Discover’s editors are always finding fun yet educational science and technology toys, models and other gizmos. Here’s our pick of the best.
The Ambient Orb
Photograph by Jens Mortensen
The grapefruit-size, frosted-glass orb sits quietly on a desk, calling out to be caressed. Passersby invariably stop to touch it. They also ask why its light glows citrus green and flashes intermittently. The reason: The temperature outside has been hovering in the sixties, and it is one of the rainiest seasons on record in New York City. The orb’s color, which changes with the weather, ranges from ice-cold blue to temperate green to fiery-hot red. The flashing signifies precipitation.
Beaming in the weather forecast is just one of many tasks the Ambient Orb can perform. Designed to distill a complex influx of information into an easily observable form, the softly shining ovoid can also track the stock market, local pollen levels, traffic jams, and, if specifically programmed, your grandma’s glucose or a favorite baseball player’s batting average. Computers at Ambient Devices, the parent company, monitor a wide variety of data, crunching each down into a linear scale that reflects up-to-the-minute changes and is wirelessly transmitted to individual orbs. Each orb user can register a preference for a particular data set through the company Web site.
David Rose, the CEO of Ambient Devices, says that the Orb is aimed at those overwhelmed by a constant barrage of information. Instead of compulsively checking the Dow-Jones average, say, Orb users can be soothed by a steady but dynamic signal that can be absorbed with an occasional glance. The light glows red if the Dow has fallen, green if it has gone up, and it flashes if it crosses a threshold. One fan of the market-tracking function is Stephen Petranek, Discover’s editor in chief, who borrowed the Orb one day to test it. Now he won’t give it back.
Basic Bottle, $30-50
Klein Stein, $80
42-inch-tall Klein Stein, $12,000
An ordinary bottle, as everyone knows, has an inside and an outside. But a Klein Bottle, conceived by the German mathematician Felix Klein in 1882, consists of a single continuous surface, similar to a Möbius strip. If you walked along its surface, you wouldn't experience anything other than a flat road, although you’d pass seamlessly from the inside to the outside and back again.
Photograph by Jens Mortensen
The Klein Bottles, at left, measure seven to four-and-a-half inches high. You can swig beer from the Klein stein mug,
Since its conception, the idea of the Klein Bottle has held a special fascination for mathematicians, but no one had actually ventured to make one out of glass until 1997. That year, Cliff Stoll, an enterprising astrophysicist, decided to manufacture and market this topological marvel—or, rather, an approximation of one, since the real thing can exist only in the non-Euclidean realm of four spatial dimensions. Stoll hired a glassblower and gave him precise instructions: Cut a small hole in the bottom of a Pyrex flask; stretch the neck of the flask upward, then curve it so that it pierces back through the side of the bottle and connects to the hole in the bottom. Stoll took his finished product into the University of California at Berkeley math department, where a mathematician recognized it immediately and exclaimed, “I want one!” After a second bottle got snapped up, Acme Klein Bottle Inc. was born.
Before starting Acme, Stoll was best known for having spent one year tracking down a notorious computer hacker in the 1980s, then chronicling his pursuit in a best-selling book, The Cuckoo’s Egg. Now, however, he spends large chunks of his time peddling bottles at American Math Society meetings and expanding his inventory. Besides the basic Klein Bottle, Acme now also sells small Klein beer steins (ein kleines Klein Stein, in German), as well as knit wool Klein hats and matching Möbius scarves in cheerful colors. “I have a tighter monopoly than Bill Gates,” jokes Stoll, “and a better market share than Cisco.”
Olympus Mic-D Micoscope
(Requires PC with Windows 98 or later) $795
The Olympus Mic-D digital microscope turns amateur microscopy on its head. The main lens of the Mic-D points up, not down, and an LED attached to an ingenious rotating arm can be set to project light on a specimen from almost any angle. Best of all, the Mic-D plugs into your computer, so the microscopic images pop up on the monitor. You can record these images as digital photos, then crop them, change their light
Photography courtesy of Olympus
properties, and add text. You can even document something that changes over time— say, organisms swimming in a drop of pond scum— by imaging the specimen in real time and creating a digital movie, The Mic-D software package includes user- friendly tutorials and a digital library of specimen images.
