Dr James Wootton on the 80s video game that helped scientists win a Nobel Prize

Remember ‘Oh Mummy’? Well, it helped David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane, and J. Michael Kosterlitz win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016, according to Dr James Wootton writing for Hackernoon.

In 1984, ‘Oh Mummy’ appeared. At the time, it seemed like just another Pac-Man clone. Instead of an ever hungry circle, you were a treasure hunter. Instead of ghosts, there were mummies. But there was a crucial difference, a difference on which the future of physics would be built: To access the contents of a box you had to do nothing more, and nothing less, than walk all the way around it.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a revolutionary idea. If you walk all the way around objects in our universe, nothing much happens. The objects don’t just suddenly reveal their mysteries to the person circumambulating them.

This is because our universe is 3D. Unlike the flatland of Oh Mummy, we can move up and down, as well as forwards and backwards and side to side. That makes a huge difference to the maths of the universe. And since physics is just maths, dirtied by reality, it effects the physics too.

The maths in question is topology. This studies how some properties of shapes don’t change when you bash them a bit. You can squeeze, stretch and twist all you want. As long as you don’t do anything drastic, like cutting or sticking, the topologicalness (not a real word) remains the same.

One thing this maths shows us is that coffee cups and doughnuts are the same thing. Topologically, at least.

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