THE SCIENCE OF LEGO

Cosmos - - Contents -

Those plas­tic blocks and science just fit to­gether. AN­DREW P. STREET looks at the cosy re­la­tion­ship.

From modelling quarks to trav­el­ling to Jupiter, Lego and science fit snugly to­gether like, well, you know. AN­DREW P. STREET takes a trip around the blocks..

Lego’s new Women of NASA set, fea­tur­ing four of the space agency’s pi­o­neer­ing fe­male sci­en­tists, has been a long time coming. It is an iconic step in pop­u­lar cul­ture that re­dresses the lack of recog­ni­tion given to the women who have helped all of us reach for the stars.

The ad­di­tion to the Lego lineup con­tin­ues the strong men­tal and emo­tional con­nec­tion be­tween the toy blocks and the ex­plo­ration of space that any Lego lover has been likely to share since the 1970s.

From the mo­ment the ven­er­a­ble com­pany rolled out its de­but Lego Space set, in 1978, gen­er­a­tions of fu­ture sci­en­tists took their first steps to­ward the stars by building moon bases and lu­nar rovers with those re­lent­lessly smil­ing red, white, blue and yel­low-clad as­tro­nauts.

That re­la­tion­ship has never stopped. The Danish com­pany, which be­gan in 1932, en­joyed its high­est-ever rev­enues in 2016, due in part to its Star Wars toy line, with the iconic Mil­len­nium Fal­con space­ship its best-sell­ing toy. But it isn’t just fan­tasy that ties Lego to space. Since 2011 the Lego Ideas project, which turns sub­mis­sions from users into new prod­ucts, has led to a hand­ful of sets based on re­al­life space ex­plo­ration. The Hayabusa as­ter­oid probe was the first, fol­lowed in 2014 by the Mars Cu­rios­ity Rover set, a de­sign sub­mit­ted by NASA rover engi­neer Stephen Pak­baz. In mid-2017 came the Apollo 11 Saturn V kit, which is a me­tre tall and made of al­most 2,000 pieces. The Women of NASA set is the lat­est in the line, based on a sub­mis­sion to Lego Ideas by science writer Maia We­in­stock.

There are four minifig­ures in the box: as­tronomer, NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor and Hub­ble tele­scope cham­pion Nancy Grace Ro­man; Apollo pro­gram soft­ware engi­neer Mar­garet Hamil­ton; and pi­o­neer­ing space shut­tle as­tro­nauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemi­son. All come with ca­reer-ap­pro­pri­ate ac­ces­sories and dio­ra­mas in keep­ing with their ex­per­tise.

We­in­stock’s orig­i­nal pro­posal in­cluded a fifth fig­ure: Kather­ine John­son, who cal­cu­lated the tra­jec­to­ries of rock­ets that put NASA’S first men into space. Her story, along with fel­low African-amer­i­can math­e­ma­ti­cians Mary Jack­son and Dorothy Vaughan, was the ba­sis of the 2016 film Hid­den Fig­ures. The toy com­pany was un­able, how­ever, to se­cure per­mis­sion to in­clude John­son in the set.

Lego isn’t just into space but in space. Even as you read this, there are three Lego minifig­ures or­bit­ing Jupiter: there’s Jupiter (the king of the gods in an­cient Ro­man mythol­ogy), his wife Juno and Galileo Galilei, the man who first de­scribed the four great moons of Jupiter. They are on board NASA’S Juno probe, cast in alu­minium rather than plas­tic to with­stand the rigours of the jour­ney – al­though they’re un­likely to sur­vive the craft’s planned de­scent and dis­in­te­gra­tion in the at­mos­phere of Jupiter sched­uled for July 2018. It is some­thing of a call-back to 2011, when the fi­nal flight of the space shut­tle Dis­cov­ery took place with a Lego ver­sion of it­self on board.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the cos­mo­log­i­cal sci­ences and Lego goes much deeper than some cool toys and space-probe stow­aways. The in­ter­ac­tion goes the other way as well, with sci­en­tists us­ing Lego to de­sign, teach and con­cep­tu­alise some very com­plex ques­tions.

