Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rapid-fire book reviews

Dang. I have this stack of books that I've wanted to do nice long reviews on before Christmas, to maybe give some recommendations for gift-giving, but now I find myself just a couple of days away from the 25th. So I'm going to do some short reviews for now, and then in the new year I really promise to go back and do longer takes on each of these.
I'm posting this same post across all of my blogs, btw.

Steampunk LEGO by Guy Himber
No starch press, 200 pages, 2015
Guy is certainly one of the preeminant AFOLs in the steampunk genre, and he's gathered together a collection of models by a lot of other great builders. If you don't know, steampunk is kind of the sci-fi of the Victorian era. The neat thing about this book is that rather than just being page after page of photos of LEGO models, this is put together more like a scrapbook made in the late 1800s. The pages have interesting backgrounds that look like parchment, maps, or pages out of old books. The fonts are often flowing script, or look like they were banged out on a manual typewriter. The images are 'attached' with those photo corners you might see in your granparents' photo albums. The pictures are sometimes in full color, but often in black and white or sepia tones. And the text is all by the fictional chronicler reporting back to Queen Victoria. The result is a very enjoyable volume that stands out from some of the other books that highlight great builds, but sometimes become repetitive (particularly if you have already seen them online). The audience here is probably for the older teen or adult with some interest in this genre, but really any interest in great LEGO models presented interestingly. I highly recommend this book.

LEGO Play Book by Daniel Lipkowitz
Dorling Kindserly (DK), 200 pages, 2013
This book brings together eight builders and lets each of them loose for a chapter based on a given theme. Barney Main builds fairy tales, Tim Goddard microscale, Pete Reid and Yvonne Doyle team up to make animals, and so on. Some of the chapters have a story connecting the models, and others are more collections. My son and I got this from the library when it came out (I really thought I'd reviewed it already) and we had so much fun going through it. We renewed the subscription three times because we were reading through a few pages each night at bedtime, just savoring the experience. He's 5, I'm 45, and we both thought it was great. Probably the main message was to encourage kids to be creative. If you have a kid who is in to LEGO, get them this book. You won't regret it.

LEGO Minifigure Year by Year: A Visual History by Gregory Farshtey with Daniel Lipkowitz
Dorling Kindserly (DK), 256 pages, 2013
While DK has put out a few books like the LEGO Play Book just mentioned, they are more known for putting out books that are little more than catalogs - big compendiums of all of the LEGO Star Wars sets, or all of the LEGO Harry Potter sets, or all of the LEGO Batman sets, etc. I'm generally not a fan of these. This book falls in that category. It's kind of a rehash of Standing Small, a book DK put out a few years ago focused on minifigs, or the LEGO Minifigures Character Encyclopedia, though that was exclusively on the Collectible lines. This book is unique in that, rather than grouping all of the castle figs in one place and all of the Star Wars figs in another, it goes through, well, year by year, just like the title says. So you see groups of figs in chronological order. It's not a comprehensive listing like Christoph Bartneck's Unofficial LEGO Minifigure Catalog, so it's not useful as a reference book, but it is kind of fun to page through and see the evolution of the fig from the classic smiley to today's very detailed figs. Probably the best part is the inclusion of some of the prototypes and other precursors to the modern fig. A nice coffee table book, but probably not something you'd sit down and read. An okay gift for the casually interested person, but I'd rather give them the LEGO Play Book to show them what you can do when you're being creative.

The LEGO Neighborhood Book by Brian Lyles and Jason Lyles
No starch press, 200 pages, 2014
This book focuses on building in the Cafe Corner style. The book is about 10-20% discussion of building style and sources of inspiration, about 30-40% pictures of models by the authors, and about 50% detailed building instructions to make a few large buildings and also some detail features like lampposts and benches. The models are great, and the instructions are really clear. If you like the Cafe Corner sets and want to make more of your own, this is the book for you. Definitely for older teens and adult builders, simply for the scale of the projects involved.

Brick Shakespeare: The Comedies by John McCann, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas
Skyhorse Publishing, 342 pages, 2014
Okay, here's where reviewing is no fun. I absolutely hated Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies by these authors, and I'm not much happier with this one either. This book is essentially a collection of four LEGO-illustrated plays - A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew. These are put together in much the same style as the Brick Bible books by Brendan Powell Smith. It's just that, well, the models and photography aren't very good. As I said when I reviewed the previous book, if this were five years ago I might feel differently, but there are so many high quality LEGO books on the market now that I just can't recommend this. I suppose if you are really into Shakespeare you might want this, but I wouldn't rush out to get it.

