Something’s been puzzling me about physics: why is it so easy? Everything can be expressed in a handful of relatively simple mathematical equations! It’s a big complicated world out there; why should algebra, let alone simple algebra, be able to describe it all? Even more telling, these equations don’t just explain normal, everyday behavior (gravity pulls things down, balls bounce the same inside a moving train as outside) but the weird, counter-intuitive results of these equations (gyroscopes fall sideways, when you go faster time slows down) always end up being true as well.

When you think about it, that aspect of the equations is even more bizarre than their simplicity. Why should the results of a few mathematical equations, which we’ve cooked up to explain the things we experience, also predict bizarre phenmonena we never would have guessed?

It turns out the answer to all these questions is simple: the universe is just one big puzzle game, like *Myst*.

You probably have heard about puzzle games, but if not, the idea is simple: You and a few friends team up to tackle the puzzle. You scout a designated playing field for clues, try to figure out what they mean and what to do with them, and then apply your ideas to see if they work. If they do, you get to move on to the next part. And when you come up with a major breakthrough, you share it with your puzzle-solving colleagues, and everyone moves onto the next step.

People make and play these games all over. In real life, they’re often set up at college campuses. On computers they’re found in games like *Myst*. On the Web, they’re often created to promote things, like the complex puzzle game created for the film *AI*. Some people just can’t get enough of the intellectual thrill of solving these various puzzle games. But physics is rarely thought of as one of them.

But when you look at it, the similarity is clear: You do experiments in the world, collecting data. Galileo dropped things, nowadays we run them around in giant particle accelerators. Then you take the data and try to come up with a theory for it. Then you try to test the theory by doing more experiments. If it works, you try the edge cases, revealing weird new things about the world.

So why is physics so easy? Well, like any good puzzle, things start out simple and slowly progress. That’s why the basic phenomena are explained so simply, while the more rare things (moving at the speed of light, actions at the atomic scale) are far more tough to solve.

And why do the edge cases work? It’s your reward for solving the puzzle! In a computer game, if you find a pattern and follow it through, you might find a cute movie or other treat, not to mention another puzzle. In the real world we get gyroscopes and airplanes as our treats (we get the additional puzzles as well).

This also explains why the world is so colorful and pretty: it helps to have a pretty space to work in (*Myst* used stunning graphics for its time). And it explains why physics theories are so elegant and intellectually beautiful: that’s part of the fun of the puzzle (the same thing is at work with a clever puzzle game plot twist).

So what’s the difference between physics and a puzzle game? Physics is more clever and complex than we could possibly expect from any of our little puzzles.

posted May 03, 2004 01:33 PM (Education) (11 comments) #