Tokens of Science

Monday, December 01, 1997
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
This time of year can be trying for the determinly science-minded consumer. So, in the interest of relieving stress and promoting familial warmth, Discover's editors present an eclectic selection of gift toys, CD-ROMs, and books. And some of our favorite scientists have contributed their memories of the toys they loved most.
  CD-ROMs
  Books
  Scientists At Play

Man-and-woman-kind has had more than 7,000 years, give or take, to think up how best to mold materials at hand into forms that are truly fun. For this reason, new toys have only a meager chance of withstanding the test of time, not to mention Discover magazine’s editorial staff. Which makes it hard to find a good toy that isn’t already commonplace.

Some toys are interesting, however, precisely because they have changed hardly at all in a very long time. There is no better example of such a toy than the lowly ball. It was probably invented during a food fight in the berry patch or an early game of toss the rock. Now we have every kind of ball imaginable, from the perfectly balanced girth of the bowling ball to the rough-surfaced, air-baffling baseball, to the professionally exacting balls that jugglers use. In recent years scientists have gained unprecedented control over ordinary matter. They have learned how to remake familiar materials almost atom by atom, endowing them with extraordinary properties. In a few years they may be making machines the size of molecules and computers so small they behave according to the strange laws of quantum mechanics. When it comes to balls, however, all this progress amounts to very little.

And that’s exactly what we like about balls. Being neither very small nor very large, they are beyond the ken of twentieth-century technology. A ball is symmetrical in length, width, and height; it bounces the same way forward as backward or sideways. Not to sound New Age, there’s a kind of purity of essence about it.

Still, toy makers have begun to remake the basic throw-around ball, and in imaginative ways. Thirty years ago the all-purpose recreational spheroid was the hollow rubber playground ball--a heavy, bouncy ball about a foot in diameter--or the smaller, pinkish, baseball- size hollow rubber ball. Then came the spongy Nerf ball in 1970. Now there are a multitude of balls with a variety of qualities--some are heavy and soft yet bounce surprisingly high, others are hard but so light that you can only throw them a few feet.

This proliferation is partly the result of advances in the plastics and rubbers from which foam is made. Actually, it’s not the materials themselves that have improved so much as the methods for mixing them to achieve new properties. If you take a plastic whose networks of long, chainlike molecules can, say, stretch a lot, and mix it with another polymer that doesn’t stretch much at all, you wind up with something in between. Now there are many different synthesis techniques that give you very different mechanical properties, says Annette Jacobson, a chemical engineer at Carnegie Mellon. Small changes in the chemical composition can give you large changes in behavior.

Rubbers and plastics rely on long molecules that clump together into networks to give them their unique qualities. These molecular networks give the materials their structure. How brittle they are, how quickly they can rebound, how much energy they will absorb--all these characteristics depend on subtle variations in precisely what molecules are used and how they clump together. When a ball made of natural rubber hits the floor and deforms, the rubber molecules return quickly to their original shape because there is little internal friction among them. If you take those same molecules and hang, say, methyl groups onto them, the friction increases, and you have a substance called butyl rubber, which doesn’t bounce at all. A magic trick involves taking a black ball made of natural rubber and substituting for it another ball made of butyl rubber, which looks almost identical but hits the tabletop with a thunk and doesn’t bounce.

Jugglers, whose livelihoods depend on getting balls to behave themselves, understand the subtle variations in materials viscerally. Frank Radtke, a plastics toolmaker in Toledo, Ohio, rocked the juggling world back in the 1980s by introducing a new type of ball made from silicone, the combination of a synthetic plastic and a lubricant that reduces molecular friction. Silicone balls have more than just the bounce of an ordinary vinyl Superball. Ordinary Superballs lose their bounce when cold, and, if they get cold enough, they reach their glass transition temperature, at which point they get very brittle. Since silicone balls have a very low glass transition temperature; they bounce just as well when they’re cold as warm.

Silicone balls have other qualities that jugglers prize. Unlike Superballs, which are made of synthetic rubber molded under high pressure and are difficult to make any bigger than an inch or two in diameter, silicone is cured at room temperature so that it hangs together in balls more than three inches in diameter. Silicone balls can also be made in vivid colors, and dirt, marks, and even indelible ink can be easily wiped off the surface. Most important, silicone has a feel that jugglers like. If you had a bar of silicone ten feet long, you could put your ear to it and hear vibrations at the other end, says Radtke. When you throw a ball up and catch it in your hand, it has a quivering feeling, like it’s alive. For all these reasons, professional jugglers are happy to pay $30-$40 for a single silicone ball.

