Gold, Frankincense and Ur

December 19, 1997

Julia Hinde talks to the academics who have created this year's most clever gifts

On the shelves of children's books, nestling between Joanna Spyri's Heidi and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is the remarkable story of Uncle Albert.

Uncle Albert and his three science adventures were dreamt up by a now retired Open University professor. They have sold more than 60,000 copies in the United Kingdom and are available in 15 languages.

Academic Russell Stannard was first inspired to bring physics to children as an undergraduate. "When I got to university I had my mind blown by relativity," he says. "It was wonderful. I was quite annoyed that no one had told me about it when I was young.

"I tried to tell adults what I had learned, but they backed away and said you had to be a genius to understand relativity. They kept saying it was against common sense. Then I came across a saying by Einstein: 'Common sense is the layer of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of 18.' We need to be told these things when our minds are still flexible."

Decades later, when his wife was studying for a BEd, she came across a psychologist who said that you could teach any subject to any child in an intellectually honest way, it was just a case of finding a courteous translation. "That was the Eureka moment for me."

Stannard started doing his homework on child psychology, trying to understand how children thought. Publishers, however, were less than enthusiastic about his first drafts for a book that did not fit the traditional formula for a textbook or a novel. Here was a fictional sci-fi adventure, except all the science was real.

"I heard the The Lord of the Flies got turned down 17 times," says Stannard. "I decided that if a Nobel winner was prepared to send out a manuscript 18 times, I should do the same." The 18th publisher he tried was Faber, publisher of the William Golding novel. They accepted Stannard's draft. "It felt tremendous," he says.

Stannard is now in huge demand. Uncle Albert has brought to life Einstein's special theory of relativity, general relativity and quantum theory. In two separate books, Uncle Albert has addressed some of the questions sent in by children, and soon Stannard will publish Uncle Albert: 100 and a half tricky science questions answered.

Uncle Albert books are available from bookshops, price Pounds 3.99.

Tastes in board games have not changed greatly over the past 4,000 years, according to a British Museum expert who has revived an ancient Mesopotamian pastime.

The British Museum has one of several ancient gaming boards excavated from Ur in southern Iraq in the 1920s. The boards were found with playing pieces and dice in ancient royal burial sites dating from 2600 bc. The rules, however, were a mystery until Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the museum's department of Western Asiatic antiquities, was asked to translate cuneiform script pressed into a clay tablet held at the museum.

The tablet contained a diagram of a board as well as the rules for a board game, including details of how bets could be placed. "It was obvious that what was being described was a game," Finkel says. "But it was quite difficult to tell which one. When I tried it out on the museum's board, it worked.

"We have a lot of objects that have survived over the centuries as well as inscriptions. But to have the two together is very rare. It's very exciting bringing an ancient game to life."

The museum developed a replica of the gaming board discovered in the royal graves. "I was absolutely delighted when I first played the game," Finkel says. "It looks like the real thing. It was played for at least 3,000 years - it's not like it was an overnight wonder."

The Royal Game of Ur, price Pounds 29.95, mail order from the British Museum, London.

Biochemist Robin Willson was bemused when new 1p coins kept sticking to his key retainer. He could not understand how coins made of bronze could be magnetic. A call to the Royal Mint revealed that the 1p and 2p pieces are now being made from soft steel to make the face value of the coin equal to the value of the metal from which it was cut.

Willson, formerly a professor at Brunel University and now researching in Buenos Aires, used these strong magnetic properties to make penny sculptures from the coins, explains Patrick Riley, who helped him commercialise the idea. A neighbour's child was being treated for cancer at Barts Hospital in London, Riley says, and, when Willson visited, he "happened to have pennies and a magnet in his pocket and the children started playing with them. He decided this would be a brilliant way to entertain and educate children".

Willson and Riley came up with Magic Pennies, a set that enables children to build penny pyramids and suspend pennies in the air. An accompanying booklet explains how magnetism allow them to do this.

All royalties from Magic Pennies go to the children's cancer ward at St Bartholomews.

Magic Pennies, price Pounds 19.99, from the Science Museum shop.

The ultimate "educational but cute" Christmas gift is available from Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab - and it doesn't cost a penny. The lab, which designs educational material for children, gives away WorkRooms, a computer program containing several games, including one challenging the use of language and another involving a broken calculator. What's more, they feature "cute furry animals".

Stephen Heppell, head of Ultralab, says: "We believe in models where children learn through doing, and we are delighted by what they do. Workrooms records what children have done and allows them to present their success to teachers and parents."

For parents thinking ahead, Ultralab is designing the gift for Christmas 2000. By then they hope to have the millennium "turtle" fully operational. They are updating the classroom turtle, the simple computer-controlled robot that has kept school children captivated for years. The new turtle will not only go backwards and forwards, but, says Heppell, it will have vision and sound recognition, too. Heppell hopes the turtle will retail for less than Pounds 100.

Workrooms are at www.ultralab.anglia.ac.uk or on CD from the Ultralab, email lys@ultralab.anglia.ac.uk A book almost certain to be in many children's stockings is The Even More Amazing Science Pop-up Book, designed and written by a young graphic design lecturer at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

Jay Young's first pop-up science book, The Most Amazing Pop-Up Science Book, published in 1994, was a runaway success. It eventually sold half a million copies worldwide, even though every major publisher had turned it down.

Young's second book features working pop-up models of scientific objects, including an egg-timer, an abacus and binoculars.

The Even More Amazing Science Pop-Up Book, price Pounds 15.99, from most bookshops.

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