Tag Archives: italy

Fossil Friday: Italy’s largest discovery of dinosaurs is a herd of 11 specimens

Every once in a while, paleontologists make some breathtaking discoveries. Recently, it was the turn of Italian paleontologists to do so, and a new paper reports on the remarkable finding: a herd of 11 fossilized dinosaurs, including the largest and most complete such reptile to ever be discovered in the country.

The fossilized skeleton of ‘Bruno’. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

Italy isn’t known as a hotbed of dinosaur fossils. There have been a handful of discoveries here, most of them in the last 30 years or so. By and large, however, Italian dinosaur hunters generally look to places outside of their motherland when searching for fossils.

But a new paper comes to show that there are still hidden paleontological gems to be found in Italy. The fossilized herd was unearthed at the Villaggio del Pescatore site, a protected area in Italy that has yielded dinosaur fossils in the past, as well.

An impressive haul

“Italy is not known for dinosaurs and, although we had a few lucky strikes in the past, now we have a whole herd at one dinosaur site,” said Federico Fanti, a professor at the University of Bologna and corresponding author of the paper describing the findings.

Villaggio del Pescatore is the site of a former limestone quarry close to the city of Trieste. Back in 1996, an almost complete dinosaur skeleton was unearthed here, initially believed to have belonged to a “dwarf species”, which paleontologists named “Antonio” at the time. However, the new discovery calls into question the assumption that it belonged to a dwarf species.

The freshly-discovered herd consists of 11 specimens of hadrosaurids of the species Tethyshadros insularis. These dinosaurs lived some 80 million years ago and could reach up to five meters (around 16 feet) in length. The herd includes the largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton ever recovered from Italy, an individual christened “Bruno”. Beyond how spectacular the find itself is, it also helped paleontologists better identify the species of Antonio.

Unlike previously believed, Antonio was not a dwarf dinosaur, but rather a juvenile — most likely a member of the same herd unearthed now.

Geology and geographic context of Villaggio del Pescatore (VdP). The star symbol marks the relative position in the paleogeography of the Tethys (c) where VdP most likely originated. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

“Bruno is the biggest and oldest of the group, and the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in Italy,” said Fanti.

“We knew there were dinosaurs at the site after the discovery of Antonio, but up until now nobody actually checked to see how many. What we have now are multiple bones belonging to the same herd.”

Around the time these dinosaurs were alive, the site at Villaggio del Pescatore was very close to water, being on the shoreline of the ancient layout of the Mediterranean sea. The discovery of fish, crocodiles, flying reptiles, and small shrimp alongside the dinosaur herd provides further evidence of this.

“This is super cool as we can figure out the kind of environment the dinosaurs lived and died in,” added Fanti. “During that period, the area was very close to the shoreline in a tropical, warm and humid environment capable of feeding herds of dinosaurs.”

The site is still closed to the public, but paleontologists hope to make at least part of it open to visitation in the future. Until then, fossil aficionados can see some of the fossils recovered so far at the site at the Civic Museum of Natural History in Trieste.

The paper “An Italian dinosaur Lagerstätte reveals the tempo and mode of hadrosauriform body size evolution” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

How art restorers in Italy used bacteria to clean up pesky grime on Michelangelo sculptures

The marble sarcophagus of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici sculpted by Michelangelo. The sarcophagus is flanked by the representations of Night and Day. Credit: Flickr, Aleksandr Zykov.

Whilst some of Michelangelo’s most famous marble sculptures, such as the exquisite David housed at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and Pietà found in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, have been restored and preserved across the centuries, the same can’t be said about all the master’s great works.

After years of gathering grime that blemished Michelangelo’s marble statues in the Medici Chapel at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, art restorationists finally embarked on a delicate cleanup process. To this aim, the team employed an innovative method whereby specialized strains of bacteria were set loose to feed on the grime, restoring the luster of the marble molded by the maestro.

The tiniest art restorers in the world

Experts at Italy’s National Research Council had been restoring the sarcophaguses at the final resting place of the Medicis for nearly a decade. After years of painstaking and careful work, most of the blemishes on the artwork were safely removed — all but a few stubborn stains that didn’t seem to respond to conventional restoration methods.

The mess is attributed to Alessandro Medici, a former ruler of Florence who was assassinated in 1537 and his body was buried in his family’s chapel without being properly eviscerated. Over the centuries, compounds from Alessandro’s remains seeped into the marble of some of Michelangelo’s statues in the chapel, leading to deep stains that no known cleaning product could remove.

Ultimately, it was decided to employ microbes to good purpose, essentially turning the marble decorations into huge petri dishes. But first, they had to pick the right strains.

Biologist Anna Rosa Sprocati evaluated a catalog of over 1,000 strains. It was of the utmost importance that she selected the right bacteria for the job. For instance, some strains ate the grime — but also ate the marble of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. One wrong move and the restoration process could have turned into a disaster.

Ultimately, Sprocati settled for a shortlist of eight candidates, which she tested on a sample section behind the altar of the chapel. One of the bacteria called Serratia ficaria SH7 was particularly voracious — it ate oils, glue, and all of Alessandro’s phosphates, leaving Michelangelo’s marble sparkling white. The bacterium is non-hazardous to human health and doesn’t leave spores.

The bacteria was first used to clean the marble in the tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo, Duke of Nemours, which is graced by the personification of Night and Day. Previously, Night’s hairs and ears were covered in black grime, which was successfully cleared away by two different strains Pseudomonas stutzeri CONC11, a bacterium isolated from the waste of a tannery near Naples, and Rhodococcus sp. ZCONT, a bacterium collected from soil contaminated with diesel in Caserta. Night’s face was treated with a stabilizer often found in toothpaste and cosmetics derived from Xanthomonas campestris bacteria. 

Then work suddenly stopped because of COVID, resuming sometime mid-October 2020. Sprocati went back at it, spreading gels with the SH7 bacteria on the grimy sarcophagus of Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino, the father of the assassinated Alessandro.

A stain on the family name

Photo featuring Dawn, with its pair Dusk in the background, flanking a sarcophagus in the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy. Credit: Flickr, George M. Groutas.

All of these now squeaky clean masterpieces were commissioned by Pope Leo X, the first Medici pope, also known as Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, who desired a marvelous new sacristy as the final resting place for his noble family. Of course, they selected Michelangelo, the greatest artist of his time and a protege of the Medici family since he was a teenage boy.

After Leo X suddenly died of pneumonia, Michelangelo continued work on the marvelous mausoleum until 1527, the date Rome was sacked by the mutinous troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Seeking to seize the opportunity, Florentines staged a coup to overthrow the Medicis and instate a Republic. Michelangelo supported this initiative that saw Alessandro, among many other Medicis, ousted from the city.

Alessandro was rough and uncultured, a lover of sensual pleasures who enriched himself personally through taxes and duties and was determined to make his authority absolute beyond all question. Many saw him as a tyrant. According to various historical sources, Michelangelo simply couldn’t stand Alessandro.

