Gakken Kit #35, V-2 Steam Engine

Gakken has been either reissuing, reusing or revamping their Otona no Kagaku kit ideas for quite a while now.  A case in point for revamping is the camera, which started out as the pinhole camera, morphed into the stereo pinhole camera and ended up as the dual lens camera.  For reusing, there’s the Jansen linkage which started with the Theo Jansen Mini Beest, and turned into the Mini Rhino.  And, for reissuing, we have the Edison Gramophone, the Premium Gramophone and the Edison Cup Cylinder Recorder (version one used a styrofoam cup, version 2 uses a clear plastic cup).  Kit #36, due out in September, will be another cylinder recorder, this time apparently using a wax candle.  My sense for these reissues is that as the older kits go out of print, Gakken updates them to appeal to new fans of the series.  I’m not sure how the older long-time fans feel about paying more money for something they’ve already built, but the completists will buy the new kits regardless, and the more casual hobbyists will get only those kits that really appeal to them.

(All rights belong to their owners.  Cover image used for review purposes only.)

Kit #35, V-2 Steam Engine, 3,150 yen.
Kit #35 revisits kit #7, the 1-cylinder steam car last seen in 2005.  One big difference is that the V-2 kit only consists of the engine, lamp and boiler.  If you want to have it drive something, it’s up to you to build that separately.  The theory is very straight forward.  You put a couple ounces of water into the boiler with an eye dropper, then light the burner (using heating fuel). Steam pressure builds up in the boiler, pushing the steam up the silicone tubing and to the T-joint.  The steam is applied evenly to both cylinders.  You’ll probably have to start the engine spinning with your finger.  Then, the steam will push one piston forward until it reaches the end of its stroke and opens the path to the exit vent. Through momentum, the other piston will reach the top of its stroke and the steam pressure will push it down, etc.  The exiting steam will condense and you’ll get water dripping onto your table.  Eventually, you’ll either run out of fuel, or water in the boiler.  It’s best to put the fire out early to avoid damaging the boiler.  The cylinder frame is designed with a snap pin-notch combination so that you can rotate the cylinders to 72, 90, 120 and 180 degree angles.

Gakken suggests 40 minutes for assembling the kit, and even with the extra time taken to double-check my work, I finished in 35.  This is a very simple kit, with 13 pieces, not including the screws and springs.  The first step is to fill the boiler with water, connect the tubing to one connector, and blow the water out of the boiler in order to remove any oil that may remain after assembly (wash the tubing first with soap and water).  The assembly instructions are pretty easy to follow, just refer back to the photos to check your work.  When you attach the cylinders to the frame with the two long bolts, just tighten the bolts down enough so that the red spring caps go about halfway into the cylinder housings.  Clip off 1 cm of tubing and use that on the bolt ends to keep them from unscrewing during operation.  If you cut the tubing as shown in the instructions diagram, the remaining piece that connects the 2 cylinders to the T-joint will be too long.  I trimmed it by 2-3 inches and that seems to be good enough to remove slack while avoiding pinching.  When you mount the boiler to the tray, the instructions state to hold the boiler legs in place by bending the middle finger of each leg down at the bottom side of the tray.  The wick for the burner is just a piece of tissue folded into squares and pulled through the burner mouth.  The instructions say that you should use “heating alcohol” and not gasoline, by which I take it to mean the fuel used in portable cooking stoves, or possibly kerosene.

I started out trying lighter fluid, but the resulting flame engulfed the boiler and left soot all over everything.  I made the wick shorter, but that didn’t make any difference in the size of the flame.  The burner reservoir dried out within a minute or so, and the boiler ran out of water pretty fast as well, but the engine did run during this time. Which brings me to the first problem: if you put in more than 2 squeeze bulbs of water into the boiler, it’s going to take longer to heat and you’ll run out of fuel first.  Use less water, and the engine will start running faster but also run out of water faster.  I’d suggest that your first mod be to increase the burner reservoir size, or mount the engine over a bunsen burner or a can of sterno.  I also tried rubbing alcohol, but while the fuel burned clean and lasted a good 5 minutes, the steam pressure never really built up enough to get the engine running for more than a few seconds.  Regardless of the fuel, the engine spit water out of the tray and onto the table.

