Dr James Wootton


How an obscure 80s video game won the Nobel Prize

This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to some guys who introduced the world of science to fancy physics stuff. But they got the idea from the most unlikely of places: an obscure game released in the mid 80s. This is the completely true* account of how it happened.

It all begins with Pac-Man. A circle confined to a 2D world, he walked the paths set before him. And it was fun.

So much fun was it, in the dark days of the early 1980s, that many clones were created. All had their own twist on the gameplay. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, made a Pac-Man clone. It had Bibles as power ups, collected while Satan attempted to orchestrate your murder. Mushrooms and turtles make a lot more sense in comparison.

In 1984, ‘Oh Mummy’ appeared. At the time, it seemed like just another Pac-Man clone. Instead of an ever hungry circle, you were a treasure hunter. Instead of ghosts, there were mummies. But there was a crucial difference, a difference on which the future of physics would be built: To access the contents of a box you had to do nothing more, and nothing less, than walk all the way around it.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a revolutionary idea. If you walk all the way around objects in our universe, nothing much happens. The objects don’t just suddenly reveal their mysteries to the person circumambulating them.

This is because our universe is 3D. Unlike the flatland of Oh Mummy, we can move up and down, as well as forwards and backwards and side to side. That makes a huge difference to the maths of the universe. And since physics is just maths, dirtied by reality, it effects the physics too.

The maths in question is topology. This studies how some properties of shapes don’t change when you bash them a bit. You can squeeze, stretch and twist all you want. As long as you don’t do anything drastic, like cutting or sticking, the topologicalness (not a real word) remains the same.

One thing this maths shows us is that coffee cups and doughnuts are the same thing. Topologically, at least.

More importantly for us, it shows that walking around something in our 3D universe is the same (topologically speaking) as not walking around it. But in 2D, they are topologically very different creatures.

The simple reason for this is that when you have a loop around a point in 3D, you can simply lift the loop off and put it somewhere else. But in 2D, it gets stuck. For more info, Butterfly Barbie and Donkey Kong have prepared this and this informative video.

This topological difference is what gives our little treasure hunting avatar in Oh Mummy his great and wonderful powers. For him, just walking around stuff is enough to split ancient rocks asunder!

What power! A power that the new Nobel laureates, Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz, couldn’t help but covet. A power that they would do everything to bring into our own universe, to use for such miracles as quantum computation and, well, other stuff that I don’t work on.

But first they had to convert the game into physics. It is not as hard as you might think. The link between games and physics runs deep. Angry Birds, for example, is nothing but an exercise in the physics taught to first year undergraduates.

The main thing is you have to talk about particles if you want it to sound more like science. Physics knows nothing of treasure hunters and mummies, unless they are spherical and reside in the vacuum.

The main difference these Oh Mummy particles have with those in our own universe, is that dancing them around each other will do things. When one circumambulates around another, something, somewhere will change.

The details of this depend on exact what the laws of physics are in the 2D universe we’re looking at. But in all cases, by walking around a treasure chest you’ll be able to tell something about the particle it contains. Just like Oh Mummy.

Obviously, they couldn’t call them ‘Oh Mummy particles’. That would give away the secret behind their inspiration . So they tried to hush it up by calling them ‘anyons’.

This talk of 2D universes with weird laws of physics is not just sci-fi. There are strange phases of matter, beyond the boring old solids, liquids and gases you learned about in school. In these you can get disturbances that form clumps. And for a 2D material, those clumps can only more around in 2D. They behave just like particles in a 2D universe. They behave like anyons! Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz discovered these weird materials that give us the power of Oh Mummy. And for that they won the Nobel Prize.**

But now it is time to go the other way. It is time to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. They took a game and made new physics. Now let’s take physics and make new games! I’ve already made a start, but I’m a scientist so my anyon games are all sciencey. What we need are anyon games that are gamey. If you want to help, check look out my new article for a game designer’s guide to the world of anyons.

* By ‘true’ I don’t mean factually true. I mean that it has the power to grab hold of your mind and not let go without a fight. This is a definition of the word that is far more widely used than it should be.

** This paragraph is true in the usual, factual way.

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