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The world's most sought-after poo

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Macho men of the ancient Middle East ingested a powdered form of it to increase strength and virility; the elderly sipped it in teas to combat brain and heart ailments. Physicians from turn-of-the-last-millennium Britain vowed it could treat colds, headaches and epilepsy. According to Scientific American, the Portuguese "took over the Maldives in the sixteenth century in part to gain access to the island's rich bounty of the redolent stuff." Even today, finding a lump of it is like finding a lump of waxy, black, stinky gold: recent fist-sized finds have yielded as much as $18,000 when sold. So what is it already?

It's ambergris, or in layman's terms, whale poo. (Not vomit, as some have thought.) It's formed when a male sperm whale ingests squid, whose pointy, hard beaks irritate the whale's stomach, which responds by coating the beaks in a fatty substance. This eventually ends up in the water again, more or less undigested (by obvious means), and once the sun bakes it a little bit, the floating masses become one of the most prized pieces of flotsam in the sea. (Its value is dependent on how much time it's spent floating; according to ambergris broker Bernard Perrin (in SciAm), "it ages like fine wine.")

These days it's used mostly by perfume companies (fragrances like Chanel No. 5 depend on it), and there are still people in the world who use whale waste as an aphrodisiac. But can it really cure heart disease and epilepsy? Scientists are doubtful. But here are some fun ambergris facts that we're more sure about:

"¢ In "Paradise Regained," Milton describes Satan tempting Christ with meat pastries steamed in ambergris.

"¢ Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV.

"¢ The Arabic anbar refers to this very whale-based substance and is the root of the word amber.

"¢ Its name is derived from the French "ambre gris," or gray amber.

"¢ In "Moby-Dick," Melville called it the "essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale."

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Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images
Can’t See the Eclipse in Person? Watch NASA’s 360° Live Stream
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Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Depending on where you live, the historic eclipse on August 21 might not look all that impressive from your vantage point. You may be far away from the path of totality, or stuck with heartbreakingly cloudy weather. Maybe you forgot to get your eclipse glasses before they sold out, or can't get away from your desk in the middle of the day.

But fear not. NASA has you covered. The space agency is live streaming a spectacular 4K-resolution 360° live video of the celestial phenomenon on Facebook. The livestream started at 12 p.m. Eastern Time and includes commentary from NASA experts based in South Carolina. It will run until about 4:15 ET.

You can watch it below, on NASA's Facebook page, or on the Facebook video app.

Cephalopod Fossil Sketch in Australia Can Be Seen From Space

Australia is home to some of the most singular creatures alive today, but a new piece of outdoor art pays homage to an organism that last inhabited the continent 65 million years ago. As the Townsville Bulletin reports, an etching of a prehistoric ammonite has appeared in a barren field in Queensland.

Ammonites are the ancestors of the cephalopods that currently populate the world’s oceans. They had sharp beaks, dexterous tentacles, and spiraling shells that could grow more than 3 feet in diameter. The inland sea where the ammonites once thrived has since dried up, leaving only fossils as evidence of their existence. The newly plowed dirt mural acts as a larger-than-life reminder of the ancient animals.

To make a drawing big enough to be seen from space, mathematician David Kennedy plotted the image into a path consisting of more than 600 “way points.” Then, using a former War World II airfield as his canvas, the property’s owner Rob Ievers plowed the massive 1230-foot-by-820-foot artwork into the ground with his tractor.

The project was funded by Soil Science Australia, an organization that uses soil art to raise awareness of the importance of farming. The sketch doubles as a paleotourist attraction for the local area, which is home to Australia's "dinosaur trail" of museums and other fossil-related attractions. But to see the craftsmanship in all its glory, visitors will need to find a way to view it from above.

[h/t Townsville Bulletin]


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