The mook has a great selection of photos this time, starting with a look at a couple shops that build bikes and restore old cars.  This is followed by an illustrated history of steam, diesel and gas engines, a sampling of old cars, and pictures of BMW, Harley and Ducati motorcycle engines.  There’s an illustrated chapter on thermodynamics and an explanation of torque and the carnot cycle.  Other articles include an interview with the designer of the kit, a Q&A with three of the engineers at Subaru, and photos of the fab process for a BMW engine.  Mods for the kit include connecting a belt to the engine pulley to drive a car made with Lego parts; connecting a motor to generate electricity for a lamp, by Mathrax; and adding a “super-heater” (a length of metal tubing to put directly over the burner to heat the steam further). You can also add a small disc to the pulley, and use an LED with a photocell connected to the Japanino to measure the engine’s RPMs.  There’s then an article on steam locomotives, a spotlight on a guy that made a scale model of the grounds around Himeji castle, and a demonstration of 1-cut kirikami (you fold a sheet of paper, cut it once, and unfold it to reveal full words or kanji characters).  There’s a 6-page section with satellite photos, an article on iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells), and chapter 2 of Asari’s Manga Science series (“Telescopes and Sunspots”).

Summary: If you like those brass models of vacuum and sterling engines, but can’t afford them, then you’ll love this V-2 steam engine.  If you have pets or small children, then you may want to avoid this kit like the plague.  It’s a fun party piece, but unless you connect it to a car body or a DC generator to power an LED, there may not be a whole lot of replay value. And, there’s that whole “semi-controlled flame inside your house” issue, combined with “spitting water over your table”.  Still, it’s very impressive for being so simple to build.

Next Up: Edison Cylinder Recorder, tentatively scheduled for the end of September.  No price yet.


50 Famous People – Galileo

There’s bad character designs, and there’s bad character designs.  While most of the artwork in the 50 Famous People series is only loosely based on existing photos or paintings, at best, Galileo doesn’t even bother to come close.  Sure, these mooks are aimed at young school kids, but the topics are pretty advanced, and the designs in this issue are kind of insulting, even compared with, say, the Einstein volume.  But I guess there is a reason for it.

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

Issue 16, Galileo Galilei, starts out with Mami asking Merrino about the shape of the planet, and the Sheep Prince states that it is a flat half-shell held up by 4 elephants standing on the back of a big turtle.  There’s a knock on the door – it’s the landlord.  He’s about to berate Mami for keeping pets in the building when Merrino’s butler – a goat in a suit – abducts him and erases his memory.  The goat explains that Merrino slept both during the trip to Earth, and through all of his science classes.  On the other hand, Mami doesn’t know about the heliocentric system, so the goat calls on Study Bell to start the lesson.

(Landlord gets carried away.)

I would assume that the reason for the childish manga designs is that the story is told from the point of view of Galileo’s 9-year-old daughter, Victoria, when Galileo himself was 45.  One day, her father reminisces about growing up.  His father had wanted him to be a doctor, but after entering Pisa University, he noticed that the chandeliers in the great hallways tended to sway in fixed arcs.  He started concentrating more on math than biology.  Additionally, at the time, professors would follow the Aristotelian method of repeating lectures that were handed down through the generations as “truth” with the students simply writing down what they were told.  Galileo felt that learning should follow experiments, and through his own tests discovered the principles of fixed weight pendulums.  After switching majors and graduating as a mathematician, he taught at Pisa before chafing at the restrictive nature of the school and moving to Padua.  At Pisa, he conducted the famous demonstration of 2 unequal weights dropped from the Tower of Pisa and landing at the same time, to a group of students.  Again, disproving Aristotle.

(Experimenting to understand the theory of fixed weight pendulums.)

