You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical
exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all
the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here
it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary
value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is,
or at the very least was, undisputed.
By single categories:
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor
Libyan desert glass
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by
Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a
chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to
lug back 50 kilograms of it.
|Libyan desert glass
(Tutankhamen c. 1323 bce)
|Photo: Jon Bodsworth
Normally it’s safe to assume that this sort of material is a form of
obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental
purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism
in that area.
But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50%
and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of
modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis that LDG is
about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.
If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a
meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called
tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world
— that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands
alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local
cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab to the left.
Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is
modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out
to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s
safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together,
blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.
In 2006 a Boston Universiy team announced that a heavily
eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed
by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter,
centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect. Fire up Google Earth or the like
and fly to 24° 40’ north,
24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.
In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold set up two ground rules
and conjectured that with enough ingenuity someone could design an object
that would both satisfy them and always come to rest at the same
orientation when placed on a flat surface.
|Photo: Gábor Domokos|
The first rule was that its shape had to be entirely convex: a ruler
would only be able to lie against it at a single point or at most a
line segment — no valleys allowed. The second was that
its density had to be constant throughout so that, unlike those
self-righting clown toys, it couldn’t employ an offset weight of
After some false starts two Hungarian scientists, Gábor Domokos
and Péter Várkonyi, managed to machine a successful
gömböc in 2006. Since that time they’ve produced them in a
range of sizes and shapes and in several metal alloys as well as in
marble and Plexiglas. (Like those transparent dice in Las Vegas casinos,
the Plexiglas models prove to the world that they’re not cheating with
In order for the gömböc to do its thing its manufacturing tolerances
have to meet or surpass one part in 10,000. This means you need to treat
them gingerly since if they suffer the slightest chip or dent they run the
risk of getting stuck during their self-righting processes. They’re
precision novelties and their prices
What’s so miraculous, if not downright spooky, is that whichever way you set
a gömböc down it will always have enough kinetic energy to
rock and swirl around on its own until it finds that resting
point. The name gömböc (pronounced “gembets,” more or
less, with a hard G) comes from the Hungarian term for a roundish
dumpling. The plural is gömböcök.
There’s a far older geometric toy called a rattleback that exhibits similar
mind-of-its-own properties when spun.
Maize or corn as we know it doesn’t exist in the wild and never did. In fact,
if all the world’s corn farmers decided to desert their crops tomorrow and let
them fend for themselves, the species would eventually vanish because it can’t self-propagate.
|Teosinte (genus Zea)
|US Department of Agriculture
There are several wild grasses native to Mexico and Central America
collectively referred to as teosinte [tay-o-SEEN-tay]. Their finger-sized ears bear a
single row of tough-skinned kernels which you can either feed to livestock or
grind into flour. At a high enough temperature some will even pop
We’ve come to understand that sometime around 12,000 years ago the locals began to
cultivate teosinte and over several millennia of selective breeding developed hundreds
of varieties of maize — or what the first visiting Europeans called Indian corn to
distinguish it from the other cereal grains (“corn”) they were already
Teosinte is now rare and endangered. One species, Zea nicaraguensis,
exists confined to a single plot of around 6000 plants. The Mexican and
Nicaraguan governments keep all teosinte under protection, though it’s available
to qualified agronomists for analysis and experimentation.
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor