While you shouldn’t count on your cat to help you pass calculus, science shows us that many species are more adept mathematically than we might have thought – particularly in the ability to count. Perhaps the most commonly known animal counters are crows (Adam Duritz may have been onto something, aside from this karaoke favorite), but it turns out that salamanders, honeybees, lions, frogs, chimps, newborn chicks, and others can also count to varying degrees. Frogs searching for mates count the pulses in the croaks they hear to make sure they’re checking out the right species, lions only attack if their pride outnumbers the other, and chimps have shown they’ll both count and add in return for chocolate. Dogs, on the other hand, can’t count beyond 1 (bless their hearts), while wolves are able to discriminate between larger numbers, suggesting the dumb-down is due to our own history of dog domestication. Should these smarts really surprise us, though? Studies have shown that with other animals (especially primates) exhibiting signs of emotions, morality, and altruism, we haughty humans shouldn’t think we’re so special.
– Emo Philips
Most amateurs who’ve tried playing chess can agree on one thing: the basic rules aren’t hard to follow, but learning to play well is incredibly difficult. There’s a reason that the “game of kings” is associated with mind-bending strategic thinking, MENSA-level IQs, and supercomputers: the Shannon number—a calculation of all the possible iterations of moves in games of chess. Calculated by mathematician and cryptographer Claude Shannon in 1950 for a study on teaching a computer to play chess, the Shannon number is between 10^111 and 10^123. Incredibly, that’s substantially larger than the number of atoms in the known universe—a mere 10^81. It’s no wonder the game is a nail-biting brain teaser.
Bonus: also in 1950, Shannon invented Theseus, a magnetic mouse. Named for the maze-running hero of Greek mythology, Theseus was programmed to “learn” to navigate mazes, and may be the first rudimentary form of artificial intelligence.
Wobble Chess Set | $250
We encounter the principles of STEM every single day. From navigating our natural environment, to the devices that we incessantly tap our thumbs all over, we’re constantly interacting with feats of science, technology, engineering, and math. While we value the much-discussed professional benefits of STEM education, what gets us most excited about these studies is that they encourage kids to be curious about the world around them. Without curiosity and questioning, life would be rather boring! Unfortunately, the STEM world tends to get a bad rep for bordering on stuffy. Here at UncommonGoods, we know that diving into STEM education doesn’t have to be void of creativity. We’ve gathered our favorite educational gifts for kids of all ages to explore this holiday season and into the next school year. Let the experiments begin!
Whether you flew through calculus or crawled your way through freshman year algebra, a party with pie is something everyone can get behind. Enter Pi Day, a nerdtastic celebration of all things pi and pie.
For those of you who erased most of high school math from your memory (this writer who had to look it up on Wikipedia included), pi is the symbol used by mathematicians to represent the ratio of a circle’s circumference. Sure!
Since pi is an irrational number, it has an infinite number of digits in its decimal representation. However, the first few digits (3.141592…) are the digits used to designate the “Pi” holiday, celebrated on 3/14. This year is a special year, as 3/14/15 represents even more digits of pi! What a time to be a math lover!
UncommonGoods loves math, to say the least, so we had our pick of great pi paraphernalia. Using math plates, bottle openers, and pizza stones, we were able to create a well-calculated (get it???) table spread that was just as delicious as it was educational.
However you decide to celebrate Pi Day this year, make it a celebration of math, geekery, and pastry. It’s the only day of the year when everyone can be a numbers nerd—even if you only ever used your calculator to spell funny words upside down.
Happy Pi Day! May your crusts be buttery and your fillings be plentiful.
Tiffany Ard has been a long time favorite artist of UncommonGoods. We’ve featured a multitude of her fantastically scientific and geeky products. However, she had some ideas that she couldn’t execute herself, so she asked UncommonGoods to develop products with her. We knew this would be a huge opportunity for us and couldn’t wait to get on board.
While she may be known as the Nerdy Baby Lady, she is a creative force to be reckoned with. From the very beginning of development, her enthusiasm was exciting. I couldn’t believe the depth of her knowledge for these higher level STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math, as she taught me) concepts. Every time she would forward a new set of art for our review, I would learn something new while fact checking. Who knows what a P-Orbital is? I do now.