Victoria is shown as trying to spend time with her father, but being constantly interrupted by assistants, visiting professors and leading townspeople.  He obtains a high-quality Venetian glass sample, which he hand polishes to create lenses for his first telescope.  His first discovery is that again Aristotle is wrong – instead of the moon being a perfectly smooth, clean ball, it’s pocked with mountains and craters.  Additionally, Jupiter is shown to have four satellites, and Venus has phases just like the Earth’s moon.  Putting all of this together along with the writings of Copernicus 50 years earlier, he realizes that instead of the Earth being the center of the universe, the Earth and other planets must be revolving around the Sun. However, his elation is short-lived. If he publishes his findings, he’ll be burned at the stake by the Church, just as Giordano Bruno had been.  Realizing that he has no choice, he sends Victoria to a monastery, publishes his findings, and gets called in front of the tribunal.  He escapes immediate punishment as a heretic as long as he teaches both the Church’s views of the universe alongside his own.  But, when Dialogue was published, with Victoria’s help, the Church felt Galileo was mocking them and the Earth-based system, so he was placed under house arrest, and his views as a scientist were at war internally with his desire to stay alive. As given in the manga, a letter from Victoria, telling him that his friends and former students were continuing to conduct experiments with his telescopes helped buoy his spirits at the end.

(Textbook section with samples of Galileo’s notes.)

The textbook section focuses heavily on his time at Pisa and Padua, as well as discussing the backgrounds of his parents.  There are pictures of the Pisa chandeliers, the Tower of Pisa, and the house where he was imprisoned, along with a brief timeline.  There’s a section showing his notes, a painting of the trial in front of the Church, and a short biography for Virgina.  Probably the most visually exciting part is the 2-page spread of satellite photos of the sun and planets.  The wrap-up manga shows that Merrino has learned nothing from this lesson.  Then there’s the three books for recommended reading.

The TCG cards are for; Genghis Khan, Pope Innocent III, Richard the 1st, Simon de Montfort, Yaritsu Sozai (耶律楚材, associate of Genghis Khan), King John, Thomas Aquinas, Kublai Khan and Roger Bacon.

Like I mentioned above, I think the manga this time is particularly weak, even if it is aimed at children.  The biography is sketchy and leaves out the fact that all three of Galileo’s children were illegitimate and the two daughters were probably sent to the monastery because they were considered unmarriable.  Galileo’s “inner torment” at having to decide between holding on to the idea of an orbiting Earth and being branded a heretic is probably overblown as well.  But the photos at the back are worth the $6 cover price.


Updates for the week of July 23

As we get closer to the end of the month, Gakken is becoming more active in releasing tidbits of news regarding kit #35.  First, if you look at the menu bar to the right, you’ll see that I added the information for newsletter #151.  It describes several events coming up during the summer to help celebrate both the release of the new kit on July 24th, and the 10th anniversary of the Otona no Kagaku line.

The Otona no Kagaku site has been updated to show the V2 Steam Engine as the newest kit, and the related pages (the advertising page, the samples of the mook chapters, and the assembly instructions) have been added.  Based on the PDF instructions, this is going to be a relatively simple kit to build.  Under 20 parts, including springs and screws, with a suggested assembly time of 40 minutes.  The main fuel is rubbing alcohol, so you don’t want this kit around child or pets.

They’ve also updated the “Next Up” page.  Kit #36 is going to be a variant on the Edison wax cylinder recorder.  No price released yet, and a tentative publication date for the end of September.


50 Famous People – Kenji Miyazawa

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

Kenji Miyazawa may not be a household name in the U.S., but as a writer and poet, he’s right up there with Natsume Soseki on the fame ladder in Japan.  Born the first son to a well-to-do family, Kenji was raised spoiled by his parents in the countryside of Iwate Prefecture, in the northeast end of Japan.  He was smart, and spent a lot of time outdoors with his younger sister, Toshi.  He attended the better area schools and got top marks on his tests.  The problem was that his family ran a pawn shop and he hated seeing how his father treated the poorer farmers.  After graduating from college, he essentially disowned the family and moved to Tokyo, working at a small print shop to support himself as he wrote short stories and poetry.  Being intelligent and well-educated, he liked coining new words from German and Esperanto for his works.  However, after only a couple of years of freedom, he received a letter saying that Toshi had fallen ill.  He returned home and, after tending her for a year, she passed away at age 24 of tuberculosis.

