From Materials to Life

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Technically, the full title of this book is “20th Century Science History Conversion and Japan: From “Materials” to “Life'”. But, that’s a bit long. According to the Otono no Kagaku magazine page, this is a collection of the science history articles that had originally appeared in the previous kit mooks. The collection was published on Nov. 5, 2009, 208 pages, with a 1,890 yen ($23 USD) cover price. It’s still in print, but I’m not sure for how much longer.

After I wrote up the What’s Still in Stock entry, I decided to go back to the kits list and add every single product that I could find links for on the Otona no Kagaku site. When I got to the Materials to Life book, I started thinking that maybe the local bookstores might have this one in a separate location from the kits. So I went back to Kinokuniya and tried using their online look-up terminal. Typing in “Gakken” in English brought up 300 hits and a demand to restrict the search more. I tried “Otona no Kagaku” in Japanese, but within the 80 hits, there was no mention of this book. After messing around with the terminal a little more and physically sorting through the science shelves, I went to Junku. There, the terminal was harder to figure out (confusing menus), but the “Gakken” search did include Materials to Life in the 300 hits, as well as the Korg DS and Rocket and Space Exploration mooks. Better yet, I was able to print out a map showing the rough location of each book in the store. However, I couldn’t find Materials to Life on the General Science shelves myself and I needed a clerk to help me. A few minutes later, I was walking out the store with it under my arm (the book, not the clerk). The point being that there are certain older products that are just the mook, without the kit, and if they’re still in stock, they’ve been included in with the general science books, making them harder to find.

(Sample page including text. Terahiko Terada second from left.)

Materials to Science, as mentioned above, is a collection of western science history articles and how they related to Japan in the first half of the 1900’s. It’s largely a mix of old photos, and Japanese text talking about science during certain time frames. As a way to help describe the settings of the time, there are also lots of movie posters in each section (Bridge Over the River Kwai, Godzilla, The Third Man, etc.) If you can’t read Japanese, you can get most of this information off of wikipedia. But, the photos are golden, and well worth the price of the book. There’s no manga this time, and no suggestions for things to build. In a way, it’s kind of a balance, in that the more recent numbered mook kits (like the Denshi Blocks, or the Ornithopter) haven’t had the random modern science articles that used to appear in the older mooks, but all of those previous mook kits are now out of print. So, if you’re buying the newer kits now, you can still get the Materials to Life book and read the stories whenever you feel like it.

The section titles are:
1922: Japan and Europe at a Distance from Each Other
1937: Yoshio Nishina and Neils Bohr
1941: The Legend of Steel
1942-1943: Life Debate in Wartime
1945: The Last Secret Weapon
Dawn Over the Pacific Ocean: End of the War in Tokyo, Sydney and California
Tokyo in Ruins: Descartes’s Dialog
1951: Naples’ Thread of Life
1953: The Double Helix Descends on the Golden Gate Bridge
Life Computer Information Science and 21st Century Japan

The photos include Einstein, Watson and Crick, Neils Bohr, Schrodinger, Oppenheimer, Alan Turning, Max Plank and many, many others others (plus our own Terahiko Terada). Quite a few of these people visited Japan, which is where the bulk of the photos were taken.

(Lots of pictures from WW II. Here we have a museum example of Purple, the code name for the encryption machine the Japanese used during the war. It’s based on the German Enigma, but used fewer encoders and therefore was easier to break. The British targeted cracking Enigma, while the U.S. went after Purple (and were responsible for the choice of names for the machine).)

Materials to Life is highly recommended.

Review: Science and Study Kit

(Image from the Otona no Kagaku site, used here for review purposes only.)

Gakken occasionally releases sideline products under the Otona no Kagaku label that are either not kits, or not mooks. Obvious examples are the Theo Jansen DVD (mook, no kit) and the SX-150 Mark II synth (kit, no mook). Others are the Rocket and Space Exploration and the Busshitsu kara Seimei e (From Material to Life) mooks. These products tend to be a bit pricey for what they contain, so I’ve held off on buying them. I’ll probably have a change of heart later on for the Jansen DVD (except that my laptop doesn’t have a DVD drive so I’d have to spring for an external drive first. So much for “pricey”).

