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15 Clear Facts About Amber

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Its (mostly) orange-hued transparence has evocatively preserved long-extinct animals for millions of years. It's adorned our necklaces, bracelets, and pendants for millennia. Learn 15 dazzling facts about this clearly sublime substance.  

1. AMBER IS A GEM—BUT NOT A GEMSTONE. 

Amber is not a mineral, but the hardened resin of certain trees fossilized over long periods of time. Because it forms a translucent orange-yellow substance that glows when polished and held up to light, it has long been used in jewelry and other decorations. The proper classification for organic gems like coral, pearl, and amber is gem material, not gemstone.

2. THE LARGEST AMBER DEPOSITS IN THE WORLD ARE IN THE BALTIC REGION.

A botanical paper published by The Royal Society estimates that over 105 tons of Baltic amber were produced by Palaeogene forests in northern Europe, making this the largest single known deposit of fossilized plant resin. Baltic amber is also considered the highest quality, with the best preservation of anatomical detail of fossil insects of any age.

3. AMBER WAS ONCE PART OF A TREE'S IMMUNE SYSTEM.

When a tree is punctured or scratched, the tree releases a sticky substance called resin to seal the wounded area. Over time, chemically stable kinds of resin will harden and form the pretty, translucent version of amber that you are familiar with. Thus amber is the hardened, stable resin of ancient trees. 

4. IT REQUIRES MILLIONS OF YEARS AND PROPER BURIAL CONDITIONS TO FORM.

Most forms of resin are chemically unstable and will decay over time rather than harden. When a stable resin gets buried in the right conditions, such as in water sediments that formed the bottom of a lagoon or delta, sedimentary clay, shale, and sandstones associated with layers of lignite, a brown coal, it hardens through "progressive oxidation and polymerization of the original organic compounds, oxygenated hydrocarbons," according to Emporia State University's Susie Ward Aber. The majority of amber is found within Cretaceous and Paleogene sedimentary rocks (approximately 30 to 90 million years old). 

5. THE WORD ELECTRICITY DERIVES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR AMBER. 

According to the Swedish Museum of Amber, over 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus discovered that when amber was rubbed against cloth, it produced sparks and attracted feathers, husks, and small wooden splinters. This force was given the name "electricity" after the Greek word elektron, which means “amber.” 

6. MANY CREATURES HAVE BEEN TRAPPED IN AMBER—AND SO HAS A DINOSAUR "FEATHER."

Lots of creatures have ended their lives fully intact in amber. Frogs, Anolis lizards, and geckos, as well as snake skins, bird feathers, the hair and bones of mammals, and various plant materials have been preserved in amber. More than half the inclusions found in amber are flies, while others include ants, beetles, moths, spiders, centipedes, termites, gnats, bees, cockroaches, grasshoppers and fleas. Fine Baltic amber from Estonia, however, will have only one inclusion in every thousand pieces found. One of the more exciting inclusions was the discovery of what scientists say may be the “feather” of a theropod dinosaur

7. SCIENTISTS HAVE TRIED TO EXTRACT DNA FROM INSECTS TRAPPED WITHIN IT.

Despite the success of the movie franchise Jurassic Park, in which fictional scientists reanimate dinosaurs from DNA trapped in amber, real scientists have not successfully extracted functioning DNA from insects trapped in amber, though they haven’t given up trying. (Reports from the early 1990s of 120-million-year-old insect DNA have been thoroughly discounted.) DNA, it turns out, has a half-life of 521 years. That means in 521 years, half of the bonds between nucleotides in a DNA sample will have broken; after another 521 years half of the remaining bonds would have gone; and so on. 

8. MULTIPLE EXTINCT SPECIES HAVE BEEN IDENTIFIED THANKS TO AMBER.

Because of the unique way that amber traps and preserves insects and animals inside it, these finds have helped paleontologists to reconstruct life on earth in its early origins, and more than 1000 extinct species of insects have been identified as a result of amber. 

9. BALTIC AMBER HAS BEEN FOUND IN EGYPTIAN TOMBS.

The Ancient Egyptians really liked amber; there are many reports of amber and other similar resin products being found in tombs dating back to 3200 BCE. Some scholars think that these resins were intended to represent the “tears of Ra.” Whatever the significance, the origin of some of this amber is believed to have been the Baltic Coast, more than 1500 miles away.

10. SOME BELIEVE AMBER HAS HEALING POWERS AND THE POWER TO WARD OFF WITCHES.

Much folklore exists around the “powers” of amber through the ages. Before modern medicine, amber was worn as a necklace or charm, or carried around in small bags, as a remedy against gout, rheumatism, sore throats, toothache, and stomachache. In fact, some modern parents still purchase their children Baltic amber necklaces with the belief that it helps prevent the pain of teething. While no science confirms that it relieves pain, there is a small amount of research suggesting that succinic acid, which is found in Baltic amber, may be beneficial. However, most doctors are dubious of the claims there is enough acid in a necklace to have any effect, or that it can be released from amber into the skin.

It was also believed that amber could help labor progress, and protect against snakebites, or that it contained powerful magic protection against evil forces and witchcraft.

11. HUMANS HAVE USED AMBER IN JEWELRY SINCE AT LEAST 11,000 BCE.

Amber which was polished and carved to make jewelry or decorations dating back to 11,000 BCE. has been found at archeological sites in England. It was used to make varnish as long ago as 250 BCE and powdered amber was used in incense.

12. THE OLDEST AMBER IS 320 MILLION YEARS OLD.

The vast majority of amber is younger than 90 million years old, but there are examples which are much older. In 2009, researchers discovered a 320-million-year-old piece of amber in an Illinois coal mine, which unexpectedly was very similar to more modern resins. This discovery completely upended the entire early evolutionary history of plants and showed resins were much older than was previously thought. The oldest animals found trapped in amber date from the Triassic, around 90 million years later. Despite being 230 million years old, these mites preserved in the amber are strikingly similar to today’s gall mites.

13. AMBER CONFUSED EARLY HUMANS.

According to Judith Frondel, author of the book Amber Facts and Fancies, early modern humans, unsure what to make of these yellow glimmers that often washed up on shore, believed amber to be consolidated lynx urine, sunlight solidifying on ocean waves, or tears of birds from India.

14. AMBER HAS BEEN FOUND IN MORE THAN 300 COLORS.

The most commonly admired colors of amber are in the yellow to orange range, but it has been cataloged in as many as 300 colors, even leaning toward green or blue due to the inclusion of plant material.

15. IT'S EASY TO BE FOOLED BY FAKE AMBER.

The advent of the plastic known as Bakelite made it possible to create fake, but realistic looking, “amber.” To determine if amber is real, scrape it with a knife. Fake amber flakes, real amber is powdery. Real amber should also float in salt water, and will warm up quickly in your hand.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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