Michelangelo didn’t pick the winning side though, and it wasn’t long before the Medicis were back in town. In 1531, Pope Clement VII, another Medici pope (this is the kind of tremendous influence this banking family could command!), pardoned the exiled Michelangelo, who hastily went back to work to complete the family chapel. But by that time, Alessandro had become Duke of Florence. Michelangelo couldn’t sit in the same town as Alessandro, let alone in the same room, so it was time for the great Renaissance artist to flee once more.

In 1537, the loathsome Alessandro was murdered by a relative. His body was rolled up in a carpet and dropped into a sarcophagus without many honors. This time, when Michelangelo returned, he finished the job at the chapel. But even centuries later, Alessandro would stain his family’s name — quite literally.

Fortunately, some very hungry bacteria helped restorers finish the chapel’s much-needed cleanup. Tourists can now admire some of Michelangelo’s finest works in new light, as the chapel has been reopened to visitors.

This isn’t the first time microbes were used for art restoration. Sulphur-eating strains were used to clean black crusts from the Milan Cathedral. Bacteria were also used to clean a fresco on a cathedral dome in Pisa and a cemetery close to the Leaning Tower.

STIs are on the rise in Italy despite the lockdown

A new study reports that diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise in Italy, despite the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 lockdown.

Image via Pixabay.

At home, but frisky — people seem to be blowing off some steam from the quarantine the old-fashioned way. The findings were presented at the 29th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Congress, EADV Virtual, held from the 27th to the 31st of October. According to the authors, there have been more diagnoses of STIs including gonorrhea, secondary syphilis, and mycoplasma genitalium (MG), since the lockdown started compared to previously.

More than was bargained for

“It was assumed that the lockdown would reduce the opportunity for sexual encounters and STIs. However, I was surprised by the number of new acute infections diagnosed in this short period of time. Gonorrhea and syphilis are typically more prevalent in people in their 30s, so infection may have increased because the concentration of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality in the elderly made the younger, more active, cohort feel protected and so less risk averse,” explains lead author Dr. Marco Cusini, from the Clinic of Dermatology Milan.

“Whilst it is unrealistic to prevent people from having sex, even in this extraordinary pandemic, close contact during sexual intercourse inevitably involves an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 contagion.The findings show the importance of ongoing screening for STIs and the real benefit of having these types of services open and available during these unprecedented times.”

The research used data from two main STI centers in Milan, Italy. They compared the number of confirmed diagnoses of common STIs in patients with symptoms between 15 March and 14 April 2020 (following the introduction of lockdown measures) and compared those to the same data from 2019.

The results showed that, despite registering a significant drop in the total number of attendances (from 233 in 2019 vs 147 in 2020, a 37% drop), the number of confirmed acute bacterial infections increased compared to last year. However, the number of non-acute cases, such as genital warts and Molluscum contagiosum, fell.

Such findings, the team explains, showcase that the lockdown and advice on social and physical distancing didn’t inhibit risky sexual behavior associated with STIs. They’re particularly worrying since some STIs are becoming resistant to treatment all over the world. Gonorrhea, for example, is typically very susceptible to ceftriaxone, a common antibiotic, but resistant strains have popped up. This raises the need for new treatment guidelines, the authors argue, in order to prevent the pathogen from developing resistance to our last-line-of-defense antibiotics (such as azithromycin) as well.

All in all, this isn’t particularly good news. It’s a good idea to learn the tell-tale symptoms of the most common STIs out there and get checked if you have any cause for concern — be it during lockdown or not.

The findings are, obviously, limited to the city of Milan, but they might be an indication of how the rest of the world is faring; we are in this together, after all. However, more research will be needed to confirm or deny that hypothesis.

Algae are turning the Italian Alps pink, raising concerns over rapid melting

Citizens and tourists in Italy were surprised by the appearance of pink glacial ice in the Alps, a phenomenon that is usually caused by algae that speed up climate change. Researchers will now study the algae to better understand where it came from.

Credit Fickr

Biagio Di Mauro, a scientist at Italy’s National Research Council, said the pink snow observed on parts of the Presena glacier is likely caused by a plant that had been previously found in Greenland. He said the algae is not dangerous and described it as a natural phenomenon that happens in middle latitudes and at the Poles.

The algae, known as Ancylonema nordenskioeldii, is also present in Greenland’s so-called Dark Zone, where the ice is also melting. Usually, ice reflects more than 80% of the sun’s radiation back into the atmosphere, but as algae appear, they darken the ice so that it absorbs the heat and melts more quickly.

More algae appear as the ice melts more rapidly due to the higher availability of liquid water. In the process, they also color the white ice at the Passo Gavia in red tones. Passo Gavia is a high mountain pass in the Italian Alps located at an altitude of 2,618 meters (8,590 feet).

“Everything that darkens the snow causes it to melt because it accelerates the absorption of radiation,” Di Mauro, told AFP. “We are trying to quantify the effect of other phenomena besides the human one on the overheating of the Earth,” said Di Mauro, claiming that tourism could be having an impact on the algae.

Meanwhile, tourists in the area regretted the impacts of climate change to the glacier. “Overheating of the planet is a problem, the last thing we needed was algae,” tourist Marta Durante told AFP. “Unfortunately we are doing irreversible damage. We are already at the point of no return, I think.”

Elisa Pongini from Florence also told AFP that she felt the Earth was “giving us back everything we have done to it.” She said this year was a special one as “terrible things” have happened, claiming atmospheric phenomena are worsening and that climate change is “increasingly evident.”

The pink glacial ice isn’t actually something new. The phenomenon was observed by the first arctic explorers, and it was initially believed to be caused by iron oxides permeating the snow. Since then, however, it was established that the hue is a product of algae that bloom in frozen water.

Previous studies have shown that these blooms are causing the snow to melt faster and they’re only going to grow more frequently as climate change increases snowmelt. In 2017, researchers argued microbial communities, including the algae, contributed to more than a sixth of the snowmelt in the locations they were present.

An entire Italian town was tested for COVID-19, and 40% of positive cases had no symptoms

More than 40% of the inhabitants of an Italian town called Vó, who tested positive for COVID-19, had no symptoms of the disease, according to a new study. This suggests the importance of asymptomatic cases in the spread of the pandemic and the need for widespread testing, the researchers argued.

Credit Flickr

The town, with a population of nearly 3,200 people, experienced Italy’s first COVID-19 death on 21 February. The town was put into immediate quarantine for 14 days and during this time the researchers tested most of the population for infection, both at the start of the lockdown and after two weeks.

The testing showed that 2.6% of the population tested positive, but after a few weeks the figure dropped to 1.2%. At both times, around 40% of the positive cases had no symptoms. The results show that it took an average of 9.3 days for the virus to be cleared from someone’s body.