Brick Fairy Tales by John McCann, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas
Skyhorse Publishing, 264 pages, 2014
This book has LEGO-illustrated versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and nine other stories (some longer, some shorter), but my comments are the same as they were for the Brick Shakespeare book. Avoid this.
I should say that I really don't like writing bad reviews. I'd like these to be better, I really would. I don't have anything against the authors, except that I want them to go on line and see what is actually being built out of LEGO these days so they can strive to do better.

There are many other LEGO books I don't have that have come out in the last year, and there's no way to cover them all. Here, though, are some that look particularly interesting to me. As soon as I get them I'll write full reviews.

Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark by Mike Doyle
No starch press, 340 pages, 2014
I completely loved book 1 and am looking forward to getting book 2. In book 1 Mike was really focused on LEGO as artwork, and he brought together works by others to show just that. For this book he publicly called for people to submit or suggest artistic MOCs with a much darker theme. I've seen many of the creations that were submitted, and I look forward to seeing how they all came together in the book.

Art of the Brick by Nathan Sawaya
No starch press, 248 pages, 2014
We're all familiar with Nathan's creations, and you may have even attended one of his traveling exhibitions that have been in art museums all over the world. This book appears to be the companion piece to the exhibit.

Art of LEGO Design by Jordan Schwartz
No starch press, 288 pages, 2014
Jordan was certainly one of the most creative builders around at a very young age. He even got a chance to go to Denmark as a LEGO intern, and I believe he designed a few sets during his internship (I should probably check the details on that). He seems to have dropped out of the hobby for a few years, but he's back with this book that looks at the process of designing MOCs, including interviews with the builders of the work shown.

Revolution! by Brendan Powell Smith
Skyhorse Publishing, 2014
Okay, I'm recommending this one without ever seeing a page of it. We know Brendan from his decade-long project to illustrate the Bible, but last year he came out with Assasination!, focused on assasinations and attempted assasinations of American presidents. I wasn't only impressed by the illustrations - I expected those based on Brendan's previous work - but also by the writing, which was both informative and engaging. Anyone with any interest in history would enjoy it. So, I suppose this is a complete assumption, but I'm going to guess that Revolution!, a LEGO-illustrated history of the American Revolutionary War, will be similarly enjoyable on multiple levels.

Brick City by Warren Elsmore
Barron's, 256 pages, 2013
I've flipped through this one in the store and it looks really good. This is focused on models of well known buildings and other landmarks from around the world, such as the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, etc., mostly at microscale. Perhaps my only concern is that it's a smaller book, whereas bigger pages would make some of the details easier to see. On the other hand, it's hard to carry a large coffee-table sized book with you, so this is nice too.

Brick Wonders by Warren Elsmore
Barron's, 256 pages, 2014
Again, I've looked through this one and it's on my wish list as well. Whereas Brick City was more about modern structures, this one is broader in scope, with ancient structures such as the Pyramids and Babylon, natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, and even modern things such as the International Space Station. Again, the models look great and the photography is great as well.

Brick Flicks by Warren Elsmore
Barron's, 160 pages, 2014
This is another one that I'm listing without ever seeing it. I actually didn't know this one existed until I was getting the links for the other two by Warren. Based on the strengths of those, though, I'm looking forward to getting Brick Flicks. My only concern is that it appears to be 40% shorter than Brick City and Brick Wonders.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Monument Valley

Iain Heath made this from Monument Valley, a game that uses a lot of Escher-esque scenes and impossible objects, such as this based on the Penrose triangle I've discussed here before.

Friday, December 19, 2014


The Kepler is an orbiting observatory tasked with finding Earth-like planets near other stars. It was feared that the mission was a failure due to mechanical problems, but recently a work-around was implemented so the it could be used, and this week NASA announced the discovery of a planet 2.5 times the size of earth about 180 light years away. Mr Grey designed this LEGO version of the Kepler.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, (here in LEGO by Stefan Schindler) was a low-earth-orbit satellite operated by the European Space Agency from 2009-2013 to map out the earth's gravitational field, and also to probe the structure of the earth's mantle, with some focus on volcanic regions, and study oceanic behavior.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Particle accelerator

A particle accelerator is a large (often miles in circumference) track that accelerates charged particles to very high speeds using a series of electromagnetic fields. In a collider the fast-moving particle then slams into a target, and physicists watch how it falls apart to learn more about the fundamental nature of subatomic particles. Jason Alleman built this one out of LEGO; be sure to watch the video to see it in action.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Planck's Constant

