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Project Peacock: How the British Wanted to Heat WWII Mines

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Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The end of World War II was marked by the Americans dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, which teed off a nuclear arms race which would last through most of the century.  As nuclear weaponry was a new technology, the drive to innovate and experiment was enormous. But perhaps no experiment was as ridiculous as a British nuclear bomb project nicknamed the Blue Peacock.

The strategy of the Blue Peacock was somewhat reasonable: Use nuclear weapons as defensive measures by lining parts of Germany with nuclear mines. In the event of Soviet invasion, the mines would be detonated, wiping out the invading army and creating a barrier of contamination, preventing future armies from similarly invading via the same route.

But there was a problem. Keeping the mines viable once underground, especially in winter, required that they be kept warm. The British Army first considered using blankets until a better idea emerged: chickens.

By sealing chickens—live chickens, that is—in the bomb mechanism, surrounded with a wire casing to prevent them from pecking at the wires (really), the British forces realized they could produce enough heat—body heat, specifically—to keep the bomb viable. The heat would abate, however, in roughly a week’s time, as the chickens could reasonably only be given enough feed and water to survive about that long.   And when the chickens died, their body heat went with them.

While other alternative heating schemes were considered, all would be rendered moot. The British Army planned to implement the Peacocks by telling the Germans (their allies) that the bombs were actually power generators used to support British soldiers in Germany. The likely political fallout from this ruse (to say the least) was the primary reason the Blue Peacocks were never deployed.

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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