(Top right, Toshio Iwai; Bottom left, Meiwa Denki; Bottom right, Momoko Sakura)

On April 17, 2010, Gakken came out with Kagaku to Gakushuu (Science and Study), 148 pages, for 1680 yen ($22 USD). It is a kit and mook pair, but the kit is just a simple glow in the dark skeleton. It looked fairly flimsy and trivial to build, so I passed on it at the time. Last week, though, as I was compiling the list of Gakken kits still on the shelves, I noticed that Amazon is listing a collector’s sales price of 3000 yen for it, a 2x’s mark-up, while the Junko bookstore near me still had a copy at the original cover price. Since I had reviewed all of the other kits up to this point, I guess I should at least make a stab at it for the Science and Study kit while it’s still affordable. Besides, I still didn’t know exactly what the contents of the mook were, and there could be something in it to surprise me.

(Naoki Urasawa)

First, the kit. It’s made up of 17 pieces of relatively soft plastic still attached to 7 frames. There’s no suggested assembly time, and it took me about 20 minutes (mainly because I had trouble following the instructions). You need to cut the pieces from the frame and trim off the flash. Gakken recommends using trimming scissors or a nail clipper. I used a pen knife. The two trickiest parts are the ribcage and the hip bones, which are molded flat and you have to bend them in half and mount them to the spine in a way that’s not really clear from the pictures. The shoulder blades/clavicle piece is equally confusing. But, my biggest mistake was in not realizing that the portion of the frame attached to the spine is really part of the stand. It wasn’t until after I’d cut the spine from the frame and removed the flash that I figured out that I wasn’t supposed to do that. So, after I got the rest of the thing assembled, I had to spend 15 minutes sitting and holding the frame subsection against the spine in order to get the wood glue to set (I don’t have epoxy or a hot glue gun in my tool kit, yet). In any event, I finished everything, and the glue on the spine held the frame/stand section in place ok. This skeleton kit was originally issued in 1976 along with a small science book aimed at 5th graders (“5th Year Science”), so the current kit also contains a reprint of that small book. The skeleton glows green in the dark, but only for about 5 minutes. The discarded frame pieces also produce a lot of light and it’s kind of tempting to cut them into 1″ pieces and put them in a small container as a night light.

(Example of the top 10 most popular kits – #3, the telescope.)

Next, the mook. This is a toss up. If you can’t read Japanese, then all that’s left is to look at the pictures, which are 75% nostalgia shots of 30+ year’s worth of Gakken science toys, and 25% example pages of science and science fiction manga. For just the nostalgia photos, the kit’s probably not worth the money. If you can read Japanese, or if you like manga, it’s a different matter.

(Yoshitoo Asari, and some of his sample manga.)

There’s a lot of overlap between this mook and the one for Kit #1 (the Putt Putt Boat). The first 10 pages are reminiscences by various notable people about playing with the Gakken science toys when they were kids. The difference from kit #1, though, is that this time the people interviewed include; Kenichiro Mogi (brain scientist), Naoki Urasawa (manga artist for “20th Century Boys”, “Monster” and “Billy Bat”), Toshio Iwai (video game programmer and developer of the Tenori-on), Momoko Sakura (creator of “Chibi Maruko-chan”), Junichi Watanabe (professor at Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory) and Hideaki Sena (SF writer and author of the original “Parasite Eve” novel).

(Your skeleton in motion.)

From here, we get 46 pages of pictures and descriptions of every science kit or toy Gakken produced from 1965 to 2009. There’s also a top 10 list of the most popular topics (from 1 to 10; #1 is the camera, #9 is the radio, and #10 is chemistry sets). This is followed by the history of the skeleton kit and assembly instructions; maps and castle kits; science games and early science books. (14 pages total). Then there’s 20 pages on science related manga, and 23 pages of reprints from the original Gakken science books for school children. The last 24 pages are various miscellaneous topics that didn’t fit elsewhere, including the evolution of the Otona no Kagaku mascot, named “Pippo-kun”.

Regarding the old Gakken science toys, it turns out that at least a couple of the more modern Otona no Kagaku kits are actually reworkings of things that came out from Gakken in the 60’s or 70’s, including the DC Motor Car, the Galileo telescope and (I think) the pinhole camera.


