Be Amazing! Blogs

2010 11.06

All About Amber

Have you ever heard of amber?  Amber is a translucent gemstone that is used in jewelry.  But do you know where amber comes from?   

Amber is fossilized tree resin!  Some trees (especially coniferous trees such as pine trees and redwoods) produce a thick, sticky substance that oozes out of breaks and cracks in its wood.  This sticky substance is called resin.  Scientists are still arguing about why trees make resin.  Some scientists think that trees make resin to protect themselves against bugs and other things.  Other scientists say that trees just make resin by accident.  Who knows?  Maybe someday YOU will figure it out!  Here is a picture of resin dripping from a pine tree:

From Wikipedia Commons

When resin gets buried underground, it can turn into a fossil.  Over a long period of time (scientists think tens of millions of years) resin that is very far underground experiences very high temperatures and pressures.  The very high temperatures and pressures "boil off” some of the chemicals in the resin and cause others to polymerize.  This means that the smaller molecules link up like train cars in a train.  Over time, this polymerization forms amber.

Because amber started out as a thick, sticky liquid, it sometimes contains things trapped inside, like pieces of plants, rock, or even bugs!   Here is a picture of a spider that was trapped in an amber gemstone.  

from Wikimedia commons, uploaded by Elisabeth from the Netherlands

Amber comes in different colors, ranging from white to pale yellow to brownish-black.  Amber of other colors has also been found, such as red, green, or even blue (although blue amber is very rare and very expensive.)  Most amber is a golden color, sort of like honey.  This is the color people mean when they say something is "amber-colored.”   Amber can be melted and burned, and in the past people used to use it as medicine or in perfume.  

Amber was important in our understanding of electricity.  As far back as 600 BC, a philosopher from ancient Greece (Thales of Miletus) noted that rubbing fur on amber made the amber attract light objects, like hair.  Later, scientists discovered that the fur was leaving electrons behind on the amber, giving the amber a slight negative charge.  In fact, the words "electron” and "electricity” actually come from the Greek word for amber!  

Amber was recently in the news.  Scientists excavating amber in western India found many pieces of amber with ancient insects, arachnids, crustaceans, plants, and even mammal remains trapped inside.  The scientists think that the specimens are about 50 million years old.  Because some of the fossil insects  are similar to fossils found in Central America, this amber might change what geologists think the arrangement of continents in the ancient world may have been.  

Spider found in the Cambay amber deposit of western India. (Photo by David Grimaldi/AMNH)


From electricity to insects to ancient geography, amber is amazing—just like you!  

2010 10.14

Yoda, the Jedi Bat

Science in the News:  

Yoda the Jedi bat, and his cool animal friends

Do you ever feel like you never see anything new?  Then you should go to New Guinea!  New Guinea is located north of Australia, and is the world's second largest island.  It is about the same size as the state of California.  Even though it is not very big, New Guinea has an amazing amount of biodiversity. That means that there are lots and LOTS of different animals and plants there.   

In 2009, two scientific teams from an organization called Conservation International (along with their partners at New Guinea's institute for Biological Research and A Rocha International) spent two months in the forest-covered mountains of New Guinea looking for new plants and animals.  In only two months, they found and documented 200 new species that had never before been described.  

Among the animals identified by the research teams were a tiny, pointy-nosed frog less than an inch long;  a funny, tube-nosed, fruit-eating bat that looks a lot like Yoda from the Star Wars movies, a katydid with bright pink eyes;  and a new kind of ant with spines on its back that scientists think live at the top of very tall trees.   Here are some pictures of these animals:

All photos used by permission of Conservation International, copyright Piotr Naskrecki/iLCP 

(the ant picure is copyrighted by Andrea Lucky)

Many plants and animals become endangered because their homes and environments are being destroyed.  Conservation International feels that it is important to find, describe, monitor, and protect the Earth's amazing array of plants and animals.  

Maybe someday you will discover  a funny new bug, a tiny monkey, or an unusual flower.  You might even name it after yourself!  

2010 09.02

Try This! Experiment Corner: Which eye is the Boss?

You’ve probably heard of people being left or right handed.  Did you know that most people are also either left or right "eyed?”  Being left or right-eyed doesn’t affect which hand has better handwriting or how you hold a baseball bat, though.  

"Eyedness” (also called ocular or eye dominance) means that one of your eyes is "THE BOSS.”  In other words, Eye dominance happens when your brain prefers the information from one eye more than the information from the other.  Is one of your eyes "THE BOSS?”  This experiment will help you find out.

Try It!  

You’ll need:  paper, scissors

Make a small hole (one inch or less in diameter—one inch wide) in the middle of a piece of paper.  You can download a template if you like by clicking here, and cutting out the circle in the middle.  You will be looking at something across a room through the hole in the paper.  

Choose something stationary (not moving) to look at across a room (at least twenty feet away) like a clock, or something on a shelf.  Hold the paper with both hands, one hand on either side.  Hold the paper straight in front of you at eye level with your arms fully extended.  

Move the paper until you can see the object you picked through the hole.  Once you can see the object through the hole, hold your head and the paper very still.  Without moving your head or the paper, slowly close your left eye (keeping your right eye open) and then open your left eye and close your right.  Remember to not move your head or the paper!  

Most likely, when you close one of your eyes, you’ll still be able to see the object through the hole, but when you close the other eye, you will no longer be able the object.  The eye that can still see the object when the other is closed is your dominant eye (THE BOSS.)  

Here are some pictures of Ethan P. trying this experiment.  

Ethan P. holding the paper at eye level, extending arms straight in front, and looking through the hole



                  The clock Ethan is looking at across the room.                    What Ethan sees as he looks through the hole at the clock.


How does it work?

Your left and right eyes see things from slightly different angles, and usually your brain uses the slight differences to help you figure out how close or far away things are (optometrists call this depth perception, or stereo acuity.)  When you look at something very close to you, the information from your two eyes is quite a bit different than when you look at something far away, and your brain has to decide which eye it should believe when it is trying to figure out exactly where something is.  

You can try this, too.  Hold your finger directly in front of your left eye, about three inches away from your face.  Holding your head and finger still, first close your left eye, and then your right.  Your two eyes are reporting different things to your brain, right?  Your brain tends to pick one eye to be in charge of determining the exact spatial location of things when your eyes are telling it different things.  This eye becomes your dominant eye, or "THE BOSS.” 

Other Interesting Facts

  • Some people have very mild eye dominance (one eye is just a little bossy) while others have extreme eye dominance (one eye is VERY bossy.)
  • According to several scientific studies, it seems more people (about two-thirds of the people in the studies) are right eye dominant and only about one third are left-eye dominant.
  • Determining eye dominance is important for some kinds of contact lenses and eye surgeries

If you like this experiment and want to explore more about your senses or optical phenomena, you might like these two kits from Be Amazing:

Come to Your Senses

Incredible Illusions 


2010 04.27

LA Times Highlights Be Amazing! Toys

The Los Angeles Times article on 2010 Toy Fair, the giant U.S. Toy Show held annually in New York, featured Be Amazing! Toys and the amazing "Bubbling Blobs" part of the 4485 - Test Tube Discoveries kit.   Make your own bubbling blob volcano and lava lamp, along with more than 14 other experiments using this kit.  Los Angeles Times on 2010 Toy Fair.


Be Amazing! experiments are  always the highlight of any party or science fair.  Check us out.

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