Kenji stayed in Iwate, getting a teaching position at the agricultural school.  He published a couple of his books, but they didn’t sell until after his death.  He’d suffered from lung problems (pleurisy) for several years and eventually died of pneumonia at age 37.  The wiki entry doesn’t describe the details of how his writings were rediscovered, but they were all published posthumously.  The two most popular works are The Restaurant of Many Orders and Night on the Galactic Railroad.  It’s this last item that is of primary interest here, since it was turned into a highly revered children’s anime.

Issue 13, Miyazawa Kenji, starts with the intro manga, where Merrino dreams that he’s being prepared for a lamb dinner.  He wakes up to discover that he’d fallen asleep using The Restaurant of Many Orders as a pillow.  Mami and classmate Utako Aozora ignore him, choosing instead to concentrate on their book reports for the next day.  Merrino challenges them to a writing contest then falls asleep again on another book.  The wrap-up manga has the two girls feeling sad at how Kenji’s life turned out, and then forcing Merrino to actually read the books instead of just sleeping on them.

(Toshi’s last moments.)

The main manga is pretty much biographical, and follows the summary given above. Kenji and Toshi are playing in a stream, and Kenji shows his knowledge of the rocks and gems that can be found there.  Toshi pushes him into the water and they go home.  There, their father is cheating a farmer out of money for a pocket watch, but he drops everything when he sees Kenji dripping wet and rushes to dry him off.  Kenji does well in school, but he’s not happy.  One day, he sees a butterfly trapped in a web, and Toshi asks him what he’s thinking.  He answers that his family is the spider preying on the farmers.  Later, he graduates from school and has to tend to the family business. An old woman comes in asking for a few dollars (yen) in exchange for a bolt of cloth.  Kenji takes pity on her and is about to agree to the trade when his father interrupts, saying that you can’t let your emotions get in the way of business and just gives her a few pennies (sen).

Disgusted, Kenji leaves the house and finds a small apartment in Tokyo. He spends his days working at a printshop, and his nights writing poetry.  But after just a couple years, he gets the letter calling him back home.  He’d discovered that Toshi really liked a particular ice cream, and he’d run the distance to the town where it was sold and back every day.  Toshi remained bedridden, and after one year, while Kenji is trying to give her the ice cream, she dies.  He jams his head in some blankets in the closet and screams his lungs out.  He completely loses all interest in writing, but one day when he’s out walking next to the lake, he sees a vision of Toshi, and she tells him that she’s in everything he writes.  This spurs him into writing his most popular work – “Night on the Galactic Railroad”.

The textbook section gives his biography in greater detail, describes his activities as a teacher, and displays photos of his hobbies, which included collecting volcanic rocks (he was the first to discover a specific type of rock that no one had known could be found in Japan before), playing music (he learned the cello, among many other instruments) and painting.  The final 2-page spread is a color map of the lands reached by the Galactic Railroad.

The TCG cards are: Charlemagne, Yang Guifei, Du Fu, Kou Sou (黄巣), Bai Juyi, Harun al-Rashid, Emperor Taizu of Liao, Emperor Taizu of Later Liang and Alfred the Great.

Kenji Miyazawa’s primary popularity now probably stems from his love of nature, and his support for the lower classes.  He’d attended an agricultural university, and used his background to bring modern farming techniques to Iwate.  Some of his other works have been adapted for children, and The Restaurant of Many Orders was animated by a British team.  If you are a fan of animation, and not just anime, it’s worth checking out both Restaurant and Galactic Railroad.  If you like poetry, most of his works have been translated into English.  Overall, the artwork in this mook (by Hiroshi Yamazaki) isn’t too bad, although it has been westernized and cleaned up a bit too much.  Neither the real life Kenji nor Toshi had looked quite this attractive.  Still, this mook is recommended.


Release status of Gakken kit 35

There’s been very little news from Gakken about the new 2 cylinder steam engine kit in the last few weeks.  There are the two videos on the Facebook page, but they’re kind of old now.  Nothing new posted to the Otona no Kagaku site since last May when the “next up” page was added.  And the “next up” page still gives a tentative release of “late July”.

