StarCraft Science

StarCraft 2 game-play (image from Video Games Blogger)

StarCraft game-play (image from Video Games Blogger)

When I was younger one of my favourite game franchises was the Command & Conquer series, in particular Red Alert (1 and 2). They were real-time strategy, or RTS, games, where you built your base, harvested resources, trained your soldiers, and invested in high-tech weaponry all whilst being attacked by your opponents (either other players, or the computer AI). If I’m honest, my game tactics were always a little shaky. I was more likely to throw everything I had on mad, suicidal, missions against the other team, rather than spending the time to properly invest in the infrastructure of my base. In extreme cases I would even sell all my buildings, spend all the money on infantry and send everyone in. Surprisingly this actually worked. Sometimes.

My friend Tom however, he was good at these games. He always had a strategy. A proper one, not the crazy, oh-my-there’s-a-tesla-coil-right-there-RUN-AWAY!, one that I’d be using. He’s been spending time recently on StarCraft 2, another RTS game where you try to become master of a region of space by colonising planets, displacing the territory of the two other rival civilisations as you go.

Tom’s not just a game player though – he’s also an astronomer. Turns out when you combine gaming astronomers (Tom & his colleague Duncan) with real StarCraft gameplay data and realistic simulations of colonisation, based on our own Milky Way, what you end up with is a model of interstellar species expansion. Unsurprisingly the game is pretty evenly balanced (to prevent any one species or strategy from dominating), but the simulations do suggest that one of the races, the Terrans, tend to win out if they put pressure on their opponents early.

Using game data to investigate real-world problems has been around for a few years now. It began when researchers realised that the spread of a virtual plague in World of Warcraft shared many similarities with the spread of real viruses.

Tom and Duncan’s results aren’t meant to directly relate to how real aliens could be spreading through the Galaxy right now (and they definitely don’t want to give the impression that “…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”). However, they do demonstrate the potential power in-game data has for future work in this area.

You can read more about their work at or on Duncan’s own blog here.

Excuses, a pop video and a quasar anniversary

Oh my. I’ve just looked at this, our much-neglected blog, and realised that the last post here was in November. The first thing I feel I should do today therefore is wish you all a very belated Happy New Year! Maybe I should go with a slightly early Happy Chinese New Year! instead.

It may sound like a weak excuse for the lack of activity around here, but we’ve all been really busy this past year. Three quarters of us have changed jobs and moved country, half of us have got married (though not to each other), and Niall’s taken the first steps on the road to pop stardom (though, and possibly in tribute to Beyonce, I’m pretty sure he’s miming):

This week is actually a very good time for me to write something here as last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of astronomer Maarten Schmidt’s discovery that the apparently star-like object 3C273 was actually located far outside our own galaxy – several billion light years away in fact – and was, at the time, the most distant thing ever observed (thanks to Jen Gupta for the tip off). It came to be known as a quasi-stellar object or quasar, and we now know that it’s a galaxy with an active central massive black hole, which is sucking material down onto it at a voracious rate. It’s star-like appearance is because the light coming from this nucleus outshines the combined light from all the stars within it (as I’ve written about here before). Here’s Maarten Schmidt explaining the significance of this discovery in an interview from 1975:

…I would say that indeed it was, in a sense, the birth of the present era of exotic phenomena, exotic and explosive phenomena in astronomy, with the quasars, the pulsars, the x-ray binaries, the black hole, the 3 deg. background radiation. I mean all these things were yet to come. The quasars suddenly started it and since then just about every two years there has been a major development of another discovery. Astronomy in an accelerated development that is just unbelievable. I mean before 1963 things were so unlike after 1963, there was no way to compare it. So in a sense the agony and the pressure of making a good on-the-spot scientific judgment just in one day essentially, the fifth of February, was a very interesting one. Because we had not been subjected to this yet. Later on it was much easier for people to accept extraordinary things in astronomy because we’ve seen it as I said every two years we’ve seen them. This has come on with about five to six, even with seven different types of phenomena including the gamma ray bursts that you may have heard about. Fantastic things. You never heard things like it in astronomy! And if they came, it was one a lifetime… So it was the beginning of an era that, of course we didn’t know at that time, we couldn’t help but realize that the quasars would play a very important role from then on, it was clear enough.

