Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Molecule Sandbox

Are your children already tired of their Christmas toys and games? Or would you like to see them play with something less violent and more educational?

Vi Hart’s math doodle games can provide countless hours of fun. But another option that you may want to try is the Molecular Dynamics Applet that I created three years ago. It was originally intended for college students, but I soon discovered that small children love it.

The MD Applet is a sandbox for playing with atoms and molecules. Make up to a thousand atoms, large or small, in your favorite color. Watch them jiggle around endlessly, attracting and repelling their neighbors. Add energy to make liquid droplets boil; remove energy to make a gas condense and then freeze into a solid crystal. Start with an orderly arrangement and watch entropy increase. Connect atoms together with bonds, and even build simulated nano-scale machinery.

I don’t spend much time around small children, but Christmas is often an exception. This year I found myself entertaining (and being entertained by) a delightful seven-year-old who kept coming back, asking to play some more with the MD Applet. She asked her deepest question almost immediately: Why don’t they all just fall down and stop?

And in between molecular dynamics sessions, she learned how to draw stars with seven, eight, and even ten points!

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