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Tokens of Science: Toys

Dec 1, 1997 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:15 AM


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Discover asked a number of distinguished science folks what toys they most enjoyed, both as kids and as adults. Here are their replies--sent to us via e-mail, fax, and phone.

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I spent my youth building working models and always lusted after the big set, which cost some astronomical amount. Meccano (and its various equivalents) was the best toy ever made, and several generations of engineers were inspired by it. I am worried now that the newcomers are only used to looking at images on their computer screens and never touch any real metal, and so are creating disasters for the future.

Freeman Dyson, physicist, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. One of my favorite toys was a heavy tractor with a powerful and very slow four-wheel-drive movement, driven by a spring that you had to wind up. Winding it was hard work. It had rubber cleats on its wheels so that it could climb up and over obstacles, pulling heavy loads. I could play with it for hours on end when I was five years old. This year, 68 years later, when I see the little Sojourner robot crawling slowly among the rocks of Mars, it seems as if my old tractor has come back to life.

Gertrude Elion, pharmacologist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1988. At a young age, I really wasn’t interested in science, and I never realized I was going to be a scientist until I was 15. My toys had nothing to do with my future career. You’ve got to remember, we’re talking about a lady who’s going to be 80 years old. Those days there was no radio, no television. For me the greatest amusement was books. There was one book I read when I was perhaps 11 or 12--Microbe Hunters [by Paul De Kruif]--and it had a tremendous impact on me. Interestingly, I am rereading it now. It’s about Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, and Koch, and I’m enjoying it all over again. I used to recommend it to my nieces and nephews because it’s written in a style that the layman can understand. I really think it had an influence on me even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

Alan Guth, physicist, mit. My favorite toys have always been those that can be used to create things. When I was very young, the best toy was a set of blocks. The kid with the best set in my neighborhood was a good friend, and when I was about six, he moved away. The blocks, I was told, were too heavy to move, so he gave them to me. I lost a friend but gained a fantastic set of blocks!

My all-time favorite puzzle was a game called Soma, which I think was first marketed when I was in college. A set consisted of seven odd- shaped pieces that could be put together to make a cube, or a large variety of other three-dimensional shapes. Playing with two sets at once was even more fun. The instruction book claims that there are 1,105,920 different ways of making the cube, and I remember writing a computer program to verify this number. They were right, but I recall that they counted each of the 24 different orientations of the cube as a different way of making it.

Mary-Claire King, geneticist, University of Washington. My favorite toy was a circular jigsaw puzzle called Little Red Riding Hood’s Hood. It had 1,000 pieces--all red. I also played Monopoly with my big brother because it was his favorite game. He is now an entrepreneur, and I am an impoverished scientist.

Jaron Lanier, virtual reality visionary. My favorite toy was a musical instrument called a theremin. The device was invented early in this century by a Russian physicist named Leon Theremin, who I got to know in person much later, when he was in his nineties. It was one of the first electronic musical instruments. To play a theremin, you simply move your hands in the air in front of it--one hand controls pitch, the other loudness. In a way, the theremin was also the first virtual reality-like device because it allowed people to interact with nonphysical phantom objects. I also connected these marvelous instruments to old, torn-apart televisions so that by waving my hands I could create wild, gossamer moving images, known as Lissajous patterns. Theremins are easy to build and are still available as kits. What is amazing to me is how similar some of my childhood games were to what I still spend a great deal of time doing as an adult.

Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist. When I was a boy, my parents were quite poor, and things such as windup or even battery-driven toys were not for us. I learned to appreciate the use of words in interactions with age mates, and I guess you could say that if the definition of a toy is something to amuse oneself with, I was happy with having a friend or companion. I feel the same today.

During a very low period of my life when I was in my early thirties, I had to undergo dialysis while awaiting a renal transplant. I found the cartoon program on the bbc featuring Paddington Bear particularly encouraging, and for the past 20 years I have kept a two-inch-tall Paddington on my mantelpiece at home. He still cheers me up.

Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13. The toys I most enjoyed were model airplanes--I built them; a chemistry set; an Erector set; and a telescope--I could spend hours looking at the moon and planets.

