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Holiday gifts for scientists
Credit: Hal Mayforth

There's No Place Like the Lab for the Holidays

My favorite holiday gifts were always the science gifts. When I was 10, I received a giant box labeled "Nature Lab." Man oh man. The box was covered in photos of kids conducting experiments: smiling at bugs in a terrarium through a magnifying glass, growing plants in a miniature greenhouse, squinting at seashells for some reason.

I imagined turning my bedroom into my very own nature lab: "Here, on my dresser," I'd tell tour groups, "next to the karate trophy (3rd place out of three kids, but still, THIRD PLACE) is where I'm conducting cutting-edge research on marble ramps. Yes, you in the back? Ah, excellent question! No, what you see on top of the T-shirt pile is not a real dinosaur but rather an 8-inch-tall dinosaur skeleton replica made of balsa wood. That project was funded by a combination of allowance money and begging."

Here are some of this winter's lesser-known science playthings for all ages, from the precocious little budding scientist in your family to the precocious little budding scientist who heads your department.

I opened the Nature Lab and instantly knew which experiment to try first: growing sea monkeys. I set up the tank, sprinkled in the packet of eggs, and waited.

Okay. Sea monkey experiment: in progress. Next, let's use the terrarium to grow some—uh-oh.

That's when I looked in the box and realized that the clear plastic container—the one in which I'd just started growing sea monkeys—was needed for every experiment. It was the aquarium, the terrarium, the greenhouse, and the insectary. And I'd just put it out of commission for a few months while my little brine shrimp matured through their naupliar stages (which they did) to delight everyone (which they didn't).

Not to sound curmudgeonly, but today's kids don't know how lucky they are. The past decade has seen an explosion of awesome science toys, many including actual explosions of science toys. Now kids can (and these really do exist) extract and isolate their own DNA, build a fuel-cell car, and piece together open-source modular robots.

When you do your last-minute holiday shopping this year (hurry, because if you give people gifts on 26 December, THEY WON'T LOVE YOU), don't forget the science toys. To help you out, here are some of this winter's lesser-known science playthings for all ages—from the precocious little budding scientist in your family to the precocious little budding scientist who heads your department.

My First Phase I Clinical Trial:

For the child with a great idea for a new injectable therapeutic, My First Phase I Clinical Trial gives him or her the opportunity to measure its safety and immunogenicity in adult volunteers. The kit comes with consent forms, adverse event reporting guidelines, and a list of outcome variables. Adult volunteers not included.

"It's a Bunch of Magnets!"

The magnets are coming in this magnet-tastic playset that features magnets, magnets, and, you guessed it … MORE MAGNETS!!!!!! Complete with magnets that both attract and repel, the kit teaches kids that magnets (a) exist and (b) exist in medium quantities. MEDIUM QUANTITIES!!!!!!

Lab Equipment Transformers:

It's a gas chromatograph … but wait! It's transforming! Now it's an analytical ultracentrifuge! If your lab has fallen victim to the new standard for funding science (i.e., "no funding for science"), you can save a bundle by turning pieces of lab equipment into other pieces of lab equipment. Wow, the telescope turns into a microscope if you point it downward!

Professor Disappointment's Fun Kit of Negative Results:

Can you build an electric generator out of popsicle sticks and glue? No, you cannot. Can plants grow without sunlight? No, they cannot. Professor Disappointment teaches your kids the harsh reality that sometimes nothing works at all, there's no way to change it, and that's just the way science (and life) goes. So, kids, who wants to go to grad school?

Li'l Hadron Collider:

It's just like the real thing, only smaller! Kids will have a smashing good time in this miniature circular tunnel, where they can collide high-energy particles just like the real physicists! And every part of the Li'l Hadron Collider is made from real atoms! (Actually, this could be a great toy. I'm so excited about this idea that just thinking about it gives me a hadron.)

Apply-for-Funding Elmo:

Give Elmo a tickle under his arms, and he says, "Do you mind? I'm under a tight grant deadline. You can tickle me tomorrow at 5 p.m."

"Baby Tesla" Shape Sorter and Directed Energy Teleforce Weapon:

If you want your toddler to be as smart as Nikola Tesla, start early! "This is a circle," the toy says in a friendly voice. "This is a triangle. This is a destructive antiaircraft particle beam." And Baby Einstein never stood a chance against Baby Tesla's Farmyard Fun, which reminds toddlers that "The cow says 'moo'! Until you shoot it with a destructive antiaircraft particle beam.

Eight Ball That Is Not Magic:

Counteract the faux spiritualism of the classic Magic 8 Ball with a version fit for a scientist! "Oh Eight Ball," you say, "will I someday marry that dreamy Danny Bonaduce?" Then give it a shake, and watch as it replies with one of the following messages:

  • I don't know. Go test it empirically.
  • If you don't like the answer,  you'll just shake me again and get a different answer; so what the hell does that mean?
  • Asking plastic toys questions makes Richard Dawkins cry.
  • This is stupid.

Red Ryder Carbine-Action, 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a Compass in the Stock and This Thing which Tells Time:

For the undergrad in your lab who can't seem to operate a pipette without getting injured, give the gift that says, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid."

EZ-Bake Yellowcake Oven:

Enrich your child's education while you enrich yellowcake uranium! Equipped with a 100-Watt incandescent bulb, the oven may not be exactly what the adults are using, but it's close, and it's cute! Now you can have your cake and detonate it, too.

A Job or at Least a Reprieve from Judgment and Pity:

The best gift you can give a postdoc this holiday season.

Scrutinize 'Em Analyze 'Em Robots:

Rockin' 'em and sockin' 'em isn't exactly what scientists do. Instead, we deliver a monster uppercut to statistically insignificant outliers and viciously decapitate datasets of inappropriate sample size. It's just as much fun. Right?

Adjunct Ant Farm:

As we've evolved from an agrarian economy to a society that asks, "What is a farm? What is produce? Pass the Pumpkin Spice Pringles," the concept of an ant farm has become antiquated. Instead, the semiemployed lecturer on your list will enjoy the Adjunct Ant Farm: a tiny enclosure in which workers are forced to toil for little reward, unaware of the giant faces peering at them and snickering at their fervor. Faster, little adjunct ants! Earn those crumbs!

* * *

Even though the sea monkeys were selfish little pricks who monopolized my Nature Lab, I still fondly remember the childlike thrill of opening science gifts. Unlike regular toys, science toys offered the possibility of possibility, the potential (however naively overblown) for the discovery of something new. And maybe the sea monkeys would never lead to a first-author publication ("Artemia Brine Shrimp Demonstrate Ability to Live, Bogart Aquarium, Die"), but they started me thinking about what it means to experiment, try new things, and play around with parameters and see what happens. For a kid with an interest in science, that's a special gift.

Most of all, it's a gift that says, "I believe that you're the sort of person this is suitable for. I believe in your ability to reason."

So, this year, instead of Grand Theft Call of Halo 5 or whatever, find one of those awesome new science toys and use it to inspire the next generation. You might even learn something.