Gravediggers in this old drawing deal with a vampire like those found in Poland.


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

January 2017

In the News:

"Vampire" Graves Discovered in Poland - Three medieval graves in Poland have yield the remains of "vampires." It not that the archaeologists that uncovered the graves think the residents were vampires, but the people who buried them apparently did. Each body seems have been mutilated after death in a way designed to keep the corpse from rising from the grave. Two of the skeletons had holes in the spine apparently as a result of them being staked to the ground. One of the bodies, that of a woman, was buried face down and her knees were broken. Another one, a male, was decapitated and dismembered. The burials occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries in the village of Górzyca, in western Poland.

Tiny Dino Tail Found in Amber - A chunk of amber that was originally slated to become a piece of jewelry now is at the center of an important scientific find. Paleontologist Lida Xing noticed the oval lump of hardened resin (from ancient tree sap) at a market in Myanmar in 2015. Buying it he carefully examined it and came to a conclusion: It contained a dinosaur tail and attached to that tail where dinosaur feathers. Also the 99-million-year-old amber included preserved soft tissue and eight complete vertebrae. The fact that the vertebra were not fused indicates that this was the remains not of a prehistoric bird, but a dinosaur. While other feathers have been found in ancient amber, this is the first real look at feathers which clearly belong to a dinosaur. The feathers appear to have more in common with modern ornamental feathers than those used by flying birds. Xing thinks it's likely they were used for signaling or temperature control, rather than flying. Xing also thinks the owner of this tail was likely to be a theropod type of dinosaur similar to a velociraptor, but much smaller, perhaps the size of a sparrow.

Land Bridge Theory Questioned - The Bering Land Bridge has been the leading theory about how humans came to the Western Hemisphere from the Eastern Hemisphere. A group of scientists think they have shown that this was impossible, however. University of Copenhagen researchers Eske Willerslev, Mikkel Pedersen, and their colleagues drilled core samples from beneath two lakes in western Canada and found evidence that the land bridge from Asia to North America only became passible for human migration around 12,600 years ago. (Before that ice and lack of vegetation to support animal life blocked the route) However, there is ample evidence that much of the Western Hemisphere was already settled by 14,000 years ago. It's not clear, then, how North American became populated, but some scholars suggest migration came down the west coast (perhaps after a crossing by boat). Other scientists suggest the original immigrants may have crossed from Europe.

Solar is Getting Cheaper - In many parts of the world solar has become the cheapest way to build a new power plant according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. It found the cost of solar dropped from $6 million per megawatt in 2010 to $1.65 million per MW in the first quarter of 2016 and is particularly competitive in regions that have "exceptionally sunny conditions." The cost to manufacture solar has been dropping and also it has the advantage of being attractive in developing nations were getting financing to build a large, coal, gas or wind planet can be difficult.

Horses Are Not Shy About Asking for Human Help - A paper published in the journal Animal Cognition suggests that horses not only ask humans for help, but are aware of human thinking. In experiments researchers from Kobe University hid carrots (a favorite horse treat) in a location that was not accessible to the animals. The animals then used nudges and other physical touches to communicate with their caretakers on their interest in the food. Even more interesting was the amount of signaling to caretakers increased when the carrots has been placed in that locations without the caretakeras seeing it and knowing where it was. This suggests that the horses understand the human mind enough to account for our awareness of the situation. This in turn suggests a high degree of cognitive skill on the animal's part.


Science Quote of the Month - "Never memorize something that you can look up." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

The Truth about Truth Serums - A staple of old spy films, can you actually inject somebody with a drug that will make them reliably spill the beans to you? - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Tank vs. Tank - I've heard a lot of stories about the German Tiger II vs. U.S. M4 Sherman tank during WWII. Which was really the better tank? - Joe

The answer to this question is hinges on what you mean by "better?"

The Tiger II tank (sometimes referred to as the "King Tiger" by U.S. soldiers) was perhaps the most technically advanced tank of the war. I was a heavy tank featuring thick armor particularly on the front of the machine. Its 88-millimeter gun could penetrate five inches of enemy armor at a range of two kilometers.

On the other hand most M4 Sherman tanks mounted a 75-millimeter gun that was incapable of punching through the Tiger's frontal armor at any distance. Its own 2-inch frontal armor gave the crew little protection from the Tiger's heavy gun. Also early M4's tended to easily catch fire when hit (a problem solved in later models by increasing the protection of the stored ammunition).

So it's an open and shut case, right? Well, not quite.

From the point of view of the generals charged with winning the war, things looked a little different. The Tiger II, because it was so advanced, heavy and complex was hard and expensive to build and difficult to maintain in the field. In fact, only 492 King Tigers were built by the Germans. (And only 1347 of the slightly less formable Tiger I).

Compare this with the nearly 50,000 M4 manufactured by the Americans. The Shermans were simpler to build, very reliable and easier to maintain in the field. They were also faster and more maneuverable than the King Tiger and used a lot less fuel.

From a General's point of view a tank wasn't very useful if it broke down or ran out of gas.

It's also important to remember that the Sherman's main mission in WW II was not to engage other tanks (The U.S. had tank destroyers like the M10 Wolverine for that). The Sherman was supposed to protect infantry by taking out German positions defended by machine guns and pill boxes. In this role the M4 rocked.

Unfortunately, tank destroyers were more effective as a defensive plan. While advancing toward Germany quite a few Shermans did meet of with Tigers and in that situation the M4 would be in trouble, especially if it was on its own and not part of a group. It's clear that in that particular situation the crew of the King Tiger would have a much better chance at survival.

However, these encounters would be relatively rare and when they did occur it was often several Shermans up against a single Tiger. The Allied strategy was to work together until one of the M4's flanked the Tiger and could take it out with a shot to the rear or side. Or course this often came at a cost of one or more of the Shermans being hit and their crews being injured or killed (For a dramatization of this scenario check the 2014 movie "Fury.")

So was the Tiger II better than the Sherman? From the point of the crew in inside the tank during a one-on-one battle, yes, it was. From the perspective of the Allied command trying to win the war, the Sherman was much superior not because they were technically better, but because they were more reliable and there were many, many more of them.

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In History:

Planet Doesn't Pan Out - In January of 1909, newspapers were full of stories about a possible 9th planet being found. Prof. Pickering of Harvard Observatory believed he had evidence of a new body out beyond Neptune whose gravity was disturbing the orbits of the other planets. Pickering was very prolific about predicting new worlds having proposed between 1908 to 1932, seven hypothetical planets. This one, like the others, would not pan out. A new planet was not found until 1930 (Pluto) by Clyde Tombaugh. Though Pluto did exist and was considered a planet at the time, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2005.


In the Sky:

Quadrantids Meteor Shower - The Quadrantids, with up to 40 meteors per hour at its peak, will be visible in the night sky from January 1st through the 5th. It will peak the night of January 3rd. The shower is thought to be produced by the dust trail left behind by an extinct comet 2003 EH1. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight when the moon has set.



Amazon Starts Drone Deliveries - Amazon claims that it delivered its first package to a customer using a drone last month. The online giant retailer reported that a drone delivered an Amazon Fire TV box and a bag of popcorn to a customer in the U.K. on December 7th. The order took "13 minutes - click to delivery" according to founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos's twitter feed. The delivery was made in the Cambridge area. The company also wants to expand it drone service to the United States, but has complained about the cumbersome regulatory environment in America.


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.


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