Meanwhile, the results also indicated that none of the children under ten years old in the study tested positive for COVID-19, despite several living with infected family members. This is in contrast to adults living with infected people, who were very likely to test positive.

Co-lead researcher Professor Andrea Crisanti, said in a statement: “Our research shows that testing of all citizens, whether or not they have symptoms, provides a way to manage the spread of disease and prevent outbreaks getting out of hand. Despite ‘silent’ and widespread transmission, the disease can be controlled.”

The results of the mass testing program in Vò were useful for the wider Veneto region, where all the contacts of positive cases were offered testing. This had a big impact on the course of the epidemic in Veneto compared to other regions of Italy, said Crisanti, who described it as a model to follow to limit the spread of the virus.

Crisanti became a celebrity in Italy for advocating widespread testing well before it became official World Health Organization (WHO) guidance. He called for broad testing even before the first case came to light in Italy in February. However, his request was rejected by officials in his northern Veneto region, who relied initially on guidance from the WHO.

As well as identifying the proportion of asymptomatic cases, the researchers also found that asymptomatic people had a similar “viral load,” the total amount of virus a person has inside them, as symptomatic patients. The viral load appeared to decrease in people who had no symptoms at the onset of infection, but who later developed symptoms.

This suggests that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission could contribute significantly to the spread of disease, making testing and isolating even more important in controlling outbreaks.

“The study demonstrates that the early identification of infection clusters and the timely isolation of symptomatic as well as asymptomatic infections can suppress transmission and curb an epidemic in its early phase,” said co-lead researcher Ilaria Dorigatti. “This is particularly relevant today, given the current risk of new infection clusters and of a second wave of transmission.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Coronavirus was in Italy already in December, sewage study shows

The novel coronavirus was already present in sewage systems of Milan and Turin in northern Italy as early as December, two months before the first Covid-19 cases were detected in the country, a new study showed, suggesting the virus was circulating much earlier than initially thought.

Credit Flickr

Italy was the first European country to be hard-hit by the virus and the first in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown. The first known case was a patient in the town of Codogno in the Lombardy region in February. The government then designated Codogno a so-called red zone and ordered it shuttered. But the disease may have reached Italy far before that, according to a new analysis.

In a study soon to be published, researchers from Italy’s Institute of Health (ISS) said water from Milan and Turin showed genetic virus traces on 18 December. They looked at 40 sewage samples collected from wastewater treatment plants in northern Italy between last October and February.

While the wastewater samples from October and November were negative, the ones from December were positive in Milan and Turin and the ones from January were positive in Bologna, another Italian city.

The results might help scientists understand better how the virus began spreading in Italy, ISS experts said in a statement.

“The discovery of the virus does not automatically imply that the main transmission chains that led to the development of the epidemic in our country originated from these first cases, but, in perspective, a surveillance network in the area may prove to be valuable to control the epidemic,” said researcher Luca Lucentini.

The findings also confirmed the “strategic importance” of sewage water as an early detection tool, the ISS said, because it can signal the virus’s presence before cases are clinically confirmed. Now, the institute hopes to start a pilot project next month to monitor wastewater at tourist resorts, later expanding it nationally.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, researchers across the world have been tracing the spread of the coronavirus through wastewater and sewage, finding genetic traces. A recent Spanish study found genetic traces in wastewater samples collected in mid-January in Barcelona, about 40 days before the first indigenous case was discovered.

Other studies not in wastewater have also suggested the virus was circulating earlier than previously expected in Europe. In France, a group of researchers discovered that a patient admitted with pneumonia in December might have been suffering from COVID-19 – a month earlier from the first case detected in the country.

“Moving from research to surveillance will be essential to arrive at standardization of methods and sampling,” said Lucentini. “The positivity of the samples is affected by many variables such as the sampling period, any meteorological precipitations, the emission of waste from industrial activities which may affect the results of activities to date conducted by different groups.”

8.3% of coronavirus cases in Italy are medical staff

Civil Protection’s first aid spot in Padua. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After China, Italy is the hardest-hit country by the novel coronavirus pandemic, having experienced over 35,000 confirmed cases and nearly 3,000 deaths as of March 19 — and the situation is rapidly spiraling.

Doctors and medical staff in Italy are facing immense pressures as they battle the virus in war-like conditions. They not only have to face interminable shifts and stress but also face the risk of getting sick themselves while treating patients.

According to a report released on Wednesday by Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze (GIMBE), at least 2,629 health workers have been confirmed positive with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness.

This figure represents 8.3% of all cases in the peninsula, two times over the sick medical staff than in China, where the outbreak first started. A study published in JAMA Network Open found that infected medical staff in China made up 3.8% of all cases, resulting in five deaths. Over 60% of the infected medical staff in China was in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.

The actual number of infected medical staff is likely much higher since even the medical staff isn’t tested enough, considering that they come into contact with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

To make matters worse, Italy’s collapsing medical system is facing immense shortages of medical supplies. Most health workers only use simple surgical face masks that have no proper filters and are ill-suited against the outbreak.

The country had always relied on imports of face masks and other medical supplies, but since the pandemic is affecting every neighboring country, those that produce masks and other protective devices are now keeping them to themselves.

“We are importing medical personnel from abroad and throwing new young healthcare professionals without licenses into the fray,” GIMBE Director Nino Cartabellotta, a public health expert, told Al Jazeera. “If we don’t provide them with adequate protection, it will end up like in a war where soldiers don’t die while fighting on the battlefield, but because of lack of equipment. The more medical personnel is infected, the weaker the responsiveness of the healthcare system.”

On March 9, Italy’s health minister ordered a 50% expansion of intensive care units across the country, insisting that more intensive care beds were urgently needed in infectious disease wards.

The number of beds in Lombardy, the worst affected Italian region by COVID-10, has grown by 70% — 1,038 beds can be used to treat severe cases in the region. However, that’s still a far cry away from what would be adequate to treat nearly 17,000 confirmed cases in the region.

On Wednesday, Governor Attilio Fontana urged everyone to stay at home, claiming that “soon” Lombardy will be unable to receive new cases.

“Unfortunately the numbers of the contagion are not falling, they continue to be high,” he said. “We will soon be unable to give a response to those who fall ill,” news agency ANSA reported. “Stay at home: if you don’t understand that we’ll have to be more aggressive.”

The Italian government enacted an emergency decree on Monday allocating 3.5 billion euros to fund the crumbling health system.

Italy’s coronavirus response shows pollution decrease from satellite

A similar thing was observed when China fought the coronavirus.

NO2 emissions in early January vs early March. Image credits: Copernicus.

Italy has officially seen the most COVID-19 cases after China. Most of the country’s cases are concentrated in Lombardia — the northern area around Milan and Venice.

Lombardia is one of the richest and most industrialized areas of Italy, and it’s also one of the most polluted areas in the country (and in Europe). But as the region — and then the entire country — went on lockdown, industrial activity, tourism, and general activity went down.