The section on manga includes sample frames and write ups on: Shoutaro Ishinomori and his “Asgard 7” comic; Mitsuru Sugaya and Shinichi Suzuki, who also assisted on “Asgard 7” as well as doing their own stuff; Kunio Nagatani, who assisted on Fujio Akatsuka’s (Tensai Bakabon) with “Genki-kun”; and Leiji Matsumoto with “Galaxy Express 999”. (Several of this group had worked with Osamu Tezuka at the Tokiwa apartment building from 1952-54, and even Tezuka is mentioned here for his science manga contributions.) Also worth mentioning are the inclusion of Shigeru Mizuki, creator of “Gegege no Kitaro”, and Yoshitoo Asari, creator of “Space Family Carlvinson”, “Wahaman” and “Lucu Lucu”. Especially worth mentioning is that while I love “Space Family Carlvinson”, I’ve never been able to get information on Asari before. Now I find out, based on his photo in this mook, that Asari was also featured in the mook for Otona no Kagaku kit #31 (the ornithopter). In that mook, he interviewed manga artist Mori Masaki, who had drawn “Homo Volant” (i.e. – “human flight”) in 1971 for the Gakken 5th Year Science booklet, based on the story of manned flight. (“Homo Volant” was rereleased in 2011 in e-book form for the iPad and iPhone. Mori also worked as an animator at Tezuka’s Mushi Pro studios, and was the director on the “Barefoot Gen” and “Time Stranger” movies.)

(The skeleton kit assembled. Note that the camera does NOT like focusing on something with so little discernible detail, even with the flash turned on. Total kit is about 3″ tall.)

Summary: The “Science and Study” kit is a nostalgic look at Gakken’s past as a publisher of children’s science books and toy kits. As such, it may have only limited interest for westerners unable to read Japanese. The supplemental skeleton kit is similar to the glow-in-the-dark toys Americans had access to in the 1960’s and 70’s, and while it may take 15-20 minutes to assemble, has limited replay value. The real attraction for me are the interviews with, and looks at, manga artists that have connections with science or SF comics. This part is a treasure trove of manga history that’s not widely known outside of Japan. And if you can still get this kit at the 1680 yen cover price, all the better.

(The front and back covers of the included 4th/5th Year science book. Lots of short manga used to illustrate the various concepts, from artists including Shoutaro Ishinomori, creator of Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider.)

What’s still in stock

After finishing all of the write-ups of the Otona no Kagaku kits, I went back into the List of Kits page and cleaned up the HTML code to make it easier to update in the future, while changing the links to point to the WordPress reviews pages rather than to the old Blogspot articles. I got to thinking that I’d like to try tackling one of the larger kits, like the Stirling Engine or the Centipede, but I haven’t seen either of those at the bookstores in Kagoshima in a while. So, I figured that I might as well check the Gakken kit availability now.

When I think of bookstores that carry Gakken kits, the two Kinokuniya stores in Shinjuku, Tokyo, come to mind (the one out the east train station exit, and the flagship a couple blocks from the south exit), followed by the book tower in Akihabara. The east Kinokuniya had all of the mechamo kits plus most of the premium ones, while the book tower had more of the older, soon-to-be out-of-print kits. Between the three stores, I could find anything that was still available for sale in Tokyo.

Kagoshima is a much smaller place, and there’s really only three bookstores within cycling distance: the Kinokuniya in the Chuo train station, Junko in the Maruya Gardens department store, and Maruzen in the Tenmonkan shopping district. There’s a lot of overlap between them, and they’re pretty close together (Maruzen and Junko are 3 blocks apart, and Kinokuniya is half a mile away). But, their coverage of the Gakken products is very uneven. None of them have the mechamo kits.

Note: “Premium Kits” refers to the more expensive kits that don’t come with a mook, such as the Edison Gramophone, Vacuum Engine and Delux Crystal Radio.

None of the premium kits.
Only the numbered mook kits: 27, 29 and 31-33, plus the Theo Jansen Rhino.

None of the premium kits.
The With KIDS, and both of the SX-150 synths, Mark I and II.
Numbered mook kits: 7, 17, 23, 24, 26, 27 and 29-33.

