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Archive for December, 2011

Magnetic Travel Games

Sometimes on a long trip you want something to entertain the kids or yourself that doesn’t involve reprogramming the GPS to drive you through a barn. For that bit of entertainment we have added magnetic travel games.  Many popular games are represented, such as chess, checkers, backgammon, crosswords, hangman, tic-tac-toe, and four-in-a-row. All the games are in 5-1/4″ flat tins designed to fit easily in a suitcase or travel bag without taking up too much space. All games have the required number of pieces to play the game and make for great fun on the road.

Magnetic Chess Travel Game

Magnetic Backgammon


Astronomy Hints #10 – So you got a new telescope for the holidays! What now?

Be it X-mas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Solstice this is the season for getting telescopes as gifts.  Sadly, many of these scopes might be rushed into usage and some critical steps might be skipped. This can result in a frustrating experience for a budding young astronomer who may give up their new hobby prematurely. This can be avoided if you only take the time and a few precautions to make certain you get the baby steps out of the way without too much tripping and falling.

1) Do as much as you can during daytime first!

I can’t stress this too much. Many folks assume they can assemble their telescope right out of the box at their chosen viewing spot – in the dark. Suffice it to say this is not a good idea.  That is an extreme example but you should also try working your scope and getting the ‘feel’ for it during the daytime as much as possible. Take you telescope outside during the daytime and point it at a nearby tree or other object (the object should be at least 1/4 mile away).  Use this object to align the finder scope (see below) as well as test how the eyepiece focuses. Try changing your eyepieces between the low and high powered ones to see how that works as well. Move the telescope in large movements as well as using the slow motion controls as well. When you do these things in the daylight you can get a much better feel for how they should work than if you try them at night. Also if you drop an eyepiece or loosen a screw you have a decent chance to find it. Get your mistakes out of the way when the sun is up.

2) Assemble your telescope properly

This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many folks skip a few steps or don’t attach parts, or don’t read the instructions properly. We’ve seen telescopes in for “repairs” just after the holidays that were just put together wrong, or some critical final steps were ignored (slow motion controls not attached, counterweights not placed).  Most of the time, there are very few non-critical elements of a telescope’s construction. So be sure to follow the assembly procedure carefully. Allow yourself a couple of hours as well (maybe three hours for certain models of dobsonian telescopes) for the assembly. Don’t assume you can just put it together a 1/2 hour before you plan to head out and view.

3) Align your finder scope. Align your finder scope! ALIGN YOUR FINDER SCOPE!

Get the point? Many folks ignore this step until the last minute and we can tell you that trying to work a telescope without an aligned finger is very,very, very hard. Even the lower magnifications on a short focal length telescope only see a little under 1 arc degree of the sky. This is a tiny portion of the sky so hoping to find an object with just the eyepiece is really hard to do. There is a reason why almost all telescopes come with a finder scope. So make sure to align it (During the daytime per suggestion #1) .

4) Did you get an Equatorial mount? Figure out how it moves!

An equatorial mount has some great advantages over a regular altazimuth (altitude-azimuth) mount. It can track, be motorized, and the larger ones can even be used with setting circles to locate objects in the night sky. But these are only true if you take advantage of the equatorial mount’s features and set it up properly. During the daytime (suggestion #1 again!)  try a rudimentary set-up of the equatorial mount. This does not have to be super accurate as some telescope’s instruction manuals may require, just enough to get mostly accurate tracking for a little while.  Perhaps more importantly, get a feel for how the telescope moves – you are used to moving things in an up/down left/right fashion. Now you need to get used to moving the telescope in declination and right ascension. Try moving the telescope from one target to another using the mount properly during the daytime to get a better sense of it. One thing to keep in mind is that the counterweight is there for a reason – it shouldn’t be pointing down all the time.

5) Choose your first targets wisely!

Many folks go out with their telescope and just point it at the brightest thing in the sky. This is fine if the brightest object is a planet or the Moon, as there is lots to see. But very often at this time of year the planets might not be out until very late and the brightest thing in the sky is the star Sirius.  Problem is, Sirius is just a star and stars appear as just a point of light even when magnified through your telescope. This can be a very boring target and can be disappointing if it is the only bright object. So make certain before you go out for your first night’s viewing that you know what will be up! Most telescopes these days come with some rudimentary planetarium software that can show you what the sky will be like on any night. Failing that there are online websites that do the same thing (sometimes better). Planipheres can also be used, and if you have a Smartphone or pad you should download a planetarium app like Google Sky (its free). Depending on what time of the month it is, the Moon may not be up during evening hours. Since we suggest the Moon as a great first target for your telescope you might want to wait for it. Failing that, try to look for the brighter planets.

6) Got a computerized telescope? You might want to ignore it -at first.

And by that we mean the computer, not the telescope. Some models of computerized telescope don’t allow you to operate the telescope without the computer, but if you can try to figure out as much as you can without computer aid before you even start using it. Computers often make many things in our lives easier, but they can also frustrate you -a lot. Most computerized telescopes may require you to have at least some knowledge of the night sky to set up the alignment system (the telescope usually needs to be aimed at a couple of stars to align). This can mean that if you don’t know what stars to point at or if the system is a bit off because a tripod leg is set short than another you can spend a lot of time trying to get the computer to act properly and get frustrated. So rather than doing that spend some time getting familiar with the night sky first by using your scope on bright, easy-to-find objects.