According to data from the @CopernicusEU satellite monitoring program, nitrogen dioxide levels in northern Italy have severely declined following the country-wide lockdown order.

The data was obtained with the Sentinel-5 Precursor — the first Copernicus mission dedicated to monitoring our atmosphere. The satellite carries instrumentation that monitors a number of gases including nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and aerosols.

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” Claus Zehner, the mission’s manager at the European Space Agency, said in a statement.

Another visualization shows emissions drop down quickly after the lockdown was imposed. Image credits: Copernicus.

Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant produced by industrial, heating, and transportation activity. Combustion of fossil fuels (from heating systems, engines, power plants, or other industrial activity) is strongly linked with nitrogen dioxide pollution. It is not surprising that, as activity decreased in northern Italy, so too did the pollution. But it is a striking comparison nonetheless.

A similar phenomenon was observed in China as the country went on lockdown weeks ago: there was a remarkable drop in pollution all over the affected area of Hubei. Now, activity is already starting to pick up.

Image credits: NASA.

There’s a stinging irony in these observations. This (temporarily) cleaner air is brought in by a respiratory disease. It is perhaps an important reminder that even after we shall deal with this virus, an even more important challenge awaits us: cleaning the planet from our own mess.

Coronavirus expands around the globe, with over 79,000 cases in 31 countries

Coronavirus is quickly expanding outside of China and generating alarm in many parts of the world. The virus, which started in the city of Wuhan, caused 2,619 deaths, 27 of which happened outside China. There are now about 79,300 cases, 1,500 outside China, mainly in South Korea.

The coronavirus is well on its way to becoming a global pandemic.

Although Covid-19 is not officially a pandemic, it’s increasingly looking like one. More and more places around the world are experiencing local outbreaks, and there are concerns that the spread of the outbreak might not be contained — in other words, the coronavirus might be going global.

South Korea reported today 231 new cases, bringing the total to 833, the largest number in a country outside of China. This is also the largest daily increase to date in the country, according to data disclosed on the website of the Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC).

On Sunday the Asian country decreed the maximum alert for the accelerated spread of the coronavirus in less than a week. From 30 cases on February 17, it has gone to the current 833, with seven deaths. Daegu, the fourth largest city in the country with 2,5 million inhabitants, and the adjacent Cheongdo County have been declared “special care areas”.

The expansion of the disease has also caused national football championship matches to be postponed, which should have happened last weekend. Several countries have banned or restricted the entry of travelers from South Korea; Israel was the first to impose a total ban, followed by Jordan and Bahrain. Other countries have increased controls on passengers.

In Iran, fifty people died so far this month from coronavirus in the city of Qom. There are more than 20 in quarantine in the city, which is located 120 kilometers south of Tehran and hosts a popular theological center. Iran has already been isolated by closing its neighboring countries’ borders.

In Italy, the famous Venice Carnival, which attracts thousands of visitors Italy every year, came to an end last Sunday, two days ahead of schedule, after the country recorded the “worst outbreak” of the new coronavirus in European territory, with five confirmed deaths.

The Venice carnival has been cancelled due to coronavirus fears.. Credit Wikipedia Commons

The announcement of the early closing of the traditional party came less than 24 hours after the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reported on the imposition of “extraordinary measures” to contain the progression of the disease. The measures could last for several weeks.

A dozen locations in the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto are now effectively isolated under the new government quarantine plan. The authorities have asked about 50,000 people from the villages in two northern regions not to leave their homes.

The European Commission does not consider suspending travel within the Schengen area, despite the expansion of the coronavirus in Italy, although it prepares several contingency plans. EU commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic said in Brussels said 230 million will be allocated to fight the virus. The Schengen area includes most countries in the European Union and means that people can travel from one place to the other without undergoing border checks.

The European Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, has stressed that if travel restrictions are imposed in the Schengen area, they must be provided and coordinated between the Member States, and based on scientific evidence. “For the moment, WHO has not advised to impose travel or trade restrictions,” Kyriakides said.

In the meantime, in China, the focus of the virus, the National Popular Assembly (ANP), the equivalent of the Chinese Parliament, has finally approved to postpone its legislative session as a precaution against the epidemic and to allow delegates to focus on fighting the disease in their different regions.

It was an unprecedented decision. Never until now, since the Cultural Revolution, the annual event, which usually opens on March 5, had been postponed. No date has been set to hold the session in the coming months, as reported by the official Chinese media.

We might soon have to switch tactics. Although China’s containment efforts have been impressive, they might still not be enough to truly get the job done. If this is indeed the case, we should switch from trying to contain the disease to focusing on resilience, similar to what we do with influenza.

Historic flood hits Venice — kills two, destroys historic landmarks

With local authorities blaming climate change, Venice has been hit with the worst flooding in more than 50 years. Two people have died, and historical landmarks have been seriously affected as ties of more than 140cm (55 inches) have affected up to 85% of the city.

Image via Wikipedia.

This is the second-worst flood experienced Venice since measurements began in 19223, following the record of 1.94 meters in 1966. Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted that the city “is on its knees” and imposed a state of emergency, claiming the damage has been “enormous.”

He also added that he expects this type of event to become more and more common as climate change takes its toll through sea level rise.

‘This is result of climate change,’ says Venice mayor. “Now the government must listen,” he added. “These are the effects of climate change… the costs will be high.”

In Pellestrina, an island in the Venetian lagoon, an elderly man died after being hit by lightning as he tried to use a water pump, according to the fire brigade. A second death was also reported, as a man was found dead at his home following the floods.

“We ask the government to help us. This is the result of climate change,” Brugnaro said. “We are not just talking about calculating the damages, but of the very future of the city. There have been untold damages to houses, shops, activities, and monuments. We risked our lives.”

Wooden piles are the core structure that keeps Venice standing. But this is now threatened by rising sea levels and a growing number of cruises entering the city, leading it to gradually sink. Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, said there will be funding available for Venice.

Developed in 1984, the city started working on a flood barrier project called Mose, which was supposed to prevent situations like the current one. But Mose is not yet operational and has been repeatedly delayed due to many problems such as corruption and higher costs.

Brugnaro said the city’s current problems would have been avoided if Mose had been operational. The project was supposed to start working in 2011 but now Brugnaro said they aim at 2021. It involves 78 gates that would be raised during high-tide season, but initial tests have so far failed.

Among the most affected historic landmarks, St Mark’s Square was affected with more than one meter of water and its adjacent basilica suffered its sixth flood in the last 1.200 years. Last time, in 2018, the flood caused damage to the basilica estimated at 1.9 million euros.

Francesco Moraglia, archbishop of Venice, said St Marks suffered “structural damage” and claimed this was causing “irreparable harm in the lower section of the mosaics and tiling.” For Carlo Alberto Tesserin, manager of the site, the water entered into the basilica with a force “never seen before.”