The beauty of Lego in public out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion is its sheer fa­mil­iar­ity. Nearly ev­ery­one messed around with it as a kid, and thus it is com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar in the of­ten con­fus­ing world of physics. If you are try­ing to ex­plain a range of method­olog­i­cal chal­lenges in­her­ent to con­duct­ing prac­ti­cal ex­per­i­ments, Lego is an un­threat­en­ing medium

The beauty of Lego in public out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion is its sheer fa­mil­iar­ity. Nearly ev­ery­one messed around with it as a kid, and thus it is com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar in the of­ten con­fus­ing world of physics.

with which to do it. This was the ba­sis of a 2017 pa­per in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Physics, by lec­tur­ers from Flin­ders Univer­sity in Ade­laide, which out­lined the use of Lego race cars in in­tro­duc­tory physics cour­ses as a fun and easy-tograsp way of teach­ing ex­per­i­men­tal un­cer­tainty, lim­its of ex­per­i­men­tal equip­ment and the im­por­tance of start­ing with fun­da­men­tally strong ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign. The use of Lego was cred­ited with a sig­nif­i­cant drop in the num­ber of stu­dents quit­ting the course.

Staff at the School of Physics and As­tron­omy at Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don have il­lus­trated the fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cles of the early uni­verse via Lego. They have cre­ated teach­ing ma­te­ri­als and class­room posters that il­lus­trate the way sub­atomic par­ti­cles form atoms and how fu­sion works, even putting to­gether physics kits for teach­ers us­ing store­bought bricks.

A team of chemists at New York Univer­sity used Lego as the in­spi­ra­tion for the shape and func­tion of mi­cro­scopic “patchy par­ti­cles” that can be used to build com­plex but tiny struc­tures, de­scribed in a pa­per pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture in Septem­ber 2017. In a sim­i­lar vein, the ver­sa­til­ity of Lego has in­spired en­gi­neers to de­velop multi-use mod­u­lar pieces to build com­plex struc­tures such as pho­ton de­tec­tors, with an eye to­ward a fu­ture of low-cost, off-the-shelf science.

The pro­gram­mable sys­tem called Lego Mind­storms has also been a favourite in var­i­ous ro­bot­ics and out­reach pro­grams. De­vel­oped by MIT’S me­dia lab back in the late 1980s, the sys­tem has en­joyed a de­voted fol­low­ing among pro­gram­mers, aca­demics and peo­ple who make ro­bots that fight each other to the death.

It has also led to rather more help­ful cre­ations in­clud­ing a crowd-sourced ro­bot named Jit­ter, de­ployed on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion to lo­cate and pick up float­ing lit­ter in the sta­tion’s zero-grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment.

Sim­i­larly, the physics out­reach team at CERN’S ISOLDE fa­cil­ity in Geneva, Switzer­land, used a Mind­storm build as a way to help stu­dents un­der­stand the con­di­tions and chal­lenges of nu­clear re­search. The sys­tem has also been use­ful in un­der­grad­u­ate en­gi­neer­ing cour­ses by giv­ing stu­dents hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence of pro­gram­ming in an un­der­stand­able, tac­tile way.

Who knows what world-chang­ing in­no­va­tions are be­ing seeded by kids play­ing with some coloured bits of plas­tic and think­ing: “Hey, how about we do it this way?” More than likely some of those kids will be fu­ture women of NASA, or some other space agency.

AN­DREW P. STREET is a jour­nal­ist and non-fiction author based in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia.

IM­AGES 01 Cj­macer / Getty Im­ages 02- 04 Nathalie Sal­dumbide / Sal­dumbide Pho­tog­ra­phy

02 | Sally Ride was the first Amer­i­can woman in space and Mae Jemi­son was the first African-amer­i­can woman in space.

04 | Nancy Grace Ro­man is known as the ‘Mother of Hub­ble’ due to her key role in cre­at­ing the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope

03 | Mar­garet Hamil­ton was the lead soft­ware de­signer for the Apollo 11 moon land­ing.

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