260 Million Scientists a Month

The day I bought my iPad, as I was taking it out of the box, SteelyKid (then 3) came bopping into my office, spotted it, and declared “I want to play Angry Birds!” It’s a remarkable demonstration of the genius of their product: not only have they created a game that a three-year-old can play, they’ve managed to make every three-year-old in the industrialized world aware of their product.

It’s also a testament to my current obsession, the universality of science, and not just because you can use the game to illustrate physics. After all, the process of playing the game serves as a good metaphor for the process of scientific thinking:

  • On first encountering a new level, you need to carefully observe it to determine what you need to do to clear it
  • Once you know the goal, you construct a mental model of how you might reach it: “If I hit this block with the yellow bird, it will topple there crushing those pigs…”
  • Once you have your model, you put it to the test, firing the birds in accordance with the plan, and see if events play out the way you expect
  • If your theory passes the test of experimental (videogame) reality, you move on to the next challenge. If you came up short, you refine your model (“Maybe I should hit that block instead, which will bring this down…”), and try again.

The only essential element of science that isn’t mandatory is the sharing of results with others, though God knows, there are plenty of people who do that on message boards and whatever else.

It’s pretty amazing. What’s more amazing is that, as of several months ago, they claim 260 million users a month. That’s one out of every twenty-ish humans alive today choosing to unwind by thinking like a scientist for a while. Including a good number of three-year-olds.

Keep that in mind the next time somebody suggests that science isn’t something for everybody, or that some group of people isn’t capable of scientific thinking. We’ve got 260 million scientists a month, thanks to just one of the umpteen silly video games you can install on your smartphone. Scientific thinking is a fundamental, universal human activity, employed even for frivolous purposes.

(The screen shot at the top of this post is from Rhett’s study of the physics of the yellow bird. A version of this is part of the introduction to the book-in-progress at the moment, though there are some structural problems with the draft Introduction that might force it to move elsewhere; those revisions are what prompted this post.)

One thought on “260 Million Scientists a Month

  1. Speaking of iPad apps and scientific/mathematical thinking, let me give a shoutout to an app I just discovered–Dragon Box. It’s a puzzle game of isolating a box by moving around icons, using opposite icons to cancel each other out, adding the same icons to each side, etc. In other words, it is teaching algebraic solving of equations but using funny pictures (and gradually switching to more mathematical symbols). Give it a try–my 7-year old caught on instantly.

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