Edison-style Cup Phonograph
Crystal Radio
EX-150 Denshi Block extension kit for 60 light experiments

MM Circuit (mini mini electric car)
Sound Control UFO
SX-150 Mark II synth

Unnumbered Mooks:
Theo Jansen Rhino
SX-150 Mark I
“Trick” Static Electricity Generator (TV tie-in to the “Trick” drama show)
Vacuum Tube Radio
Science and Study (“Kagaku to Gakushuu” – the one with the glow-in-the-dark skeleton)
The Theo Jansen DVD mook

Numbered Mooks:
13, 17, 21-24, 26-28, 30, 32, 33

Obviously, I can special order in-print kits from the Kinokuniya’s warehouse, and some of the kits may still be in stock on (or available at a mark-up from collectors). But I’m surprised that the mechanical centipede and crab (mechamo) aren’t down here. Also, Junko did have the EX-150 base 50-block electronics kit and the Vacuum Engine kit on the shelf just a couple of weeks ago, but they’re gone now. Everything else seems to be completely out of print (especially mook kits 1-20, excluding the theremin, planetarium and kaleidoscope). Meaning that if you do want to pick up one of the kits not listed above, you’re going to have to pay the mark-up to a collector for it.

Feb. 18 event

Gakken is advertising an event on their Facebook page right now.  It’s in Tokyo on the 18th, involving the desktop cleaning robot.  If you’re in Tokyo and you want to see how other fans are modding their kits, this is the event for you.  Tickets available by ordering online from ePlus.


Last Post for a While

I am now caught up on reviewing the Otona no Kagaku kits. The next one out will be the unnumbered mook “Twister” entomopter kit, tentatively set for a “Spring, 2012” release. I’ll post more details as they come out. In the meantime, I’ll be dropping back to a less regular posting schedule, ala – as something new develops.

I’ll leave you with the latest news from the Facebook page. Gakken is promoting some new mods to the vacuum cleaning robot as shown below:


I live in Kagoshima, a medium-sized city at the southern end of Kyushu island. Population roughly 660,000, with 6,000 foreigners (mostly university students). As a way of promoting the city and building visibility for the foreign population, the Kagoshima International Exchange Center holds a speech contest every year in January. For a variety of reasons that will take too long to explain, I decided to enter the contest, and wrote my speech on the need for Japan to promote its culture and history via the Gakken kits instead of just focusing on “Cool Japan”, which is mostly about anime, manga and J-pop. I was told later that I didn’t make it past the preliminary round because I spoke too fast, but that I at least had one of the more interesting topics. Here’s the content of my speech, if you can understand Japanese.



ところで、他にも「クールジャパン」だと思う商品があります。その商品はガッケン出版社(しゅっぱんしゃ)の大人の科学シリーズです。この商品は、カラー雑誌の「ムック」と、カメラとか、小さいロボット、小さい飛行機などの付録キットで構成されています。「ムック」には色々面白い情報があります。画像も豊富です。アインシュタイン博士(はくし)の写真とか、アイザック.ニュトン博士の肖像とか。日本人についても記事があります。たとえば にのみや ちゅうはら、ひらが げんない、たなか ひさしげ。(にのみやさんは飛行機の発明家(はつめいか)。 ひらがさんは電気の発明家。たなかさんはトーシバの共同創立者(きょうどうそうりつしゃ)。現代の人としては、






Gakken Kit #33: Desktop Vacuum Cleaning Robot.

(Bottom of kit, showing dust collector in place. Notice the cloth tape being used as a scraper blade.)

My first Gakken kits were the Slow Clock (#8) and the DC Motor Car (#21), and they were both given to me as Christmas presents. This was just as the Hiraga Gennai Static Electricity kit (#22) came out on Dec. 20, 2008. At that point, the majority of the kits I bought were ones already on the market, and I would do the write-ups for the blog after I’d built them. After a few months, the Poulson Wire Recorder and the 4-Bit GMC-4 microcomputer had come out, and I got those as I was still playing catch-up with the remaining back issues. It was right around the release of the mini electric guitar (#26) that I started doing the write-ups a few days before the next kit would hit the market. Partly, this was because I really wanted to buy the kit right away, and partly because the Otona no Kagaku site would get updated with photos in advance and I’d be able to record my first impressions and the supporting science of the kit.

(Dust collector removed, showing air filter. The kit comes with only one filter.)