Hotels were also affected, according to the Venice hotel association. The damage was very significant as a large number of hotels lost power and didn’t have pumps to take the water out. Those saying on the ground floors of the hotels were moved to higher floors when water levels started rising.

The flood also hit five ferries that serve as water buses, one of the main ways of transportation in Venice. Social media showed photos of taxi boats and gondolas that were grounded. Boats were handed out by the coastguard to use as water ambulances across the city.

“The art, the basilica, the shops, and the homes, a disaster … Venice is bracing itself for the next high tide,” Luca Zala, governor of the Veneto region, said, describing the images in the city as “apocalyptic devastation.”

Italy makes climate change lessons compulsory at schools

Climate change will soon become a compulsory course in all the schools of Italy, making it the first country to take such a move, according to new legislation announced by the Education Ministry.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

All state schools will dedicate around an hour a week to sustainability and climate change issues from the beginning of the next academic year said the Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti. That would amount to around 33 hours a year.

“This is a new model of civic education centered on sustainable development and climate change,” the minister told The Telegraph. “It’s a new subject that will be taught from grade one to grade 13, from the ages of six through to 19.”

The lessons will be built into existing civics classes, which will have an “environmentalist footprint” from September 2020, Vincenzo Cramarossa, Fioramonti’s spokesman, said.

The syllabus will be based on the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals, including how to live more sustainably, how to combat the pollution of the oceans and how to address poverty and social injustice, among many others.

“Italy will be the first country in the world to adopt this framework,” Fioramonti said. “There are countries like Bhutan which focus on happiness and well-being rather than GDP, but this is the first time that a country has taken the UN agenda and turned it into a teaching model.”

Fioramonti was appointed Education minister two months ago. In September, when millions of schoolchildren around the world took part in Fridays for Future marches, he said Italian children should be allowed to miss school for the day.

An economics professor at South Africa’s Pretoria University, Fioramonti told Reuters in an interview that the entire ministry “is being changed to make sustainability and climate the center of the education model.”

“I want to make the Italian education system the first education system that puts the environment and society at the core of everything we learn in school,” he said.

Cramarossa said a panel of scientific experts, including Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, and American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, will help the ministry redevelop the national curriculum to pay more attention to climate change and sustainability.

Mont Blanc glacier faces risk of collapse in Italy

A part of the Mont Blanc glacier in Italy could collapse at any moment, Italian authorities warned, after closing roads and ordering the evacuation of huts on the side of the glacier.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

A staggering 250,000 cubic meters (8.8 million cubic feet) of ice could break away from the Planpincieux glacier on the Grandes Jorasses mountain in the Mont Blanc massif, experts at the Valle d’Aosta regional government and the Fondazione Montagna Sicura (Safe Mountain Foundation) reported in an analysis.

While it’s impossible to predict the exact timing of the collapse, observations in August and September showed that the glacier was shifting at a speed of 50 to 60 centimeters (20 to 24 centimeters) a day, experts said.

“These phenomena once again show that the mountain is going through a phase of strong change due to climatic factors, therefore it is particularly vulnerable,” Stefano Miserocchi, mayor of nearby Courmayeur, said in a statement. “In this case, it’s a temperate glacier particularly sensitive to high temperatures.”

Miserocchi ordered the closure of roads in the Val Ferret valley and the evacuation of mountain huts in the Rochefort area, as precautionary measures. He added that a glacier collapse would not threaten residential areas or tourist facilities.

With 11 peaks above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) between Italy and France, Mont Blanc is Western Europe’s highest mountain range and is popular with hikers, climbers, and skiers.

Alpine glaciers are melting as a result of rising global temperatures. According to the latest registry of glaciers, their surface area decreased from 609 square kilometers (235 square miles) in 1989 to 368 square kilometers (142 square miles) now — a fall of 40%.

Earlier this month, dozens of people took part in a “funeral march” to mark the disappearance of the Pizol glacier in north-east Switzerland. The glacier, in the Glarus Alps, has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its original size. Scientists say it has lost at least 80% of its volume just since 2006, a trend accelerated by rising global temperatures.

In a speech on climate change to the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte referred to the Mont Blanc warning.

“It is now news that a glacier on Mont Blanc risks collapsing,” he said. “It’s an alarm that cannot leave us indifferent. It must shake us all and mobilize us.”

Image of Italy's newly discovered mesophotic coral reef. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Scientists discover the first coral reef off the Italian coast

Marine biologists have discovered a new coral reef off the Italian coast in the Adriatic Sea, near the popular touristic town of Monopoli, in Puglia. It is the country’s first coral reef and quite unlike most other reefs due to its unique blend of conditions.

Image of Italy's newly discovered mesophotic coral reef. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Image of Italy’s newly discovered mesophotic coral reef. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Most reefs such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or those around tropical areas like the Maldives are vibrantly colored. These sun-soaked reefs owe their dazzling appearance to symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae that capture sunlight and convert it into energy, just like plants, to provide essential nutrients to the corals. In exchange, they have a place to live inside the animal’s body.

However, the new coral reef discovered in Italy is of a different variety. Due to its greater depth, located between 30-55 meters (98-180 feet), the Monopoli reef is mesophotic, meaning it thrives in low light conditions. Instead of photosynthetic organisms, this coral reef is comprised of “non-symbiotic scleractinians”, also known as stony corals. Rather than relying on other organisms for food, the coral obtains nutrients from suspended organic matter floating around the murky Adriatic sea.

“The species composition of the benthic community showed a marked similarity with those described for Mediterranean coralligenous communities and it appeared to be dominated by invertebrates, while calcareous algae, which are usually considered the main coralligenous reef-builders, were poorly represented. Overall, the studied reef can be considered a unique environment, to be included in the wide and diversified category of Mediterranean bioconstructions,” the authors wrote in their study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Italy's only known coral reef has more subtle coloring than the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Italy’s only known coral reef has more subtle coloring than the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Since it doesn’t incorporate algae, Italy’s only known coral reef doesn’t have as many of the colored pigments typically found in other reefs with algae. But that doesn’t make it any less spectacular or appealing to marine life.

“Our barrier lives in dim light and therefore the madrepores constitute these imposing structures of calcium carbonate with the absence of algae,” Professor Guiseppe Corriero, lead author of the new study, told La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno.

Researchers estimate that the reef covers about two and a half kilometers, but it could very well extend for tens of kilometers along the eastern coast. In the future, they plan on performing more dives in order to find the true extent of the reef.

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by a phenomenon known as coral bleaching caused by warming seas that kill zooxanthellae. Although the newly identified reef does not have symbiotic algae, it is still a fragile ecosystem. This is why Italy’s Regional Council of Puglia is planning to declare the reef a marine protected area.

Researchers fit Italian woman with futuristic, bionic hand

Almerina Mascarello lost her hand in a work accident — in July 1993, her hand was crushed by an industrial press. After almost 25 years, her luck completely changed.