Planck's constant is one of the fundamental constants of the universe. E=hν is an equation relating the energy of light (E) to the frequency of light (ν), where h is Planck's constant. You can measure this constant in a number of ways, including the use of a watt balance. A watt balance measures the difference between the gravitational pull on an object and the the force pulling on that object by a magnetic field produced by an electromagnet. Since the calculation of the force of the electromagnet includes Planck's constant, the data can be deconvoluted to solve for h. Leon Chao and colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have designed a LEGO watt balance. BTW, for the last 139 years the kilogram has been officially defined by a chunk of metal stored in a vault in France. At recent meetings of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (sounds like a fun group) they have discussed changing the official definition of the kilogram to one based on Planck's constant by the use of a watt balance.
Fun new fact for me - metrology is the science of measurement. I didn't know that one until reading up on the use of the watt balance.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Northern lights

Hi all,
First up, I just wanted to apologize for my six month hiatus. I've been blogging about LEGO for nine years now, and from time to time I've just gotten a bit run down and distracted from my family of blogs. However, in the meantime, I'm constantly going through Flickr, Brickshelf, and other sites, and probably every day I bookmark a few more things that I keep meaning to post. I've gotten a couple of nice notes asking where I've been, and I guess it's time to come back. Also, during the year I save up LEGO books to review as people are getting ready for Christmas, and want to get those posted. And so, back to blogging. Hopefully I won't have too many interruptions in the near future. I've certainly got a backlog of great creations to feature.

The northern lights, or Aurora borealis, are depicted in this mosaic by Dave Ware. This light show actually starts at the sun. Extremely high temperature, and therefore high energy, collisions between particles result in naked protons and electrons being flung from the sun's surface. When this 'solar wind' hits the earth, the earth's magnetic field either deflects the particles or funnels them down towards the earth's surface at the north and south poles. As these high energy particles encounter the gases of our atmosphere, energy is given off in the form of light.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Chemistry lab

Billyburg built this great chemistry lab as a gift. Some of the details include a fume hood, safety shower, and a rotary evaporator (rotovap).

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


About a month ago, Ordo graduated from high school (congratulations!) and he built a MOC to celebrate completing each final exam. Here we see his MOC for his biology class, genetics. The others aren't science-based, but you should still check out the MOCs based on his German literature, English and economics exams.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Research Institute!

The result are in for the next LEGO Ideas set. LEGO Ideas is the successor to LEGO Cuusoo, a website where fan builders can submit their ideas, and if they get enough votes, LEGO will consider making an official set. This has been good for LEGO science fans, with three of the six sets released so far being science themed: the Shinkai research submarine, the Hayabusa probe, and the Mars rover. The recent round of review brought still another science set - the Female Minifigure Set. The original idea was to create a series of vignettes showing women in different occupations (I previously blogged about this). The idea was narrowed down to the chemist, the astronomer, and the paleontologist. This got a huge push because of the gender politics of the issue; as I've previously ranted, that's not the cool thing about this set, though that is surely what will make the headlines. What is cool about this set is that it shows scientists at work. The ultimate set, which will be a variation of the original idea shown below, will be called Research Institute and will come out this fall.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mary Anning

I've been slacking off in blogging, but today's Google doodle is a good prompt for me. Today is the 215th anniversary of Mary Anning's birth. Anning was a fossil collector and paleontologist in Britain in the early 19th century, and her finds helped shape an understanding of prehistoric creatures. Her interest in fossils began very early, when she and her brother Joseph found fossils in the cliffs along the English Channel, as shown here in LEGO form by Fossil Friends. One of their important finds was an ichthyosaur. This LEGO ichthyosaur was built by Bright-Bricks as part of an event this past weekend at the Lyme Regis Museum in Dorset, England. Kids who attended the event could even build their own LEGO ichthyosaurs.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Welcome to the National Science Centre, Mr. Armstrong

This weekend was the Brickish Weekend at the National Space Centre in the UK. Members of the Brickish Association and other AFOLs displayed space-themed MOCs, and members of the public could help assemble a couple of large creations, I think both designed by Bright-Bricks. Bienvenue sur la lune, Mr. Armstrong was a large mosaic featuring Tintin. In the early 1950's Tintin traveled to the moon in a series of comics. A decade and a half later, after the Apollo 11 mission, Hergé, the creator of Tintin, drew this cartoon as a gift to Neil Armstrong. The other model created during the event was a large V2 Rocket. The V2 was developed by the Germans during World War II as a ballistic missile. They launched over 3000 of these at London and other Allied targets. After the war, the US, UK and USSR captured both rockets and scientists, using them to develop their own weapons. The V2 rocket design and many of the German scientists that worked on it became part of the NASA program, and ultimately led to the Saturn V rocket. Fittingly, to bring this all together, the rocket that brought Tintin to the moon in the comics was also visually based on the V2 rocket, in a red and white color scheme.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Brickish Weekend at National Space Centre UK

