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 05.21

Be Amazing! Toys at ASTRA

Join us at the 2010 ASTRA show in Providence RI. Elizabeth and Renee will be there. You can find us at booth 221.  

See you there!
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.




2010 04.22

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?  It is an award given once a year to the world’s greatest contributors to science in the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.  The Nobel Prize is generally considered to be the highest, best, and most prestigious prize a scientist can be awarded in those areas.  In the past, Nobel Prizes have been given to the scientists that contributed to the discovery of DNA, the scientists that discovered HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and the scientists that figured out how your nose and brain work together to smell things.  Albert Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel prize in 1921 for his discovery of the law of Photoelectric Effect.  The road to a Nobel prize starts with people asking questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to find answers to their questions.  In other words, scientists are curious just like you!  In honor of cool, curious kids and scientists everywhere, today let’s learn about the science behind a recent Nobel prize.

 

In 2008, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their "discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.”  "GFP” is just what it sounds like:  it is a protein that glows green.  The protein absorbs light that has a specific amount of energy, and then emits (releases) light of a different energy, an energy that we can see.  You won’t believe where GFP came from—jellyfish!  Specifically, GFP comes from a jellyfish called Aequorea Victoria that lives in the pacific waters west of North America.  Here are some pictures of of an Aequorea Victoria jellyfish.  Adult jellyfish are usually 3 centimeters across or larger.

 

           

 Aequorea Victoria .  Pictures are used with the permission of Sierra Blakely, the author and copyright holder (2008).

 

Some jellyfish and other animals naturally make proteins that glow.  When animals glow, scientists say that they have "bioluminescence.”  Animals use bioluminescence for a number of reasons, such as talking to each other, attracting prey, and defending themselves against predators.  GFP was named "Green Fluorescent Protein” because it makes parts of the jellyfish glow green.  Scientists studied the protein and figured out how to make other things make the same protein.  Suddenly they could make bacteria or yeast glow green, or worms, or even fish.  Other scientists figured out ways to make the GFP even better for their research.  The water that the jellyfish lived in was cold, so at first GFP only worked well in cold temperatures, but scientists figured a way to make the protein work well in warm temperatures, so a mammal’s cells can now make GFP—even human cells!  Scientists figured out ways to make the protein glow even brighter and to be stronger, and other scientists figured out how to change the protein just a little bit so that instead of glowing green, it could glow yellow or blue, or even red! 

 

This is a picture that was "painted” on a petri dish using bacterial colonies whose DNA has been modified so that they make different kinds of GFP or a second kind of fluorescent protein that originally came from a kind of coral.  When the petri dish is held under the right kind of light, the bacteria glow in different colors, making a picture of an island sunset and a palm tree.  Aren’t bacteria beautiful?


 

 

A San Diego beach scene drawn with bacterial colonies that make fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and a coral protein.  The artwork was done by Nathan Shaner in Roger Tsien’s lab in 2006, and was photographed by Paul Steinbach.  Roger Tsien was one of the Nobel Prize winners for his work with GFP.

 

 

Now GFP is a really important tool in scientific research.  Scientists use it every day.  One way that they do this is to hook a GFP protein onto another protein that they want to study.  When they shine the right kind of light onto the cell that is making the proteins and look under a microscope at them, they can see parts of the cell glowing, and they know that the protein they are studying is moving to specific parts of the cell, like the nucleus or the cell membrane.  People have even used GFP for fun reasons.  People figured out a way to make almost all of the cells of animals make GFP, and now you can buy a pet fish or even a mouse that glows green under black light.  Amazing!

 

If you’d like to learn to grow your own bacteria on a petri dish (they probably won’t glow, but they may turn out to be different colors) check out our "Yuck!” science kit, with which you’ll also get the chance to make lots of other cool and gross stuff.

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