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For Some Reason, These Quantum Mechanics Toys Didn’t Catch On

Designed in the 1960s, these clever blocks were intended to help students grasp arcane quantum abstractions

6 min read
Photo: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments/Harvard University
Photo: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments/Harvard University

In the fall of 2014, a curiosity arrived on Jean-François Gauvin’s desk. The package, simply labeled “Julian Schwinger, Phys 251a,” contained 21 aluminum cubes that were hand-marked with variations of Paul Dirac’s bra-ket notation—angle brackets and vertical bars describing quantum states. As the director of administration for the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University, Gauvin had to decide whether these objects merited being added to the collection. So what were they?

Julian Schwinger Brilliant But Impenetrable: In the 1950s, physicist Julian Schwinger’s reworking of his graduate quantum mechanics course left many students in the dark. Photo: SPL/Science Source

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The Lies that Powered the Invention of Pong

A fake contract masked a design exercise–and started an industry

4 min read
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Pong arcade game in yellow cabinet containing black and white TV display, two knobs are labeled Player 1 and Player 2, Atari logo visible.
Roger Garfield/Alamy

In 1971 video games were played in computer science laboratories when the professors were not looking—and in very few other places. In 1973 millions of people in the United States and millions of others around the world had seen at least one video game in action. That game was Pong.

Two electrical engineers were responsible for putting this game in the hands of the public—Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, both of whom, with Ted Dabney, started Atari Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Bushnell told Mr. Alcorn that Atari had a contract from General Electric Co. to design a consumer product. Mr. Bushnell suggested a Ping-Pong game with a ball, two paddles, and a score, that could be played on a television.

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