The magnification power of the Mic-D, which can show specimens at up to 255 times their actual size, is less than many classroom microscopes. But the Mic-D will dramatically expand your view of an unseen world because you don’t need to fit every specimen onto slides or use slide covers. I immediately began scouring my office for objects to scrutinize— a CD, the hands of my watch, even salt crystals that looked like gigantic white cubes when magnified. [For a significantly cheaper, conventional microscope, try the $138 National Model 109-L, a sturdy beginner scope suitable for kids but good enough that adults can enjoy it too.]
Roomba Intelligent Floorvac
The Roomba FloorVac from iRobot, a squat disk about 12 inches in diameter, scuttles across the carpet like some Precambrian pet, ingesting crumbs and dirt as it navigates walls, circles chair legs, and crisscrosses the room. Roomba operates autonomously, leaves the carpet
Photograph courtesy of iRobot
remarkably clean, and when the job is done, stops and shuts itself off.
The robotic vacuum cleaner is not a new idea, but Roomba is the first commercially available model that’s truly affordable and simple to use. There’s no programming; you just turn it on and let it go. A bump sensor tells the machine when it has reached an obstacle, and infrared sensors guide it along walls and prevent it from tumbling down stairs. If the Roomba gets stuck on a household object, it automatically switches off, then beeps for help.
Although the Roomba uses only 30 watts to do its job—a typical vacuum consumes 1,000 watts—its actual air velocity at carpet level is comparable to a conventional vacuum cleaner’s. One drawback, however, is its small dirt capacity: The particle bin and dust filter must be emptied after each use. Still, the Roomba serves as an efficient and genial ambassador for robot-kind. That’s good news for its manufacturer, iRobot, which is hard at work developing other robots for everyday use.
— Fenella Saunders
Celestron NexStar 60GT, $299
Orion SkyQuest XT8 IntelliScope $479
Galileo revolutionized astronomy with little more than a three-foot-long wooden tube and a pair of 1.5-inch-wide glass lenses. Four centuries later, amateur stargazers can choose from a variety of sophisticated home telescopes offering a sharp and expansive view of the universe that would have made Galileo’s jaw drop.
Celestron’s NexStar 60GT is a refracting telescope similar to the one used by Galileo. But the NexStar comes loaded with what 21st-century astronomers call go-to technology: software-controlled drivers that can automatically focus the viewfinder on 4,000 preprogrammed celestial objects, including galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters. You first have to orient the telescope, either by punching in your location and time or by pointing the telescope at two known stars so it can triangulate its position. With a main lens that is just 2.4 inches wide, the NexStar 60GT gathers roughly 10 times as much light as Galileo’s crude instrument but lacks the power to zoom in closely on many of the distant objects in its catalog. Still, the relatively low price and ease of assembly of the telescope will appeal to amateurs in quest of striking views of the moon and planets. [Meade Instruments Corporation sells the Meade NGC-60, a similar telescope with a less sophisticated computer control, for $189.99]
Orion's SkyQuest XT8, a reflector telescope with an 8-inch mirror, offers far brighter and crisper views than the NexStar 60GT for not much more money. The SkyQuest XT8 is relatively bulky but it is easy to assemble and operate. Beginning astronomers using the original XT8 needed to consult star charts to help them locate the objects they wanted to see, but that version has now been replaced with the SkyQuest XT8 IntelliScope, which has a computer controller analogous to the go-to control on the Celestron. A simple glance into the heavens through the SkyQuest XT8 provides high-resolution views of such wondrous celestial objects as multiple stars, Jupiter’s colorful cloud bands, bright nebulas, and sparkling globular star clusters. Galileo would have been delighted.
— Maia Weinstock