The Global Fool

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Dante’s Fainting: A Medical Enigma from the Middle Ages
May15

Dante’s Fainting: A Medical Enigma from the Middle Ages

A guest post by Michele A. Riva 2015 is the 750th anniversary of the birth of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the author of the literature masterpiece the Divine Comedy. Written between 1304 and 1321, the Divine Comedy is an epic poem that describes Dante’s imaginative and allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The poem has inspired not only the creative efforts of illustrious authors such as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton, but also an ongoing debate on the “medical conditions” that are so frequently depicted in it. During his Hell-Purgatory-Heaven journey, Dante frequently experiences symptoms such as loss of consciousness, hallucinations and fainting, which he relates to love and passion, fear and anguish, and mysticism. However, a few medical scholars think these symptoms could be mirroring a real pathological condition that affected Dante since childhood. So, for these medical scholars, the question is: what is the most likely pathological condition that was causing Dante’s symptoms? Narcolepsy is one of the possible answers. Narcolepsy is a disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, associated with hallucinations, episodes of muscle weakness and subsequent falls, which are always triggered by strong emotions. So, all the Divine Comedy could be interpreted as a result of hallucinations in a subject afflicted by a sleep disorder. Emotional syncope might also explain Dante’s loss of consciousness. This condition, one of the most common causes of fainting, causes a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure. It occurs in response to triggers such as scary, embarrassing or uncomfortable situations, as well as instances of high stress or trauma, similar to those that Dante experiences during his journey. Finally, another possible, and even more intriguing explanation of Dante’s fainting is related to food/drink depletion. According to the poet, his journey in Hell starts on the night of April 8, 1300, and ends in Paradise one week later, on April 15. During the whole passage through Hell, which lasts about 48 hours, he keeps walking, and he neither eats, nor drinks. Ditto for his journey through Purgatory. Thus, for five days, he goes with no water, and no food — at the same time, he is experiencing heavy emotional distress. After his last collapse in Purgatory, his guide Beatrice throws him into the Lethe river — Dante drinks for the first time in his long journey. He does not faint anymore. But, what about the high temperatures he has to endure while walking in Hell? This is certainly another factor that might have contributed to his distress and caused the multiple syncopes he experiences there. We’re attempting to diagnose potential disorders that affected Dante’s health....

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It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying: A New Campaign to Raise Awareness of Climate Change
Aug14

It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying: A New Campaign to Raise Awareness of Climate Change

By The Editors Milton Glaser, one of the most celebrated graphic designers in the United States, has launched an environmental campaign to raise awareness of climate change. He is known for the ubiquitous I heart NY logo, his Bob Dylan poster, the Brooklyn Brewery logo, and a lot more. You can view a collection of his work here.  The campaign — It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying —  is based on a strong message that is meant to create a sense of urgency around climate change, a well-established major global threat. For his campaign, which defines climate change as “The most important fact on Earth“, Glaser designed a visual for buttons and posters — our planet seen as a green disk covered by black smoke, with only a narrow band of life (in still visible green) remaining at its bottom. The green section is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink for maximum impact. “There is no more significant issue on earth than its survival,” Glaser told Dezeen, one of the world’s most popular and influential architecture and design magazines. “The questions is, ‘how can anyone not be involved?'” And he added: “If half the people on earth wear the button even the ‘masters of the universe’ will be moved to action,” referring to the large corporations he says have prevented significant action to protect the planet against the changing climate. “Global warming” does not convey the seriousness of the problem. Glaser wants to point out what global warming really is — a death sentence — and make people more receptive to truly understand what it’s at stake here. He told Brian Lehrer (listen to the interview here): “Global warming in its own way sounds sort of reassuring and comforting … that’s terrible. You begin by attacking the phrase itself — the word and what the word means — because the truth of the matter is that the earth is dying. And wouldn’t it be nice if today was the beginning of the most important date in human history which is the date we decided not to let the earth die?” A Twitter account provides a stream of news reports and updates about the campaign. Follow this link to buy buttons ($5 for five). All proceeds will be used to produce and distribute more...

