What is “Otona no Kagaku”?
Translated literally, it means “Science for Adults”, although I usually treat it as “Adult Science”. More specifically, it’s the brand name for Japan’s Gakken Publishing Company’s science products line for ages (roughly) 16 on up. These products can be divided into 3 broad categories: Kits that you can build yourself, either accompanied by a magazine-book (called a “mook”) or without, and just the book without a kit. In essence, they will be referred to as the Premium Kits, the Mook Kits, and Just the Mook. You can see all of the products at the complete kit page.
These tend to be higher-quality kits that allow to you build examples of older technology, such as the vacuum engine, the sterling engine, a gramophone, mechanical wind-up dolls, a vacuum tube power amp and variations on the AM radio. Exceptions are the “mechamo” mechanical creatures line (crab, centipede), and the “Sound Gadget” line. The Sound Gadgets are pre-assembled and ready to play with out of the box (therefore, they’re really not kits). While the premium Theremin came out before the Sound Gadget line was created, it can be considered to be a part of it. At the moment, the only official Sound Gadget is the SX-150 Mark II synthesizer, although the Udar is planned to be added at some point (no official release date given yet).
Kits with Mooks:
This category can be further divided into The Numbered Kits and The Unnumbered Kits (also called the “special edition mook kits”). The numbered kits started coming out around 2005, with roughly a 4-kits-per-year schedule. More recently, it’s gotten closer to 2 or 3 a year. The special edition kits don’t have a schedule of any kind, and come out more or less at random.
- Numbered Mooks:
Obviously, these are kits where the mooks have volume numbers. The most recent kit was #33, the desktop vacuum cleaning robot, in January, 2012. Numbered mooks are low- to mid-range. Initially, they were 1600 yen ($20 USD) and with inflation and the increased sophistication of the kits, have gotten up to 3500 yen apiece. Previous examples include the DC motor car, a stereo pinhole camera, a mini electric guitar, and a smaller theremin. Assembly times usually range between 60 and 90 minutes, and the quality of the parts is generally good. The kits can be challenging for an adult to assemble, but the play, and replay, values tend to be low. Mostly, the kits are intended to be modified by hand (adding features, changing functions or just gluing on sparklies) or placed on a shelf as a conversation piece. Topics seem to tend to sound, clocks, photography and some simple electronics. Few of the kits work together, the exception being the Japanino (a mini computer based on the Arduino product), which was designed to interact with a few of the later kits. The mooks for these kits are usually heavy on explanations of the science behind the kits, and include lots of photos of the related history (that is, the pinhole camera mook had photos of museum piece cameras). There also are articles on unrelated topics, features on Japanese student inventors, and manga on a wide variety of topics. All of which, naturally, is in Japanese.
- Unnumbered Mooks:
AKA: the Special Edition kits. There’s no fixed schedule, and no fixed topic. At first, these were just interesting products, such as with the vacuum-tube AM radio, and the SX-150 synthesizer (referred to as “The Synthesizer Chronicles”). More recently, they are sequels to successful numbered kits, such as the Theo Jansen Rhino mechanical toy, and the new Twister entomopter wind-up plane (due out this Spring). The mooks for the special editions can be half the length of the regular ones, and only contain articles focusing on the science and suggested mods of the kit itself. Prices remain in the 3500 yen range.
Just the Mook:
In the last couple of years, Gakken has released 3 mooks that aren’t packaged with a kit of some kind. First is the Korg DS-10 mook, with profiles on 17 musicians, and 100 different sound settings you can try on the Nintendo DS handheld game system running Korg’s simulator software. Second is Materials to Life. MoL is actually packaged as a book, and contains a collection of articles reprinted from the original numbered mook kits. These articles discuss certain figures from the first half of the 1900’s, such as Einstein and Niels Bohr, and their connection to Japanese science at the time. Finally, there’s the Rockets and Space Exploration mook. This is also more of just a science book, with lots of photos of rockets from different countries, a discussion on spy satellites, photos of the planets, and a description of what it’s like to live in space. All three of these books are located in with the regular books at brick and mortar bookstores in Japan.
I know, I know. I said there are only three categories. I lied. There’s also software-only. At the moment, this consists of the EX-150 simulator for the iPhone and iPad, and Earthpedia. Actually, Earthpedia doesn’t seem to be marketed under the Otona no Kagaku name, but it is included on the ONK website. It’s a natural sciences database for the Ninendo 3DS gamesystem. I don’t have a DS or an iPad so I can’t comment on either of these products. Both seem to be available for download from the ONK site or through iTunes.