Thursday 7 February 2008

The quantum mechanics of Mario World

NB: The links in this post are to flash video players which may fire up on their own. If you're watching at work or school, don't get yourself in bother.

Two posts in and already I'm going a little off topic, so I'm going to have to come up with some justification here. My own research is in the field of computational chemistry, which is a fancy way of saying I simulate the sorts of things that go on in real laboratories. To simulate something, you need a deep nuts and bolts understanding of it, which in chemistry often means quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is punishingly unintuitive, but if you're willing to sit back and accept them without explaination as to their origins, some of the results are fun.

One of these fun ideas is the "many universe" interpretation, the idea that in random events (on a small scale!) every possible scenario plays out somewhere. These different scenarios run along together until some event has to choose one scenario over another. This is brilliantly illustrated in this video, where a very difficult customised level of Mario World has been attempted many dozens of times and the runs overlaid on eachother. Every time Mario runs into an obstacle, he'll either get past it or fail, which gradually whittles things down. For a similar idea in a racing game, see The 1K Project. For a retro shooter version, there's Averaging Gradius.

The Mario video is actually a great lesson in a chemical principle, too. For non-chemists this will become clearer when I do my chat about reactions, but to cut a long story short, in chemistry the same reaction will be going off in a million slightly different ways at once, and usually dozens, or hundreds of different reactions are happening in the same beaker. You invariably have the same reaction going backwards and forwards. What's important is the average effect - even if only a tenth of the Marios make it to the end gate on each run, over time, practically all the Marios are going to make it. There's a great quote about this which I've misplaced, and I'll hopefully add tomorrow. If you've been watching UK TV lately, particularly Channel 4 last Friday, you'll probably see another similarity too, but I don't want to spoil things for anyone who's not seen the show in question.

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