The science of Lego


From modelling quarks to travelling to Jupiter, Lego and science fit snugly together like, well, you know. Andrew P. Street takes a trip around the blocks.


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Lego’s new Women of NASA set, featuring four of the space agency’s pioneering female scientists, has been a long time coming. It is an iconic step in popular culture that redresses the lack of recognition given to the women who have helped all of us reach for the stars.

The addition to the Lego lineup continues the strong mental and emotional connection between the toy blocks and the exploration of space that any Lego lover has been likely to share since the 1970s.

From the moment the venerable company rolled out its debut Lego Space set, in 1978, generations of future scientists took their first steps toward the stars by building moon bases and lunar rovers with those relentlessly smiling red, white, blue and yellow-clad astronauts.

That relationship has never stopped. The Danish company, which began in 1932, enjoyed its highest-ever revenues in 2016, due in part to its Star Wars toy line, with the iconic Millennium Falcon spaceship its best-selling toy. But it isn’t just fantasy that ties Lego to space. Since 2011 the Lego Ideas project, which turns submissions from users into new products, has led to a handful of sets based on real-life space exploration. The Hayabusa asteroid probe was the first, followed in 2014 by the Mars Curiosity Rover set, a design submitted by NASA rover engineer Stephen Pakbaz. In mid-2017 came the Apollo 11 Saturn V kit, which is a metre tall and made of almost 2,000 pieces. The Women of NASA set is the latest in the line, based on a submission to Lego Ideas by science writer Maia Weinstock.

The beauty of Lego in public outreach and education is its sheer familiarity. Nearly everyone messed around with it as a kid, and thus it is comfortingly familiar in the often confusing world of physics.

There are four minifigures in the box: astronomer, NASA administrator and Hubble telescope champion Nancy Grace Roman; Apollo program software engineer Margaret Hamilton; and pioneering space shuttle astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison. All come with career-appropriate accessories and dioramas in keeping with their expertise.

Weinstock’s original proposal included a fifth figure: Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectories of rockets that put NASA’s first men into space. Her story, along with fellow African-American mathematicians Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, was the basis of the 2016 film Hidden Figures. The toy company was unable, however, to secure permission to include Johnson in the set.

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space and Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space.
Sally Ride was the first American woman in space and Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space.
Nathalie Saldumbide / Saldumbide Photography, Lego model built by Cato Keily

Lego isn’t just into space but in space. Even as you read this, there are three Lego minifigures orbiting Jupiter: there’s Jupiter (the king of the gods in ancient Roman mythology), his wife Juno and Galileo Galilei, the man who first described the four great moons of Jupiter. They are on board NASA’s Juno probe, cast in aluminium rather than plastic to withstand the rigours of the journey – although they’re unlikely to survive the craft’s planned descent and disintegration in the atmosphere of Jupiter scheduled for July 2018. It is something of a call-back to 2011, when the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery took place with a Lego version of itself on board.

The relationship between the cosmological sciences and Lego goes much deeper than some cool toys and space-probe stowaways. The interaction goes the other way as well, with scientists using Lego to design, teach and conceptualise some very complex questions.

Margaret Hamilton was the lead software designer for the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Margaret Hamilton was the lead software designer for the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Nathalie Saldumbide / Saldumbide Photography, Lego model built by Cato Keily

The beauty of Lego in public outreach and education is its sheer familiarity. Nearly everyone messed around with it as a kid, and thus it is comfortingly familiar in the often confusing world of physics. If you are trying to explain a range of methodological challenges inherent to conducting practical experiments, Lego is an unthreatening medium with which to do it. This was the basis of a 2017 paper in the American Journal of Physics, by lecturers from Flinders University in Adelaide, which outlined the use of Lego race cars in introductory physics courses as a fun and easy-to-grasp way of teaching experimental uncertainty, limits of experimental equipment and the importance of starting with fundamentally strong experimental design. The use of Lego was credited with a significant drop in the number of students quitting the course.

Staff at the School of Physics and Astronomy at Queen Mary University of London have illustrated the fundamental particles of the early universe via Lego. They have created teaching materials and classroom posters that illustrate the way subatomic particles form atoms and how fusion works, even putting together physics kits for teachers using store-bought bricks.

A team of chemists at New York University used Lego as the inspiration for the shape and function of microscopic “patchy particles” that can be used to build complex but tiny structures, described in a paper published in the journal Nature in September 2017. In a similar vein, the versatility of Lego has inspired engineers to develop multi-use modular pieces to build complex structures such as photon detectors, with an eye toward a future of low-cost, off-the-shelf science.

Nancy Grace Roman is known as the ‘Mother of Hubble’ due to her key role in creating the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nancy Grace Roman is known as the ‘Mother of Hubble’ due to her key role in creating the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nathalie Saldumbide / Saldumbide Photography, Lego model built by Cato Keily

The programmable system called Lego Mindstorms has also been a favourite in various robotics and outreach programs. Developed by MIT’s media lab back in the late 1980s, the system has enjoyed a devoted following among programmers, academics and people who make robots that fight each other to the death.

It has also led to rather more helpful creations including a crowd-sourced robot named Jitter, deployed on the International Space Station to locate and pick up floating litter in the station’s zero-gravity environment.

Similarly, the physics outreach team at CERN’s ISOLDE facility in Geneva, Switzerland, used a Mindstorm build as a way to help students understand the conditions and challenges of nuclear research. The system has also been useful in undergraduate engineering courses by giving students hands-on experience of programming in an understandable, tactile way.

Who knows what world-changing innovations are being seeded by kids playing with some coloured bits of plastic and thinking: “Hey, how about we do it this way?” More than likely some of those kids will be future women of NASA, or some other space agency.

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Andrew P Street is a widely published journalist, non-fiction author and former columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.
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