So, the only real news is that kit 35 is now showing up on Amazon. They give a July 24 release data.


50 Famous People – Gaudi

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

50 Famous People takes on Antoni Gaudi, Spanish Catalan architect who lived from June 25, 1852 to June 10, 1926.  While the mook talks extensively about Gaudi’s ties to nature, and the wiki entry plays up his Catholic faith, it may be safer to say that many of his creations, such as creatures made from broken tiles, and weirdly-shaped houses, are simply surrealistic or avant garde (Gaudi did belong to the Modernism movement for a while).  Due to the costs of the larger projects, he needed a patron, which he found in Spanish entrepreneur Eusebi Guell.  However, when he tried to develop designs for new houses, no one in Barcelona had much interest in them and only a few were bought.  The houses include: Casa Calvet and Casa Batllo.  His most famous work is arguably Sagrada Familia, a Catholic church started a year before he was brought on board, and only a quarter-finished when he died after being hit by a street car.

(Ken running away from Merrino and Mami, plus additional recommended reading.)

The mook starts out with Merrino and Mami meeting Mami’s friend, Ken Oogami (Dog Wolf) in the park.  Ken is reading a book on architecture, and tries explaining Gaudi’s use of natural forms in his designs (the shapes of trees, mountains, birds, etc.) and he and Merrino get into a posing battle, with Mami crying for “Study Bell”  to get the lesson started.  Study is an intelligent bell with a projector built-in.

This brings us to the manga on Gaudi.  The artwork is drawn well, but the character designs are typical overblown manga caricatures that only barely resemble existing photos.  Gaudi was fairly sickly as a child, so his mother would take him on donkey rides through the countryside to expose him to clean air, which contributed to his interest in nature.  Later, he gets into an architectural college, where the Dean questions him about his strange habits in drawing blueprints.  He recalls getting his plans thrown in his face by a professor because he dared including drawings of people walking through the building (Gaudi’s argument being that buildings are designed for people to use, so the drawings should show those people employing the building).  The Dean gives him his blessing, and we jump to the 1878 Paris World’s Fair, where a glass case he designed for a company to display their gloves caught the eye of Guell.  Eubesi commissioned Gaudi to create a gate for his estate entrance, and the proposed skeletal dragon cemented their relationship.  The manga then takes him to Morocco to study middle eastern building design, and then highlights each of his subsequent major works.  It ends with Gaudi in his 70’s, dying after getting hit by the street car (according to the wiki entry, Gaudi had taken to wearing worn-out clothes, so that at the accident, people thought he was homeless and didn’t bother calling an ambulance.  After a few hours, a policeman took him by taxi to a hospital, but by then it was too late.  Eventually, a priest in the hospital recognized him and notified his friends.)  Sagrada Familia was only 25% done by then, and work continued on after his death.

In the wrap-up manga, Ken Oogami decides to overwhelm Merrino with his impression of a wolf, scaring the Sheep Prince, and almost exposing his own secret.  Ken races off behind a tree before Mami can see him with his hat off and his wolf ears exposed.  He comments to himself that he’s not the only E.T. on the planet.

(Examples of Gaudi’s works.)

In the textbook section, we get photos of Catalonia and Barcelona, a short biography and timeline, and a brief introduction to Guell.  Then there are photos of his houses and ceramic animal sculptures, followed  by mentions of unusual buildings world-wide (Palais ideal du facteur Cheval (France), Great Mosque of Djenne (Mali), Sazae Tower, (Japan), Sanbutsi-ji (Japan) and Mont Saint-Michel (France)).  And, there’s the expected 3 reference books if you want to know more about architecture or Gaudi.

The TCG sheet includes Buntei, Khosrau I, Mulan, Taisou, Kouso (高祖), Youdai, Genjou, Zongshen Ganpo and Harsha Vardhana. Again, they look more like baseball trading cards than anything, but they are of people that I’ve never heard of before, so there is some learning going on here, which is pretty much the point.

