SkyScout Personal Planetarium

The SkySout is an interactive guide for exploring the heavens with or without a telescope. When you point it towards a certain spot in the sky, the built-in GPS receiver identifies a particular constellation and stars — and you can then opt to hear an audio tour about the celestial items that have been identified. The SkyScout employs a database purported to hold 6,000 stars, 1,500 double & variable stars, all 88 constellations, and 100 deep space objects (galaxies, nebulae, clusters, et. al.), which will be more than enough targets to keep me and my family engaged for quite sometime. If the millions upon millions of light years involved with observable objects in space were analogous to a city map, the SkyScout can get you within a couple of blocks of your exact destination (which is pretty darn good!). Though the unit can be used as a spotter for those wishing to leverage a telescope, thus far, we enjoy exploring the night sky sans scope so the whole family can participate and listen to the audio lessons without having to wrestle for viewing time. It’s proven very wonderful for engaging my young children in something they’ve grown to enjoy and I hope they carry forward in their lives.

We’ve now had ours for a few months and use it a minimum of once a week (mostly weekends, weather permitting). Mostly, we star gaze from our backyard in the ‘burbs — not a “dark-sky certified” area with a dramatic showing of stars hidden by the pollution of city lights. But that’s the point: there’s so much to see, even in our own backyard! Our favorite function is the “tour” which lets us sit back and look upward while listening to a Top 20 list of objects identified as optimal for viewing based on the date, time, and location of our session. The audible lessons are really interesting and fun — usually consisting of highlights and some esoterica of the object under observation. The kids really enjoyed the Summer Triangle stars and their corresponding Constellations. The SkyScout lesson for Vega (one of the points on the “triangle”) touched on the 1997 movie Contact, which I was then able to parlay into a deeper spiel about Carl Sagan. Another big hit was the tour of Sirius or the “dog star” in the constellation, Canis Majoris. Outside of their love for dogs, I perceived a “wow moment” when it was defined as a binary star system (and what that meant) instead of what looks like a single star residing up there. Another superlative moment was when I pulled out the SkyScout during the day and began orienteering through the constellations — yep the stars are still “up there” even when the sun is shining!

Another plus, at least for my family, is how the SkyScout does away with the basic math required in manual astronomical observing. In the days prior to GPS-led apparati that were brought to market in the ancient, early ’90s, astro-purists with an interest in locating various objects from within the observable astronomical inventory would have to understand basic algebra as a gateway to leverage a coordinate system (celestrial, equatorial, ecliptical, galactic, etc.). These systems involved somewhat complex equations for mapping the motion of moving objects relative to the observer’s location and time. Of course, for professionals and hobby-astronomers alike, the employed utility of analog star charts, celestrial maps, etc. have historically assisted observers by removing the need for a truly granular comprehension of the underlying coordinate system(s). However, a solid understanding of coordinates (latitude and longitude) remained as a mandate for productive viewing. Of course, this explanation doesn’t touch on the foundational math involved with telescope composition and its impact upon utility — apertures, focal lengths, f-number, etc. — but because the SkyScout is a viewfinder for the naked eye (rather than a scope or complicated tool), my kids can really stay engaged.

Come to think of it, the SkyScout is a little like the radio was at the beginning of the last century. My family can take a seat together (in this case, outside, actually as a reprieve from the TV!) and let the audio lessons on objects in the heavens drive their imaginations. There is something enticingly refreshing about leveraging your mind’s eye while listening to the SkyScout versus always examining (or at least expecting) high-resolution digital images of all astronomical objects. The kids have taken to it naturally. Now, when the sun goes down, my young daughter is guaranteed to make at least one inquiry into whether we’ll be taking out the SkyScout to “find a star.”

Note: the physical manifestation of the product only has an audio port for the enclosed headphones. To get and keep my kids engaged, I use my iPhone accessory speakers so everyone can listen. Also, there are expansion SD cards with more data/info/audio tours. I have not used them, but they do seem like a great add-on for later to spice things up, especially if you’re pairing the SkyScout with a telescope.

– Rich Neal


SkyScout Personal Planetarium
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Celestron


Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments


The very best chemistry experiment book for kids is the legendary and long-out-of-print book, the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Published in 1960 during the heyday of home chemistry, it was meant to accompany the millions of chemistry kits that were sold each year to typical American kids. You got real experiments with real chemicals. Not like the so-called chemistry sets today which boldly (and insanely) advertise they contain “No Chemicals!”