ResearchBlogging.orgSCHMIDT, M. (1963). 3C 273 : A Star-Like Object with Large Red-Shift Nature, 197 (4872), 1040-1040 DOI: 10.1038/1971040a0

Pleas for the future of physics education

Two interesting videos were posted yesterday on the problems with the current state of high school physics education. The first is an open letter to Barack Obama from Minute Physics, pleading for the US physics curriculum to include results more recent than the Civil War:

In the second Nottingham academics, and regular contributors to the Sixty Symbols video series, give their views on the situation in the UK:

Personally I found the concepts taught in my school physics courses much easier to grasp once my teachers explained them using the proper maths (mainly calculus!)

Writing BIG!

Ever wanted to write with the biggest alphabet in the Universe? Now you can with and some Galaxy Zoo galaxies which randomly happen to have some very familiar shapes.

The site was created by Steven Bamford, and was just one of the many awesome things to come out of the Chicago Science Hack Day.

Monte Carlo MasterChef

Have you been watching MasterChef, the BBC1 programme where amateur chefs compete to be crowned the, well, Master Chef? I have, and I think that there’s a serious flaw the competition. Don’t worry though. I think I know how to fix it.

Each week the contestants cook various meals either using their own recipes or in professional kitchens. They also have to invent a dish with surprise ingredients they don’t know about in advance. However, I don’t see how the judges can tell whether one contestant’s dish is better than another when everyone cooks different things? No, what’s needed is one menu per episode which can be prepared by all competitors. There could even be a master version – the food-standard to be met. Something like this:

Unfortunately this solution is also flawed. The trouble is that in the early stages of the contest a different set of aspiring amateur chefs compete each week. The winners of each heat then go on to semi-finals, quarter-finals and finals, until one person emerges triumphant. Ok, that may seem like a good way to do things, but the same problem remains: how can you compare contestants from different heats satisfactorily?

My solution: Monte Carlo MasterChef.

The Monte Carlo method uses random sampling to approximate the solution to a problem. It’s used a lot in astronomy to figure out the effect uncertain measurements can have on results. For example, say you want to count how many galaxies there are 150 galactic-miles (GM) away (‘galactic-miles’ are your own, personal, galaxy-distance measure). However you know that there’s an error on the distance you’ve measured, such that a galaxy you put at 145 GM may really lie much nearer or further away. You also know that 68% of the time your measurement will be within 10 GM of the true value, but 0.2% of the time you’ll be wrong by 30 GM.

To investigate the effect this uncertainty has you randomly vary the measurements thousands of times, bearing how likely each possible distance is in mind, and taking care that it obeys what you know about the error distribution. You then count the number of galaxies that happen to lie at 150 GM each time. Congratulations, you now have an estimate of how accurate your original count was. How good an estimate it is depends on how many times you repeated this step – the more the better.

Right, back to MasterChef. My new version’s pretty simple: the same set of contestants would cook the same menu each and every week. Each time random factors would change how well each person’s dish turned out. Some differences would be small (oven fractionally too hot), and some large. At the end, the judges would be able to asses not only who produced the best tasting food by direct comparison, but also how consistently they did it. The winner would be the person who produced the best meals on average, with the smallest variation between them:

The only drawback that I can see with my suggestion is that it would probably turn MasterChef into one of the most boring programmes on TV!

Photo credit: The Guardian

Blasting off with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet

I have a confession to make: when it comes to books I’m unable to resist a certain type of boys-own science fiction. Normally published in the first half of the last century, they imagine a futuristic world where space travel is normal and fantastic technology abounds. They were written at the beginning of the space race, when things were moving so fast that it seemed like people would be living in moon bases in a few years.

