Of boys and ducks, odd ducks and quantum ducks

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May 31, 2005 — He doesn’t walk like a duck. Instead his scurrying across the screen suggests a fiddler crab, or a lobster, or a cockroach maybe.

Nor does he quack like a duck, not one peep. Not when he paddles down a stream in his “Stuck with the Duck” scene, or when he bangs into furniture in the Funhouse, or when he does a 360 in a boat or bumper car.

But he can bellow, as the “Aaaaargh” he lets out as he falls through a trap door in the Murky Mansion proves. And scientists young and old, being what they are, probably feel inclined to verify that a few dozen times before they allow him to reach the exit.

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Duckboy in Nanoland, a video game at the Science Museum in London with an online counterpart at www.sciencemuseum.org.uk, has made a splash among physicists and philistines alike. The online game recorded 1,500 players within its first three weeks, and the video game in the museum’s gallery chalked up even more, according to Natasha Waterson, a content developer at the museum.

“How different the world feels, looks and behaves at the nanoscale is a difficult concept that we thought would be best conveyed in an interactive,” Waterson explained in an e-mail message. “Of course, Duckboy in Nanoland is essentially a story about how quantum and classical physics affect the nanoscale world. But to say that could put people off instantly!”

Instead Waterson’s team and contractor Spiral Partners took an appealing Austin Powers-meets-Candy Land approach. The game places a boy wearing a duck float in kaleidoscopic graphics of bubblegum pinks and lemon yellows. Players choose which ride Duckboy will take.

Duckboy’s first experience occurs in the “normal” world. Second time around he shrinks to the nanoscale, where he faces a new set of challenges. “Duckboy in Nanoland conveys the essentials of physics at the nanoscale in a visually attractive, engaging and fun way,” Waterson explained. “It’s physics by stealth, if you like.”

In the Strange Attractions ride, for instance, players steer Duckboy in a dory down a stream amid several loveboats. In the world of classical physics, he bumps into the romancing couples but can maneuver onward. At the nanoscale, though, his boat latches onto theirs in a van der Waals’ grip. A message flashes up that says Duckboy’s boat will be given a charge that is the same as the charge of the loveboats. Since like charges repel, Duckboy is set free to zigzag his way to the exit.

The game’s creators turned to Richard Jones, a physicist at the University of Sheffield and author of the nanotechnology book “Soft Machines,” to ensure the game had educational merit. Jones, as he states on his blog, may have saved Duckboy from some roasting.

“In the early version of the game, which I road-tested on my postdocs, you were asked to ‘steer duckboy through a sticky patch in the tunnel of love.’ For some reason they all thought this was terribly funny. If only for suggesting this change, I think I deserve my name on the acknowledgements list.”

Feather in Feynman’s cap

Physicist Richard Feynman will be appearing in post offices and mailboxes soon. The U.S. Postal Service will issue a 37-cent stamp this spring that features the Nobel laureate, whose 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” inspired scientists and engineers to imagine what is now known as nanotechnology. Feynman devised formulations for quantum theory and made that complex concept accessible through diagrams. Stuffed shirt he was not. He liked to doodle formulas while patronizing strip bars, and was an enthusiastic bongo player and artist.

Flocking to California

An excerpt from a briefing for the Joint Committee on Preparing California for the 21st Century:

R. Sean Randolph of the Bay Area Economic Forum: (W)e’re already starting to see some very significant startups in the nanotech field establishing early leadership roles for California. Companies like Nanosys, Nanomix, Quantum Dot and Nanogram are already establishing a real presence in the field.

Then-Sen. John Vasconcellos: Quantum Duck? Quantum what?

Randolph: Dot. Yes, Quantum Dot.

Vasconcellos: Dot?

Randolph: D-O-T. Quantum Dot. And there are probably others out there we don’t know about. But hopefully we will know about them soon.


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