24 nov

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Ten of the World’s Rarest Gemstones
Ten of the World’s Strangest Gemstones & Minerals
World’s Rarest Things
World’s Rarest Metals
And here’s some super-rare CHEESE

Holy Grails

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.


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Libyan desert glass

 Science Club Treasure & Splendor

Libyan desert glass
Libyan desert glass
(Tutankhamen c. 1323 bce)
Photo: Jon Bodsworth
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.

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.

The Gömböc

 Science Club

Photo: Gábor Domokos
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.

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 any kind.

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 hidden weights.)

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 reflect that.

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.


 Flora & Fauna Science Club

Teosinte (genus Zea)
US Department of Agriculture
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.

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 like popcorn.

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 familiar with.

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.

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