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Teaching the physics behind ‘Angry Birds’

Popular mobile-phone app makes science instructors happy

While the game breaks the real rules of physics, that doesn't mean it isn't without its own rules.

Galileo discovered the language of nature. Einstein questioned the color of rainbows. Today’s physics teachers and students are pondering the vertical acceleration and horizontal velocity of an angry bird in flight.

Cell-phone owners from all walks of life have flocked to the popular, affordable mobile game “Angry Birds” for its bite-sized entertainment, quirky humor, and cheerful art style. Physics teachers, however, are taking to the game for an entirely different sort of reason.

“We’re using physics to explore this completely new video game world. We get to ask questions just like scientists ask when they’re trying to figure out the atmospheric composition of a planet, or the motion of a new never-before-seen asteroid,” said John Burk, a physics teacher at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga. “What are the laws of physics in the ‘Angry Birds’ world? My students get a chance to be scientists and be among the first to find the answer to this question.”

Burk is among a growing group of physics teachers and students exploring the game as a way to reduce the study of nature and how the universe behaves to something not only a bit more accessible, but fun.

For more on science instruction, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

Burk said he got the idea of combining “Angry Birds,” a game that has players launching a bird across an expanse of blue skies and grassy fields and into forts, with the study of physics from Rhett Allain, one of Wired.com’s science bloggers and an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Allain made a name for himself analyzing and writing about the physics found in a myriad of different forms of pop culture, from lucky basketball shots to science fiction stories.

“I like to write about things I enjoy,” Allain said. “I started playing ‘Angry Birds’ and discovered it is surprisingly fun, so I thought I would analyze it. It’s a fun game. It’s a simple game, and it lends itself to being analyzed.”

He added: “That’s the magic of physics—everything we are interested in, we can explore more and find out how complicated it is.”

One of the reasons “Angry Birds” made the jump from the cell phone to the classroom was because it became available on Google’s Chrome web browser, making it easier for folks to capture video of their own attempts at launching birds across the screen and into buildings. This was vital, because it also allowed fans of physics to analyze the results with a special computer program.

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