Low End Theory: Blinded by Quasi-Science


By Brendan I. Koerner

Were I to ever become "unstuck in time" (hat tip: Vonnegut), I'd be quite horrified to revisit the mid-1980s—specifically the awkward years I spent in the fourth and fifth grades. True, I had few substantive worries back then—room and board were paid for, courtesy of my pops—but when you're eight or nine years old, the little humiliations sting. And few juvenile cataclysms stung more than bombing at my school science fairs. I mean, there'd be all these kids demonstrating the effects of radiation on algae and whatnot, and there I'd be in the corner, with a diorama purporting to explain the magic of gravity. Didn't take me long to realize that my brain was built for lesser tasks.

No way I'm ever gonna let my yet-to-be-born kids experience that kind of disappointment. Thankfully, there's plenty of low-end science-fair kits out there, so daddy can spare them embarrassment without spending a fortune. Perhaps I'll splurge on the Spider III (pictured at right) for my first-born. But if cash is extra-tight that month, there are certainly a lot of cheaper options.

Inventions in Land Vehicles
Price $15.18 from Funfinity
The Skinny Sort of a really, really lowbrow version of Lego Mindstorms. The kit claims to teach how a motor works, as well as provide some background on mankind's invention of the wheel. I'm a little dubious of that latter claim, but anything that lets you build a battery-powered vehicle for under 16 bucks can't be all bad.
The Judges Will Think... That someday Junior will make a fine grease monkey, fixing the BMWs of his more intellectually gifted classmates.

Sound Reversing Car
Price $18.95 from ScienceKits.com
The Skinny The lovechild of a popped-open slot car and the infamous Clapper. The car keeps surging forward, like one of Batu Khan's relentless armies, until you make a noise; then it stops and backs up a few inches. And thus the mightiness of soundwaves is demonstrated for all to behold.
The Judges Will Think... That your child is far smarter than he or she really is—which, of course, is the entire point of getting a store-bought kit in the first place.

Line Tracking Mouse
Price $18.95 from MakeBelieve.com
The Skinny A wondrously simple object lesson in the power of photo interrupters. Just lay down some black tape on white construction paper and watch it trace the route. The downside here is that you'll have to help Junior a lot—unless, that is, you trust your sixth-grader to use a soldering iron sans supervision.
The Judges Will Think... That your child is suspiciously adept with a soldering iron. They'll probably also wonder how he/she managed to create those little plastic bumps that serve as the mouse's ears. Best to use this kit only in school districts with hopelessly disinterested teachers, who won't mind Junior's lack of initiative.

Young Scientists: Electricity, Mirrors, Circuits
Price $22.95 from LiveScience Store
The Skinny Several potential projects in one, all of them decidedly boring (teetering on lame). But in a pinch, building an electromagnet should be enough to earn a solid C-plus. Hilariously, the hype sheet claims that the kit's ultimate project is the construction of (I kid you not) "a one-eyed monster." Oh, and there's an important caveat: "Ability to finish kits does not guarantee that children will turn in projects on time." I wonder what sort of lawsuit forced them to include that clause.
The Judges Will Think... "This kid's parents don't love him/her very much. I think a pity B-minus may be in order, or his/her self-esteem will be forever crushed."

Low End Theory: Blinded by Quasi-Science

Simply Science Levitation Set
Price $22.95 from Fat Brain Toys
The Skinny Far less impressive than the name suggests, this kit lets you build your own Maglev train. Comes complete with rails and a compass, as well as a 44-page instructional booklet. On the downside, as the hype sheet warns, swallowing multiple magnets can be seriously deleterious to a child's health: "If more than one magnet is swallowed, magnets can attract to each other and cause intestinal perforation or blockage, which can be fatal." I bet the folks who believe in magnet therapy can't be too thrilled to hear that.
The Judges Will Think... "Haven't Maglev trains been the 'transportation of the future' for a quarter-century now? If only this lousy job paid me enough to visit China, I could check out that Shanghai route. *Sigh* What happened to my youthful hopes and dreams? Where did the time go? Why did I marry the first girl that let me get to third base? Oh, wait—gotta halt the self-pity and grade this kid. I dunno, a C? Sounds about right. Now, when's happy hour?"

You'll notice that none of the above kits cost less than a tenner. I tried and tried to locate one, but the closest I could come was this voltaic cell for $12.95. I guess if you're really a low-ender, though, you can just give your kid an old clock radio and have him/her take it apart. They can title their project "Mystery of the Snooze Function, Revealed!" It'll get 'em a solid D/D-plus, but that's better than an F. And it's certainly better than anything I ever managed to gin up.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

Read more Low End Theory