An extraordinary fortunate event

 “I was flicking through a magazine on invalidity when I noticed a page asking people to undergo a test for a prosthesis. The Gemelli doctor phoned me a year later and asked me if I would like to be a guinea pig for a bionic hand“, she told ANSA.

“I said I would think about it and I said yes in May of last year. I went to Rome for the operation in June”Mascarello added.

Via Pixabay/Tumisu

The prosthetic — named LifeHand2 — was engineered by a team led by Silvestro Micera, from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. Neurologist Paolo Maria Rossini’s team from Rome’s Policlinico Gemelli Hospital did the medical work.

How the hand works

The medical team inserted hair-thin electrodes into Almerina’s upper arm nerves. These electrodes conduct sensorial information from the hand to a computer in a backpack. The computer translates the gathered info into a language the brain can understand. Basically, the computer transmits to the upper arm nerves electrical signals, telling the brain the consistency and shape of the object.


Almerina Mascarello opening a water bottle with the help of her new bionic hand. Credit: Youtube / Euronews.

A similar version of the bionic hand was priorly used by Danish patient Dennis Aabo Sorensen, who lost his hand in 2004 due to a firework explosion. His bionic hand was so sensitive that he was able to determine the consistency of different objects in 78 percent of cases. In 88 percent of cases, he could distinguish between a baseball, a glass, and a tangerine.

Credit: Youtube / Euronews.

The bionic hand is sophisticated enough to relay texture. Credit: Youtube / Euronews.

However, Mascarello’s implant and annexes were adjusted to fit into a backpack, unlike Sorensen’s. The bioengineering team’s goal is to create a hand prosthesis that has all the necessary components built in, miniaturizing the electronics as much as possible.

“We are going more and more in the direction of science fiction movies, like Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand in Star Wars – a fully controlled, fully natural, sensorized prosthesis, identical to the human hand.” lead researcher Micera told the BBC.

Sadly, Mascarello had to give up her prosthesis for further research. She felt like she was complete after 24 years, gathering joy from all the small things, like being able to tie her own shoes or dress alone. Unfortunately, only the research project is completed will she receive her own prosthetic hand.

“Now I’m eagerly awaiting them to call me and tell me it’s ready”, she stated.

Italy announces plans to completely phase out coal by 2025

After France, the UK and Canada, now Italy has announced an end date for coal power generation.

Milan is one of the European cities with the worst air pollution. Image credits: Nicolago.

Italian Industry Minister has announced concrete plans to end coal power within less than a decade, asking the national grid company to identify the infrastructure needed to make the transition. Italy’s biggest utility company (Enel) has also announced that they will not be investing into new coal-fired plants.

Like most countries in Europe, Italy’s renewable sector is constantly growing, year after year. In 2015, renewable sources generated just under 38% of the country’s electricity. While hydroelectrical plants are the biggest contributor (15.5% of the total), solar and wind sources generate show steady growth, reaching 13%. Geothermal and bio-energy are also significant sectors. Italy has no nuclear plants after they banned them through a referendum in 1987.

Coal currently produces around 15% of Italy’s energy. It still is an important electricity source and if this move carries through, it will mean that some plants would have only run for fifteen years. Electricity generation from coal has remained relatively stable over the past decade,

Chris Littlecott, who leads a fossil fuel transition programme at think tank E3G, welcomed the announcement from the Italian government.

“Italy’s positive commitment to phase out coal by 2025 demonstrates real international leadership as it completes its year holding the G7 Presidency,” he said in a statement. “Italy now joins its G7 peers in Canada, France and the UK in taking action to phase out coal power generation over the next decade. Together, they can lead a growing coalition of countries and regions that are now acting on coal.”

Italy’s south has abundant Sun, while the north is more suitable for wind energy.

However, nothing has been confirmed just yet. The measure is set to seek governmental and parliamentary approval at the beginning of November, and it remains to be seen if it will pass, and if yes, in what form. There are reasons to be optimistic but until a full strategy has been presented and voted, it’s a rather cautious optimism.

The measure is also expected to encourage the usage of electric vehicles. Italy aims to raise the number of electric charging stations to 19,000 by 2020, but it doesn’t make much sense to develop electric cars if the electricity is still generated from dirty sources.

Italy is greatly suffering from air pollution and smog. Just this year, cities in northern Italy reported pollution levels way over safe levels, and Milan and Rome are looking into car bans as an emergency way to clear out the city air.

Angel of Fascism.

Bound around the axe: what is fascism and why do societies turn to it

Heavily stigmatized in the aftermath of World War 2, “Fascism” is a term you don’t hear that much anymore — except thrown around in heated political debates as an ultimate insult. But what is fascism as a political system, and are the concerns that it may be making a comeback valid? Let’s find out.

Angel of Fascism.

Angel carrying the fasces in Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Rome, a vestige of Mussolini’s rule.
Image credits Anthony Majanlahti / Flickr.

Throughout history, people have envisioned and established a myriad of ways to order our societies and define social roles in the grand scheme of things. The shape these systems took, the power they held over various aspects of life, and their relationship to other political systems all evolved in accordance to several factors: a society’s leaning towards secularism or religiousness, traditionalism or liberalism, its overall level of education and ability to exchange ideas, and of course, technological capability.

The basics

Fascism actually emerged (in a coherent form) in Italy, not Nazi Germany. Its roots start to form in 1915 from a people marked by the death, horror, and the (soon to be) vittoria mutilata of the Great War, and it grew on the unprecedented technological and industrial progress of the 20th century. Since then, as Godwin’s tongue-in-cheek law perfectly exemplifies, “fascist” has become an almost derogatory term evoking rigidity and extremism of thought, allegiance to an oppressive single party, violence against anyone not aligned with the ideology, xenophobia, and an exclusion of the one it’s aimed at from any meaningful discussion in politics.

But beyond a few characteristics that define all fascist movements, they draw heavily from a people’s culture and can be very different from one another. So let’s take a look at what this political system stands for, what circumstances led to its creation, and what place it has in the world today.

First things first: political analysts usually classify ideologies as wings on a “left-right” spectrum. At their best, the left wing deals in change, progressive ideas, believes the state has the responsibility to care for its citizens (things like basic income, state-owned health, emergency, education systems are at home on the left), are generally idealist and value equality. The right deals in conservative ideas, believes in free markets as well as minimal state interference and regulation (ultra-free markets, private health, emergency, and education systems thrive under right-wing rule). The right emphasizes equity over equality.

I’ll also take a cue from the guys at PoliticalCompass and factor in a social spectrum to get a better understanding of fascism. So in addition to the left-right poles, we’ll also put in an authoritarian-libertarian scale which shows how different governments go about their business: by pooling power within the ruling body and/or a central figure (authoritarian), or by allowing people greater freedoms, thereby giving away their power (libertarian). Now that we have our bearings, let’s talk fascism.