Jane Luu, astrophysicist, Harvard. I grew up in Vietnam, and the different culture of my childhood means my answer might seem a bit strange. There were not many toys around the house. I had a rope that I made out of rubber bands--the poor version of a slinky, I suppose--and I also played with crickets. The lack of toys did not bother me much, but I did wish I had more books.

Paul MacCready, aerodynamicist. The Erector set was great; collecting, studying, growing, and mounting butterflies and moths was even better. Best of all was building and flying model airplanes, (especially odd, experimental ones--gluing on a fly for powering a tiny, microfilm- covered indoor model, releasing a noisy rubber band-powered ornithopter behind your startled sister, et cetera). But always I enjoyed the boxes in which large kitchen appliances were delivered. With scissors or knife, tape, and imagination, castles, living rooms, and dungeons emerged in which to crawl or sit. Decades later, I became disillusioned with the poor functionality of some expensive, complex plastic flying toys that proved disappointing to fathers and sons. I compiled a list of aviation toys I considered most successful. High on my list were 1) hot-air balloons that youngsters could build and fly and excitedly recover after a 3-5 minute flight, 2) the classic Frisbee--great for dogs as well as kids, and 3) a walkalong glider, so light and slow-flying that you could walk along with it, holding a pad or other obstruction around which air was forced, with the pad positioned so the glider would remain aloft in the up-current region.

Geoff Marcy, astrophysicist, San Francisco State University. When I was 14 years old, my parents bought me a used telescope for $100. It was a reflector with a four-inch-diameter mirror, and it had only manual controls to position it toward the heavens. I put the telescope on the roof during the summer, and I would go up there every night. My favorite celestial object was Saturn, with its gorgeous rings and giant moon, Titan. Every night I would bring a notebook and sketch the position of Titan as it orbited Saturn. After many months, it had made several orbits, and I could figure out its exact orbital period. Every month I determined that period ever more accurately. I remember getting a final answer of 16.0 days. The correct answer is 15.95 days. As a 14-year-old, I was very excited to have figured out the orbital period of a distant moon to a precision that agreed with the expert astronomers. Of course, nowadays I have been leading the team that has discovered six orbiting planets around other stars. So, I guess I haven’t really progressed too far.

Lynn Margulis, biologist, University of Massachusetts. I built fortified encampments with Lincoln Logs, amusement park rides including Ferris wheels with Tinkertoys, and a city of steel with an Erector set. I remember the joy and confusion of graduating to the motorized version of the Erector. As wonderful as they were, however, no such construction fantasy toys rivaled my real world of play. To romp along the connected rooftops and fire escapes of Chicago’s second city of garages was my young life’s passion. My frustrated yearning was to be immersed in the green wilderness of Jackson Park or left alone with a good book to walk the hilly woodlands of Palos Park. Not much has changed.

Philippa Marrack, immunologist, National Jewish Hospital, Denver, Colorado. My favorite toy when I was about five years old was a Noah’s ark that my grandfather made for me. It was filled with pairs of tin animals, and the ark was painted in different shades of blue to camouflage it. (This was probably also related to the fact that my father was in the British Royal Navy and was always sailing off somewhere in a ship.) This ark served the purpose that dollhouses fill for other girls, I suppose. I loved that boat!

Story Musgrave, surgeon, astronaut, hands-on fixer of the Hubble Telescope. I grew up in western Massachusetts, and my toys were mostly farm machinery and models of farm machinery. I was driving the real thing at age five, and got to where I could work on them at ages seven, eight, and nine. Back in the thirties, there were no scientific toys. If I were to have crossed the country back then, it would have been by steam locomotion-- diesel engines hadn’t come in yet. Ride a steam locomotive, then drive a spaceship--all in the same lifetime.