Among many other things, the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments told you how to make chlorine gas from bathroom supplies, hydrogen from flashlight battery parts, and rayon from scrap paper, etc. You can see why it was not reprinted in the decades following because of concerns about safety. I used my copy, which is now worth $200 on eBay, to do all the experiments in the book when I was 12, and went on to build a chem lab in my basement. As many kids did.


Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, 1960.

You can get a decent free PDF version of the Golden Book on BitTrorrent. Even better, there’s a new great book for home-made experiments, updated for today: the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments from the tech publisher O’Reilly. The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is aimed at home schoolers, high school students, and lifelong-learning adults. It is aptly subtitled “All lab, no lecture”

The Golden Book encouraged playing around with molecules, with no agenda beyond demonstrating the power, principles, and diversity of chemical reactions. The Illustrated Guide on the other hand is a basement laboratory manual meant to teach you the basic working principles of chemistry. How to mix a molar solution. How to titrate. How to do quantitative sleuthing. It claims that if you go through all the chapters you’ll be prepared to pass the college-level AP Chem Lab test. You would also be able to work in most laboratories. And of course, you would probably be able to follow most chemistry recipes from the internet, or at least to figure out what you need to make something chemistry-wise.

At the very least, this book should help cure any hysteria you — or your kids — might have about CHEMICALS. Sure, they can be dangerous, like your car. But we are surrounded by chemicals, and the only way to understand their real risks is to mess around with them.

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is a fantastic teacher for chemical literacy. It will show you or your kids how to work with chemicals, and why they are fun. Some of the experiments are visually entertaining. Others are scientifically important. It’s got wise advice about the few bits of equipment you’ll need for your lab. The Illustrated Guide very handily provides substitutions for ingredients whenever possible, so you can work around harder to acquire or expensive chemicals and gear. And it very conscientiously gives proper disposal instructions for substances at the end (the first I’ve ever seen in a chem book). The author is thrifty, using no more stuff then necessary, and always suggesting ways to purchase the minimum equipment.

Other than the hidden Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, there are simply no other decent books for the beginner chemical experimenter. The ones you find in libraries are simply useless trash. The stuff on the internet is haphazard and inconsistent. Follow the instructions here in the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments and you’ll be on your way to chemical literacy.

-- KK  

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments
Robert Thompson
2008, 432 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:


Using a Beral pipette to bring the water mass up to 100.00 g


Everyone rightly treats strong acids with great respect, but many students handle strong bases casually. That’s a very dangerous practice. Strong bases, such as solutions of sodium hydroxide, can blind you in literally seconds. Treat every chemical as potentially hazardous, and always wear splash goggles.



A laboratory notebook is a contemporaneous, permanent primary record of the owner’s laboratory work. In real-world corporate and industrial chemistry labs, the lab notebook is often a critically important document, for both scientific and legal reasons. The outcome of zillion-dollar patent lawsuits often hinges on the quality, completeness, and credibility of a lab notebook. Many corporations have detailed procedures that must be followed in maintaining and archiving lab notebooks, and some go so far as to have the individual pages of researchers’ lab notebooks notarized and imaged on a daily or weekly basis. If you’re just starting to learn about chemistry lab work, keeping a detailed lab notebook may seem to be overkill, but it’s not.



Do not overlook the advantages of banding together with other home schoolers or like-minded hobbyists to buy chemicals in bulk. For example. a vendor may charge $3 for 25g of a particular chemical. $5 for lOO g, and $9 for 500 g. If you need only small amounts of chemicals, you may be able to cut your chemical costs dramatically by arranging with other homeschooling families or hobbyists to order chemicals in larger quantities and divide them among you.

The cost advantage is particularly great for chemicals that incur hazardous shipping surcharges. For example, if you order 100 rnL of concentrated nitric acid for $5. the vendor may add a $35 hazardous material shipping surcharge, for a total of $40. But if you order a 500 mL bottle of concentrated nitric acid for $15, the same surcharge applies, for a total of $50. If you divide that chemical with four friends. each of you gets 100 mL of concentrated nitric acid for only $10.



The recent trend in chemistry labs, particularly school and university labs, is to substitute microscale chemistry equipment and procedures for traditional semi-micro or macroscale equivalents. Microscale chemistry, often called microchemistry, is just what it sounds like. Instead of using standard test tubes, beakers, and flasks to work with a few mL to a few hundred mL of solutions, you use miniaturized equipment to work with solution quantities ranging from 20 pL (microliters, where one pL equals 0.001 mL) to a couple mL.

