The Thermodynamics of Tetris

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See, Tetris really is more than just the world’s most efficient time killer. It can be used as a simulation for molecular thermodynamics, too.

I’ve always defended my on-and-off (currently “on” thanks to Tetris Friends) addiction to Tetris by saying that the game helps me understand how to comprehend space better and increase my capacity to absorb information visually, but I no longer need to put on airs to prove that Tetris really can be used to say something interesting about how our world functions. A group of researchers at Washington University have used the famous Tetris blocks to create a simulation of molecular dynamics.

Though their paper’s heavy on the science-stuff, the gist of it is this: the researchers used a grid and had the simulation drop different sets of pieces with a single condition – just like in the game, the blocks can’t overlap. The results, then, simulate how real molecules “adsorb” onto a surface depending on how their shapes fit (or don’t fit) in with each other.

In almost all the simulations, some sort of intricate pattern emerges from what seems like complete chaos: check out how S and Z blocks sort of lattice into each other and end up forming something that almost looks like a quilt.

So why not just do this with real molecular shapes and not Tetris blocks? Are they just kinda wacky over at Washington U? Well, making the kinds of calculations and computer pushing you’d need to do this work on a scale approaching reality would be way too expensive, so using a model that simulates the same dynamics but still gives you some insight is the best choice. As Ars Technica notes, nobody’s going to confuse this with a study of actual molecular structures, there’s still something to be learned. Plus, Tetris is fun.

Check out the paper here, but be warned: it’s full of actual science.

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