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18 Oct

Ambergris, the most expensive excrement in the world.

It is a flammable, waxy substance produced in the digestive system of the sperm whale, normally looking like a strange dull grey rock.

Ambergris Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists believe that it may be produced to help hard and sharp objects to move through the digestive system, but in some cases the objects may become coated in ambergris and end up too large to pass through the intestine, in which case the whale vomits it up. This has lead to the confusion that ambergris is just whale vomit, when in fact it can be expelled in the whales fecal matter as well.

Ambergris has most often been found washed up along beaches, but there are cases where it has been found bobbing along in the ocean. It is most commonly used in perfumes as it has a very distinct smell, but historical records show it was also used by the Egyptians in tombs as incense and some other cultures even used it to flavour food. Its smell is often described as a marine, fecal odor but as it ages, it develops a sweeter, more earthy aroma.

Ambergris can often sell for $20-$50 a gram as it is quite rare and highly sought after.

In January of this year a man found a 6 pound lump of ambergris while walking his dog on the beach – link.

In August of last year a young boy and his father found a lump while walking on their local beach – link

If you are ever walking along the beach and find a lump of waxy material, take it home with you. You might just have found a piece of very valuable whale excrement.

For more information see the wikipedia article on ambergris

Venera Space Program

11 Apr

While we initially started this blog to focus on the interesting things on Earth, we soon realized that some of man’s greatest achievements involve our quest for exploration of our solar system. Because of this, we decided to have an ‘Out of this World’ category that  focuses on human achievements and discoveries that are not on this planet. This post will be the first in the category, with more to come soon.

The Venera Space Program was a Soviet attempt to create space probes to gather data about the planet Venus.

The missions began in 1961, with the Venera 1 craft, and ran through until 1984 with Venera 16.

 Venera 11 Lander - NASA

Venera 11 Lander – NASA

Venera 1 & 2

Venera 1 (1961) & 2 (1965) were meant to be pass-by probes that would collect data as they passed Venus. Unfortunately, both missions suffered from telemetry failure before reaching Venus.

The Soviet Union launched several other probes in the early 1960’s, but these were not announced as planetary observation missions.

Venera 3, 4, 5 & 6

Venera 3 was special. Although the Venera crafts 3-6 were all very similar, Venera 3 was the first craft to reach the surface of another planet. This occurred on March 1st, 1966, when the Venera 3 craft crash landed on the surface of the planet. Unfortunately, due to the entry through the atmosphere, all the data probes on board burned up and were unable to record any data.

Venera 4 was able to provide minor information about the atmosphere of Venus. Unfortunately, the hull of the craft was only able to handle 25atm, much less than the 75-100atm pressures on the surface of Venus.

Venera 5 and 6 were sent as atmospheric probes, and were able to record approximately 50 minutes of data before the batteries drained.

Venera 7 & 8

Venera 7 was the first craft to transmit data back from the surface of another planet. It was designed to survive the pressures, but its parachutes failed on entry and it toppled over during the landing. The signal was weak from the craft, but there was enough time for a transmission to be made.

Venera 8 was very similar; it was able to transmit data during its descent, measure sunlight and transmit data for nearly an hour.

Venera 9, 10, 11 & 12

The Venera craft 9-12 were designed to take photos and transmit the data back to Earth. They were all equipped with two cameras, but during the first two missions (9 &10), only one camera each time was able to capture photos due to the other camera’s lens cap failing to release. Venera 11 and 12 suffered worse; neither of the lens caps on these craft were released. Throughout these missions, the craft were operational for between 50 and 110 minutes.

Venera 13 & 14

These two Venera craft were equipped with much more scientific instrumentation. Here is a list of what was on board, taken from Wikipedia.

  • Accelerometer, Impact Analysis – Bison-M
  • Thermometers, Barometers – ITD
  • Spectrometer / Directional Photometer – IOAV-2
  • Ultraviolet Photometer
  • Mass Spectrometer – MKh-6411
  • Penetrometer / Soil Ohmmeter – PrOP-V
  • Chemical Redox Indicator – Kontrast
  • 2 Color Telephotometer Cameras – TFZL-077
  • Gas Chromatograph – Sigma-2
  • Radio / Microphone / Seismometer – Groza-2
  • Nephelometer – MNV-78-2
  • Hydrometer – VM-3R
  • X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (Aerosol) – BDRA-1V
  • X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (Soil) – Arakhis-2
  • Soil Drilling Apparatus – GZU VB-02
  • Stabilized Oscillator / Doppler Radio
  • Small solar batteries – MSB
Image from the right camera of Venera 13

Image from the right camera of Venera 13 – NASA

Image from the left camera of Venera 13

Image from the left camera of Venera 13 – NASA

Venera 15 & 16

These probes were similar to the previous probes, but were equipped with surface imaging radar to help with the entry that was obstructed by the thick clouds of Venus’ atmosphere.