Using microscale equipment and procedures has many advantages. Microscale equipment and procedures are less expensive than standard equipment and procedures, which is a major reason for the popularity of microscale chemistry. Using microscale equipment and procedures means that chemicals are needed in very small quantities, which are safer to work with and easier to dispose of properly. Microscale also makes it economically feasible to do experiments with very expensive chemicals, such as gold, platinum, and palladium salts. Setup and teardown is faster, allowing more time for actual experiments, and cleanup usually requires only rinsing the equipment and setting it aside to dry.

Against these advantages, there are several disadvantages to microscale chemistry. First and foremost, everything is on such a small scale that it can be difficult to see what’s going on. For example, you may need a magnifier to examine a precipitate (or even to determine whether there is a precipitate). Because of the small scale, measuring or procedural errors so small that they would have no effect on a traditional scale experiment can greatly affect the outcome of a microscale experiment.



Some of the chemicals you work with may stain or otherwise damage wooden or laminate work surfaces. I protect my work surfaces, which are standard kitchen laminate counters, by covering them with rubber nonslip mats that are available in various sizes and thicknesses at craft stores. I also put an old bath towel between the counter top and the rubber mat. The mat provides a smooth. level, chemical-resistant work surface, and the old towel absorbs any liquids that run off the mats.

My advisor. Dr. Mary Chervenak, is an expert on paints and coatings. I asked her and my other advisor. Dr. Paul Jones. if there was any kind of paint that could be used to protect surfaces from most laboratory chemicals. The short answer is “not really.” Standard latex, polyurethane, and epoxy-based paints and coatings offer reasonablv good protection against many reagents and solvents. including the dilute reagents used in most of the experiments in this book. However, they offer less (or no) protection against strong acids or bases or some organic solvents.

Still, as Dr. Jones commented, some protection is better than none, and in a sense you can think of these pints as ablative coatings. The coating itself may dissolve in or be eaten away by a strong chemical. but it may protect the underlying surface long enough for you to dilute, mop up, or neutralize the spill. It I used a wooden workbench or a similar surface. I’d put several thick coats of an epoxy-based deck or floor paint on it. and then protect it further with a rubber mat and towel.

Even if you take reasonable precautions and work carefully, it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll spill something nasty on your work surface. That’s a good argument for choosing a work surface that’s expendable. If you eat holes in a sheet of plywood or particle board, that’s cheap and easy to replace. If you eat holes in your washer/ dryer. you may have some explaining to do.



Chemical incompatibility matrix



This book is for anyone, from responsible teenagers to adults, who wants to learn about chemistry by doing real, hands-on laboratory experiments.

DIY hobbyists and science enthusiasts can use this book to master all of the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue chemistry as a lifelong hobby. Home school students and public school students whose schools offer only lecture-based chemistry courses can use this book to gain practical experience in real laboratory chemistry. A student who completes all of the laboratories in this book has done the equivalent of two full years of high school chemistry lab work or a first-year college general chemistry laboratory course.

And, finally, a word about who this book is not for. If you want to make fireworks and explosives-or perhaps we should say if all you want to make is fireworks and explosives-this book is not for you.

The Singularity is Near

This book offers three things that will make it a seminal document. 1) It brokers a new idea, not widely known. 2) The idea is about as big as you can get: the Singularity — all the change in the last millions years will be superceded by the change in the next five minutes, and 3) It is an idea that demands informed response. The book’s claims are so footnoted, documented, graphed, argued, and plausible in small detail, that it requires the equal in response. Yet its claims are so outrageous that if true, it would mean… well … the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of Utopia. Ray Kurzweil has taken all the strands of the Singularity meme circulating in the last decades and has united them into a single tome which he has nailed on our front door. I suspect this will be one of the most cited books of the decade. Like Paul Erlich’s upsetting 1972 book Population Bomb, fan or foe, it’s the wave at epicenter you have to start with.

– KK

The Singularity is Near
When Humans Transcend Biology
Ray Kurzweil
2005, 672 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Misperceptions about the shape of the future come up frequently and in a variety of contexts. As one example of many, in a recent debate in which I took part concerning the feasibility of molecular manufacturing, a Nobel Prize-winning panelist dismissed safety concerns regarding nanotechnology, proclaiming that “we’re not going to see self-replicating nanoengineered entities [devices constructed molecular fragment by fragment] for a hundred years.” I pointed out that one hundred years was a reasonable estimate and actually matched my own appraisal of the amount of technical progress required to achieve this particular milestone when measured at today’s rate of progress (five times the average rate of change we saw in the twentieth century). But because we’re doubling the rate of progress every decade, we’ll see the equivalent of a century of progress — at today’s rate — in only twenty-five calender years.


