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Almanack - 24/27 February 2012

This Weekend's Mysterious World News: When History Blows Hot & Cold, Mystery of the February Fireballs & An Odd Fish in Malacca


Even after all this time, there are still some phenomena your diligent friends of the R2MW team have not yet got round to investigating. Angels, for one. Are they just the wild imaginings of evangelists and Renaissance artists, or could one of them – an Olivia Newton-John lookalike apparently – really have ordered a man from Georgia, US.A, to commit murder? We'll leave it to the judge and jury to decide that one, but let's give angels the benefit of the doubt and go where they fear to tread – into the confused and confusing world of climate change. One thing everone agrees about is that, even in the era before cars and other CO2 emitters were allegedly endangering the planet, there were times when the climate fluctuated in dramatic ways, and possibly changed history. That's why a symposium at the recent annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science discussed one of our favourite mysteries: the disappearance of the Viking settlers from Greenland in the Middle Ages. According to a spokeswoman for the University of Edinburgh, where Professor Andrew Dugmore, one of the key participants, is based, the lessons learned from the story 'could help decisions on how modern society responds to global challenges'. Maybe. The cooling of the climate has certainly been blamed for the Vikings' apparently going AWOL, but other scenarios are also credible. According to one, the settlers headed back home to Scandinavia to claim farms left empty by relations who had died during the Black Death. Our favourite, though, suggests that the Vikings were simply hiding away when the surveyor, who was also the taxman, came to call. Now, the demise of the Maya civilisation of Cental America in around 900 BC is also being blamed on climate change. While there's nothing new in the general idea, 2 scientists from Southampton University have found, after studying slugs, snails and stalagmites, that the water table in the area was particularly sensitive even to small changes in the amount of rainfall. These wreaked havoc with the Maya's 'rainfall-dependent agricultural systems', they argue. All very plausible, as is the theory that the size of the earliest horses varied according to the temperature. Newmarket could look quite different if the climatologists predicting global warming finally prove their case. Who's for the 1,400 Guineas?

PORTAL, GEORGIA: Why Did the Cows Moo Anxiously?

At last an explanation – of sorts – for the number of meteorite flaps over the past month. According to an eyewitness from Portal, Georgia, one particularly dramatic occurrence 'set dogs barking and upset cattle, which began to make excited sounds'. So did the astrophysicists (well, they made excited sounds anyway; we'd never, ever, describe them as barking), for this was a phenomenon well known to them as the 'Fireballs of February'. In fact, there have been no more meteorite strikes than usual, but 2 things are strange about the ones that regularly occur in this month of the year. The first is that they seem to originate from all over the meteorite belt, rather than coming from one area of it, which may contain the remnants of a single exploded asteroid. The other puzzle is that, unlike most fireballs, these ones are 'particularly slow and penetrating', according to Professor Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario. An astronomer has suggested an explanation: he believes he's spotted long streams of fireballs crossing Earth's orbit in February and the late autumn. But the theory is controversial. Perhaps it's just that word has got out intergalactically that this month is not the time to rush to visit.

XUYI, CHINA: China's Lost Atlantis Surfaces

Finally 2 stories about treasure lost and found. The Chinese have a habit of making low-key announcements about discoveries that turn out to be epoch-making. That's what happened when the first of its Terracotta Warriors was uncovered. So stand by for extraordinary revelations now that the city of Sizhou, which disappeared beneath floodwaters in the 17th century, has been found once more. All that archaeologist Mr Hu Bing is saying at the moment is that 'Sizhou is perhaps better preserved than Italy's ancient city of Pompeii'. R2MW has sent out for visas, maps, and air tickets. Meanwhile, in Klebang, Malacca, the locals are paying unusually close attention to their fish suppers.

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