Researching The Shape of Space With Your Kids

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To get the cheese, the mouse needs to travel through another dimension. Image: GeometryGames.orgTo get the cheese, the mouse needs to travel through another dimension. Image: GeometryGames.org

To get the cheese, the mouse needs to travel through another dimension. Image: GeometryGames.org

The kids and I have been looking into modern physics lately – you know, relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, that sort of thing. I’ll be blogging about some of the cool stuff we’ve been learning in the near future. But trying to wrap my aging brain around these far-out concepts makes me envious of my kids, whose thinking is, hopefully, much more flexible. In fact, a few forward-thinking educators have started to call for bringing cutting-edge concepts into the classroom, where young kids can get a taste of the wild ideas now being studied by physicists and mathematicians before standardized tests and the college admissions crunch kill their taste for the subjects altogether.

One of the first educators I ever met who espoused this philosophy was the freelance mathematician Jeff Weeks. Back at the turn of the century, Weeks, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” back in 1999, put together a middle school enrichment program called “Exploring the Shape of Space.” Back then NASA scientists and others were working to find out if space curved in on itself in a way that would create all kinds of fascinating anomalies, like the illusion that you could see yourself coming and going – as if space were an enormous set of dressing room mirrors. (Since then, observations by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have confirmed that space is flat.)

To give kids a better idea of what curved space might be like, Weeks created a bunch of computer games that let you try playing tic-tac-toe or guiding a mouse through a maze on a surface shaped like a three-dimensional torus or a four-dimensional Klein bottle. At the time the games could be played on Weeks’ website, but at some point they disappeared. So I was very pleased to see that you can now go to Weeks’ site GeometryGames.org and download a slightly upgraded version of his Torus Games for Mac, Windows and iPhone.

I put the new version on my PC, and was not surprised to find that my kids could still solve the puzzles a lot faster than I could. Weeks has also added a set of more advanced Hyperbolic Games that let you play pool and sudoku on curved surfaces. And there’s a Curved Spaces simulator that lets you see what it’s like to fly through multiconnected universes whose contents repeat in a crystalline pattern – basically a 3D version of his original 2D games. (These are only available in computer version.) Any of these can help you introduce your geeklets to some new and exciting concepts – and maybe help keep your grown-up brain limber as well.

Kathy Ceceri also blogs at Home Physics.

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