From my perspective, the Singularity has many faces. It represents the nearly vertical phase of exponential growth that occurs when the rate is so extreme that technology appears to be expanding at infinite speed. Of course, from a mathematical perspective, there is no discontinuity, no rupture, and the growth rates remain finite, although extraordinarily large. But from our currently limited framework, the imminent event appears to be an acute and abrupt break in the continuity of progress. I emphasize the word “currently” because one of the salient implications of the Singularity will be a change in the nature of our ability to understand. We will become vastly smarter as we merge with our technology.


Evolution applies positive feedback: the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. As described in the previous chapter, each epoch of evolution has progressed more rapidly by building on the products of the previous stage. Evolution works through indirection: evolution created humans, humans created technology, humans are now working with increasingly advanced technology to create new generations of technology. By the time of the Singularity, there won’t be a distinction between humans and technology.


Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.



This super educational series from the Discovery channel is now on DVD. The two hosts, veteran Hollywood effects experts, test urban myths. You know, folklore such as: you get less wet if you walk, not run, in rain. Or, you can kill someone with a bullet of ice that leaves no evidence. Or, a small hole in an airplane at altitude will rupture into a large one and suck everyone out. If it involves explosives, all the better — can a cell phone cause an explosion at a gas station? In each episode they build elaborate equipment to recreate the conditions of the myth in order to determine if the myth is remotely possible. Sometimes the apparatus is formidable. They bought a steel ship to test whether sinking it would suck you down if you were swimming nearby (a la Titanic). Their comprehensive recreation of the myth that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will kill you is brilliant and probably the final word on the subject. The cool part is the techie way they approach the problems: make stuff yourself. As in the series Junkyard Wars, you learn a lot by watching tinkerers quickly build things that really work. But here, they are not just engineering. They are actually doing an entertaining kind of science experiment, with controls, measurements, and results. Once the defined experiment is completed they push it to the limit. In other words their approach to investigating an urban legend is this: first they test the conditions as stated in the myth, and then if that does not work, they try to recreate the results of the urban legend. For instance, if they can’t get an ordinary cell phone to ignite overflowing gasoline at a gas station (and they couldn’t), they’ll keep modifying the phone, gas supply, voltage, whatever it takes until they can get results — a spark from something like a phone that blows the station up. Cool! My entire family, including teenage girls, watches these with glee, and more than once, since there’s a lot going on. And as a bonus, you wind up with a fairly good grasp of which urban legends have any veracity. Now on the third season, they cover three myths per episode.

-- KK  

$35 per season on DVD
Available from Amazon

Also available streaming through Amazon Prime and Netflix

New Scientist

Science is the only new news. There is more and more of it than ever and I have trouble keeping up. I’ve been an off-and-on subscriber to the richest source, Science, but I am currently off it simply because I could not keep up with the weekly deluge of diamond-dense information it dumped on me. Scientific American is drastically uneven, and recently too preachy, so although I subscribe, it is not essential. Discover is okay but not as, well, scientific. Over the years, the only periodical that has remained a constant source of readable science news, with no dumbing down, and much uplifting of ideas, as well as providing a great sense of important frontiers, is New Scientist. It is smart, ahead of the curve of other publications, deep, accessible, and reliable. If you can only subscribe to one source of the new news, New Scientist is it.

I value it most for what it does not run. It doesn’t explain what DNA is again. Rather it talks up to its readers, assuming you have basic science literacy. Think of it as an Economist for science. It wisely selects pattern-shifting stuff, and I’ve come to concur with its nose for interesting news that will stay new. Issues from years ago still read fresh. Yet it avoids hype and sci-fi wet dreams.

Much of its power stems from its reliance on subscribers rather than consumer advertisers for its income; it really does serve readers. But that also means this weekly British publication is on the expensive side. Rather than the normal $18 per year that most ad-inflated magazines in the US charge, this weekly will run you $150 annually. (There’s a cheap intro price to get you hooked.) It is well worth the investment. May it live long and prosper.

