Advanced Mathematics With Legos In A Washing Machine

Science with colorful bricks


C Slack

Every generation, a scientific paper comes along that rocks the very foundations of research, upturns our sense of the world, leaves us collapsed, in awe at everything that we, for all of our work, still fail to comprehend about the universe. "Random Structures from Lego Bricks and Analog Monte Carlo Procedures" is not that paper. It is about throwing Legos in a washing machine. And it is wonderful.

Ingo Althöfer of Friedrich-Schiller University in Germany is the author of the minor masterpiece. From the introduction to the paper, allow Dr. Althöfer to explain:

Within a larger experimental series we put a whole bucket of old Lego(TM) bricks (from the late 1960's and the early 1970's) into our Miele(TM) washing machine [1]. The bricks were treated for 70 minutes, at 40 degree Celsius, without speed spinning at the end, without washing powder.

Yes! Good. But why do this? To see how many Lego(TM) bricks end up stuck together after they've all been spun, naturally. In other words--in the paper's words--to see what "complexes arise" when you tumble those bricks. The project "is a primitive analog Monte Carlo agent." Here is a solid primer if you're interested in the specifics, but basically, Monte Carlo procedures are ways of using algorithms to map everything that might happen in a complex event, then determine from that which events are _most likely _to happen. Spin enough bricks and you could chart the probability of which bricks get stuck together. Oh, also, it is good for this stuff:

* an experimental mechanism in the field of “Artificial Life”. * a model of the Miller-Urey experiment on amino acid formation in primordial soup (Chemistry and Biology). See [2] for the description of such experiments. * a system visualizing aspects of entropy, decay, and spontaneous self-organisation (in Physics or Chemistry). * a tool in a new branch of machine-assisted modern art. [Ed: Ha ha ha.]

Lego Roulette

Ingo Althöfer

In the paper, Althöfer describes games/research that you, too, can play/research. Instructions for Lego washing roulette: Make your own brick combinations. Then dump a bunch of individual Legos in the machine and see if you guessed what would appear. Most complex guess wins. (Althöfer reports no success with this method.) Or, build something with multiple bricks stuck together, toss it in the machine, and if it doesn't collapse during the spin, you win. Or, best of all, play your very own game of Lego eugenics!

Concretely with Lego in a washing machine, generative design may be organized as follows. Each round consists of one washing run, followed by human selection of nice complexes in the yield. Before starting the next run, the human may create additional identical copies of the (relatively) nice complexes (for instance with additional bricks) and include them in the "pool". This intervention simulates reproduction of fit species in a biological system. The hope is that in the next run (nice) mutants of these nice complexes will be generated. Again the player can select the nicest ones and replicate them.

Stop when playing Lego God has become tiresome.

Following these instructions are hopes for the future, including:

It is our hope that thousands of children and adults will execute their own Lego washing and shaking experiments. Many of them will definitely find new aspects - at least new random complexes - and hopefully share them. “Traditionally”, there is a difference between Europe and the United States in acceptance of Lego as a useful and serious tool in education. Hopefully, our experiments will help to close the gap between unprejudiced “Yankees” and conservative Europeans.

Because are we not all the same, really, despite geographic boundaries? If we stare at a full-size Lego X-Wing, are we not struck by rapture? If we step on a Lego, do our feet not bleed?

Please, view the entire paper here.