#33 presents a bit of a challenge in this sense, in that there’s no real science involved in making a vacuum cleaner. Most vacuums involve a fan or blower of some sort, with the mouth of the cleaner representing the intake of the fan air line, and a dirt collection bag that filters out the solids from the air line for easy disposal. In the case of the Dyson unit, the collection/filter bag is replaced by a kind of tray with the air coming in at an attack angle, maintaining better air suction than you get with filter bags because there’s nothing slowing down the airflow. The enhancements to the basic design will then be primarily mechanical, like shaped nozzle attachments, the hose attachment versus the rollers at the bottom of the unit, and brush height settings for wood floors and shag carpets. Ignoring the Dyson “cyclonic system” approach, the only really evolutionary leap was to make the vacuum autonomous by installing a computer ala the Roomba. To get to the Roomba, you need to add collision sensors at the front and sides, a drop sensor at the front to prevent it from falling down the stairs, and an algorithm for generating traversal patterns that can cover most, if not all, of the room. Not that difficult a challenge – until you try to pack it all into a package the size of a stack of 5 large dinner plates. But still, while there’s the technology, I’d argue that there’s very little science that needs explaining.

Kit #33: Desktop Vacuum Cleaning Robot. 2940 yen ($36 USD), Released Jan. 30, 2012
Where the Otona no Kagaku kit comes in, is when you try to take the Roomba approach and translate it to a table or desktop, at the low-end price-point, and with no electronics beyond the 2 AA batteries and a single DC motor. The collision and drop sensors consist of a lever mechanism that engages the worm screw on the drive shaft. The worm screw forces the drive shaft to shift sideways and change cogs on the left wheel. This causes the cleaner to immediately stop going forward, and instead rotate for about a second until the worm screw disengages and the drive shaft returns to its normal location. That’s it. It’s just that simple. From a conceptual viewpoint, anyway. The actual execution is much more interesting. The kit consists of about 20 pieces, not including the screws, tape and grease packet. Suggested assembly time is 60 minutes, and I came in just under that. It’s not really a tricky kit to build, but it will help a lot to have English instructions to follow from. In steps 11 to 16, you’re instructed to apply the grease with a toothpick at the ends of the various gear stems. In step 4, you assemble the 2 pieces of metal and a plastic lever to make the on/off switch, and you may have to bend one of the metal pieces to prevent the switch from remaining closed when in the OFF position. And in step 21, you have to take the cloth tape and fold it in thirds such that you create the scraper blade for the underside of the cleaner (see top photo). When I was done with the rest of the kit, I had 2 pan-head screws and one regular screw left over for fastening down the top cover. The book says to use 3 pan heads, which I think are too short to really grab the plastic of the cleaner body – they just keep spinning when I turn them. Having 3 regular screws for the cover would have been better.

(Top of kit with cover removed. Yellow gear drive rod in normal position for forward movement.)

The kit consists of a 3V motor that spins everything, including a small fan. The on switch has 2 positions – fan only, and fan plus gears. A small lever connected to the front spring-loaded plate allows the worm gear to engage over one wheel to make it turn backwards, and engages a timer lever that allows the robot to rotate at a fixed 123 (or so) degrees before kicking the worm gear back out of the way. You can adjust the sensitivity of the collision sensor by changing the position of the small lever within the unit. The vacuum part is created by a small fan blade that pulls air up into the collection chamber and through a filter. The collection chamber cover snaps into place over the AA batteries, so when you empty the robot, you can replace the filter and batteries at the same time. The scraper blade rubs along the floor or desktop and loosens some of the dirt so it can be vacuumed up. The number one problem will be that the robot senses false collisions and turns when you don’t want it to. You’ll have to open up the cover and adjust the small lever to fix this (it has a slotted hole). Next will be overheating at the gear contact points. The motor spins fast, and you’ll want enough grease at the spindles of all the gears. I’m getting a “hot plastic” smell, so I may need to disassemble everything and add more grease.

This kit is a bit noisy, and while the motor is running fast it’s so geared down that the robot itself moves maybe a foot in 2 seconds. It looks cute, especially with all of the brightly colored parts, so it really appeals to the Japanese people I’ve shown it to. I’ve got the bump sensor set to medium sensitivity, and it reacts to chair legs and trash bins with just a light touch. The intake slit is about 1/8″ x 1.5″, so it does have a limit to what it can vacuum. Still, the suction is good enough to pick up tiny pieces of thread, and dust. Of course, the most important part of the design is that it runs on a desktop, so it’s very light and compact, at a few ounces, and 4″ dia., 1.5″ high.

