For the people on your list who love doing science projects — or just contemplating the wonders of human knowledge — these gifts are sure to delight, educate ... and be seriously badass.
Of course you want to own a little piece of the wonder substance that's 90% air, waterproof, and is also the lightest material known to humanity. There are many different ways to get your slice of aerogel, but our favorite is a glowing blue lozenge of the stuff (pictured up top). $60 at BuyAerogel.
This is the modern-day answer to home science kits for kids and adults to tinker with. It doesn't have the crazy-dangerous poisons and bomb-building instructions of the old Gilbert chemistry sets or the radioactive samples of the 1950s Atomic Energy kits, but it also isn't some sanitized, guaranteed-safe-to-the-point-of-boredom snorefest. It contains a microprocessor (Arduino), a crapton of wires, resistors, switches, and capacitors, a few speciality items (small motor, LED screen), and an instruction book that will walk you from your very first project ("I can make the blinky light blink!") all the way up to building a light theremin. Once you're done the book, you'll have enough practice and pieces to navigate online resources and build anything you can imagine. It's absolutely amazing for anyone who always wanted to get started with microprocessors, but has no idea how to start. Even better, the pieces are highly applicable to a wide variety of projects, so it's also a great setup for someone with more skill but doesn't have an existing tinkering kit, and you aren't going to outgrow it quickly. $98.36 at Arduino
One of the best ways to learn about the mechanical devices in our everyday lives is to find out how locks are made — by picking them, of course! Not only will this skill come in handy when you lose your keys, but it will give you a new appreciation for the technical art of security. This kit includes tools and a lockpick guide for opening common pin-tumbler locks. $99.99 at Maker Shed.
Who doesn't want their own tiny electronic buddy? This is an industrial-aesthetic version of furbies, a bare chip with just enough facial features to be cute, but loaded with sensors so it will respond to external stimulus (light, sound, touch, and infrared from other little robots) based on its unique and changeable personality. The personalities are based on a 6-characteristic sliding scale, from chatty to blunt, brave to scardy-robot, and even ticklish to awkward. It's another gateway-to-tinkering gift: you can either get the pieces to assemble and solder yourself, or purchase one pre-assembled. For the hardcore coder-geek, you can even get a developer dock to write and load your own code onto the little friend. Ready-made robot for 74.95 or DiY robot kit for 49.95 at Little Robot Friends
Build-your-own Leonardo Da Vinci models
Put together gorgeous cut-wood model of one of Da Vinci's machines from his notebooks. The ornithopter, catapult and air screw each take about two hours to assemble — no sanding or drilling required — and have full range of motion. Delight in the beauty of these designs while you build. From $19.50, at Lee Valley
The raspberry pi powered Kano computer was created for kids to learn how to make their own computer, and code music, games, software, etc. A great way to demystify computers, and teach beginners of all ages how to program. $149.99 at Kano
If you want a 3D printer, and have some money to spare, you won't get better than this compact MakerBot, from the company that popularized the desktop 3D printing revolution. Learn how to turn computer designs into reality with this beautiful machine — perfect for models, toys, and more. $1,375 at MakerBot
Now you can have your own beautiful colony of bioluminescent plankton, known as dinoflagellates, in a small, dinosaur-shaped tank. Just pour the plankton in (they ship in a nicely-sealed bag of water), add some dino food (also in a nicely sealed bag), and let your plankton thrive. At night, shake the dino gently, and it glows with a zillion teeny blue specks of light. It's a delightful way to learn a little marine biology. $59.95 at Biopop.
Want to know what you're seeing when you look up into the starry vault above? Actually, it's pretty easy — all you need are a few star charts and a nice pair of binoculars. This kit has everything you need to get started. Soon you'll be identifying constellations, galaxies, clusters, and (of course) Messier objects! $69.95 at The Space Store
This is the greatest mad science kit ever. You can actually attach a computer chip to a real, live cockroach and control its movements. As the inventors of this device explain:
With our RoboRoach you can briefly wirelessly control the left/right movement of a cockroach by microstimulation of the antenna nerves. The RoboRoach is a great way to learn about neural microstimulation, learning, and electronics!
Please do not use this knowledge for evil. $99.99 at Backyard Brains
For the DNA fetishist in your life, here's the next weird quantified self thing to obsess over. u-Biome will sequence DNA from the organisms in your microbiomes (you can choose which one, or do all five, which include gut, mouth, skin, nose, and genitals). The science behind this is still in its infancy, so you won't learn all that much about your health — but you will discover what kinds of organisms live inside your body, and who else out there has similar ones. $89 for a gut kit, $399 for five-site kit at u-Biome
They're based on UNESCO's annual celebrations of specific scientific fields. Page's posters this year celebrate The International Year of Crystallography. £40.00 at Rare Minimum.
They're on the pricey side, but oh so cool. These steins are made of dewar flasks, which are usually used in research labs to keep things like liquid nitrogen cold for days on end. Basically, the very best thermos you will EVER find. Good for hot and cold. Created by a scientist at UC Berkeley! Starting at $230 at Funranium Labs.
Many thanks to Robbie Gonzalez and Mika McKinnon for their help with this guide!