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What Was The First Video Game?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With its simplistic volleying of a tiny pixel between two vertical paddles, 1972’s Pong has come to represent the first generation of video game play. It was simple, it was low-tech, and it was addictive. But it wasn’t the first video game. That honor goes to a game that debuted back in 1958, the same year the hula hoop debuted and Leave It to Beaver was still on television. Its inventor? A nuclear physicist.

In the 1940s and 1950s, attempts to write software programs for amusement purposes were understandably primitive. Towering computer systems sweat virtual bullets trying to compete with human opponents in games like chess or Nim, which involved choosing matchsticks until only one was left for the loser to retrieve. Rarely did these systems have any kind of screen—Nim used flashing lights to signify moves—making the “video” component of the first video game a crucial missing piece.

Inventor Thomas T. Goldsmith came close, filing a patent in 1947 for a proposed device that used a cathode ray tube, or CRT, as a display and allowed players to turn knobs that would control lines on the screen to “hit” paper airplanes glued on top of the glass. But Goldsmith’s idea likely never made it past the patent stage (no evidence of a prototype has ever been discovered).

Just over 10 years later, William Higinbotham had a different ambition: Heading up the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the nuclear physicist thought that typical science fairs were too static. For their annual visitors day, Higinbotham wanted to create something that would make onlookers active rather than passive spectators.

Drawing on his college experience with oscilloscopes, which display changes in electrical voltage, and CRTs, Higinbotham spent three weeks cobbling together a system that used an analog vacuum tube computer that could manipulate curves on the tube. The instruction manual for the computer detailed how those curves could be made to resemble the trajectories of bullets, missiles, or bouncing balls. Higinbotham liked the idea of the latter and decided to replicate a physical sport on the screen. He called it Tennis for Two.

When visitors to the Lab arrived on October 18, 1958, there was considerable curiosity over Tennis for Two, which featured a side view of a tennis court and a blurry little dot being lobbed over a net using knobs. The display measured just 5 inches, but it proved so intriguing that hundreds of people formed queues for an opportunity to try out what is considered by many to be the first video game introduced to the general public.

The following year, Higinbotham improved on his concept by using a larger screen and giving players the option of adjusting the game’s "gravity," so the ball could travel as though the game were being played on the moon. While still popular, Tennis for Two was not perceived as anything more than a novelty: The device was disassembled and the parts repurposed for other projects. Because he was an employee of the federal government and didn't own anything he created during work hours, Higinbotham didn’t bother filing a patent.

It wasn’t until the flourishing video game industry of the 1980s began looking backwards that Higinbotham was credited with his early and pioneering work in the industry. Although there’s still some controversy over how to define the first video game—the oscilloscope wasn’t actually a video display, since it couldn’t convert electronic signals—it seems fairly clear that Higinbotham had conceived of an interactive amusement using a computer, a screen, and a program, a concept further refined by 1961’s Spacewar! and every game that has followed.

Although Higinbotham needed just three weeks to construct the first video game, future employees of Brookhaven needed a little more time to duplicate his work. To recreate the game in 1997 and again for its 50th anniversary in 2008, a recreation team spent more than three months producing a replica system. If you want to get some sense of what those early adopters in 1958 experienced, another facsimile is on display at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

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Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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