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The top gift for science geeks

The results are in: This year's top gift for science geeks, decided by a decidedly unscientific survey, is the spinthariscope - one of the few toys out there that's truly nuclear-powered.

The Wikipedia entry calls the spinthariscope a "now almost entirely disused scientific device for observing individual nuclear disintegrations." The principle behind the palm-sized contraption was discovered by accident more than a century ago by William Crookes, who noticed tiny sparks of light when he looked at the interaction of radium and zinc sulfide under a microscope. That observation led him to create a palm-sized device that takes its name from the Greek word for "spark" ("spintharis").

Nowadays, the spinthariscope is basically an educational toy: If you take the sealed container into a darkened room and look through the magnifying lens, you'll see the same sparks that caught Crookes' attention way back when. The flashes are created by alpha particles, the same type of radiation involved in the continuing polonium poisoning mystery. But don't worry: The toy spinthariscope is considered safe.

Some people claim to have constructed homebrew versions of the device, and the occasional antique item does come on the market. But United Nuclear - yes, the same company that sells tiny samples of polonium-210 - appears to be the primary source for spinthariscopes nowadays. That's the outlet recommended by the winner of our "Geek Gift" contest, Mnementh of Callahan, Fla.:

"The gift for the No. 1 Geek on my list this year is the Spinthariscope. Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a nuclear-powered toy. For the younger geek (geekling?), I'll get some of the nifty phosphorescent powder and make a seriously funky nightlight. Beats the heck out of Barbie."

Mnementh's suggestion not only came out on top of the Live Vote runoff, but it earned high praise from one of the other Geek Gift competitors, Brian Glanz of Seattle:

"Even I wanted to vote for the Nuclear Spinthariscope! Put the fun back in science and encourage hands-on learning. It's only too bad United Nuclear can't process more orders in time for the holidays, but it'd be worth the wait. Nice find, Mnementh, and congratulations."

Mnementh's victory earns the big geek grab bag, filled with geeky T-shirts, gewgaws and software. And for putting in such a great effort (as well as being so sportsmanlike in defeat), Glanz will get a scaled-down version of the grab bag containing trinkets.

I should mention that some of our correspondents sent in great Web links to more geek-gift resources - including ThinkGeek, Ken Murphy's "Best of the Moon 2006," the build-it-yourself Science Toys Web site and Nick Greene's gift guide for space and astronomy enthusiasts.

But wait ... there's more: My blogging colleague here at, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, has provided some fantastic change-of-pace suggestions with her gift guide for entertainment junkies. Sign me up for that Homer Simpson talking-head cookie jar!

With that, I'd like to wish the winners, the also-rans and the readers here a happy Hanukkah, a merry Christmas, a peaceful Hajj ... and a wonderful holiday season.