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Monday, 12 November 2007


Oh, I wish it could be Christmas every day! There's just such a lot of beautiful stuff out there. Some things, in particular appeal to the physics or maths geek.

Here's a round-up of some that I like the best:

1. Acme Klein Bottles

The classic, one sided, zero volume container is one of several topological curiosities made by Cliff Stoll (whose Erdös Number is 3) at Acme Klein Bottles.

Technically a four-dimensional object, it is immersed in three dimensions for convenience of viewing and handling, in quality borosilicate glass. From the "baby" to absolutely huge, their range is impressive, and each comes with a mass of informative literature that you will want to frame.

It doesn't end with Klein bottles, though. There's also the Cup of Tantalus, great for geeks with a penchant for practical jokes, and you can also wrap up warm with a Klein hat and Möbius scarf set. Pure Genius.

2. Lichtenberg Figures

Don't you just love lightning? Bert Hickman at Stoneridge Engineering does exceedingly dangerous things with it, and captures the results in perspex.

The fractal patterns generated are just incredible, especially when viewed using one of the LED illuminating bases they supply. Most of the sculptures are generated using electron beams with energies of between 3 and 5 MeV. Much more information is available on the website.

He also shrinks coins:

3. Stirling Engine

An old favourite, but currently enjoying a bit of a comeback, Stirling engines are beautiful in their simplicity, and look as if they are working with no energy source.

In fact, they are driven by temperature difference between the top and bottom plates of the air reservoir that houses the piston. From precision machined works of art to basic models, it's also good to know that they're also relatively easy to make out of ordinary household bits and pieces.

4. Bathsheba Mathematical Sculptures

Bathsheba Grossman's sculptures are absolutely exquisite.

Like the Schwarz D Surface and gyroid shown here, many are made by a 3d modelling technique. She also uses laser etching to create amazing 3d sculptures in perspex, from astronomical models to mathematical figures and biolochemical molecules. Here's her Calabi-Yau manifold, and quaternion Julia set:

She also has two delightful LED keyrings available; Buckyball and DNA:

If you have the patience and skill, she also has a few patterns of her designs to download and make yourself.

5. Theremin

The ultimate musical instrument for physics geeks.

Invented by a physicist, inordinately difficult to play, and a completely other-worldy sound make it the music of silicon heaven.

Better still, many theremins come as kits, so you can go easy on your pocket and exercise your junior electronics club knowledge at the same time. If you've done it right, you'll have your own "Forbidden Planet" sound system!

6. Quzzle

Quirkle's catalogue is all about quality, rather than quantity. They make only a very few products, but they are all precision machined to be beautiful and tactile pieces.
Quzzle is a re-engineered, reworked old favourite, a variation on the sliding block puzzle. Although it has only nine pieces, it is the most difficult puzzle of its kind in the world, amongst tens of thousands of possibilities, there is only one solution.

Quzzle comes with instructions and a web address where you can find solving tips. You can reveal them gradually, or go straight to the solution if you are too impatient.

7. Unicycle

I once met someone who had studied Physics and Philosophy joint honours.

I asked what he was doing for a living now. He was a professional juggler and unicyclist, at the local community circus. I don't know why I asked, really - in hindsight it is the obvious career path for a person with such credentials.

Of course, the unicyle is difficult to master, but that's all part of the fun. The best bit is that your hands are free, so you can work on your Quzzle while you commute.

8. 507 Mechanical Movements

All geeks love books, and when your head really hurts a picture book can be just the tonic.

Perhaps the nearest thing to a coffee-table book for nerds, this wonderful volume will inspire all the budding engineers and tinkerers, mechanics and armchair inventors.

9. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre Automata

Within Cabaret Mechanical Theatre's extended family, many geek heroes are to be found.

Their associates include the living god of "wobbly moving stuff" Tim Hunkin, automata visionary Paul Spooner and creator of dragons Keith Newstead.

If your pockets aren't quite deep enough for a ready-made automaton, there's always the designer's kit, winner of a Editor's Choice award at this years Maker Faire in Austin, Texas. Full of ready-cut wooden components, simply assemble and design your own masterpieces - no need for any tools!

10. Binary Blanket

At the end of a hard day's thinking, and maybe tinkering, all geeks need some comfort. What better than to cuddle up in a snuggly, warm blanket that declares its identity in ones and zeroes?

You could also rest your head on the lovely binary pillow, and enjoy 10 kinds of comfort at once.


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