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LEGO in the Lab – The Scholarly Kitchen

lego scientist figure
LEGO Scientist. (Photo credit: Elizabeth K. Joseph)

LEGO®* is back in my life in a big way. This is partly because of:

  • my 4 year old child
  • the awesome LEGO Movie (if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so – it’s life-affirmingly funny and clever)
  • the hilarious LEGO Star Wars TV mini-series
  • the inspiring LEGO Masters competition

And partly because it never went away anyway. Given all of this, I’m delighted to learn that LEGO is also now something I can legitimately talk about at work (and add to the Scholarly Kitchen‘s Lego canon) because of its growing use in research. This article by The Times (of London)’s science editor Tom Whipple highlights projects in which LEGO has played a pivotal role:

  • New Nerve Gas Detector Built with Legos and a Smartphone – Dr Eric Anslyn at the University of Texas at Austin
    • “Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a way to detect the presence, type and concentration of nerve agents in the field using Legos, a smartphone and a chemical sensor.” LEGO was key to the project because they needed people applying the technology around the world to be able to build a “light-tight” space from readily available, simple materials. They’d initially thought about 3D printing but “realized that 3D printers and the materials used in them can be inaccessible, uneven or cost-prohibitive in some parts of the world. That’s when Pedro Metola, a clinical assistant professor at UT, thought of using LEGO bricks. “Legos are the same everywhere you go,” Metola said.”
  • Pumpy McPumpfaceDr Ricardo Henriques at UCL
    • An “amazing example of how people automated a stupid and tedious task, making it possible to do experiments which were too annoying to perform practically” (in the words of Sergii Pochekailov), this “‘hack’ for fluid exchange in microscopes” (thank you @SangerCytometry for that plain language summary) has its own hashtag (#pumpy) and bioRxiv preprint
  • Tom’s Twitter thread includes plenty more examples of how researchers are using LEGO:
    • “I used it to quickly make new mazes for fish.” Robert Holbrook (former neurobiologist)
    • “I met someone a few years ago who had built a mouse treadmill from Lego!” Matt Kemp, Managing Director at Scientifica
    • “We have a project where we’ve made a microscope out of Lego! We use Lego and an iPhone to image nanoparticles!” Sambur Research Group, Colorado State University (here’s a photo of a Lego microscope, from Lizzy Brama, Senior Laboratory Research Scientist at the Francis Crick Institute)

LEGO is also useful for teaching; Duncan Casey of the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials describes their “atomic force microscope demo made of Lego, a laser pointer and a mirror.” as “a really nice hands-on demo for schools” while Kerry Noble, a communications consultant and previously the News Editor for Imperial College London, wrote this article about how Professor Joshua Edel is using LEGO for teaching chemistry undergraduates how to build spectrometers (“They need to put the components together at the correct heights and with the correct angles and LEGO allows them to do this to within a few millimetres’ accuracy.”) LEGO was on the agenda at last year’s FORCE 11 conference, in a session designed to help people understand the functionality of Git (version control / source-code management).

You may recall my delight in using toys to explain complex things. How cool that we’re now using toys to build complex things, too.

PS I should acknowledge that “other construction-enabling toys are available.” Although some lack that critical inter-locking capability that makes LEGO so robust.

*Editor’s Note:  this post was a bit of a struggle to edit, and resulted in a great deal of time spent down the rabbit hole of the proper use of the word “LEGO”, its capitalization, and correct plural usage (“LEGO bricks” or “LEGO sets” but not “LEGOs”). We’ve tried to follow the LEGO company guidelines where possible, but left any quotes from others intact. We apologize in advance to the LEGO grammar pedants for any errors.




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