Mixing different kinds of plastics and rubbers is not the only variation chemists have up their sleeves. They can also blow air, carbon dioxide, or nitrogen through liquefied plastic or rubber to produce foam. Foam seems to be capable of an infinite variety of textures, densities, and springiness. If you make the foam under high pressure, the gas pockets, or cells, in the foam will stay sealed and the foam will float--ideal for a kickboard. Add a plasticizer, which acts to lubricate the molecules, and the foam gets spongier and softer. Foam balls of every variety seem to be proliferating on the shelves of toy stores. People have been asking for softer foam these days, says Michael Logue, director of marketing at Spongex Corporation, a manufacturer in Shelton, Connecticut. I think it may be for child safety.

Then there are balls that, although not intended as toys, have interesting properties. Michael Moschen, a juggler so renowned for his experimental approach to his art that he has received a MacArthur genius award, is fond of juggling such mundane objects as industrial ball bearings. These are made from steel slugs mashed under high pressure into spheres, which are then heated and carburized--infused with carbon atoms. If the iron atoms in the steel are the size of baseballs, says engineer Ron Moore of Frantz Manufacturing Company of Sterling, Illinois, the carbon atoms are the size of marbles. The carbon atoms sort of nestle into the gaps between the bigger iron atoms and increase the density and the hardness of the steel. Moschen likes the combination of density and hardness. They have a nice heft, he says.

Moshen also likes plastic balls produced for industrial purposes- -found in a surprising number of obscure places. Harvey Westbury of Wayne, New Jersey, makes a kit that uses five balls, each with a different density, to measure the density of sulfuric acid in car batteries. Such balls are made to somewhat different specifications than toys. They’re made of polyvinyl chloride, a tough plastic that can withstand corrosive acids, and chemicals that alter the density of the pvc. Moschen has a collection of industrial balls in all shapes and sizes, including a four-foot-diameter hollow aluminum ball that was formerly a navigational buoy in Seattle’s harbor.

You can fiddle around with the materials balls are made of, or you can do what jugglers and toy makers do and toy with the very idea of what makes a ball a ball. Jugglers have a long history of such reconceptualizing. When electric lighting caught on, jugglers began balancing spinning glass globes on sticks. W.C. Fields got his start juggling billiard balls. There have been great cannonball jugglers at times when war was prevalent, such as in Europe around the turn of the century, says Moschen. They would juggle three at a time, but they would also flip them around the back of their neck, roll them up onto their head, roll them around their arms.

In the arena of toys, the Koosh Ball is probably the most successful recent conceptual variation on the classic ball. It isn’t really spherical, except in some ideal sense--it looks like a headless porcupine made of rubber bands. When it was introduced ten years ago, its chief selling point was its lack of bounce, which makes it easier for young children to catch, but the furry rubbery feel has proven to be attractive to adults, too. More recently, OddzOn Products in Campbell, California--the makers of Koosh--has developed the Bing Boing Koosh Ball, which looks like a headless porcupine made of springy nylon golf tees. Unlike the original Koosh, it bounces, and it has an odd aerodynamics that makes it behave much like a knuckleball. In the same vein, the Ka-Boing Ball, made by Cap Toys of Bedford Heights, Ohio, has a small hard center with cone-shaped springs sticking out. You can’t do much with either the Ka-Boing Ball or the Bing Boing ball, so they’re mainly conversation pieces, though at least one four-and-a-half-year-old seems to find them fascinating.

So if you’re having trouble finding educational science toys, you might be trying too hard. Maybe it’s time to go back to basics. Buy a few balls.

If you like spheroids, you’ll love the hoberman Sphere--in bright, colorful plastic. Designed by artist-engineer Chuck Hoberman, it’s just like the big one at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, but smaller--it expands from 9.5 inches in diameter to 30 inches rather than 4.5 feet to 18 feet. The sphere doesn’t teach you geometry as much as leave you mightily pleased by it--it’s an example of a fascinating and beautiful geometric architecture. Hoberman Designs, 472 Greenwich Street, No. 7, New York, N.Y. 10013-1362.

The rage for foam has not been restricted to balls. The stomp rocket, propelled by a burst of air from a bellows, is an old idea that seems to have been waiting for foam to make it complete. D&L; Company makes a version, the Junior Stomp Rocket, that comes with a soft--and safe--foam rocket about nine inches long and an inch thick, with a blunt tip and little foam fins. It doesn’t look as if it would fly more than a foot or two, but the designers certainly know their aerodynamics: even if you toss the rocket, it flies in perfect form. It fits over a plastic pipe, connected via plastic hose to a plastic bag. Stomp on the bag and the rocket sails three, maybe four stories high (honest). Adults will look on with secret envy as kids play with this thing. One solution to the dilemma is for an adult to pick a child up in the air and bring him down on top of the bellows, preferably feet first. Be forewarned: D&L; also sells a version that flies twice as high, but the rockets are made of hard plastic, which seems a bit like cheating (not to mention more dangerous). After all, a great deal of the pleasure of this toy comes from the cuddly nature of the foam rockets. D&L; Company, P.O. Box 7996, Porterville, Calif. 93258.