For more detailed information, see the Wikipedia article on the Venera craft:

Giant’s Causeway

4 Apr

The Giant’s Causeway is located on the north-east coast of Ireland in a place called County Antrim. It consists of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that formed due to a volcanic eruption.

Giant's Causeway - Source

Giant’s Causeway – Source

Rather than paraphrase Wikipedia’s explanation on the formation I figured I would copy it here as it provides a good, easy to understand overview:

“Some 50 to 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene period, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity, when highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred. Horizontal contraction fractured in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillar-like structures, which are also fractured horizontally into “biscuits”. In many cases the horizontal fracture has resulted in a bottom face that is convex while the upper face of the lower segment is concave, producing what are called “ball and socket” joints. The size of the columns is primarily determined by the speed at which lava from a volcanic eruption cools”

There was an old legend that described the formation as the result of an ancient giant ‘Benandonner’ tearing it up so that the great warrior ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ could not follow him. The story goes that the giant challenged Fionn and went to his house seeking him out. Not wanting to fight, Fionn and his wife came up with the idea to dress Fionn up as a baby. When Benandonner came to the house, Fionn’s wife told the giant he was out but he would be back shortly and he could wait if he wished. She showed the giant Fionn’s baby and after seeing how big he was the giant feared Fionn would be bigger. He ran away and tore up the causeway so Fionn could not follow him. There are a few slight variations on this story but this is the general outline.

These basalt structures are not unique to the Giant’s Causeway. There are many other locations with similar features around the world. There are two interesting features located at this spot, though. They are the Chimney Stack and the Giants Boot, shown below.

The Giants Boot

The Giants Boot

The Chimney Stack

The Chimney Stack

If anyone has visited the Giant’s Causeway or any similar structures, we would love to hear about it. Feel free to share some photos too.

The Bystander Effect

26 Mar

This post is not going to be on anything physical, but instead a psychological phenomenon called the ‘The Bystander Effect’.

It refers to situations in which an individual is unlikely (or less likely) to provide help or assistance to someone in need while there are other people around. Studies have shown that the probability of help someone will receive is inversely related to the number of bystanders.

Wikipedia provides a nice summary for the origin of research in to this effect (sourced below):

“The bystander effect was first demonstrated in the laboratory by John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968 after they became interested in the topic following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. These researchers launched a series of experiments that resulted in one of the strongest and most replicable effects in social psychology. In a typical experiment, the participant is either alone or among a group of other participants or confederates. An emergency situation is then staged. The researchers then measure how long it takes the participants to act, and whether or not they intervene at all. These experiments have often found that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. For example, Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment around a woman in distress in 1969. 70 percent of the people alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and gotten hurt, but when there were other people in the room only 40 percent offered help.

Source:  Meyers, David G. (2010). Social Psychology (10th Ed). New York: McGraw- Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-337066-8.

I first heard about this phenomenon a few years ago; it jogged my memory and I remembered when I had once experienced the bystander effect. I was driving a friend home at approximately 3pm, and on the way we passed a bus stop where there was a man waiting. He was wearing a hoodie and other baggy clothes that looked quite dirty, which was nothing unusual for the area it was in. About 45 minutes later during my trip home, I passed the same bus stop and the man was lying down on the bench. It seemed odd, because buses past that stop are frequent so he shouldn’t have had to wait long. There were also plenty of people walking past the stop. I went home and walked to a cafe near the bus stop to get a coffee. The man was still there. I decided that there were plenty of other people walking past, so if something was wrong someone would have done something about it. I went home and forgot about it. Later that evening I turned on the news to a camera-shot of the bus stop, with a news presenter saying that a man had overdosed and was rushed to hospital after he had been seen lying down at the stop for a couple of hours. He survived the incident, and was lucky that people living across the road from the bus stop noticed and called the emergency services.

I was of the mentality that there were plenty of people walking by and if the man really needed help, someone else would have helped out already.

