Starfield structures and gamified instruments

Credit: Brandon Hacha

Double (bond) vision: When Brandon Hacha saw this molecule, which resembles caffeine but is missing a double bond, he knew he had to act.

Correcting caffeine

Starfield, a new role-playing space opera video game, involves a lot of tropes of the science fiction genre.

“There’s lasers—well, those are real,” says graduate student Brandon Hacha, who, when he’s not playing Starfield, frequently uses lasers in photonics research. “But there are laser guns.”

Starfield designers developed lots of scientific set dressing to add atmosphere to the laboratories and long-abandoned research outposts that players can explore. That decor includes scribbles that Hacha says don’t add up to much but are meant to convey that “some brainy people drew some things up here.” Hacha would know. He took a video call with Newscripts from a seat in front of a whiteboard at the University of Wisconsin–Madison scrawled with exactly such equations—but meaningful. He had been playing the game for less than an hour, he says, when he noticed a problem in the scenery: a caffeine molecule that appeared on several whiteboards was missing a double bond.

As regular readers of Newscripts know, caffeine is a popular artist’s model. Still, as a physical chemist, Hacha wanted to double-check his recollection of the structure. After all, he says, “it’s got a lot of atoms in it.”But after confirming that the molecule pictured had no common name in ChemSpider, he took a screenshot and fixed it in a simple image editor. Then, on a lark, he sent the fix to his friends as a downloadable patch for the game. “It was supposed to be a joke,” Hacha says. So it came as a surprise to him the next morning to find that some 200 other players had downloaded the patch. Then it was picked up by a YouTube influencer who reviews video-game modifications. The patch took off on social media; many people joked that the game was unplayable without that missing double bond.

Even in the game, the molecule is just part of the scenery. “It’s such an insignificant thing that I think that’s why it’s funny,” Hacha says. Bethesda Game Studios, which developed Starfield, did not respond to Newscripts’ requests for comment.

Making data collection fun

A collage image of a white-coated scientist jumping for joy in front of three pixelated beakers.

Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN

High score: Molecular Reality hopes to make data collection fun by building a video game around it.

Most nanopores are fixed in size, and a pore that’s sized to admit DNA is too small for viruses. But the tech start-up Molecular Reality envisions a future when the same nanopore device can sense both. The company is working on a molecular gate that can dilate and contract to accommodate many analytes of different sizes. Kent Kemmish, the start-up’s founder and CEO, tells Newscripts that adjustable pores “have the potential to function as universal molecular sensors.”

Whether fixed or dynamic, nanopore sensors work by detecting changes in current as analytes pass through a pore. The sensors use algorithms trained on known analytes to interpret those changes.

To train its algorithm, Molecular Reality needs to collect reams of data from pores scanning all kinds of analytes in all kinds of environments. It wants to speed up that process, using what Kemmish calls “the world’s first scientific instrument control software that’s also a game.”

The game will encourage players to seek out unidentified signal-producing objects, or USPOs, from the natural and built environment to use in battle against other players. Though the game has yet to be released, about a thousand nanopore enthusiasts are already on the wait list for notifications, Kemmish says.

The game will be called Maxine’s Quest. Its mascot, Maxine, draws her name from the Maxwell’s demon thought experiment, which imagines a system for reversing entropy by selectively letting only certain molecules through a very small gate. The company used to be called Demonpore, but “we kind of backed off of that name because there were, like, borderline kind of death threats,” Kemmish says. “It just led to the wrong kind of energy.”

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