Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

Seven Great Science-Focused Holiday Gifts

By William Harris


Okay, we get it, not everyone wants moon dust in their Christmas stocking. And some people might not understand the attraction of adopting a humpback whale. But if you or someone you know thinks DNA gel patterns are beautiful and that the story of Millikan’s oil drop experiment is just as exciting as a Star Wars adventure, then we think you’ll appreciate this post.

What follows is a short list of seven science-minded gift ideas to complement the standard holiday triumvirate of toys, technology and toiletries. We’ve organized the list by price and degree of difficulty (see buying guide below), with the goal of offering a little something for everyone, whether you’re buying for a blossoming Niels Bohr or a more mature Marie Curie.

$50 ✶✶
$75 ✶✶✶
$100 ✶✶✶✶
$125 and up ✶✶✶✶✶

Beginner !
Intermediate !!!
Expert !!!!!

Build-your-own telescope. Did you know that Galileo built the first of his famous telescopes while on holiday in Venice in 1609? After 24 hours of experimentation, he built a three-power “spyglass” that made distant objects observable. He made improvements over the next several days, and on January 7, 1610, he turned a 30-power version toward Jupiter and spied three of the gas giant’s moons. That’s pretty darn cool, which is why a build-your-own telescope kit is the perfect gift for a budding astronomer.

You have two choices here. The first, especially if you’re a young or an inexperienced telescope-maker, is to buy an off-the-shelf kit with all of the necessary materials. You can find one of these kits, appropriate for kids and adults, on Amazon for about $50. (Cost: ✶✶ // Difficulty: !)

The other choice, a bit more challenging, is to build a telescope from scratch. If this is the route you take, you’ll want a good reference, like Build Your Own Telescope by Richard Berry. It includes complete plans, step-by-step instructions and 275 illustrations that show you how to build five kinds of telescopes. You can find similar plans on the web: try here, here and here. (Cost: ✶✶✶✶ // Difficulty: !!!)

The Elements Mobile Phone App. When Theodore Gray published The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe in 2009, it caused a sensation. Most reviews of non-scientists went something like this: “I hated chemistry when I was in high school, and memorizing the periodic table gave me nightmares. I read this book cover to cover and, instead of despair, I felt delight.” Reviews from scientists were just as glowing. The book itself is still a great gift (and a great bargain at $30 for the hardcover edition), but if you want a more interactive version, you should download and install The Elements iPhone app. It does come with a price tag of $9, but that’s a small price to pay for bringing the periodic table to life. As Stephen Fry’s review says: “[This is the] best app of all. Everything is animated and gorgeous. Alone worth [an] iPad.” (Cost: // Difficulty: !)

23andMe Health and Ancestry Service. We’ve written about 23andMe before — see this blog post about brand consistency and how the genetic testing company gets it right. Then check out the company’s website and consider whether your gift recipient would prefer just the basic Ancestry Service or the Ancestry + Health Service. The latter, as the name suggests, delivers 90-plus online reports on the test subject’s ancestry, traits and health. Be aware that some people may not appreciate this deeply personal glimpse into their own biology, so choose wisely. Even the basic Ancestry Service can provide some life-changing information about a person’s genetic ancestry. Either way, for the cost of some spit and just a few dollars, this is a gift that’s hard to forget. (Cost: ✶✶ to ✶✶✶✶✶ // Difficulty: !)

A plaque affixed to the leg of the lunar module made this simple declaration: “We came in peace for all” — a fitting sentiment during the holiday season.

Apollo 11 Star Chart. Apollo 11 was one of mankind’s coolest moments, with a number of important firsts: first men on the Moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin), first return of samples from another planetary body (dark-colored igneous rocks about 3.7 billion years old) and first television transmission from another celestial body (Armstrong emerged from the Eagle lunar module and deployed the TV camera for the transmission of the event to Earth).

A plaque affixed to the leg of the lunar module made this simple declaration: “We came in peace for all” — a fitting sentiment during the holiday season. And now you can give a little bit of Apollo 11 history — a star chart used on the mission — to friends and family. Believe it or not, astronauts determined their location by optically locating a star and then inputting the code from the chart into an onboard guidance system, which would calculate the position of the spacecraft. This particular chart, printed in metallic gold on night-shift blue paper, was used for the Trans Lunar Coast — the portion of the journey that took the astronauts to the moon. (Cost: ✶✶✶ // Difficulty: !)

On the Origin of Species Special Edition. Few books have shaped human understanding like Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. When it was published in 1859, the first edition sold out in a day, and it has remained in print ever since. Like Newton’s Principia, which laid the foundation of classical mechanics, Darwin’s great work ushered in the modern era of biology by providing a framework for how evolution works and explaining our planet’s awesome biodiversity. It’s a must-have volume for any science enthusiast’s library, and this beautiful edition, which features 24 pages of color plates, will be a favorite reference for years to come. (Cost: ✶✶ // Difficulty: !!!!)

And while we’re talking about The Father of Modern Biology, check out this Darwin typography poster, which lives squarely at the intersection of art and science. This poster series, from the Lynx Art Collection, also includes Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla. (Cost: // Difficulty: !)

Like Newton’s Principia, which laid the foundation of classical mechanics, Darwin’s great work ushered in the modern era of biology.

The Mathematics of Christmas. Flying reindeer, replenishing toy sack, visiting two billion kids in six hours: the existence of Santa Claus should raise the eyebrows of any skeptical physicist. But how many of us have actually tried to do the math? Well, never fear — now there’s a book that does it for us. In The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus, distinguished mathematicians Hannah Fry and Thomas Oléron Evan analyze all of the iconic activities of Christmas to determine their mathematical and thermodynamic feasibility. Caveat emptor: If someone on your gift list absolutely hates math, this probably isn’t the best choice. As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “Super cute Christmas book for the math literate in your life. It is not too difficult on the math — the scary bits are in the endnotes, but you would have to enjoy math to love this book.” (Cost: // Difficulty: !!!)

Personalized Solar System Art. You probably remember where you were and what you were doing when the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989. But do you recall where Earth was in its orbit on that fateful day? What about Earth’s companions in the solar system? Thanks to Govy, an award-winning French artist living in Japan, and Martin Vézina, a developer living in Canada who loves science, art, programming and history, you can own a piece of art that shows the precise positions of the planets on any day you choose. They use NASA information to precisely compute the positions and orbital paths of each celestial body and then cross-check their results against data from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Finally, everything is fed through a 3D projection to generate a depiction of Earth and its celestial neighbors unique to the date you requested. Isn’t that better than another pair of crazy socks? (Cost: ✶✶✶ to ✶✶✶✶✶ // Difficulty: !)

That’s our list, with a few bonuses to boot. And if you really are interested in moon dust, humpback whales, DNA gel patterns or Millikan’s oil drop experiment, check out the links below to learn more. Happy holidays from your team at Cobalt Communications!

Moon Dust Teardrop Pendant Necklace (Cost: ✶✶ // Difficulty: !)
Adopt A Whale Standard Package (Cost: // Difficulty: !)
Personalized DNA Portrait Kit (Cost: ✶✶✶✶✶ // Difficulty: !!)
Remembering the Oil Drop Experiment (Cost: FREE // Difficulty: !!!)