Monthly Archives: November 2006

Fabricating LEGOs, the Toy of the Century

BusinessWeek|Online has a great article and slide show on how LEGGOs are fabricated. Read the whole story here to see how they convert ground plastic

into many many little bricks and parts.

From Lego:

LEGO Group is producing 15 billion components a year–that’s 1.7 million items an hour, or 28,500 a minute. Tire production accounts for some of that number; the factory also produces 306 million tiny rubber tires a year. In fact, going by that number, LEGO is the world’s No. 1 tire manufacturer.

The bricks are so versatile that just six of them can be arranged in 915,103,765 ways.



Filed under Education, Technology

Two Micro-controller Starters

I’m always on the lookout for good starter educational kits for students to learn electronics through their own hacking project, and I hit the mother load this week. First, this month’s Wired magazine had a plug for the new Micro-controller kit from Thames and Kosmos, which you can purchase here at Amazon.

The $136 price tag is a bit steep compared to the raw cost of all the parts, but everything is ready to go with almost no effort or overhead whatsoever, including all the necessary interface cables and whatnot.

Secondly, for those more intrepid (or budget conscious), there is the path for the purist. This link over at Instructables will send you on your way to building your first prototype systems from scratch including your own interface cables. On the up-side, total cost to start doing fun stuff can be managed within a $10 budget or so as long as there is an old PC with a parallel port lying around somewhere. The canonical first project it to light up an LED and control it.

This Instructable also include links to Cornell, where the devices are used in a class, complete with links and blogs about the student’s final projects, and there is an extensive web reference site called AVR Freaks.

Go forth and Compute!

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Filed under Electronics

Moore’s Law Marching On

For those of you unfamiliar with Moore’s law, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel predicted that semiconductor technology would advance at a rate that doubled the number of transistors that would fit on a chip every 18 months or so.

Now, the University of Delft and IMEC have fabricated a MOSFET device (a type of transistor) with wires so small (around 35 nanometers across, or roughly 1/200 the size of a human hair) that the conductivity and other electronic properties of the material depended on the flow of electrons around a single dopant atom of arsenic.

FinFET transistor

Obviously, classical electromagnetics, which are based on the assumption that materials can be modeled as a continuum with homogeneous properties starts to break down when you need to consider individual atoms. But fortunately, we are headed towards quantum computers which might map very nicely to the quantum atomic properties.

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Filed under Electronics

Rube-Goldberg Honda Ad

If you didn’t happen to catch this when it was live on television, YouTube has come to the rescue. Check out this amazing Rube-Goldberg machine from a couple-year-old Honda ad:

“This Advertisement for the new Honda Accord was shot in real time with no CGI involved in the sequence. It required 606 takes and cost $6 million to shoot and took 3 months to complete.

The equipment was so precisely set up that the crew literally had to tip toe around the set for fear of disturbing things, which led to some unexpected problems. “As the day went on, the studio would get hotter,” says Steiner. “It meant that the wood would expand and the cog or exhaust that spins around would move slightly faster.” These tiny changes made big differences to the precision set-up of the equipment……

…..The sequence where the tires roll up a slope looks particularly impressive but is very simple. Steiner says that there is a weight in each tire and when the tire is knocked, the weight is displaced and in an attempt to rebalance itself, the tire rolls up the slope.”



Filed under Uncategorized

Clearing Orbital Paths

After all the hoopla about Pluto being demoted to “Dwarf Planet” status a few months back, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what qualifies a hunk of rock as a planet. One of the criteria which Pluto failed to satisfy, was that of having attained sufficient mass and thereby gravitation pull so as to have cleared its orbit of other debris.

Well it turns out that a very nice image illustrating the principle turned up a few days ago. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft just turned in a very nice closeup of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan in the midst of the planets network of rings.

The tiny moon, little more than 16 miles in diameter, has swept clean a 200 mile-wide gap in the rings which we now call the Encke gap. Incidentally, we saw the gap first, and deduced that there must have been some sort of gravitational object to have caused the sweep, and then later found the moon.

Original Source at NASA.

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Filed under Astronomy

A Shooting Satellite?

Jim Faketselis of Huntington, NJ took this short 18 minute movie of the famed Orion Nebula, only to find what looked like a shooting star. But actually, it is the star field that is rotating about as the earth spins, made still by the motor drive the the telescope. What looks like a shooting star here is actually a geosynchronous satellite. These satellites are launched into a very specific orbit that circulates around the earth at the same angular rate that the earth spins to hover stationary with respect to a single point on the ground.

Here is another image of the Orion Nebula moving past four geosynchronous satellites but with the motor drive disengaged.

Original images courtesy of


Filed under Astronomy

Teen Creates Fusion in His Basement

Back in my teaching days, whenever some jaded, burned-out high school teacher would tell me something like, “…that’s just too hard for the kids! Why do you make it so hard?” I generally ended up showing them the projects that actually ASKED to do and saying, “…well these students didn’t think it was too hard. Check out the telescope and photometer that Jennifer built, and she didn’t think she was good at either Physics or Math.” And true, it might have been hard for some of the students, but not for all of them. The key was always to keep both ends of the intellectual engagement spectrum challenged.

But I just can’t resist highlighting real teen achievement in such a way as to show that the main limitations in many of our science curricula are the limited breadth and depth of the curricula themselves when the main mechanism for pedagogy is the lecture. This story shows the true power of unlimited guided and independent innovation.

Thiago Olson put in over one thousand hours over a couple of years to create a fusion reactor in his basement. This is no mean feat, given that there are only a few dozen working fusion reactors in the world, with most of them at multi-million dollar research institutions. Thaigo, in the true spirit of scrappy innovation scoured EBay for the parts and built it on a shoestring with a little help from Dad.


My favorite quotes from the article come from his mother:

Thiago’s mom, Natalice Olson, initially was leery of the project, even though the only real danger from the fusion machine is the high voltage and small amount of X-rays emitted through a glass window in the vacuum chamber — through which Olson videotapes the fusion in action..

But, she wasn’t really surprised, since he was always coming up with lofty ideas.

“Originally, he wanted to build a hyperbolic chamber,” she said, adding that she promptly said no. But, when he came asking about the nuclear fusion machine, she relented.

“I think it was pretty brave that he could think that he was capable to do something so amazing,” she said.

Thiago’s dad, Mark Olson, helped with some of the construction and electrical work. To get all of the necessary parts, Thiago scoured the Internet, buying items on eBay and using his age to persuade manufacturers to give him discounts. The design of the model came from his own ideas and some suggestions from other science-lovers he met online.

Someday, he hopes to work for the federal government — just like his grandfather, Clarence Olson, who designed tanks for the Department of Defense after World War II. Thiago, who is modest and humble about his accomplishment, said he knew from an early age what he would do for a living.

“I was always interested in science,” he said. “It’s always been my best subject in school.”

But, his mom had other ideas.

“I thought he was going to be a cook,” Natalice Olson said, “because he liked to mix things.”

Read the full article here.

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Filed under Education, Science