In attempting to explain the bystander effect, scientists have come up with 3 steps that must occur to overcome it, and these are outlined below.


This step requires that the bystander notices the situation. With a limited number of people around, an individual is more likely to take note of what is occurring, whereas a large group of people in the area will draw an individual’s attention away from the situation.


This step can only occur after a bystander notices the situation. They need to interpret what is happening and decide whether it is an emergency situation or not. We often look at the reactions of people around us to help form our own interpretation of an incident. The problem is that everyone is looking around trying to make an interpretation, the fact that no one is moving means everyone stands there and figures it must be OK.

Taking Action:

This is where things can really fall apart, even if the first two steps have been overcome. Even if someone notices the situation and interprets it as an emergency, they must take action.  The thing is, people fall victim to the diffusion of responsibility, they think that others will step in and help, or that other people standing by might be more qualified to provide assistance. Whatever the reason, as a group, we fail to act.

Looking back on my account, I noticed the incident, interpreted it as nothing unusual and failed to act. 

After learning about this phenomenon, I have been able to act accordingly in similar situations. I was out shopping one day when I noticed an old lady lying on the ground. There were a few other people standing around but not really doing anything. I walked over and as I did, a few other people joined me. It turns out that the lady had had a fall and was a little dazed. It was hot out so we got her some water while someone phoned an ambulance.

Hopefully, you now have an understanding of what is going through your mind when you see a situation and are trying to make a decision on whether or not to act. Even just walking towards the situation could trigger others to do the same, in which case someone who may need help will get it.

The Disappearance of Harold Holt

26 Mar

Harold Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia for nearly two years from January of 1966, up until his disappearance in December of 1967.

The strange thing about Holt’s disappearance is that his body was never recovered, and this has led to different theories surrounding what actually happened.

Harold Holt, the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Photo taken during the 1966 elections.

Harold Holt, the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Photo taken during the 1966 elections.

First of all, what do we know?

On Sunday the 17th of December, 1967, Holt and a group of friends, along with two bodyguards, made a trip from Melbourne to Port Phillip Heads to watch part of a solo circumnavigation of the globe, by Alec Rose in his yacht the ‘Lively Lady’. Around midday, the party made their way to Cheviot Beach, which lies on the eastern arm of Port Phillip Bay. This was one of Holt’s favorite swimming and snorkeling locations despite its reputation for strong rips and currents. Holt was described by his biographer Tom Frame as having “incredible powers of endurance underwater”, most likely due to Holt’s experience as a scuba diver. Despite pleas from the rest of the party, Holt made his way into the water. Not long after entering the water, the party lost sight of Holt. His friends raised the alarm, and a search began with a large group of police, Royal Australian Navy divers, helicopters from the Royal Australian Airforce, army personnel and local volunteers.

Two days later, on the 19th of December, the Australian Government made an announcement that Harold Holt was presumed dead. From here on in is where the theories start.

For the most part, it is generally accepted that Holt fell victim to the strong currents and rips in the area and his body was dragged out to sea before anyone could notice. There are no real ‘loose ends’ with this theory. Holt had recently suffered a flare up of a recurring shoulder injury that caused him a lot of pain. It is quite likely that he was not up to his usual levels of fitness and grew tired fighting the currents or rips. The main issue people have with this idea is that with such a large scale search, it is surprising that his body was not recovered.

Other theories start to speculate on the idea that he committed suicide. This theory has been rejected by  Holt’s own son Sam, his biographer Tom Frame (mentioned before), and  Malcolm Fraser, Holt’s Cabinet Minister at the time. This theory arose after reports that Holt was suffering from depression prior to his disappearance.

Some theories started bordering on conspiracy. There is the idea that he faked his own death to run away with a mistress,  was abducted by a UFO, or kidnapped/rescued by a Chinese submarine, depending on whether or not you think he was a Chinese spy.

Although it seems most likely that the strong rips and currents were  to blame for Holt’s disappearance, the idea that this was an Australian Prime Minister who may have been involved with something more sinister has piqued the curiosity of imaginative minds for many years. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that we will ever know exactly what happened in this tragic case.

Wave Rock

26 Mar

There are many well-known natural formations all over the world; The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Mt Everest, to name a few. In Australia, there is a particularly spectacular formation that many of our readers may not be aware of, due to its fairly remote location. I am referring to what is known as ‘Wave Rock’; an enormous rock formation in south-eastern Western Australia, which is the largest state in Australia.