Overall, I’m finding that the best parts of these mooks are the photos of actual locations, buildings and instruments.  I really liked learning about Sanbutsu-ji and Sazae Tower, and I’d love to visit Sanbutsu-ji (a temple built into a cave in a sheer cliff face), although it may be too late to see Sazae (which is in Fukushima, the site of the reactor meltdown).

50 Famous People – Einstein

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

Mook #7 brings us to Albert Einstein.  For those of you with a public school education, he’s that old guy that did that stuff a long time ago.  For the rest of the world, he’s that theoretical physicist that everyone seems desperate to refute.  This mook takes something of a biographical approach in trying to explain how he came to develop the formula that energy = mass times the speed of light squared (E = mc^2).  Otherwise, the bulk of the science stuff is more-or-less glossed over, with just some brief mentions of what the theory of general relativity means to us in daily life terms.  The main manga isn’t particularly bad, but the character designs are overly stylized again and seem intent on portraying Einstein as being years younger than whatever age he was at the time for the given scene.  His hair color also goes from red to black to yellow before finally getting to white.  Since the photos from that time are all B&W, there seems to be some artistic license being taken here.

The intro manga starts with Merrino and gang watching a drama featuring a prince.  Mami asks why Merrino doesn’t act like a real prince, and he answers that he doesn’t have to.  He adds that he has a butler that is always around to serve him, and suddenly Angora, the ninja butler materializes.  He points out that he’s been in the background no matter what the others are doing, and this segues to Einstein’s formula, followed by Angora’s attempts to lecture them about relativity.  Merrino desperately asks Study Bell to start the main manga to save them.  In the wrap-up, Merrino says that Angora only has one flaw – he likes to eat paper.  This explains why the toilet paper disappears so fast, and why all of Mami’s homework has been devoured.

According to to the main manga, Albert was slow to start speaking as a child, then suddenly at age 5 he started talking like an adult. He was given a compass as a present from his father, and he spent hours trying to understand how to measure something invisible to the eye. When he was close to graduating from a German middle school, his family moved to Italy for work, leaving Albert to live on his own for a year.  However, the teachers at his school would slap his hands with a ruler for studying physics and math during the boring classes, and he didn’t like seeing other students marching in rank and file for military training. So he dropped out without telling anyone, got accepted to a university in Switzerland, and enrolled in a prep school to get the necessary pre-reqs.  The Swiss school was much more accommodating, and he eventually graduated and got a job at the patent office.  He’d developed an interest in the study of light, and at night would pour over formulas trying to figure it out.  He’d be so focused that when his wife laid out breakfast, he’d eat a boiled eat without realizing the shell was still on.  Finally, one morning he woke up, grabbed his notebook, and wrote down “E=mc^2”.  Everything else from there is history.  Some time later, he’s approached by a reporter trying to needle him about not being associated with a famous research lab.  Einstein pulls out his notebook and says, “with this, my pencil and my brain, I have all the laboratory I need”.

The textbook section talks more about how Albert grew up somewhat unattended, and how he flourished in the Swiss school system.  There’s mentions of his playing violin, traveling to Japan, and apologizing to the Japanese people for how the results of his work had culminated in the deaths of so many civilians.  What interests me the most in this section are reproductions of three of Ippei Okamoto’s cartoons featuring Einstein (Ippei was an early editorial newspaper manga artist, and father of surrealist artist Taro Okamoto).  The last 2 pages contain short write-ups of the 7 Japanese researchers that have received Nobel Prizes so far: Makoto Kobayashi, Toshihide Masukawa, Youichiro Nanbu, Hideki Yukawa, Reona Esaki, Masatoshi Koshiba and Shinichio Tomonaka.

The TCG cards this time are: Emperor Guangwu, Augustus Caesar, Cleopatra, Saint Peter, Christ, The Trung Sisters, Ban Zhao, Ban Chao and Pliny the Elder.  Overall, this mook is a nice introduction to Einstein as a person, and there are a couple good photos of an cyclotron and a neutrino detector. Recommended also if you want to learn more about Japanese researchers.