7) Learn, learn learn!

There’s a host of information for astronomy newbies on the internet and in books. Amateur astronomers are very keen on sharing their knowledge and experience with you. Check out the major magazines online websites such as Sky & Telescope or  Astronomy. There are a zillion astronomy websites with forums as well you might wish to peruse. Even on this blog we have a collection of Telescope Tips you should check out for helpful advice. Also consider joining or at least contacting your local astronomy club – you can find all kinds of help from them, as well as many other benefits from membership (such as loaner equipment).

If your first night with your telescope is a good one, then you’ll have a much better time with the hobby. But always remember a little planning goes a long way!

Post-Holiday Sale

Just a quick note to our readers that our Post-Holiday sale is going on. We got pretty well stripped during the shopping season but there are still plenty of things to get. All science toys are 10% off, as is labware & microscopes. Geology items are 15% off! Come take advantage of this sale!



Solar Powered Frolicking Flower

Sometimes we get some cool toys in the store that have a bit of science, but are mostly just fun. The new Solar powered frolicking flower is one of those toys.

Place this ‘flower’ in sunlight and it will bob, weave, and dance.  Its a fun toy for a windowsill, garden or other sunny location! Its stands just over 4″ tall, so it can fit between real plants.  Its durable enough to live outdoors, so it can add a bit of fun to a garden or windowbox.

Let’s see the frolicking flower in action:

Comet Lovejoy lives!

We just have some time to say a few words: One of the more interesting astronomical events of this year was Comet LoveJoy and its near suicide run to the sun. Turns out it survived and is now visible with the naked eye – in Australia – before dawn. Check out the video!

Comet Lovejoy (2011 W3) rising over Western Australia from Colin Legg on Vimeo.

A bit overwhelmed.

If we lack a blog post today it is because we are a little overwhelmed. Lotsa business today and this is the reason why:


Gift Suggestions Made Because we have Videos of them!

Sometimes it is just easier to show folks what a product does than to try and explain it in the product copy.  This is one of those times.  Here are some awesome videos of great gift ideas:

Let’s start with the Revolving Cosmos Spinner

The Cosmic Sounding Zube Tube

The awesome Laser Pegs construction sets:

The winsome and incredibly realistic Butterfly in a Jar

The hypnotic Sandscapes.

The Colorful and playful Crystal Lamp.



The Micro-Wiz Digital Microscope

We’ve carried digital microscopes in the past, but the new Micro-Wiz is a great new entry into the field:


To start off with: the Micro-Wiz has resolution of up to 5.1 Megapixels via software on the 1/3″ CMOS chip.  The unit has magnification from 46x-525x, an auto-focus system, dual cool LED lights. The entire system is powered via a USB cable to your computer. The software operates on Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

The head of the microscope can removed from the body to allow examination of objects that cannot be placed on the base. The dual lighting system allows illumination of objects when the head is removed. The dual operating system and magnification levels mean the Micr-Wiz can operate as both an Inspection Microscope or a Compound/Biological microscope.

So far the Micro-Wiz is the best student digital microscope that we have come across. Much higher resolution than other student models it comes close to quality of a professional digital instrument!

Interested in Digital Microscopes?



This article is a re-write of an old Spectrum Scientifics blog article.

Ecospheres are popular living gifts! They are completely contained biospheres with animal and plant light. They come in a variety of sizes shapes, such as small sphere, small pod, medium sphere, large pod, large sphere and extra-large (9″) sphere.

Inside the Ecosphere, life is thriving. Little brine shrimp scamper around the provided branches and rocks:

These shrimp scamper around, eat the algae in the ecosphere, and produce waste products (poop!) that in turn fertilizes the algae. The whole system gets energy from external light that, along with the shrimp waste, makes the algae grow. Ecospheres require only indirect light, as direct sunlight will cause the algae to grow out of control (and kill the shrimp) and no light will mean the algae dies (and the shrimp would starve).

Ecospheres are a great demonstration of the life cycle, and they typically last 3-4 years before they need a ‘recharge’. Some have been known to last even longer, going as long as 9-10 years. That seems a bit uncommon, however.

Ecospheres are delivered straight to your home from the manufacturer. They are shipped overnight and someone must be present to sign for them. When buying an Ecosphere as a gift (or for yourself), consider sending it to the recipient’s  place of work so that someone will be there to sign for it. Ecospheres should not be kept in their packaging for very long as they need light.

Order Ecospheres with plenty of time to arrange for delivery!  They are an incredible, thoughtful, lasting gift!


New Geology Items

We added a couple of nice geology items to make our coverage of this topic a bit better. First up is the Scale of Hardness Kit with Test Samples:

This kit is for testing the hardness of rocks and minerals using a penny, a nail, a streak plate and a piece of glass. 9 samples are included with the kit which cover the range of hardness from 1-9. A rock with hardness #9 is not included as that would be a diamond. This kit is an excellent educational project for budding geologists and can be used with rocks and minerals not included with the set.

Next up is a collection of 50 US rocks and minerals:

50 excellent quality specimens are included in this set representing rocks and minerals found in the USA.  This is an excellent collection for a classrooms, home schooling, and outdoor events. Each sample is about 1″  on the longest axis and glued to the box interior. Each sample is labeled. A study guide is included.