12 May 2008

Lego Mars!

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Lego Mars!

Targeted ads in gmail sometimes show me some awesome sites. I posted before about the chance to buy land on Mars, and now I learn that Lego has a Mars Mission set of toys! They even manage to slip a few facts in on the web site. For example, they have “transmissions from Mars” and one of them describes working in Valles Marineris, giving all its impressive stats. Of course, these aren’t meant to be educational toys and the story seems to be based around the race between human colonists and “aliens” to harvest crystals and extract the energy from them. I put “aliens” in quotes because, of course, if you’re a human on Mars, you are the alien.

As for harvesting crystals for energy, it’s actually a pretty lousy idea. Crystals form when atoms settle into a low-energy state. A friend of mine in high school had a heat-pack that showed this extremely well. You heat it up (add energy) and it melts into a squishy goo inside the plastic sack. Then, you click a little metal tab inside the sack, which provides a nucleation point and a crystal begins to grow extremely rapidly, solidifying the sack of goo into a mass of crystal within seconds. As the crystal forms, it releases lots of energy, leaving you with a toasty warm heat-pack. The point is, if something is already crystalline, it has already given up its energy and really shouldn’t be a source of fuel.

The problem is, new age folks don’t really understand what energy is, and are constantly babbling about crystal energy, and using crystals to direct that energy and heal your soul, or something. It’s fun to attribute special powers to pretty rocks and minerals. I openly admit that as a kid I would collect rocks and pretend that they had special attributes. This one had the power of moonlight, and that one the power of fire, and so on. Blame it on too many fantasy stories at an impressionable age. The difference is that I knew it was pretend, and a lot of people don’t. The idea of crystal energy is very popular, and it ends up in things like Lego Mars.

Anyway, tirades about crystals aside, I think these Lego Mars sets look awesome! I also think that NASA should team up with Lego and use the toys as a way to get kids excited. Just like the NASA video game, it make sense to target kids where they are already interested rather than forcing them into something new.

EDIT: Emily Lakdawalla just pointed out that there are indeed some NASA-themed Lego sets and that she was involved in creating a couple of them! I can’t believe I forgot about these, because they are way cool. Check out the large Lego Mars Exploration Rover, and the Mission to Mars kit (not to be confused with the sci-fi-themed Mission to Mars kits that I talk about above). She also pointed me toward the Planetary Society’s “Red Rover, Red Rover” program, which allows students to build and operate their own Lego robotic Mars rover! Man, I wish we had done that when I was in school…