Tag Archives: teaching

Don't explain special relativity, experience it in a game

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Several years ago I wrote an article titled How GPS makes use of General Relativity. I was motivated to show how the theory of relativity is not only interesting but actually used in practice in the real world. Researchers at MIT Game Lab have developed a game that attempts (and succeeds, to a certain extent) not to explain the effect of the theory of relativity, but to allow people to experience it.

The game is of the exploration type in which the user walks around collecting spheres. Collecting a sphere lowers the speed of light in the in-game universe. This brings interaction with the universe which is normally outside a human frame of reference down to a human scale: walking speed. Users experience time dilation, the Doppler effectLorentz transformation and the searchlight effect, all effects of special relativity and a consequence of approaching the speed of light from $2.99 \times 10^8 {m/s}$ down to about $1.5 m/s$.

Pedagogically, the idea is simply brilliant. It removes the all-too-familiar "So, imagine you're in a rocket ship approaching c" that precedes every discussion you've ever had about special relativity. As any fan of Douglas Adams will know, humans are generally incapable of doing that. In human terms, how fast is c? It's fast. Faster than you can imagine.

Slower Speed of Light screenshot from MIT Game Labs

Check out the game for yourself, for Windows and Mac: http://gamelab.mit.edu/games/a-slower-speed-of-light/

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T9900 or Core i7 (2.8GHz clock speed)
  • Windows 7 and Mac OS X 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) or higher
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970M/AMD Mobility Radeon HD 4850/Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT
  • 8GB RAM