If you're a science-minded LEGO fan in the UK, you might want to check out the Brickish Weekend at the National Space Centre in Leicester. You'll probably see lots of great space-themed LEGO creations, and attendees will participate in building a large mosaic. Here's a segment - I've got no inside information on how the overall design of the mosaic will turn out, but I'm guessing this will be one small step for man ...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Periodic table

The periodic table, here by Richard Harrison, lays out all of the different elements, the different types of atoms that make up the world around us. There are a little over a hundred different types known, and some scientists are continuing to work on finding bigger and bigger elements. The elements get bigger and bigger as you read left to right and down the table (technically this is increasing atomic number). The key insight that helped Mendeleev categorize the elements was that when you list them in order there are repeating, or periodic properties. The lines are broken up so that everything within a column has these periodic properties. Chemists can look at where an element is on the table, and what other elements are nearby, and make conclusions about the properties of that element.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Benjamin Franklin

In addition to being a politician and diplomat in the early days of the United States, Benjamin Franklin (here by Tormentalous) was also a scientist and inventor. One of his most famous experiments was the kite experiment depicted here. Contrary to popular belief (and my own belief until a few minutes ago when I looked this up), his kite was not struck by lightning. Instead he flew his kite up into storm clouds and found that static electricity built up on the kite (and traveled down the wet string to the key), and he got a static shock from touching the key. From this he deduced that lighting bolts were an electric discharge, and subsequently he invented the lightning rod to protect tall buildings.

Ben Franklin lived in Philadelphia, and this weekend is Philly Brick Fest, a LEGO gathering here in Philly. I hope to be at the public exhibition with my son, so maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Magdeburg hemispheres

Otto von Guericke, a German scientist and also the mayor of Magdeburg, invented a vacuum pump and studied the effects of vacuum and air pressure. In one of his most spectacular experiments, he fit two copper hemispheres together and used his pump to create a vacuum inside. This created a force holding the hemispheres together that was so great, teams of horses could not pull them apart until the valve was opened and air was let back inside. This experiment was illustrated here by Tim v.F. for the New Scientist LEGO contest.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

T4 virus

Recently NewScientist held a LEGO contest. Lisa Strazdina was runner up with her model of enterobacteria phage T4. This virus infects E. coli, injecting DNA into the bacterium and using the bacteria's own enzymes to reproduce itself, killing the bacterium in the process.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Flickr LEGO Astronautics group

A new group has started on Flickr, LEGO Astronautics, for people to share their real-space (as opposed to science fiction) creations. Check it out to see lots of great MOCs. I'm sure I'll be returning to this group often to find content for SciBricks.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What is black and white and red all over?

A recent study that appeared in Nature Communications saying that zebra stripes somehow help them ward off biting flies. Here's a zebra that I'm pretty sure is from the life-size animal displays that Sean Kenney has been building for zoos around the US.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Freedom 7

Legohaulic built Freedom 7, the Mercury capsule that carried Alan Shepard into space for fifteen minutes back in 1961, the first American in space.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Golden ratio caliper

The golden ratio is the ratio between two numbers, a and b, that together are a solution of the equation a/b = (a+b)/a. This ratio is equal to one plus the square root of five, all divided by two, an irrational number roughly equal to 1.61803. The golden ratio is also the ratio between subsequent terms of the Fibonacci sequence (as the length of the sequence approaches infinity, it shows up in geometrical divisions of certain isosceles triangles, a five-pointed star, a regular triangle inscribed in a circle, and other geometric shapes. These shapes play a role in art and architecture. For instance, the golden rectangle has sides where the long side is 1.61803 times longer than the short side, and this featured, for instance, in the construction of the Parthenon. A golden ratio caliper, such as this working LEGO version by Amida Na, can be expanded and contracted, but the ratio of the distances between the points, and also the ratio between the longer of those distances and the distance between the outer points, always equals the golden ratio.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi Day

I know, I know, I've been on a three month hiatus from blogging. Sorry. I will get back in the game sooner rather than later. In the meantime, though, here is a great mosaic by Toltomeja in celebration of Pi Day (3-14). Pi is the constant ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number that equals approximately 3.14159, and it shows up as a constant all over math and science.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Newton's apple

I was told once in a class that the whole story of Newton and the apple was a myth invented many years later, but some quick Googling found this memoir by William Stukeley, a friend and biographer of Newton, who recounts the story. The apple didn't hit him on the head, as sometimes shown in cartoons, but Newton was walking in the garden thinking about why apples always fall straight down, rather than at some angle, and he came up with his first formulation of the law of gravity. Here is Chris Maddison's LEGO rendition.