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Slingshot Science: The Physics in Angry Birds

It's hard to believe that a year ago I wasn't yet wise to the squawking, oinking, glass-shattering, wood-breaking, and highly addictive cacophony of Angry Birds. Slingshot a little bird through the air to knock down a structure that seems like a house-of-cards rendition of the Three Little Pigs? When it comes right down to it, that's exactly what you've got... a modernized and mobilized twist on the tried and true fairy tale story of the pigs who each tried a different building material to try and safeguard their house. In the Angry Birds twist on the classic, the pigs have stolen the eggs from the birds and are hiding in structures made of glass (ice?), stone, and wood. There is no big bad wolf in this version, but there are a bunch of attitude-laden and cleverly-endowed birds standing in line for a chance to be hurled into the pig-built structures. Each type of bird has a certain skill or special ability. Some have extra mass. Some have explosive personalities. Some can accelerate to hurdle with increased force into the target structure. But even a big blue boomerang bird is only as effective as the finger doing the tapping. And the little blue birds that split into three and rain down, doing damage especially to glass—those, too, require an understanding of starting angle and knowing "when" to tap to create a perfect and effective split.

When you strip away all the squawking, you've got a game of angles and trajectories, mass and velocity, geometry and physics.

Seeing with Fresh Eyes

I'm probably not the only parent who has justified a few extra rounds of Angry Birds with the half-formed thought that there's science involved in even subconsciously calculating the appropriate angle and pullback strength for launching the next bird. Determining the moment to release the special effect only adds to the scientific fun. And when you're left with just one or two pigs to target, precision becomes the name of the game.

In my house, we take turns playing the angles, and we've beaten every new set of levels as they came down the pipe, racking up golden eggs and pineapples and stars, but I have to admit, not once did we really analyze or question the gravity of the gamescape. At the same time, we have mastered the gravity. We know how to approximate our angles based on the gameplay, based on what we have learned will happen in the space, in the world of Angry Birds. We have internalized the parameters of the gameplay, even if we didn't stop to realize that those parameters are entirely fictional, that they don't map to the same gravitational forces of Earth. Pull out a rubber band, tuck a small toy in place, and fling it through your living room, and it immediately becomes clear that there's something different about the way these attitude-laden birds fly.

Making it Real

As it turns out, Angry Birds offers an interesting platform on which to base discussions of physics and laws of motion. As reported by Wired in response to an article in eSchool News, physics teachers are flocking to the game as a way to hook students by turning something fun, familiar, and "cool" into something that can transform textbook principles into hands-on (or fingers-on) learning.

According to the eSchool News article, teachers like John Burk, a physics teacher in Atlanta, GA, are working with students to "figure out" the laws that govern the gamescape of Angry Birds. What are the laws of physics that dominate this world? How does the gravity in Angry Birds, for instance, differ from our own? Why does it differ? How would the game change if the gravity was similar to our own? These are all questions that can be asked—and are being asked in innovative classrooms where student interests can be leveraged and ricocheted and catapulted into something spectacularly fun and educational—all in the name of science.

Making Connections

For students interested in the science behind the angles, there are a number of Science Buddies Project Ideas that offer additional testing ground, background material, and suggestions for experimentation with principles of angle, trajectory, velocity, and energy. These projects may be exciting on their own or might be used as an overlay onto a novel investigation into the physics of popular gaming worlds. With projects from physics, aerodynamics, mechanical engineering, and even sports science, there are many related "angles" and paths to explore. Here are a few to get you started:

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Free science fair projects.