This was our first product with the manufacturer, so Tiffany and I would go back and forth, refining her artwork until we got it right for production. After a grueling development cycle, we finally blew a sigh of relief when we got the final sets in hand. We collectively agreed that the aptly named Super Nerdy ABC Blocks would be a big hit in our collection. It is still one of my favorite projects during my time here at UncommonGoods. I can’t wait to get working on our next project with Tiffany, but before diving into our next brainstorming session, Tiffany agreed to take a pop quiz about her art, the blocks, and growing up geeky.
What was your favorite science project as a kid?
Oh, gosh just one? I loved science and read almost everything in the school library’s nonfiction section. I liked inventing stuff. When I was about nine I wanted to make a doorbell that our dog could ring by scratching on the door. The guy at Radio Shack showed me how to make a circuit with a switch. I set it up with a horrible sounding buzzer, and when it was done, my dad helped me attach this clunky, awful-looking contraption to the front door. Which thinking back is weird because we were renting and our landlord was sort of a grump! I hope they got their deposit back.
But the other constant was art. My earliest memories are of mixing paints. What an awesome experiment that can be for a kid, you know? Nothing blows up, nothing expensive to ruin, just seeing what happens when you mix this shade with that until you have a big gray sludgy mess—and then you rinse your brushes and start again.
When did you first come to the conclusion that you were a nerd?
Well, you know junior high is an age where kids are looking around to see where they fit in. I was too afraid of being hit by a ball to do sports, too shy to be a theater kid, too unpopular to be one of the popular kids. The kids I spent time with liked Douglas Adams and Carl Sagan. We liked writing stories and inventing languages and pretending to be time travelers. Hmm. Maybe “dorks” is a better word than “nerds!”
What are your favorite science facts that everyone should know?
I tell my kids that there are no scientific FACTS. Just answers that explain what we see happening around us, and new information can always change our understanding. But I’m being annoying, homeschooley, science mom.
My current favorite facts:
1. Evolution is real, y’all. It’s worth the effort to understand, because it is amazing.
2. That said, dinosaurs and humans DID co-exist. In fact we still do! My son has two of them as pets and they’re just as loud and messy and demanding as you would expect little, feathered dinosaurs to be.
3. Your body has more bacteria cells than human cells.
Why is it important to give kids gifts that are both fun and educational?
It isn’t! I mean, let’s be honest—you really do not need to cram kids’ brains with scientific terminology. The best gifts invite open ended play and make kids feel empowered to experiment fearlessly. If they happen to learn some fun science facts, all the better.
Which illustration on the Super Nerdy ABC Blocks is your favorite and why?
Oh gosh. I love Io with its cute little active volcano. But my favorite might be the derpy-eyed flatworm. Those worms really look like that!
From Absolute Zero to Zoological Oddity, your ABCs cover some pretty interesting material. How did you decide what to put on the blocks?
This was a fun exercise in problem solving. There are 26 letter blocks, each block has six sides. My kids helped me brainstorm ideas. For some letters, there were too many options to choose from! Feynman, Friction, Fahrenheit, Force, Freefall, Fibonacci… For those it came down to deciding which would translate best into small, one-color illustrations.
What are some fun ways to use Super Nerdy Blocks, aside from just stacking them up and knocking them over?
Spell your name. Look for patterns. Sort by type of interest—biology, chemistry, math. Make paths. Hide them all over the house and look for A-Z. Close your eyes and pick one block, and then challenge a friend to define the term.
Besides giving kids super-fun math and science toys, what else can grownups do to help encourage kids to embrace their nerdiness?
Model CURIOUSITY. Act excited when you don’t know something. Let kids see you trying and failing and trying again as you tackle learning something that’s hard for you. Let them experiment, let them play, and create a space where it’s always okay to make wrong guesses.
In her first music box demonstrations, the mathemusician twists paper into a Möbius strip and plays an arrangement. A Möbius strip is a non-orientable surface with only one side and one boundary component.
In her second arrangement, Vi gets cranking with four music boxes. Three boxes create a canon by playing the same strip of paper in sequence, while another plays a loop of paper.
Special thanks to Vi for sharing her creativity! Please visit Vi Hart-Music Boxes to read her original post and find links to more great demonstrations.