Located 3km (or about 2 miles) from the small town of Hyden, this natural geological formation attracts approximately 140,000 tourists a year. The rock itself is a large granite formation that has been dated to 2.63 billion years old, and was created through complex geological processes. As you can see from the picture below, it closely resembles an ocean wave, hence the name, and is nearly 50 feet (14m) high and 350 feet (110m)  across.

Wave Rock. It stands 14m high and close to 110m long.

Wave Rock. It stands 14m high and close to 110m long.

While there are no creepy mysteries relating to Wave Rock itself, the local indigenous people stayed clear of the area for fear of the spirit ‘Mulka’.

Here is the story of Mulka sourced from the Wave Rock website

Legend of Mulka’s Cave

“The name Mulka comes from an Aboriginal legend associated with the cave. Mulka was the illegal son of a woman who fell in love with a man with whom marriage was forbidden according to their law.

It was believed that as a result of breaking these rules she bore a son with crossed eyes. Even though he grew to be an outstandingly strong man of colossal height, his crossed eyes prevented him from aiming a spear accurately and becoming a successful hunter.

Out of frustration it is said Mulka turned to catching and eating human children, and he became the terror of the district. He lived in Mulka’s cave, where the imprints of his hands can still be seen, much larger and higher than that of an ordinary man.

Apparently, his mother became increasingly concerned about him. When she scolded him for his anti-social behaviour he turned on his own mother and killed her. This disgraced him even further and he fled his cave, heading south.

The Aboriginal people of the area, outraged by Mulka’s behaviour, then tracked down this man who had flouted all the rules. They caught him near Dumbleyung, 156km south west of Hyden, where they speared him to death. Because he did not deserve a proper ritual burial, they left his body to the ants: a grim warning to those who break the law.”

So, how did this formation come to be? As previously stated, the geological processes that led to the formation of Wave Rock are quite complex, but I will attempt to break it down to a simple, easier to understand explanation for our readers. Basically, Wave Rock is a part of a much larger rock known as Hyden Rock, and the shape was created by continuous erosion of the softer rock beneath the upper edge, in the process of weathering. This occurred over many millions of years. Eventually, this resulted in an ‘undercut’ base with a rounded overhanging shape, and ended up in the wave shape that we see today.

Having lived in Western Australia most of my life, I have visited wave rock numerous times. If you ever decide to visit Western Australia, I highly suggest making the effort to go and see the rock and some of the Australian countryside whilst you are there.

Pink and White Terraces (Otukapuarangi & Te Tarata)

23 Mar

The Pink and White Terraces were natural geological wonders of New Zealand up until their destruction in 1886, due to volcanic activity. The Pink Terraces were known to the Maori people as ‘Otukapuarangi’, which translates to “fountain of the clouded sky”, while the White Terraces were known as Te Tarata, or “the tattooed rock”. Situated on the edge of Lake Rotomahana in the North island of New Zealand, these wonders were created by geothermally heated water that contained high levels of silicic acid and sodium chloride.

Ernst Dieffenbachwas one of the first European explorers to visit New Zealand, arriving in June of 1841. He visited the Terraces on his travels and made note of them in his book “Travels in New Zealand”. His description of them sparked interest from the rest of the world. The Terraces became New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction, and were labeled the ‘Eighth Wonder Of The World‘. From here on until 1886, the Terraces were visited by many, including expeditions sent out to survey the area and surrounding volcanoes.

A drawing of the Pink Terraces.

A drawing of the Pink Terraces.

A drawing of the White Terraces

A drawing of the White Terraces

On the 9th of June, 1886, Mt Tarawera erupted, spilling hot muds and boulders all over the area. A 17km rift was created through the mountains, and a 100m-deep crater formed at the site of the Terraces. Over the years, this crater filled with water and now forms the new Lake Rotomahana, which is much larger than the old lake. The Terraces were thought to be completely destroyed.

In February of 2011, researchers from various earth-science institutions were mapping the floor of the lake when they discovered part of the Pink Terraces still intact. On the 125th anniversary of the eruption in June 2011, parts of the White Terraces were also discovered. It is now thought that the Terraces were not destroyed, but lay at the bottom of the lake covered in sediment. Unfortunately, the depth at which they lie is greater than 60m and is not easily accessible during a scuba dive.

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