Portal 2: Modern physics in popular culture? Nice.

So, I’m playing through the new game Portal 2, and about an hour in, I stumble across this:

Ah, the memories...

(Click to see large view)

Man, this picture is just chock full of physics goodness.

On the bottom right, we have the Maxwell Equations, with which I always struggled to remember when first learning about electricity and magnetism. Directly beneath “UNREASON” is the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal which is a mind-bending property of quantum mechanics, wherein the accuracy of position and momentum are inversely related by the constant ħ (“h-bar”). In layman’s terms, the more we know about an object’s momentum, the less we know about its position (and visa-versa). The famous thought experiment that is associated with the uncertainty principal, Schrödinger’s cat, is the main focus of the scene. (Wikipedia: Schrödinger’s cat)

The idea is that due to the uncertainty principle, a cat in a closed box with enough poison to kill it is at some time both alive and dead. When the box is opened, however, the cat is either alive or dead. It is said that by observing an event, the outcome is inherently changed. Confusing stuff, right? It’s very interesting, but one has to play quite the game of mental gymnastics to understand the arguments at work.

The equations to the left all appear to be related to special relativity. Relativity applies when objects are moving very fast with respect to one another (think fractions of the speed of the light) and thus time is dilated and length is contracted, according to observers. The Greek symbol γ (“gamma”) represents the Lorentz Factor which is used in Lorentz Transformations (the transformations necessary to explain the measurements of things that move really fast).

It’s been a while since I’ve studied these things, but it’s awesome to see them popping up in popular culture.  Most people will never study the realm of quantum mechanics or relativity, which is too bad.  For those who do, we are privy to some excellent jokes that reference these ideas.

To quote the animated show, Futurama, when the cast was watching a close finish at a horse race:

Professor Farnsworth: “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!”