Awesome Stuff: Great Desk Toy, Or Greatest Desk Toy?

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Move over Newton’s Cradle, there’s a new physics-based desk toy in town: Ferroflow, the automatic ferrofluid sculpture.

The Good

A few years ago, ferrofluid became a brief online sensation when a video of Sachiko Kodama’s synchronized sculptures went viral. It was one of those “I could stare at this for hours” moments, with the shapes and movements of the ferrofluid in a shifting magnetic field proving utterly beautiful and captivating. Magnetism is unique as a feature of the physical world that we encounter daily in plenty of mundane situations and yet which still produces effects that are un-intuitive to our brains on a basic level — and the seemingly-unnatural shapes that ferrofluid takes bring that fact to the forefront.

In short: ferrofluid is cool, and the Ferroflow brings it to your house or office in all its glory. The device produces its own ever-shifting magnetic field to keep the fluid in constant, lava-lamp-like motion, and also lets you take control via a single adjustment knob. Beyond that, it’s nothing fancy, because it doesn’t need to be: good desk toys, from the iconic Newton’s Cradle to the various once-popular displays of oil and water, are less about elaborate mechanisms and more about teasing out curious and entertaining aspects of nature in the simplest way possible.

The Bad

Okay, so this isn’t going to change the world — in fact, it’s quite the indulgence, given the cost of the unit: $240 at full price, with just a handful of slightly discounted early-bird deals still available. If you (quite sensibly) think that’s far too much to spend on a toy like this, there is an alternative: the Mini Ferroflow, that strips the concept down to even barer bones. There’s no automatic mode and no control knob: it’s just a sealed vial of ferrofluid and a couple of loose magnets to manipulate it with. The resulting shapes and splashes are no less fascinating, though, and $35 is a far less balk-worthy price.

The Safe, Presumably

This is a bit of an aside, but if we’re talking about magnetic toys, let’s take a moment to remember the death of Buckyballs. For the unfamiliar, these were a super-popular toy consisting of nothing but a bunch of powerful spherical magnets and all the amazing shapes they could form. They were fun and satisfying to manipulate. They also, unfortunately, led to a lot of genuine horror stories about internal injuries caused to children who swallowed them, which set off an ongoing dispute between the manufacturer and the government. It got pretty ugly, and though it seems like Buckyballs should still be available for older kids and adults, they aren’t — the toy was recalled and removed from the market last year. The Ferroflow probably won’t be lining the shelves of toy stores and thus is unlikely to face any similar conflict — but I bring it up because the whole saga is an interesting study in safety regulation, personal responsibility, and choosing how to react when your toy starts injuring children.

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