Sunday, 2 May 2010

Scary Soap and Worm World: science toys for the young and not so young

There have been junior versions of telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets available for many years, but the past decade or so has seen a veritable explosion of science-orientated items for both children and the young at heart. It isn't just the likes of the Science Museum shop either: online retailers in particular offer a profusion of activities and experiments, ranging from extremely expensive assembly kits to grow your own crystal sets for under £10.

One of the interesting aspects to all this merchandise is how much of it follows a clear gender demarcation - 'disgusting' science for the boys versus perfume, incense and DIY toiletry products for the girls, with the stereotypical packaging pushing the delineation home. Although there are some products not for delicate (the bottom burp machine springs to mind), and a few of rather dubious taste such as soft toys shaped like E. Coli or the Ebola virus, there is an enormous array of items that promote science-based learning whilst providing lots of fun.

It isn't just inanimate activities that are available, but an increasingly range of experiments involving real animals. From Worm World via butterfly terrariums to ants in gel (based on a real Nasa experiment), children are now able to play biologist, farmer, even God, to a variety of creatures. The only project I have had direct experience of raised some interesting questions, as all good experiments should. As a starting point I had to consider my own relation to the project, since I'm not particularly keen on animal experimentation except as an absolute necessity; I was therefore fairly pleased to see that the instruction manual stated the creatures should be treated carefully, being after all living things. In the planning stages I also discovered a small but international community with a passionate dedication to their animals, but where for many the line between pet and subject lies, I'm still uncertain.

The species involved is intrinsically interesting due to its longevity: forget the coelacanth, if you really want to see a living fossil - in the form of an animal that has barely changed its external morphology in eons - then look to Triops longicaudatus, a freshwater shrimp that has been found fossilised in seventy million-year old rocks from the late Cretaceous. The shrimp-rearing products are marketed under a variety of names such as Triassic Triops (inaccurate - it is an even older sister species T. cancriformis that has been around since the Triassic), Dinosaur Shrimp (some fairly obvious marketing there), even Star Wars Naboo Sea Creatures!

Most kits consist of the same basic components: eggs (including those a few other, smaller, marine invertebrates), food, a container, and accessories. Unlike their smaller, commercially-available, crustacean cousins known as sea monkeys (actually brine shrimp), Triops even appear to exhibit signs of individualism, bizarre as it sounds for virtually blind creatures with a dust mote-sized brain. So although the kits are marketed at children over six years old, supposed adults such as me quickly find ourselves caught up in their well-being. In fact, the ability to raise and nurture the wee beasties is rather more complicated than the instructions would have you believe. A combination of light, temperature, oxygen and the right sort of water (distilled/deionised for hatching; bottled mineral water for adults) are merely the start of something that drove me to exactitudes not seen since school chemistry lessons. Unfortunately, this left my children with a somewhat backseat role, simply adding the food and observing with magnifying glasses through the increasingly murky water.

Of course engaging children in raising triops is good practice for said chemistry lessons, not to mention introducing them to the fundamentals of biology. Unlike some of the sad stories I discovered from other customer reviews, we did manage to raise three shrimps from egg to adult, although they all died around three weeks old (of a potential average seven- to ten-week lifespan). The project inspired questions concerning birth, reproduction - which is complex with triops and their female-biased or hermaphroditic populations - and death, in addition to providing examination of a miniature ecosystem and its food chain, daphnia being the rapidly-consumed base. One interesting outcome of all this was that it suggested youngsters (human, not shrimp) are not innately endowed with empathy, since my seafood-loving children asked if they could eat their pets after they died. Admittedly, they asked this before the animals were born, not after their death.

Although one individual died from moulting complications (despite a futile last-minute addition of iodine to the tank), there were no observable causes for the others' deaths, leading me to investigate optimal conditions in greater detail. However, I found it difficult to get agreement on even fundamentals such as the best water temperature and type of light cycle. The one book I could find (all of 30 or so pages long) doesn't go into details on raising them, whilst the most authoritative-sounding material elsewhere seems to negate the creature's 'wild' existence in many respects: after all, if their long-dormant, desiccated eggs come to life after a desert rain shower, then might not the night sky be dark due to rain clouds? Yet experienced breeders recommend 24-hour light for at least the first three days. It isn't just the minor carbon footprint of leaving an angle poise lamp on for days on end, but constant light leads to algal growth which clouds the water and may have other side effects. Clearly, those interested in breeding triops could benefit from rather more experimentation, since my children and I are hardly up to the role!

Interestingly, the only professional experiment reports I could find seemed more in the vein of the archetypal crazy scientist (think Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on The Muppet Show or The Fast Show's Professor Denzil Dexter: "We took some Triops eggs and froze them, but they still hatched, so then we boiled some more, and they hatched too. Then, when they were adults, we tested oxygen levels by super-gluing their carapaces…") I'm sure you get the picture. It has to be said that triops are useful experimental subjects for a variety of important reasons, from the here and now of fighting tropical diseases to the future of long-duration manned spaceflight involving astronaut hibernation. And if like me you're interested in trilobites, I think they're next best thing since the Permian extinction robbed us of those creatures some 251 million years ago. But as for "triops are instant pets - just add water" - that has to be a major understatement, and then some...

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