Chorizo shines like a star in telescope prank, game creates mechanical versions of electronic circuits


Stellar cluster: some Twitter users were fooled into thinking a slice of chorizo was a telescope image of a nearby star: (Courtesy: Amasuela-Luis Lafuente Agudín/CC BY-SA 4.0)

We’ve all been amazed by the incredible images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. So when leading French physicist Etienne Klein tweeted an image of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, people drooled over what looked like a giant, red ball of fire with mysterious white spots. In fact, the object was just a slice of Spanish sausage from Klein’s fridge. As a research director at France’s atomic- and alternative-energy commission (CEA), Klein had posted the image as a joke. He’d wanted to show how we should be sceptical about images we see and not always take comments from supposed figures of authority at face value. Although Klein did apologise for his prank, it looks like his plan worked.

In the world of physics, spintronics refers to experiments and devices that manipulate the spin of the electron. For example, exploring ways of using spin to create computer chips and memories with the potential to use much less energy than conventional electronics.

Now, I have just discovered a game called Spintronics that teaches children – and anyone else interested – about electronics. Currently in development by the US-based company Upper Story the game has nothing to do with the spintronics of physics research – with the possible exception that they both take advantage of angular momentum.

Chains and gears

Spintronics provides players with chains, gears and other mechanical components that can be connected to create analogues of electronic circuits. Instead of electrons flowing through Spintronics circuits, the gears and chains conduct a mechanical current. When running, the circuits resemble a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg contraption.

Some of the analogous components will be immediately obvious to a physicist. For example, in a Spintronics circuit the role of an inductor is played by a flywheel. Just as an inductor opposes change in the current flowing through it, conservation of angular momentum tends to oppose change in the rotational velocity of a flywheel.

The folks at Upper Story have created diagrams to help you mimic just about any electronic circuit and have also created a full set of analogous units. Voltage, for example, is expressed in units of force, whereas current is expressed in units of speed.

Small dynamic range

The small dynamic range of Spintronics means that it cannot be used to simulate all electronic systems. The mechanical equivalent to resistance, for example is limited to the 50–5000 Ω range. Another drawback of Spintronics is size. A Spintronics transistor is about a billion times larger than its modern electronic equivalent, so don’t expect to be doing any large-scale integration. However, Upper Story points out that their transistors are smaller that the first valves (vacuum tubes) that were used to switch electrical current in the early 1900s.

According to Upper Story, the company is currently taking orders for Spintronics and the first products will be shipped to customers in October 2022. You can watch a video about Spintronics at Kickstarter.

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