4 Ways LEGO is Helping to Advance Science
You know something that would really help people in dealing with each other? If you could know just by looking at them whether or not they had played with LEGOs as children. If you did, you were a person that was inventive, open-minded, and ready for all kinds of wacky ideas that may prove unspeakably awesome later on. If you weren't, then you are probably one of the meatheads that pushed the smart kids around so they'd stop saying the big words that made you sad.
But LEGOs aren't just a toy, no no no. Sure, you can build a mind-bogglingly huge model of Rapture from BioShock with them, but did you also know that the little plastic blocks are hard at work right now making science sciencier while you just sit around waiting for us to make a penis joke? It's true.
It was just a couple of months ago when two Toronto high school students, Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad, successfully launched a LEGO mini-figure carrying a tiny Canadian flag into space using a weather balloon. They also attached a camera to capture some truly amazing shots, and were able to recover the film in order to prove that they're more awesome than you.
The process took a year of planning, four months worth of Saturdays to actually prepare, a little more than $400 worth of materials, and Muhammad didn't even speak English when they started. This wasn't part of an assignment, by the way. Their reasons were reported as being for shits and/or giggle.
In the end, the LEGO man made it 80,000 ft into the sky, high enough for a commercial jetliner to look like a model airplane below. The two got the idea from watching YouTube footage of students at MIT pull off the same stunt.
Look, we've all seen Terminator, and we know exactly what to look for when the machines rise to put us in biobatteries to fuel their existence until the end of time. All we have to do is wait for the insanely powerful supercomputer to start saying things like, "Haven't you always been curious what would happen if all the missiles went off at the same time?" or just some subtle indicator that everything is just a computer-generated fantasy like Cowboy Curtis knowing kung-fu.
The problem is that the machines know that we know these things, and so have changed tactics. Enter the LEGO robotics camps. NASA has a list of over twenty summer camps they recommend that teach children the magic of robotics using various LEGO sets.
It's part of the not-at-all sinister sounding Robotics Alliance Project. Their stated mission is "to create a human, technical, and programmatic resource of robotics capabilities to enable the implementation of future robotic space exploration missions." That being said, we can deduce that the robots now plan to make it into space, "disappear," gather their strength on the dark side of the moon, and return to Earth to wage our ultimate war. It's basically the plot of Iron Sky, but with robots instead of Nazis.
Lest you think that LEGO is all about the cold world of astrophysics and artificial intelligence, the blocks have also made some marks in the biological sciences.
Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, uses stop-motion films involving LEGOS to illustrate cellular biology processes to her students. Her favorite is an early video illustrating the process that cells use to synthesize proteins.
Originally, she was simply going to use LEGOs as in-class models, but as long as she had a Nikon and a demo copy of Boinx animation software, why not. It's certainly more beneficial to society than using LEGOs to make a music video for Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
You can relax, scientists at Cambridge don't want to replace your skeleton with building blocks. They want to replace building blocks with bone. Wait, that's ten times more horrifying, isn't it?
Michelle Oyen, PhD, is working on creating artificial bones, but getting samples is a mind-numbingly repetitive process that involves dipping an object, like a bolt, into mixture of calcium and protein, rinsing it, dipping it into another mixture of phosphate and protein, then repeating the sequence thousands of times.
Automated machines cost a fortune, so the team simply picked up a couple of LEGO Mindstorm sets (The same ones recommended in the NASA camps), and put together a simple, cheap, and totally effective alternative. Oyen's colleague, aspiring supervillain Daniel Strange (Seriously, that's his name), sort of half-heartedly acknowledges that the LEGO-made artificial bones could be used as replacements for humans, but wouldn't it kick infinitely more ass if we made him a giant, super strong bone lair of the material in order to house his LEGO robot army when they finally return from space where they've mastered human biology from the MIT films in order to know how best to end our weak, fleshy existence? He then flew away in a blimp hurling LEGO-themed puns at us.
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