Sherwin Nuland, surgeon, author of How We Die. All of my toys were either castoffs from better-off cousins or they were makeshifts, and the most sophisticated of these latter were the wooden guns we would create from bits of crate. But I did have one real toy. When I was nine or ten my Great-Uncle Shoil, who had worked in sweatshops all his life, scraped together enough money to buy me an inexpensive chemistry set for my birthday. It was something I had long wanted but never dreamed I would actually ever possess. It became my introduction to the world of the unseen, the first absolute proof I had that physical phenomena took place because of the interplay of certain unchangeable laws that scientists could study indirectly. Every time I did the same experiment, I got the same results, providing I followed the instruction manual. If my friend did the same experiment, he also got the same results. Even someone as young and inexperienced as I could verify the predictability of chemical reactions, independent of who set them in motion. It was my first intimation that there is order and objectivity in the universe, and that they could be understood by the methods of science.

Roger Penrose, mathematician, Oxford. I always liked construction toys and puzzles. My father sometimes made such things himself; I did, too, as a child. I think that things I made myself influenced me more than commercial toys. I made pop-up books, circular (and linear) slide rules. One of the first such things I made, when I was about ten, was a slide-rule calendar, which covered 50 years or so, all in one gadget. A little later I also made a moon clock (which worked) and a sound lens (which didn’t).

Arno Penzias, physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1978. Simple answer: It’s always been hand tools. With them I can usually shape whatever comes to hand into whatever widget the situation calls for-- anything from home repairs to objects of art. Other than painting, I can’t think of any fix-it or building job that I don’t enjoy. Out of lifelong habit, I often pick up about-to-be-discarded items with the thought that they might come in handy some day. I don’t pick up everything--I look for potential and seem to have gotten better at finding it over the years. Helps me to see what might be, rather than just what is.

Carla Shatz, neuroscientist, University of California at Berkeley. My favorite toy was a set of dolls that I made from scratch. They were made out of clothespins, the old wooden kind that had these wonderful little round tops to them. I used those as the heads of the dolls and added pipe cleaners for arms. I made hair out of thread, and I painted on their faces. And I would sew everything--dresses, pants. I made them their own furniture, their own houses, their own books--everything in miniature--and I used to play with them for hours.

Vera Rubin, astronomer, the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Favorite toys: 1) kaleidoscope--by age nine or ten I made one from my mother’s cookie press; 2) cutting, pasting, sewing, embroidering, and making model airplanes; and 3) a Shirley Temple doll to sew clothes for, and later a svelte, pre-Barbie doll, also to sew for.

Cindy Vandover, deep-sea biologist, University of Alaska at Fairbanks. What my toys were not is easy: dolls. I could not abide dolls. My small menagerie of stuffed animals was well-loved. Lincoln Logs were a favorite when I was very small. My brother’s Erector set fascinated me, when I could get my hands on it. Oh, and the souped-up electric race cars: major delight and source of sibling angst. Mine was a Ferrari, cream- colored. My brothers and I would set up a straightaway and drag race. When my car won, the rules suddenly changed and I would be disqualified. A Christmas chemistry set was a favorite one year. Now? My favorite toys? Windup toys, the Chinese metal ones, especially, with clever mechanics. And Legos--the underwater set!

Craig Venter, geneticist, director of the Institute for Genomic Research. My favorite toys were hammers, nails, saws, and scavenged lumber that I used for building forts, airplanes, and boats--although you had to use your imagination to know what they were on completion. I used to spend my $1-a-week allowance on models (mostly airplanes), although my favorite was the Visible Man, where you could see and remove all the organs.

E. O. Wilson, zoologist and father of sociobiology, Harvard. My favorite toy by far (I can hardly even remember any other): a butterfly net, which I first took up at age nine. My parents helped me build my first one from a broomstick, coat hanger, and piece of cheesecloth. It turned me first into a hunter and then a naturalist.

Adrienne Zihlman, anthropologist, University of California at Santa Cruz. Except for a few dolls, I wasn’t a toy kid, though I was a collector of rocks, leaves, pictures of animals, and such. What did I do for fun? Outside at every opportunity, playing games like volleyball. We didn’t have a television, so we played together as a family--board games, cards in winter. In summer: my grandparents’ farm with animals (I had a pet pig once). Being with my grandmother in her garden occupied endless hours. I now collect bones as part of my research, plants for my garden, and shells from my weekly walks on the beach. Nothing much has changed with my toys.

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