Sciency Words: Triple Alpha Process

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


Earlier this week, we took a look at the puzzle game Fe [26], in which you fuse atomic nuclei together and try to produce the isotope iron 56. Today, I’m going to teach you one of the basic moves you’ll have to learn in order to win this game. It’s called the triple alpha process.

Triple Alpha Step One

First, you’ll have to create three helium nuclei, specifically the isotope labeled helium 4. Helium 4 plays a special role in nuclear physics where it is often called the “alpha particle.” If it didn’t have that “alpha” name, I guess we’d be talking about the triple helium process today.

Triple Alpha Step Two

Once you’ve created your helium, fuse two of them together to make beryllium 8. You’ll notice that beryllium 8 is marked with a little, green number. That number indicates that you’ve created an unstable isotope. You have only six turns before it undergoes radioactive decay and turns back into helium.

Triple Alpha Step Three.

Before your beryllium decays, quickly fuse it with your third helium 4 nucleus. This will produce carbon 12. You can relax now. Carbon 12 is stable, and you have plenty of time to figure out what you’re supposed to do with it. You’re now well on your way toward winning Fe [26].

Click here to start playing Fe [26]. Click here to learn about other sciency video games profiled this month here on Planet Pailly.

P.S.: This is the way carbon is actually made in the hearts of stars. Two helium nuclei (or alpha particles) fuse together to make beryllium 8. If a third helium nucleus shows up quickly enough, it can turn that beryllium into carbon; if not, the beryllium will rapidly disintegrate.

P.P.S.: See, Mom, I told you video games can be educational!

Sciency Games: Fe [26]

Today’s post is part of a series of posts profiling sciency video games.  These are educational games, most available for free online, that can really help you gain a deeper understanding of science.  Click here to find out more about this series.

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After several failed attempts, I've finally made carbon in the game Fe [26].
After several failed attempts, I’ve finally made carbon in the game Fe [26].
If you have not yet played Threes or the conceptually similar 2048, turn back now.  These games are highly addictive!  However, if it’s already too late for you, then maybe you should try Fe [26].  It functions much like 2048, but instead of adding numbered tiles together, you “fuse” atomic nuclei in the heart of a star.

In 2048, the game progresses thusly: 2 + 2 = 4, 4 + 4 = 8, 8 + 8 = 16, etc.  That’s fairly easy to understand, but in Fe [26] things get more interesting.  Hydrogen + hydrogen = deuterium (or deuteron as it’s called in this game).  Deuterium + hydrogen = helium 3.  Helium 3 + hydrogen = helium 4.  Helium 4 + helium 4 + helium 4 = carbon 12.  What could be simpler?

You win the game if you create iron 56, one of the most stable isotopes of any chemical element.
You win if you manage to create iron, specifically iron 56, one of the most stable isotopes of any chemical element known to exist.  I’ve only pulled it off a few times now, and only with the help of the cheat sheet at the bottom of the Fe [26] webpage.
What excites me about this game is that, even though it’s frustrating at first, eventually you start to see patterns.  You start to learn which combinations of atoms work and which ones do not.  After checking with Wikipedia, I discovered that the knowledge I acquired from this game is fairly close to reality.

So if you write science fiction or have more than a passing interest in science, I recommend giving this game a try.  It might help you learn something about what really goes on inside stars.  Best of all, the game is free!

Click here to start playing Fe [26].

P.S.: In addition to teaching me a little nuclear physics, Fe [26] has also taught me to hate beryllium 7.  I keep making it by mistake, though I don’t hate it nearly as much as magnesium 24.  Accidentally creating magnesium 24 is the worst!

Let the Sciency Games Commence!

I started this blog as a way to force myself, as a science fiction writer, to do the kind of research that I and so many other aspiring Sci-Fi authors neglect to do. I’ve learned a lot since Planet Pailly began, and I hope you’ve learned something too. Today, I want to share a few tools that have helped make learning a little easier.

I say tools, but what I really mean are video games. It’s amazing how much you can learn from a game when that game is scientifically accurate (or at least accurate-ish). Here are three examples:

  • Fe [26]: Atoms are important, but where do they come from? In Fe [26], which is modeled on the popular smart phone game 2048, you control the fusion reactions that occur inside a star. The real fun is figuring out which combinations of particles work and which ones don’t. Click here to play Fe [26].
  • Super Planet Crash: The planets in our Solar System exist in a delicate balance. Subtle changes in gravity or momentum can have disastrous consequences… which is what Super Planet Crash is all about! Your goal is to create a stable star system. You score points based on how long your planets stay in orbit around their parent star. Click here to play Super Planet Crash.
  • Kerbal Space Program: The people of Kerbin are cute, squishy green guys who are hyper excited about space exploration, and for some reason they’ve put you in charge of their space program. This game simulates not only the physics of space flight but also the logistics of running a NASA-esque organization. Of all the games on this list, this is the only one that isn’t free, but if you’re interested, click here to check out the demo version of the game.

The important thing about all these games is that you learn by doing. That makes them far more effective teaching tools than any lecture, book, or sciency blog post.

For the rest of this month, I’ll be taking a closer look at each of these games. Here is the itinerary for those upcoming reviews as well as special editions of Sciency Words featuring words I learned because of these games.

Wednesday, May 14: Review of Fe [26]

Friday, May 16: Sciency Words: Triple Alpha Process

Wednesday, May 21: Review of Super Planet Crash

Friday, May 23: Sciency Words: Eccentricity

Wednesday, May 28: Review of Kerbal Space Program

Friday, May 30: Sciency Words: Orbital Vocabulary