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Ohio prof takes serious look at Legos

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — More than 400 billion Lego bricks have been produced since 1958. That's about 62 bricks per person on Earth.

Of course, there are some households that have more than their share. And then there are a few enthusiasts who really tip the scale.

Take Paul Janssen. He built a replica of Ohio Stadium that alone required more than 1 million pieces.

Don't worry, he has more.

The basement in his Dublin house is filled with large red and blue Lego bins that are stacked to the ceiling in neat rows.

Each contains the materials he needs to feed his passion for building intricate skyscrapers, hyper-realistic trains and various sculptures. On one counter is a basketball. Elsewhere, an unfinished BCS Championship Trophy lies on its side, waiting for more bricks.

Other mysterious pieces, projects and figures are scattered through the room, suggesting Janssen's mind at work. He also rents a storage locker to keep finished pieces that he refuses to dismantle.

But this story is not about Legos on steroids. This is about a smaller subset of aficionados: scientists drawn to the rigid plastic world of Lego.

Janssen is an associate professor of physiology and cell biology at Ohio State University.

On his university website, he describes his focus as: "The mechanisms that govern and/or impact on cardiac relaxation in health and disease, with a focus on how mechanical activity is regulated by physiological regulation using frequency-, length, and betaadrenergic stimulation. His interest in Legos is more easily explained.

"I grew up with them," said Janssen, a native of the Netherlands where Legos are even more ubiquitous than in the United States.

Girls, parties and college put that on hold, and it would be years before he rediscovered an unfinished Lego train set at his parents' home.

He started buying bricks again, and after he started at Ohio State, he formed the Central Ohio Lego Train Club.

Janssen said his scientific training often helps with Lego building. He said it comes in handy when calculating how many bricks a project requires or determining stress points or angles.

Fellow club member Ben Coifman, an OSU professor of electrical and computer engineering, said science has helped his work with Legos as well.

He said building requires deductive reasoning and, for some intricate designs, computer programming. He said building a train is a "really neat constrained engineering problem."

"You're finding solutions much like you do in academia," Coifman said. "There's a give and take of ideas while adding your own."

Coifman and Janssen believe in this connection so much that they created a freshman seminar called the Art and Science of Lego Bricks, in which students learn about Lego history as well as its connection to engineering, business, design and art.

"All of these topics in the context of Lego are a great microcosm of the bigger world," Coifman said.

The Central Ohio Lego Train Club has about 25 members, who create trains, buildings and even replica cities for display.

Some of their work currently is included in an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. Janssen said it is an appropriate place for these works.

"Like all art, you have to actually see it to appreciate it," he said. "People have this idea of Lego building when they were kids, so when they just hear about a skyscraper, they think of a tall stack of blocks."

But is it art? "There are always going to be skeptics," Janssen said. "There's tons of people that would consider it art and there's others that would say it's more of a craftsmanship."

Coifman, on the other hand, doesn't think much about it.

"I don't know and I don't care if it's art," he said. "They're in an art museum... ."

Michael McNally, brand relations director at Lego, said there are many adult enthusiasts.

"They are taking it to the next level and are showing the potential of Legos," McNally said.

"We are really thankful for the fans and their abilities. They're inspiring others to build and create."

Including Coifman's 6-year-old son, Max, who joined a junior Lego club.

"We both (love Legos)," Max said. "It's cool."

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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