Medieval Remains, Dwindling Butterflies and Chatterboxes

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This week's opening category is "interesting stuff buried in the British Isles."

A few months ago, scientists from the University of Leicester in England found the remains of King Richard III -- best known as a none too likable Shakespearean protagonist -- in a municipal parking lot in Leicester. Geneticists were able to make a positive match between the bones, including a spine with obvious scoliosis, and the DNA of some descendants of Richard, the last Plantagenet king, who was felled with a poleax in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Now there are reports of more fascinating ancient finds. One is a Black Death burial ground, found by workers on a big public transportation project in Charterhouse Square in the center of London. Archaeologists working with Crossrail found a cache of neatly laid-out skeletons about eight feet underground that they surmise belonged to plague victims who died around 1349. The site -- "beside the future ticketing hall for Farringdon station," as The Guardian noted -- may have been the final resting spot for as many as 50,000 people who succumbed to the Black Death in less than three years' time, according to an account of the discovery posted by Crossrail.

And in Scotland, in yet another parking lot -- this one in downtown Edinburgh -- archaeologists were thrilled to find the remains of a knight who lived before either Richard III or the Black Plague, sometime during the 13th century. In addition to his skeleton, they found his gravestone, which they described as "an elaborately decorated sandstone slab with the telltale markings of a member of the nobility -- the carvings of the Cavalry Cross and an ornate sword."

At the same site, the archaeologists found the remains of the Blackfriars monastery, which was founded in 1230 by the Scottish king Alexander II and destroyed in 1558 during the Protestant Reformation. Little could the friars have foreseen that their home would one day be the site of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, part of the University of Edinburgh. The car park, as the Scots calls it, will in particular host a "rainwater-harvesting tank," which could actually be something that the ancient monks had there as well.

Developments

Health

Radiation and Breast Cancer

Undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer does raise the risk of a heart attack, as doctors have long known, but a new study says the increased risk isn't high enough that most women should forgo the treatment. While the higher risk is real, women having radiation are advised to monitor other risk factors, like high blood pressure and cholesterol. "It would be a real tragedy if this put women off having radiotherapy for breast cancer," said Sarah Darby, a professor at the University of Oxford in England and the lead author of the study, speaking about the heart attack risk.

Wildlife

No More Lionburgers?

Lions, it turns out, are not an endangered species in the United States, and raising them to turn their meat into lionburgers is perfectly legal (although demand would appear to be low). But this doesn't sit well with a state representative in Illinois, who introduced a bill to ban the sale of lion meat, particularly for human consumption. The Lion Meat Act would impose penalties of up to $2,500 and a year in jail. The proposed legislation has its supporters. "Eating carnivores is mostly not a good idea," Luke Hunter, the president of Panthera, a wildcat conservation group, told National Geographic.

Psychology

'I'm, Like, on the Bus ...'

There are two categories of people: those who think they are 100 percent entitled to talk on their cellphones in the middle of a crowded bus/train/elevator/doctor's office, and those who think that such people should be boiled in oil. Now comes a new study by a psychologist at the University of San Diego who confirms that being forced to overhear half a conversation distracts and annoys the unwilling eavesdropper, whose mind automatically tries to fill in the blanks in a way it wouldn't if both people were present. The study involved college students who were asked to solve anagrams while extraneous chitchat (either by cellphone or between two people) took place in the room.

Ecology

The Not-So-Great Migration

Monarch butterflies are beautiful and storied creatures that migrate south for the winter and north for the summer, just like many humans. But this year the number of monarchs that took up their habitual winter quarters at a forest in Mexico fell to a two-decade low, to the chagrin of Mexican wildlife authorities and tourism officials who count on the butterflies as a big draw. According to the Mexican government and conservationists, the drought and heat of climate change are partly to blame, as are farming practices that have wiped out much of the milkweed that nourishes the butterflies during their commute.

Coming up

Astrophysics

Print a Rocket Engine

Barely a week goes by without more news about people doing hard-to-imagine things with 3-D printers. While many of us still struggle with paper jams in the 2-D world, adventurous sorts might be inclined to enter a contest to design the best open-source rocket engine that can be manufactured with a 3-D printer. Sponsored by DIYRockets, a commercial space company, and Sunglass, a software company, the engine must be capable of "cheaply delivering small payloads into low Earth orbit." Final designs are due June 1, the winners will be announced on July 1, and the top prize is $5,000.

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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