts up, it will accelerate you up to its nominal rate of ascent; in that brief period of acceleration your legs will sense a heavier body above them. Exactly the opposite will happen as the lift begins its descent: the acceleration is now ‘negative’, and it feels like a weight loss. Our bodies are quite sensitive to acceleration. Acceleration is able to induce something akin to the effects of of gravity: it gives the objects an effective weight; they always possessed a mass, but now that mass is being accelerated and the object behaves as though it has weight. Einstein Theory of General Relativity showed us why it is that the forces created by gravity are actually indistinguishable from those generated by acceleration. EVE, and a very large proportion of all space-based science fiction, sets this aside by and large. (It’s the same with ‘super-hero’ stories.) Examine the rates of acceleration in EVE and it becomes apparent that the humans within each ship would not survive: the forces dwarf those experienced by Apollo astronauts.
- Another major issue is the need to slow down in space in order to bring your journey to an end. The fastest way from the proverbial point A to point B is to accelerate constantly for the first half of the journey (during which time the occupants will feel something indistinguishable from gravity remember) and then decelerate equally hard* for the second half. Only then would you come to a standstill at point B. In EVE, as is common elsewhere, the assumption is made that closing an engine down will bring the spacecraft to a halt. The truth of the matter is that the ship would continue onward at whatever velocity had been attained when the engine was turned off since there are no frictional forces – in other words, rocket engines firing in the opposite direction are needed in order to slow down. EVE goes further, as you’ll see in the video, by showing us ships with engines still running but which are nevertheless reducing speed.
- Beyond these topics came discussions on 'jamming' electromagnetic signals, hyperspace/warp drives and technology like the rail-gun. Students also picked up on the choice of units used: AU (an Astronomical Unit is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun) and m/s. Pick a scale folks! (See my earlier post here.)
|Evecrumble herself, together with a couple of Corp logos from the time.|
P.s. I’ll recount one extra interaction with a student, who got very excited when I told the class what was coming as a break from ‘Hollywood’ and the news media. His first contribution when I finished showing an approximately three minute excerpt was to ask whether Evecrumble was me. The look of expectation on his face was very special, but it turned to resigned disappointment when I said that I didn’t even play video games. However, he perked up when I said I knew Evecrumble quite well. He asked me to convey a message: “I was once in that Corp. Please tell Evecrumble that it was an honour to have served with him.” Perhaps it's not 'only a game' after all. I expect my face was a picture at that point; my son’s certainly was when I passed the message on. The choice of pronoun is also interesting. My son had quite purposefully created a female avatar for one good reason or another, evidently to no avail.
* I am ignoring the fact that the ship’s mass is changing due to fuel loss. Having said that, if an ion drive is being used (see here) there may well have been refueling events en route – perhaps by collecting H2O from a passing asteroid/comet. Such thoughts would require another blog post to consider properly …