Science gifts for Christmas: 1994

As a kid, I only wanted “fun” gifts for Christmas. I didn’t want anything “practical,” like (horrors!) underwear. And “educational” was way down my list, too. Yet my favorite gifts of all were actually very educational: I just didn’t notice, because I was having so much fun with them. These were the gifts that involved science.

There are three “classic” science-related gifts: microscopes, telescopes, and chemistry sets. I had all of them.

I think I enjoyed the microscope most. I got one when I was seven, and it enthralled me for years. Table salt, human hair, blood, thread–anything and everything went under the lens. For a long time I regularly had a jar of smelly water containing decomposing weeds sitting in my bedroom window, so I could enjoy the antics of the microscopic creatures that throve in it. If you’re looking for a scientific gift that will hold interest for a long time, you can’t go wrong with a microscope.

Or a telescope, for that matter. I spent many hours out in a field looking at the sky, too–maybe not as many hours as I spent with my microscope, but that’s because you have to use your telescope in the middle of the night while fighting off mosquitoes and/or cold and/or sleep. Seeing the rings of Saturn, however, made it all worthwhile.

A chemistry set doesn’t last as long because you eventually run out of chemicals. However, it’s undoubtedly the most satisfying in the short term because of its ability to create messes, stinks, smokes and the occasional minor explosion. What more could a kid ask for?

These days, there are lots more choices than just the “big three.” For example…

As a stocking-stuffer, consider a puzzle. One popular type consists of a couple of metal pieces apparently inextricably linked. It’s up to the puzzle’s recipient to find a way to separate them (short of wire cutters), a process that could take the rest of his natural life, if he’s as inept at the stupid things as I am. What kind of science do these demonstrate? Behavioral psychology–the same branch of science that makes rats run through mazes. (Not recommended for people with high blood pressure…)

Another interesting stocking-stuffer is a bird call. One I picked up is simply a metal cylinder inside a wooden cylinder. A dusting of rosin–the same stuff they put on violin strings–lies between the two. Turning the metal produces a variety of chirps and whistles as it rubs against the rosin-covered wood. It’s an elegantly simple device.

Almost as much of a Christmas science classic as the telescope, microscope and chemistry set is the gyroscope. These spinning wheels inside cages demonstrate the principle of angular momentum: a spinning object resists its axis being tilted. As a result, when the wheel is spinning, the cage can be balanced easily on, say, a stretched-tight bit of string.

There are plenty of science-related gifts that are much too big to be stocking stuffers, too. In the Discovery Shop at the Saskatchewan Science Centre, for example, I came across a whole series “Curiosity Boxes,” that offer “Fun with Magnets,” “Fun with Kitchen Chemistry,” “Fun with Photography,” etc. “Fun with Kitchen Science” looked like the best onel: it lets you make rock candy, pretzels, gelatin sculptures, two-colour celery, cheese and butter, dissolve egg shells, create invisible ink, and generally do lots of things with ordinary kitchen supplies that are just as interesting as what you can do with a chemistry set–with an even greater opportunity of making messes!

A paper-making kit lets you turn old paper into new, not only providing an insight into how paper is made but encouraging an environmentally friendly activity. And there are all kinds of “build-your-own” kits. You can build your own robot, for example. Some of them are sound-activated, some have a pressure sensor on the front so they’ll automatically back away and turn around when they hit an obstacle, and some even have infrared sensors that allow them to trace a black path you draw on a white surface.

Or, you might want to build your own radio (another Christmas classic; crystal radio kits have been available since the early 1900s). Electronic kits similar to chemistry sets, only cleaner, are also available.

Come to think of it, I had an electronics kit as a kid, too, something I’d forgotten until just this minute. Ah, writing this column is bringing back so many memories…

I guess that just goes to show: a scientific Christmas is a memorable Christmas!

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