Three times researchers used Lego to do science

Whether it’s the sheer satisfaction of clicking a final piece into place or the indescribable pain of discovering a small plastic brick wedged between the floor and your foot, Lego remains, by my reckoning, the world’s best toy – and is only every so often the cause of a great deal of swearing.

What I bet 9-year-old you didn’t realise as you crunched together a garage for your rocket-fuelled police aqua-car, is that there are actual adult scientists snapping together their own creations, and they get to call it ‘research’. In fact, Lego crops up in a surprising number of scientific fields: its versatility and high build quality means that Lego is as perfect for building ‘stuff’ on a laboratory workbench as it always was on your bedroom floor.

Insect Manipulator

Figure 1 from Dupont et al., showing four different designs of Lego insect manipulator. Image: Dupont et al. ZooKeys 481: 131-138

The four different designs of Lego insect manipulator. Image: Dupont et al. ZooKeys 481: 131-138

This year a group of entomologists (insect scientists to you and me) published a paper, the focus of which was as much on insects as it was on Lego. The lead author, Steen Dupont, is a moth specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, which houses 27 million pinned insects across 136,000 drawers. Museums across the world request images of these insects, but handling them can be tricky because they are so fragile.

‘Specimen manipulators’ are used to orientate the insects for imaging – metal contraptions which cost thousands of pounds and can only accommodate a small range of insect sizes. Dupont has designed four Lego contraptions which do the exact same job, are robust as their multi-thousand pound commercial counterparts, and are much easier to travel with.

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The insect manipulator in action. See the full video here.

Dupont says his next project is to design a contraption to incorporate a mobile phone. If you’re a keen entomologist yourself, there are step-by-step instructions to build your own insect manipulator, for the fairly reasonable price of £15.

Building artificial bone using Lego cranes

Over at the University of Cambridge, researchers are using Lego to speed things up in their artificial bone laboratory. Artificial bone has to be grown through a tedious cycle of dipping samples in a solution of calcium and a solution of phosphate, and rinsing between each dip.

One way to automate artificial bone growth would be to use expensive commercial equipment, says Daniel Strange, one of the researchers in the lab; “but when we thought about it Lego just seemed like the simplest and cheapest way to go about things.” Researchers built cranes out of Lego, which perform the dipping process and so free up valuable research time. They also look pretty cool.

Avanced Mathematics Using Lego in a Washing Machine

Image: Paul Wilkinson

Like this, but wetter. Image: Paul Wilkinson

Random Structures from Lego Bricks and Analog Monte Carlo Procedures couldn’t really be a less inspiring title for a paper holding the phrase “we put a whole bucket of old Lego bricks into our Miele washing machine” in its introduction. It’s hard to tell whether or not the experiment it outlines was originally intended to be mathematical: most of it seems to have happened at a party.

The author describes a game to guess how many Lego bricks would end up stuck together after “the bricks were treated for 70 minutes, at 40 degrees Celsius, without speed spinning at the end, without washing powder.” None of the guesses were correct, but the paper goes on to discuss the mathematics of using algorithms to predict the most likely ‘Lego complexes’ to arise during a washing machine cycle.

Who knows where the little bricks will crop up next?

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