Fe[26]: addictive and educational

While wandering the wilds of social media feeds I discovered a friend had posted this.  It took me a while to realize it was not an original game, but was in fact a mash-up of this popular game (which has now gone viral, at least among my friends) with nuclear astrophysics.  Win-win!

But the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Fe[26] is just as addictive as 2048; they both share the same puzzle-game appeal.  But as you go along, you learn nuclear reactions.  You can learn them just by banging stuff into other stuff as you go and seeing what sticks, although I discovered after too much banging that the allowed reactions are tabulated underneath the game board (d’oh).  You can call them by name — the p-p chain, the triple-alpha reaction, and oxygen burning to silicon.  (The CNO cycle, which operates only in stars massive enough to raise the temperature in the core, doesn’t appear here; nitrogen isn’t even an element here, I guess just to keep it simple.)

Just to add to the excitement, some of the elements are radioactive and have a finite half-life on the board. These include: the annoying 7Be, which hangs around forever taking up valuable space before eventually decaying back to 4He (plus 3He, presumably, which doesn’t appear on the board); the essential 8Be, which usually only lasts a few moves before decaying, giving you a very small time window to make 12C (a familiar feature of the triple-alpha reaction, which limits its effectiveness to higher temperatures and densities); and my familiar friend 56Ni, which means you’ll win in a few turns if you can wait for it to decay to 56Fe. (What would be more accurate, but way more irritating, is for it to decay to 56Co, and then have it hang around for a few dozen turns while you dodge protons.)

56Fe is, figuratively (and almost literally), the name of the game: once you’ve gotten there you can’t fuse anything with it to gain energy. In the real world this means a core-collapse supernova is imminent, whereas the event is much more benign in the context of the game: you win! But watch out: 24Mg is another element which doesn’t go anywhere, and just takes up space while blocking you on the path to victory. One of the hardest parts of the game is to make two 16O nuclei and bang them into each other without turning either one of them into 24Mg on the way. In real stars, Mg trades places with Na and Al in a cycle in which each acts as a catalyst for the others.

At this point I’ve gotten as many as two 56Fe nuclei shuffling around on the board at once without dying; my best score is about 987 (not graded on the same scale as 2048!). Try it out and see how you go!

More broadly: this game was apparently made by a student at RPI as a special project for an astronomy class he took. What a great idea, though! There are already activities framed as games in the context of citizen science (although my esteemed colleagues at the Zooniverse like to frame it in terms of citizens contributing directly to research, which people also love to do), but I haven’t seen many good uses of games in an instructional context. If I were teaching nuclear astrophysics to undergrads, or even grad students, I would totally assign them this game. And if I shuffle off to the wilds of industry, I will totally contribute to any open-source project to make a game this awesome.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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