Science gifts for Christmas: 1995

When I was a kid, nothing made me happier at Christmas than a present that had something to do with science. Of all my Christmases as a small boy in Texas, the one I remember best is the one when I was seven, which is when my parents gave me my first microscope.

Asked what I would recommend in the way of holiday gift-giving, then, for both children and adults, “something scientific” is naturally at the top of my list. To that end, I spent a little time this week cruising the malls and the Internet for some suggestions that can help you make this a scientific Christmas for people of all ages.

Computers are finding their way into more and more homes, and with them, computer games. And one of the most popular types of software is “edutainment,” computer games that combine a learning element, so that users have fun while they also sharpen their mental skills.

An excellent example is The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain, published by Sierra. Players have to solve logic puzzles in order to restore Dr. Brain’s mind. They have to unscramble bits of music, make their way through mazes, match shapes and remember where objects have been placed. The graphics and sound are equal to that of most Saturday morning cartoons, but unlike cartoons, this game builds the problem-solving skills that are the basic tools of science.

With newly-enhanced problem-solving skills in hand (or brain), children should get a blast out of the Widget Workshop, from Maxis Software. It’s a modern version of Rube Goldberg’s comic inventions and the classic children’s game (one of my favorites!) Mousetrap. The player finds herself in a laboratory with a bare workbench, surrounded by various scientific odds and ends, such as light bulbs, counters, televisions, a heart and a solar system. There are several machines that have already been built and aren’t working well, which players can take apart and try to fix (I remember doing that with an alarm clock once as a kid, but I couldn’t remember how to put it back together again…).

The accompanying Mad Scientist’s Guide leads the player through several experiments relating to everything from weather to sound to speed, time and gravity. And best of all, not all the experiments are conducted on the computer: the program includes a spinning top, a thermometer, a magnifier, a compass and other tools. Other experiments require basic household items. In all, it’s a great way to make science fun.

Of course, you can do that without using a computer at all. In a local bookstore I came across The Science Funstation, written by Brenda Walpole and published by Price Stern Sloan Inc. This book of science experiments comes complete with basic tools such as magnets, wheels, colored filters, tubes and more. There’s even a pop-out Styrofoam airplane with a wind-up propeller. In fact, the whole thing looked like so much fun I almost bought it for myself.

I also came across several pop-up books with scientific themes. One that appealed to the budding archaeologist in me was a pop-up mummy. This unique book–if you can call it that–contains a four-foot-long mummy (whose pop-up arms reach rather scarily for you when you open the book) which readers can “unwrap.” Beneath various panels you find out how mummies were made, full of those delicious details kids delight in, like, “first you pull out the brains through the nose, using a long metal hook…”, plus information about ancient Egypt. The book is by Ian Dicks and David Hancock, and published by Random House.

Not all pop-up books are for kids: I found one for adults will enjoy, too. Published by National Geographic, it’s called The Earth Pack. It provides a 3D cutaway look at the Earth. “Pull a tab to watch the continents collide!” says the cover blurb. You can also “make a volcano explode,” and, in general, wreak imaginary havoc. The pack also includes a nine-inch-high pop-out cylindrical satellite-view of the Earth, and a 30-minute cassette of eyewitness accounts of natural disasters, complete with sound effects.

But you know, when it comes right down to it, the very best science-related gifts continue to be those two old war-horses, the telescope and the microscope. With those basic tools, you can discover the wonders of the universe around you for yourself. They open up hidden vistas and, in the process, open up your mind.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind finding another microscope under my tree this Christmas.

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