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Whirligigs Revolutionize Remote Medicine

This article appeared in the January 20, 2017 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Lisa Justice

Special to the Enterprise


Have you ever wondered what kinds of toys kids played with hundreds of years ago? Or how doctors in the developing world do tests without hospital equipment? The answer lies in the whirligig toy. Try one for yourself to discover how.


You will need: some string, a cup, a pencil, scissors and some cardboard or stiff paper. Use the pencil to trace a circle around the bottom of the cup onto the cardboard and cut it out with the scissors.


Carefully cut two small holes next to each other in the center of the cardboard circle. Cut a piece of string and thread it through one hole to the back of the cardboard circle, then through the other so that both ends of the string are on the same side of the cardboard.


Tightly knot the ends of the string together. Thread your thumbs through the string so that the string is tight and the cardboard circle is in the middle.


Holding the string a little loosely, spin the cardboard circle so that the string twists on both sides. When the string is very twisted, pull your hands apart to put tension on the string. Watch what happens.


Can you put enough tension on the string to make your cardboard circle start spinning in the opposite direction once it fully unwinds? How long can you keep your cardboard circle moving?


Believe it or not, a simple paper disk such as this can spin over 125,000 times every minute! That’s great news for doctors in developing countries who need to perform tests on their patients’ blood, but don’t have expensive hospital equipment or the electricity to run them.


One important test, used to diagnose malaria, relies on spinning a sample of blood very quickly to separate different kinds of cells from each other. Usually this test is performed with a centrifuge, a large, expensive device that requires electricity.


But recently scientists working in remote parts of Africa began repurposing this whirligig toy to spin their blood samples--no electricity or fancy equipment required! Just attach the blood sample to the disk in the middle, and spin away!



Explorit’s coming events:


  • Calling all 5th-8th graders--join our new Conservation Club, in partnership with Think Elephants International! Explorit is collaborating on a 4-workshop series with Think Elephants International, Inc. to expose students to the study of animal behavior, scientific research, and in-situ conservation, while focusing on the Asian elephant. The series of four workshops is scheduled for early 2017 and includes four weekend workshops culminating in a live Skype event with elephant handlers and researchers in Thailand. The registration fee for the workshop series is $130, with 25% of the proceeds going to Think Elephants International. Call Explorit for more information and to register now at 530-756-0191 or email Alfreda at

  • Summer Science Camp registration is coming soon! Details will be coming to soon.

  • Explorit’s Exploration Gallery is open to the public every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m. and every Friday, 3:00-6:00 p.m.  Admission is $5.00 per person; Explorit members, teachers and children 2 and under are free. Come check out the new Nano Mini Exhibition!



Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit, or “like” us on Facebook at

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