– KK

New Scientist
51 issues per year
$99 new print/online subscriptions
$85 online access only
Available from
New Scientist

$150 (renewals)
Available from Amazon
$70-$150 custom subscriptions & renewals available for students, educators, seniors, low income, and others. Call Elsevier publishers 888-822-3242.


The Amateur Naturalist

The best hands-on-guide to nature experiments in print. Chock full of projects doable in a few hours to a day, whether you are an adult or kid. Just outside your door, no matter where you live, is the largest laboratory available anywhere. Hello, living neighborhood!

– KK

The Amateur Naturalilst
Nick Baker
2005, 256 pages

Sample Excerpts:

Mounting and displaying bones.
Forget plastic model-making – this is the ultimate model kit!


Resist the temptation to collect lots of spawn or tadpoles. Although you often come across huge quantities in the wild, only a few percent of it will survive. So collect a small quantity of newly laid spawn – it should be quite firm and easy to separate with your finger. Half a cupful is an ideal quantity to achieve a ratio of three to five tadpoles for every liter of water (14-22 per gallon).

Take spawn from garden ponds wherever possible – it keeps your impact and disturbance of wild populations to a minimum. It is also good practice not to risk contaminating a habitat by introducing spawn, pond weed, or any other form of life that you have collected elsewhere. This is commonsense herpetological hygiene. Frogs in particular suffer from contagious diseases that may be spread unnecessarily in this way.


Although the very fragility of a spider’s web is part of its attraction, it is a shame to think that these phenomenal feats of design and construction rarely last longer than a day. However, if you find a web without a spider in residence, it is possible to collect and preserve one of these fabulous structures. Choose a still day and make sure the web is dry, with no droplets of dew.

You will need:
the most gorgeous orb web you can find
a sheet of newspaper
a can of white or black spray paint
a can of artist’s fixative (available at art shops) or hair spray
a sheet of cardboard large enough to fit the web on and in a color that contrasts well with the paint

1. Position the newspaper behind the web so that you don’t get paint all over whatever is behind it, then spray the web evenly and lightly on both sides from a distance of about 40 cm (16 in) – much closer and the pressure of the paint will damage the web. Leave it to dry for a while and repeat.


Gonzo Gizmos

My favorite amateur science experimenter has gathered the coolest hacks from his website into a browseable book. Here Simon Field tells you how to use disposable trash to make very small versions of hi-tech machines — like a Van de Graaff generator, or magnetic train gun, or what he calls a plastic hydrogen bomb. The secret to the fun and enlightenment is to keep everything very small — which makes it cheap, fast, and safe.

There’s lots more amateur exploration at his wonderful website, but this plain book (black and white printing) contains a fine selection of his best stuff, and is great for an introductory gift.

-- KK  

Gonzo Gizmos: Projects & Devices to Channel Your Inner Geek
by Simon Field
2003, 228 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

In the previous two projects, we stole high voltage from a television set to power our high voltage motors. In this project we will build a device that can generate 12,000 volts from an empty soda can and a rubber band.

The device is called a Van de Graaff generator. Science museums and research facilities have large versions that generate potentials in the hundreds of thousands of volts. Ours is more modest, but is still capable of drawing 1/2 inch sparks from the soda can to my finger. The spark is harmless, and similar to the jolt you get from a doorknob after scuffing your feet on the carpet.

This very simple toy uses a magnetic chain reaction to launch a steel marble at a target at high speed. The toy is very simple to build, going together in minutes, and is very simple to understand and explain, and yet fascinating to watch and to use.


My review of Simon Field’s website, Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids, is here:

Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids


Modern Biology catalog

The winter 2002 issue of the venerable hacker’s zine 2600 had a decent article about bio-hacking. Here is the $80 kit they recommend for introducing a firefly gene into an E. coli bacteria. It’s made for classroom use, but will work fine at home.

Producing a Strain of E. coli that Glows in the Dark
Available from Modern Biology, Inc.



Creative Biotechnology

Not yet at the level of a dummies’ guides, this book supplies explicit instructions for executing basic genetic procedures with a minimum equipment. The couple of hacks sketched out (cloning a tree, starting a culture of your own skin) are enough to get your enthusiasm going. I wish the material was better organized, and I wish there was more of it. The book is handy, but the PDF of the book is free and immediate.

Creative Biotechnology: A user’s manual
By Natalie Jermijenko & Eugene Thacker
20 pounds
Locus +17, 3rd Floor
Wards Building
31-39 High Bridge
Newcastle upon Tyne

Creative Biotechnology, PDF