(When the front bumper hits something, or moves down because it’s at the edge of a table, the attached small yellow lever pulls forward to let the worm screw thread towards the left and causes the left wheel to turn in the reverse direction. At the same time, the worm screw engages the little yellow gear above it. This gear holds the lever in place until the robot has rotated 123 degrees. At the end, the drive shaft will try to snap back to the right, assuming that the collision has safely passed, and the left wheel will turn forward again.)

The mook starts out with a look at a machine shop that creates small plastic parts, then goes into a discussion of the operation of the kit. The author taped a pen on the back of the robot to show its travel pattern. The suggested mods are to add a cog to make a Pacman face, building a wood enclosure to hold a smart phone that displays ghost faces, and to wire in a string of LEDs and resistors and add a rotation sensor for causing the LEDs to change color as the kit moves. This is followed by an article from the Duskin cleaning company on how best to clean your PC and the rest of your room. Then there’s the look inside the Roomba, and inside its maker – iRobot. Next is a revisit of the Denshi mini Block kit, and an explanation of some of the easier circuits (a switch, parallel and series LEDs, and parallel and series resistors in the flasher circuit). The Japanino hack is to mount the Japanino on the vacuum robot, along with an LED and a servo. The Japanino sketch allows the cleaner to travel a short distance before rotating the servo arm to imitate a collision detect and making the cleaner change directions at random intervals. The LED turns on when the robot rotates. Then there are the pieces on a club that makes and launches large rockets, a guy that sculpts pencil leads and a hobbyist that made his own servo-driven humanoid robot. Lastly, there’s the photo display of old home appliances (sewing machine, washing machine, dial phone, etc.), a story on a scientist researching the Boson-Higgs particle, descriptions of animal and insect movement patterns and the manga on why freeway traffic behaves the way it does.

There’s no mention of the next Sound Gadget yet, and the next mook kit will be an unnumbered addition to the wind-up ornithopter line with the “Twister”. The Otona no Kagaku site doesn’t have the link for “Next Up” right now, though. From the photo at the back of the mook, the Twister looks fairly similar to the entomopter in kit #31

Summary: A challenging little gear-driven vacuum robot, and a mook with nice photos of the CERN accelerator. Recommended.

Dead River Builder

I experimented 3 years ago with a video blog review series on the Gakken Otona no Kagaku kits that I’d shot outside along the Tamagawa River near the apartment in Tokyo. I called it “The Dead River Builder” (because the Tamagawa is almost completely dried up along that stretch). I debated simply deleting the videos since they don’t show me holding the kits much during the review. I mostly just discuss the books that come with the kits. But, I figure that I can upload them to youtube now, and I can always come back and delete them later if I record something better in the future.

A review of the DC motor kit.

A review of the Galileo Telescope kit.

A review of the Putt Putt kit, part 1 of 2.

This boat is a cute little toy, but it lacks buoyancy. It sits low in the water and is easily swamped if there’s any kind of wave. The candles supplied are also too small and only allow for about one minute of play time before burning out. Still, it’s fun to play with in the bath or at a small pool.

Putt Putt kit, part 2 of 2.

A review of the Stirling Engine kit, part 1 of 3.

This engine is lots of fun. Mount it to a window on a hot day, put it over a cup of hot coffee, or place an ice cube on top, and it will run by itself for a couple of hours.

Stirling Engine kit, part 2 of 3.

Stirling Engine kit, part 3 of 3.

Gakken in English

You may have discovered that the Otona no Kagaku website has some English support. You may have also noticed that the English pages are only a fraction of the original Japanese pages. It’s a good start though, especially since the really important assembly and troubleshooting pages have been translated (such as for the twin-reflex lens camera and the Mini Strandbeest. There’s nothing on the Denshi mini Block kit yet, but the EX-150 kit pages have been translated and they’re very similar.)