By now everybody has witnessed the light-conducting capability of optical fibers, but relatively few have gazed on the wonders of the tv rock. It is a mineral called Ulexite, which forms tiny needle-shaped crystals each of which conducts light like an optical fiber. If you pass the rock over a page in a magazine, the image and text beneath the rock appear on its top surface, as though the rock were a miniature television screen. It comes as part of the otherwise bland Fiber Optics Kit. Copernicus, 100 East Main Street, Charlottesville, Va. 22902.

There are key chains and light switches that respond to the sound of two hands clapping. Now there’s a robot that changes direction. The Hyper Peppy robot is the size of a grapefruit, it rides around on three wheels, and it is equipped with a bumper that tells it when it has hit a wall, which it does often, only to pivot 90 degrees and take off with renewed enthusiasm. The wonderful thing about this robot is that although it cannot have feelings (or even a mental capacity in excess of a pocket calculator’s), it possesses enough personality to act as an object of our own neurotic projections. Watching it struggle cheerfully from one obstacle to another, and knowing that fulfillment is utterly impossible, is rather poignant. Or maybe it’s funny. Or maybe you just want to pummel the thing into a thousand pieces. At any rate, it may be helpful to remember that you can rescue it from a pending disaster--or sadistically provoke one, depending on your inclination--by clapping, which makes the little fellow swivel 90 degrees. For those of you who really need help, you can also trigger a change in direction with an extremely violent, antisocial scream, which is strangely satisfying. The robot requires assembly, which the company claims should take 20 minutes. owi Inc., 1160 Mahalo Place, Compton, Calif. 90220.

In case you can’t afford an m1 tank, which includes a night- vision scope as standard equipment, you can now possess the incredibly useful capability of seeing in the dark for a fraction of the cost. Tasco, an optical equipment firm, has managed to whittle down the cost of making extremely sensitive light detectors from tens of thousands of dollars to mere thousands. Its highest resolution monoculars and riflescopes, which cost about $3,500, amplify the available light 65,000 times. What possible use could any normal suburb-dwelling nine-to-fiver have for such costly equipment? Well, it’s very good for sneaking into your kid’s room at night without having to turn the hall light on first. You can retrieve your child’s sandals after dark from the woods behind your house. You can use it to check whether any monsters are hiding under the backyard deck. If you equip the whole family with these gadgets, you won’t need to light the house at night. Imagine the savings on your electricity bill. Tasco sells low-resolution models for about $600, but we only tried one of the pricier versions. Tasco, P.O. Box 520080, Miami, Fla. 33152-0080.

Been listening to too much opera lately? Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones is a good antidote. It is a compact disc anthology of bizarre musical instruments, with an accompanying book on the contributing artists. They get surprisingly musical sounds from flowerpots, bamboo flutes, glass bowls, and assemblages of junk metal. Author and impresario Bart Hopkin has achieved a nice mix of musicians and maniacs (but we’re not saying who’s who). Tom Waits, jazz singer, composer, and truck air horn player, contributes a foreward. Ellipsis Arts, P.O. Box 305, Roslyn, N.Y. 11576.

When Bernie Krause applied to music schools in 1955, none recognized the guitar as a bona fide musical instrument. That might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. He went on to play on Motown recordings and did a stint with The Weavers. In the 1960s he studied electronic music and got interested in synthesizers, composing music for The Twilight Zone, Mission Impossible, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among other things. In the late 1970s he switched careers again, becoming a naturalist, field recordist, sound sculptor and designer, and for 28 years traveled the world recording its natural sounds. His recordings and field notes are collected in Notes From the Wild. You can hear the sound of the Amazon rain forest, real-life gorillas, and the whales, wolves, and eagles of Glacier Bay, Alaska. Ellipsis Arts P.O. Box 305, Roslyn, N.Y. 11576.

There’s nothing unusual about color printers, but using them to make garments and wall hangings is. Canon makes a nine-and-a-half-by- eleven-inch cotton fabric that, with a little trimming, can be made to fit through most ink-jet color printers. Susan Krzywicki, coauthor with Laurel Burden of The Color Printer Fun Book, has used the fabric sheets to make colorful jackets--but be forewarned, the computer will not do the sewing for you. The fabric is available from Canon by calling 800-671-1090. The book will be available early in 1998 from Home, Art & Technology, 11684 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 526, Studio City, Calif. 91604.

And finally, another classic revisited: the puzzle. The best puzzles are deceptively simple. A Discover editor recently contemplated giving a 14-piece geometric puzzle called Shape by Shape to his four-year- old. After trying for 15 minutes to put it together himself without success, he wisely reconsidered. The puzzle is a variation on the Chinese tangram, in which seven pieces cut from a square are combined to form different figures. Shape by Shape’s pieces come in two colors, and the challenge is to arrange them to form different figures while fitting them into a square frame. The kit includes 60 cards that suggest figures and, most important, give hints on the back. For the other 27,268 configurations, you’re on your own. Binary Arts Corporation, 1321 Cameron Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314-3449.
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