Last year, in a second-hand bookshop in Maine, I found an excellent example of the genre. ‘Stand by for Mars’ by Carey Rockwell is the first installment in the adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. It deals with his basic training at Space Academy (he’s a natural rocket pilot of course), and how he copes with the difficult job of leading his unit-mates: eager engineer Astro and supercilious navigator (and man with a chip on his shoulder) Roger Manning. He has space fever, eats spaceburgers, travels in space at space speed and plays a sport which I’m amazed isn’t named spaceball. He ends up, as you probably guessed from the title, on Mars, but can he save the day?

The book is definitely aimed at boys, and seems designed to encourage them into science careers. Girls, unfortunately, don’t fare so well:

The boys advanced toward the huge circular reception desk where a pretty girl with red hair waited to greet them.

“May I help you?” she asked. She flashed a dazzling smile.

“You’re a lucky girl,” said Roger. “It just so happens you can help me. We’ll have dinner together—just the two of us—and then we’ll go to the stereos. After which we’ll—”

“Just give us a nice room, Miss,” said Tom, cutting in. “And please excuse Manning. He’s so smart, he gets a little dizzy now and then. Have to take him over to a corner and revive him.” He glanced at Astro, who picked Roger up in his arms and walked away with him as though he were a baby.

“We came here to have fun, didn’t we?” demanded Roger.

“That doesn’t mean getting thrown out of the hotel because you’ve got to make passes at every beautiful girl.”

“What’s the matter with beautiful girls?” growled Roger. “They’re official equipment, like a radar scanner. You can’t get along without them!”

There is a role model for potential young female readers though. Meet Dr. Joan Dale:

Exactly one hour and ten minutes later, promptly at seven o’clock, the three members of Unit 42-D stood at attention in front of Dr. Joan Dale, along with the rest of the green-clad cadets.

When the catcalls and wolf whistles had died away, Dr. Dale, pretty, trim, and dressed in the gold and black uniform of the Solar Guard, held up her hand and motioned for the cadets to sit down.

Don’t worry about the quality of her scientific research though – it’s been checked over by a whole conference of men!

Joan Dale held the distinction of being the first woman ever admitted into the Solar Guard, in a capacity other than administrative work. Her experiments in atomic fissionables was the subject of a recent scientific symposium held on Mars. Over fifty of the leading scientists of the Solar Alliance had gathered to study her latest theory on hyperdrive, and had unanimously declared her ideas valid. She had been offered the chair as Master of Physics at the Academy as a result, giving her access to the finest laboratory in the tri-planet society.

The best thing about the story is the effort it makes to include accurate science, amongst the far-fetched ideas. For example, a stranded rocket ship needs to ditch its engine but

“It seems to me,” drawled Roger lazily, “that the two great heroes in their mad rush for the Solar Medal have forgotten an unwritten law of space. There’s no gravity out here—no natural force to pull or push the tube. The only way it could be moved is by the power of thrust, either forward or backward!”

“O.K. Then let’s push it out, just that way,” said Astro.

“How?” asked Roger cynically.

“Simple, Roger,” said Tom, “Newton’s Laws of motion. Everything in motion tends to keep going at the same speed unless influenced by an outside force. So if we blasted our nose rockets and started going backward, everything on the ship would go backward too, then if we reversed—”

On researching Tom for this post I discovered that he was also a radio, comic book and T.V. star. Here he is pursuing the deadly Grapes of Ganymede:

I can’t help loving this sort of book. The enthusiasm for this wonderful future we’re going to have is infectious, whilst the characters are unintentionally hilarious. After all, it’s instructive to find out what it would have been like to live in space in the 1950s?

All the Tom Corbett books are available for free via Project Gutenberg. If you like him, you might also be interested in wonder-teen inventor Tom Swift. There’s also a Martian adventure series by Patrick Moore.

Don’t forget, Tom’s waiting for you to “Join him for another exciting adventure in the world beyond tomorrow!”

Do you want to make a galaxy?

Ever wondered how astronomers study galaxy formation when we can’t actually see it happen (as it takes billions and billions of years)? It’s all explained in this excellent video from Andrew Pontzen: