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Smartphone games played by the laws of physics

New York Times

Long before I wrote about apps for a living, I spent many years at university learning to be a physicist, and I worked as a professional scientist for a while. So I get an extra-special kick out of all the physics-based games that can be played on a smartphone.

Though you may not think of it this way, every “Angry Birds” game relies on a little physics: elastic stretching for the catapult and ballistics for the curved trajectory that the projectiles (i.e., “Angry Birds”) follow as they fly through the air.

“Angry Birds Space” takes it one step further and demonstrates Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.

In this game, each bird flies through the zero-gravity environment of space in straight lines, or curves through gravitational fields of moons and planets.

Collisions with objects (pigs) also happen in more or less the right way, with both bird and object recoiling with its own momentum.

First of all, it’s an entertaining game, but this app is also a great way to bring up science with young children, to gently introduce them to physics. “Angry Birds Space” is $1 on iOS and free for Android.

Another fabulous game, “Gravity Evolved,” free for iOS and Android, uses gravitational physics as part of the gameplay. The game is a little abstract, but essentially you are battling with and against planets armed with different weapons.

Shots fly through space in orbits affected by the planets they pass near. If you see a screen shot of the game, its simple graphics are not visually impressive.

But it is satisfying to play, and it is challenging to try to move through its many levels. The physics aspects of the game add to its charm and difficulty.

Newton’s laws of motion play an important part in “Osmos,” an even more abstract game. In this game a tiny bluish blob of life bumps into and absorbs blobs that are like it while avoiding bad guys (reddish blobs).

The blob propels itself around the game arena by rocketing out a little bit of material – a process you control by tapping on the screen.

This is the physics part. It’s easy to learn but tricky to master because you have to remember to slow the blob down in the right way once it is up to speed. I love the game, although it can feel a little repetitive after a while.

“Osmos” costs $3 for iOS and Android. There is a free test edition on Android.

For a more classic game that relies on all sorts of complex physics and materials science, even though you would never think so, check out “Jenga,” free on iOS and Android.

This game simulates the real-life block-stacking game using all the right science, so that as you move your chosen block by gesturing on the screen, you will slowly dislodge some blocks higher up the “Jenga” pile in just the right way.

It’s difficult, just like the real thing, and satisfying. It’s even fun to watch the simulated pile fall over on the screen, and know that you don’t have to pick up all the blocks and restack them by hand to play again.

“Freeze!,” a free iOS and Android app, is a more puzzling physics-based game that may keep your attention for a little longer than “Jenga.”

In this game, as you rotate the landscape, a hero with one eye and a round body must escape each level by rolling and falling through the air in the right way to avoid bad guys, spikes and other challenges.

The trick to winning this game is learning how to gesture to turn the landscapes around just the right amount, and knowing when to use the “freeze” button to overcome the effect of gravity.

It has wickedly gloomy but amusing graphics and great sounds. It’s a lot of fun and also definitely a game that younger players will appreciate.