What is fascism?


The two spectra — left/right and authoritarian/liberal — can be superimposed to give you an idea of where your allegiance lies on the political spectrum — these are my results. If you’re curious about where you fall, go take the test on The Political Compass.
Image credits The Political Compass.

It’s pretty hard to determine the exact boundaries of fascism. In broad lines, however, it’s considered to fall on the heavily authoritarian right as it maintains social order and opposes equality — here it’s in the top bits of the blue area. In other words, fascism relies on a mix of government or single leader with virtually absolute power in society and strong private property that only remains free while it serves the party’s interests.

It also has deep, super-nationalistic and racist, even xenophobic undertones, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’, blaming the perceived other for the country’s hardships, eventually encouraging segregation and violence against this ‘other’ as the way forward.

From a socio-economic standpoint, fascism is highly polarizing: exceedingly rich and powerful industrialists and politicians rule at the top, followed by upper, middle, then lower classes, with one or more groups of non-citizens at the bottom. But none of these truly define fascism (in fact, we can see many of its influences in today’s politics, even though we don’t live under fascism).

What fascism usually does is reject liberal, socialist, and conservative thoughts and replaces them with a complex net of cultural and ideological tenants. This cultural element is why it’s so hard to tell exactly where fascism begins and ends. Fascist rulers attain the people’s mandate by pointing at the glories of yore and their subsequent decadence, instilling a sense of superiority over other peoples (the corruption of the Ubermensch symbol), and insisting that only a strong country united under a strong leader can retake their place on the world stage (“Make America great again“) all of which takes the shape of unique cultural levels in every society.

Fascism America Sticker.

It has a unique flavor wherever it pops up.
Image credits Robert F. W. Whitlock / Wikimedia.

The final traits of fascism are heavy propaganda, a rejection of globalization and attainment of autarky, a mixture of philosophies and ideas from the left and right into its ideology and, perhaps it’s most extreme far-right trait, the aim to have a group of superior people dominate society and purge inferior humans.

Tying it all together, the very name of “fascism” is probably what symbolizes this ideology the best. The word is rooted in the Latin word fasces, which were bundles of rods usually tied around an axe with the blade sticking out. Fasces were issued to Roman magistrates and symbolized power. And in a way, that’s what fascism is: a people inescapably tied to a single cause, vesting absolute power and the decision of life and death in a leader’s personal agenda — whether willingly or by force.

One interesting observation you can make from the four quadrants in the above compass is that it’s not communism which is ideologically opposite fascism — the two are actually pretty similar apart from the fact that communism rejects traditional elites while fascists work them into the new social order. The ideological opposite of fascism is liberal socialism. That’s some food for thought.

How does fascism emerge?

The first truly fascist party emerged in Italy in the 1920s. To give you some context, at the conclusion of the World War I Italy lost an estimated 400,000 soldiers, and almost four million of the country’s men were wounded, captured, or suffered disease and disability after the conflict in the army alone — in a country of 37 million people at the time. That’s over 10% of the whole population. It’s a huge ratio.

For all their hardship and loss, the Italians also felt they were cheated out of the war promises the Entente (basically the allies in WWI) made. Initially allying with Germany and Austro-Hungary to defend against French expansion in Tunisia, one of their African colonies, the Italians secretly agreed to join the Entente in the London Pact — on the condition that they are given back north-eastern Italy from the Austrians. After the treaty was signed, however, UK diplomats figured that they didn’t actually have any beef with the Austrians. Long story short, Italy didn’t get what it was promised when the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was signed.

Rethondes Wagon de l'Armistice.

A treaty signed in this very railway car.
Image credits Nicklaarakkers / Wikimedia.

This could be seen as the first spark to ignite fascism in Italy at the time. Public confidence and approval of the then-Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando tanked as people regarded him too weak to serve Italian interests. Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the one who coined the term “vittoria mutilata,” started to vocally criticize Orlando’s weakness and the treachery of foreign powers. He gathered a small force of armed Italians and actually attacked and conquered the city of Fiume in September 1919, then part of Austria — a 90% ethnic Italian town that the country was promised but didn’t receive as war reparations. The town subsequently issued what amounted to a fascist charter and enjoyed autonomy for a while.

And it may well be this charter that took fascism, in the public’s opinion, from one of many possibilities to a solution. As always, there was still internal resistance, but for many people disillusioned with Italy’s current government, angry about what they perceived as unfairness by external powers, and willing to see Italy’s sacrifices properly repaid, this new political idea actually delivered — it managed, with 2,000 or so armed men, to capture a city that the previous government couldn’t bring back with a whole war.

Germany also had to pay huge war reparations and suffer international shame (it was a thing back then) following the end of WWI, and unlike Italy, they also had to contend with the fact that they actually lost. The reparations ruined Germany’s economy, and I mean actually ruined — inflation was so high in post-war Germany that you needed a literal wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. People would even burn money in stoves to heat their homes during the winter since it was less expensive than buying coal or firewood.

In these conditions, it’s not that hard to understand how desperate people would look to a strong government to solve their problems.

While it’s easy to judge past generations on their actions, we have the benefit of hindsight on our side. Even so, the threat of fascism still looms over us, and will likely haunt our elections and governments for a while still.

Fascism today

Invaders against Fascism.

Image credits Lauren Manning / Flickr.

Fascism was made possible by the breathtaking speed of technological advance in the 20th century, one which overcame society’s ability to adapt. People wanted safety and more bountiful lives following the horrors of the Great War, and autocrats scrambling for ever-more power, with massive industrial and infrastructure complexes behind them, could provide that.

Technology such as radios let the government speak directly to the people, and nobody knew not to trust their government yet so they did the unthinkable things their leaders said would bring about a better world — and are we really the ones to judge them? We are living in an increasingly illiberal world, where our hate and fear push more autocratic leaders into the spotlight. We fear our way of life is under attack by terrorists, more and more people are struggling with poverty, and most people haven’t yet learned not to trust that Facebook post from a random site claiming “immigrants are taking our jobs” and “causing crime” (both are false) — so we do the unthinkable things our leaders ask of us to bring about a better world.

Just as in those early days of economic and political uncertainty, we’re putting our faith in strong leaders who look willing to fight for our interests. A leader who comes with promises of a wealth, safety, a sense of purpose for all — and that’s perfectly understandable. But the people who promise you can have all that if you just kick out x minority, or if you reclaim your borders, the people who hate and discriminate — they won’t solve our problems. They won’t do anything except breed more hate and discrimination, more misery and hardship for those in need, more power and wealth for those who further their goals. Talking about the issue of fascism for The New York Times, Henry Scott Wallace wrote:

“They invariably put ‘money and power ahead of human beings.’ […] ‘They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest, […] claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution’.”

“They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. ‘They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.’ They need scapegoats and harbor ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations’,” he concludes.

