Lux Blox STEM and STEAM Build Anything Toy

The Wrath of Math: How a 1982 Star Trek Movie Inspired the Creation of the First Fractal Building Block

Posted by Mike Acerra on

In the early 1980s, "The Wrath of Khan," a film from the Star Trek saga, did more than captivate audiences worldwide—it sparked a profound curiosity in a young Mike Acerra. This curiosity would not only shape his educational journey, blending engineering with art but also lead to the creation of a groundbreaking educational toy, Lux Blox, alongside his wife Heather. Their innovative design recently clinched the top prize at the Bank Tank competition in Davenport, Iowa, an event championed by Fortress Bank to celebrate inventive entrepreneurship.
The film featured a mesmerizing fractal animation, a depiction of a terraforming project called Genesis, that became the first instance of a fully computer-generated cinematic image (CGI) in a feature film and humanity's first introduction to an animated fractal. The man behind this revolutionary CGI, Loren Carpenter, transitioned from an IBM programmer to a visual effects pioneer at Lucasfilm, employing fractal geometry to craft lifelike landscapes.
Loren Carpenter is a figure whose contributions to the field of computer graphics and digital imagery are profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of his IBM co-worker, Benoit Mandelbrot, the discoverer of fractal geometry.
Mandelbrot's discovery was revolutionary because it provided a mathematical framework to describe the irregular and complex shapes found in nature, such as the branching of trees, the structure of snowflakes, or the coastline's intricate patterns. Before fractal geometry, these shapes were difficult to represent mathematically.
Fractal geometry is a branch of mathematics that explores the concept of self-similarity in nature. Unlike traditional geometric shapes, fractals are complex structures that look similar at any scale. This means that if you zoom in on a section of a fractal, you will find smaller copies of the whole shape. This property is known as self-similarity.
This intersection of science fiction and technological innovation unveiled the intricate math underlying natural structures, deeply influencing Mike. Driven by this revelation, Mike pursued an unconventional academic path, starting with engineering and transitioning to studio art, drawing inspiration from thinkers like Buckminster Fuller. His quest to unravel nature's construction principles led him to a secluded life in a Maine forest, where he lived in a yurt, studying the fractal nature of flora and fauna. This intense period of exploration and study culminated in the development of the Y-modular system in 1991, a novel approach that applied fractal principles to create complex structures from simple Y-shaped modules.
This theoretical framework laid the groundwork for Lux Blox, a toy that transcends conventional play by enabling children to engage with the fractal geometry that underpins the natural world. Mike and Heather's vision was to craft a toy that not only entertains but educates, introducing children to nature's fundamental design principles in an intuitive and playful manner.
During the Bank Tank competition, Mike encapsulated their mission, stating, "We learned in the 20th century that the universe has this elegant architectural operating system that we wanted to put into kids' hands—so we essentially scienced the shit out of this block." This sentiment, echoing the resourcefulness of Mark Watney from "The Martian," highlights their commitment to demystifying complex scientific concepts through engaging and hands-on experiences.
Heather emphasizes the concept of "sneaky learning" with Lux Blox, where children, unbeknownst to them, delve into sophisticated engineering principles through the sheer joy of building. "Kids don't have to know they are learning this amazing engineering system used by nature—all they need to know is how much fun it is to build with. The learning comes from the doing," she explains.
The story of Lux Blox is not just about a toy; it's a testament to how inspiration, drawn from the intersection of art and science, can lead to innovations that educate and inspire the next generation, nurturing a deeper connection with the natural world.

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