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Beacon Blog: Buckyballs and design

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2010 It's after Christmas as this is posted, so I'm sure I've received (and given, of course) many wonderful gifts. One I received a bit early was from my girlfriend: two sets of Buckyballs.

Buckyballs (other brands out there -- Zen Magnets, Neocube, Cybercube, Nanospheres, etc. -- I'm not endorsing any particular one) are BB-sized spherical rare earth magnets. You can manipulate and arrange them in any number of shapes, from a long rope to a rigid stick, a cube or a hollow sphere, and more complex shapes.

These toys interest me because they aren't quite a free-form building tool. You can't always picture a structure and then snap the magnets together the way you would Lego bricks. There are rules -- being magnets, the tiny balls actually have two poles, and therefore will repel as well as attract.

For example, if you have two long chains of single-file magnets and you bring them close together side by side, one of two things can happen -- either the balls will match up one right next to the other, giving you a nice grid, or they'll alternate, with each one fitting into the space between two in the other strand. It depends which way the poles are aligned.

Combining the grid pattern with alternating patterns and then bringing the whole thing into three dimensions results in a staggering number of possible designs, all from a single kind of building block and a couple unbreakable rules.

Sounds like design to me. We take a few basic design principles, a couple simple building blocks -- HTML, CSS and a little bit of PHP -- and can produce a nearly unlimited spectrum of designs, simple to complex.

You can snap these magnets into place for hours, coming up with new designs or making small tweaks to well-known structures. Sometimes it's frustrating when you've nearly completed a complex layout and one final addition produces some unintended consequences, possibly requiring you to start again from scratch -- maybe even with a new plan. And of course, when the plan finally does come together and you snap those final few pieces into place, you can admire your creation and the planning and execution it took to bring it into reality.

Then you get to start over, use the same rules, tools and building blocks, and create something completely new. That's fun.

Brent is the data visual specialist at St. Louis Public Radio.

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