Today we do have the benefit of hindsight. We know what lies down the path of fascism, be it in America, in Russia, the UK, or any other country — if it takes root, this time it’s on us.

Credit: Italian Good News.

Despite a struggling economy, Italy has the healthiest citizens in the world

A staggering 40 percent of Italy’s youngsters are unemployed — but at least they’re healthy. The boot-shaped country tops Bloomberg’s Global Health Index which covers 163 countries.

Credit: Italian Good News.

Credit: Italian Good News.

“la salute prima di tutto” (“Health first”)

According to Bloomberg’s health index, Italians are much healthier than Americans, Canadians or Brits, who all live in much more prosperous countries. A baby born today in Italy can expect to live 80 years.

There are a couple of things that can explain the Italian healthy lifestyle. For one, Italy is a developed country with good access to education, health care, and a sound infrastructure. It’s just that the last decade was particularly bad for the peninsula’s economy. Secondly, the famous Italian food rich in Mediterranean produce has been time and time again proven to be among the healthiest. Previously on ZME Science, we wrote about how a Mediterranean diet improves memory, keeps the body young and prevents heart disease. Lots of veggies sprinkled in extra virgin olive oil seems to be important.

Traditionally, Italians also often enjoy a glass of wine with their evening meal and generally avoid binge drinking. According to BBC Good Food, moderate drinking of wine (1-2 glasses a day) is good for the heart. It’s also worth noting that a 2016 study found that pasta — arguably Italy’s most recognizable export, maybe second only to pizza — is not fattening and could actually help lose weight.

Contrary to other developed countries from Western Europe, Italy has a surplus of doctors. In fact, one of the longest running local TV shows is called  “A Doctor in the Family.”

Bloomberg’s index is primarily based on two factors: health score and health risk. The health score is based on mortality rates in each country, while the health risk score is based on different factors likely to limit health, such as the numbers of young people smoking or the percentage of immunizations.

Joining Italy in Bloomberg’s top ranking healthiest countries were Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia, and this order.

As for the United States, it scored rather poorly with an index of 73.05 out of 100 placing it #34 on the list. Its health score has been brought down by the high incidence of obesity which plagues the country. In America’s poorest states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia — 35 percent of the population is obese.

Israel is the highest ranked country in the Middle East, Chile in Latin America, and Slovenia in Eastern Europe. On the opposite end, the most unhealthy people live in Sierra Leon where a baby born today shouldn’t expect to live past age 52.

healthiest countries ranked by Bloomberg



Italian earthquake kills at least 20, destroys entire town

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck north-east of Rome, wiping off the small town of Amatrice and killing at least 20 people in the process.

An aerial photo of Amatrice taken by the fire brigade showed the scale of the damage.

The epicenter was located 10km South East of Norcia, Italy, and roughly 120km from Rome/Vatican City area. It’s expected that Rome itself will be left unscathed, though many residents were given quite a scare. But not everyone was so lucky.

Dozens of mountain villages were devastated, including the town of Amatrice, whose mayor said that his town “isn’t here anymore”. So far, 21 fatalities have been reported, but as the earthquake struck at 3.36 AM, officials fear many more are still trapped under the rubble. Missing persons have been reported, and the authorities helped by locals are conducting searches for any survivors.

Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor in Amatrice, near Rieti, said that the city was packed with tourists, as the town is a popular destination during the summer.

“There are so many dead I cannot make an estimate,” he told RAI state television. “We have already extracted several dead bodies but we do not know how many there are there below. There are dozens of victims, many under the rubble. We are setting up a place for the bodies.”

Earlier he told the broadcaster: “Half of the town is gone.”


Stefano Petrucci, mayor of Accumoli, near the epicentre, also expected dire news.

“Now that daylight has come, we see that the situation is even more dreadful than we feared with buildings collapsed, people trapped under the rubble and no sound of life.”

Italy is one of the most earthquake-prone areas in Europe. The last major earthquake to hit Italy struck the central city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people. Another major temblor struck in the Romagna region in May 2012, when two violent shocks 10 days apart killed 23 people.

Cultural-heritage-protection task force created by Italy and the UN

Following ISIS’ attack and destruction of the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, Italy and the United Nations have joined forces to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones, AP reports. The newly appointed task force’s goal is to keep ancient artifacts, works of art and archaeological sites safe from destruction or theft by extremists.

A member of ISIS destroying an ancient Assyrian lamassu (screenshot from an ISIS propaganda video).
Image via hyperallergic

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova met in Rome today and signed an agreement creating the Peacekeepers of Culture. This 60-person-strong Italian task force will include art historians and Italian-trained restoration experts; the muscle behind all their know-how will be drawn from Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police force (including members from the art-theft police squad) who have long been in the vanguard of fighting looted artwork and artifacts trafficking.

“We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture,” Bokova said at the signing ceremony.

The Peacekeepers of Culture “could be in the future one of the essential components in the fight against terrorism,” Gentiloni added.

The agreement also calls for the establishment of a training center in Turin, northern Italy, where the task force will train cultural heritage protection experts. Besides guarding sites against looting and hampering cultural trafficking, their aim will be to  “assess risk and quantify damage done to cultural heritage sites, develop action plans and urgent measures, provide technical supervision and training for local national staff,” the Italian ministry states. If necessary, the Peacekeepers will help with moving culturally-valuable items to safety from areas of conflict.


While protecting against “cultural cleansing” and the fear-mongering propaganda that comes with it, the task force also hopes to cut off some of the Islamic State’s funds acquired through the sale of looted artifacts, statues, and other antiquities on the black market.

The task force hasn’t yet chosen a country for its first mission, but its members “are already operational and ready to go where UNESCO sends them,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

Italy becomes the first country to totally drop plastic bags

You probably don’t know it yet, but our planet has a major problem with plastic. I wasn’t able to find an accurate statistic of how much of this is caused by regular ordinary plastic bags that everybody uses, but it’s definitely a considerable number. After a laudable initiative taken on by the city of Seattle, others have followed on these footsteps, and we can only be pleased to see that happen.

Starting this year, the only plastic bags available in all of Italy will be fully biodegradable ones, as a ban of regular ones has already been announced. Italy was one of the ‘leaders’ in this category, being responsible for over 20 billion bags a year (one-fifth of all European use), so it will be pretty hard for them to quickly adapt to such a change, and some are worried they will really struggle with this.

“We are not prepared to face such a cultural change,” says Florence lawyer Giampaolo Pagnini. “We should take it slowly, because we do not have the cultural background to know how to deal with this. It took us ages to adapt to wearing a seatbelt when that law came into effect.” Antonella d’Antoni, who works for a bank in Rome, echoes the sentiment: “This is the same, it will take time.”

However, only time will tell if they can succeed in their laudable attempt. In the meantime, what can you do when you’re going to the supermarket and nobody is going to give you a plastic bag ? I’m gonna let brilliant Tim Minchin tell you.