For the most part, the English pages are just translations of the Japanese advertising pages, showing the splash page, table of contents for the mook, and the assembly PDF. In some cases, there’s also links to demo videos (quite a few for the mini theremin, the SX-150 synth, and the robot desktop vacuum cleaner). On the other hand, it does take time for the translations to be posted, and so far there’s no English links for the more recent “with KIDS”, mini Rhino, Ornithopter, SX-150 Mark II or Denshi mini kits.

I do find it interesting that the English index page separates “Magazines” (numbered mook kits) from “Special Edition Magazine” (the SX-150 Mark I) and “Products” (the kits without mooks). Otherwise, there’s little coherency in the grouping of Gakken product “brands”.

Probably the most informative offering on the English pages is “The World of Theo Jansen” special interview. Otherwise, you’ll probably benefit the most from the troubleshooting page for the kit(s) that you own, and possibly at the English table of contents of the mooks that you have.

Otona no Kagaku with KIDS

Otona no Kagaku with KIDS” (Adult Science with kids). The mook describes various experiments you can try using sound, such as audio-driven sand art. The kit that comes with the mook is essentially a small vibration table. The base unit is a 3-leg stand with a speaker built in. The controller lets you change frequency and volume, but also has a built-in microphone for external sounds. You can put a square or round cardboard sheet on the stand, and various colored powders on the sheet. Vibrations in the stand then cause different patterns to appear in the powders. Literally, you’re getting the chance to “see” sound waves.

The majority of the mook is dedicated to sound patterns, with one chapter on Ernst Chladni, the German physicist and musician that pioneered acoustic studies. Other chapters describe patterns seen on different kinds of animals, the possibility of communicating with dolphins, and sound patterns observed in the bodies of acoustic guitars. There are two suggested mods – one for modulating the kit’s frequency using a piano keyboard drawn on paper in pencil, and the other for driving the kit from the audio out jack of your PC (while using some freeware software). There’s also a 10-page manga highlighting the life of Japanese physicist and author Torahiko Terada (which I’ve translated on my other blog).

“with KIDS” came out on June 29, 2011, for 2,100 yen ($25 USD). The book is 84 pages. The website advertises a contest for best pattern, with a Sept. 30 deadline. The kit has about 15 parts and a suggested assembly time of 30 minutes. It took me closer to 15 minutes, but I wasn’t really following the instructions closely and had to take the body apart a couple of times to make corrections. The circuit board is fully assembled; no soldering and no screws. It uses 3 AA batteries. There’s also a small bag of fine white sand and a salt shaker to put it in. Part of the main box doubles as the overflow tray for catching sand that falls off the sheet. You get about 10 pieces of stickyback tape for affixing different shaped sheets to the speaker. Different shapes for the sheets causes the addition of unpredictable harmonics to the patterns. The switch has three positions – Off, On and Mike On.

What is happening is that the kit normally produces a simple sinewave through the speaker that makes the sheet vibrate up and down. But, not all as one unit. The sheet is kind of like a very stiff rubber band, and you can get standing waves across the surface, depending on the frequency you choose. This results in part of the sheet going up and down at a maximum, and other parts that are more or less stationary. Sand placed over the areas of maximum vibration will be flicked off and will settle in the stationary locations. This means that the type of sand you use isn’t going to affect the patterns that much. Coarser grains, like table salt, will form rougher outlines at lower volumes, while fine grains, like powder sugar, will make for much smoother lines but need the volume turned way up. In other words, it you want a nice, pretty pattern with smooth lines, use fine powders; for cruder lines, use coarser grains. Either way, the shape of the pattern will depend primarily on the frequency and sheet shape, and on volume to a lesser extent. A circular sheet will give you very simple shapes; a square gives you some harmonics because of reflections of the waves at the corners. A heart or palm-shape can introduce much more intricate patterns, but you’ll have to play with the frequency control to determine the best results (which actually holds true regardless of the shape).

As for my own opinion, the frequency output starts too high. Most of the patterns I got were skewed because my table isn’t sitting flat and level. I think that this kit would work much better when driven from a PC at frequencies between 20 and 200 Hz. I tried using an aluminum foil tray with water, the supplied white sand, salt and pepper. The water didn’t show ripples at all, and the sand just simply wanted to escape off the tray. I got the best results with salt, and sesame seeds. I’d also like to see what would happen with a much larger disk, but it would have to be stiff and ultra lightweight to avoid bogging down the speaker.