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J.M.W. Turner’s Sunsets: A Guide to Air Pollution
Mar27

J.M.W. Turner’s Sunsets: A Guide to Air Pollution

By Roberta Attanasio During the past few weeks, London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner — one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters — has been in the news more than one time. His latest paintings were considered by his critics the result of a senile mind. Now, they’re presented as evidence of his radical brilliance. Many of these paintings will be shown at an exhibition in London, which will start in September 2014 and, in 2015, will go to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sam Smiles, the co-curator of the exhibition, told The Guardian: “The myth is that Turner’s mind and hand increasingly failed him, especially after 1845, that his work declined and he deliberately withdrew from active engagement with the public and critics, This exhibition will demonstrate that this is very far from the truth.” The forthcoming film of Mike Leigh is on Turner’s personality. Leigh says in a video: “He is so complex and there’s so much of him to get your head around. Turner was a compulsive artist. Turner had to paint, had to draw, all the time … it was an absolute obsession.” Now, a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (Further evidence of important environmental information content in red-to-green ratios as depicted in paintings by great masters) on March 25, 2014, shows that the colors of sunsets painted by famous artists —  including J.M.W. Turner — can be used to estimate past air pollution levels. On April 10, 1815, the Tambora volcano in Indonesia produced the largest known eruption on the planet during the past 10,000 years and sent more than 36 cubic miles of pulverized rock into the atmosphere. Entire villages were buried under thick pumice deposits. The ash and gas spewed into the atmosphere formed an aerosol layer and circled the planet. Average temperatures dropped over the next year, turning 1816 into the “year without a summer”. The aerosol particles scattered sunlight and produced bright red and orange sunsets in Europe for up to three years after the eruption. J.M.W. Turner was one of the artists who painted these stunning sunsets. For the study, researchers used his paintings — along with paintings from other artists — to estimate the past composition of the atmosphere. They found that red-to-green ratios measured in the sunsets of paintings by great masters correlate well with the amount of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere, regardless of the painters and of the school of painting. Skies more polluted by volcanic ash scatter sunlight more, so they appear more red. Thus, they identified a methodology to obtain information on the atmosphere conditions from times when instrumental measurements were not available and to evaluate how pollution levels in...

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Nanotechnology: Lycurgus Cup and Sensors
Aug29

Nanotechnology: Lycurgus Cup and Sensors

By Roberta Attanasio Nanotechnology is technology based on extremely small structures, the so-called nanostructures. How small are nanostructures? We’re talking nanoscale – about 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter (there are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch). These are the dimensions of atoms and molecules and, therefore, nanotechnology involves the manipulation of atoms and molecules. How, then, is nanotechnology different from molecular biology (sometimes called the nanoscience of living things), physics, or chemistry? The distinction can be blurred. However, when considering nanotechnology and nanostructures, it is important to take into account that nanostructures are man-made and exhibit special size-dependent properties, in other words properties resulting exclusively from their nanoscale dimensions. Jackie Ying, in a Nature Nanotechnology article (October 2006), gives a clear and simple definition of nanotechnology: “A toolbox that provides nanometer-sized building blocks for the tailoring of new materials, devices and systems.” In the same article, researchers, industrialists and others explain what nanotechnology means to them, providing a variety of perspectives that range from the enthusiastic to the sceptical. Peter Dobson states: “Actually, nanotechnology has been around for over a hundred years. Irving Langmuir was one of the first to truly develop the technology in the General Electric labs in the 1920s and 1930s.” In reality, nanotechnology has been around for centuries. The British Museum is home to the Lycurgus cup, made in Rome in the 4th century AD and known as one of the oldest nanotechnology-based marvels. Gang Logan Liu, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), describes the cup as an “icon for inspiration” – inspiration for innovative applications of nanotechnology. Thus, inspired by the Roman cup and its optical characteristics, Liu and collaborators developed a novel, ultra-sensitive tool for the analysis of chemical compounds, DNA, and proteins. This tool is a colorimetric sensor: it “senses” (detects) the presence of specific molecules and then indicates their presence by changing color. Indeed, the ability to change color is what makes the Lycurgus cup such a marvel. The Lycurgus cup is the only complete example of dichroic glass – glass that changes color when held up to the light. The jade-green cup turns to a glowing translucent red when light is shone through it. This dichroic effect was achieved by including in the glass plasmonic nanoparticles, in this case minutely ground gold and silver dust. Liu and collaborators published their work at the beginning of the year in an article entitled “Colorimetric Plasmon Resonance Imaging Using Nano Lycurgus Cup Arrays”. The article appears in the the scientific journal Advanced Optical Materials and describes their nanoscale Lycurgus cup – a colorimetric device that appears green when light is...

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Plastic Debris and Great Garbage Patches: Ca’ Foscari University Raises Awareness of Ocean Pollution
Jul16

Plastic Debris and Great Garbage Patches: Ca’ Foscari University Raises Awareness of Ocean Pollution

By Roberta Attanasio When we think of the Great Garbage Patches — of which 5 exist — we usually think of ocean pollution. Now, when thinking of garbage patches and ways to raise awareness of them, we may think of Venice and Ca’ Foscari University. Venice, the Italian city that seems to float on water, bears no resemblance to the vast concentrations of floating marine debris that makes up the garbage patches.  However, you can find an artistic representation of the garbage patches right in the heart of the city and, more precisely, right in the courtyard of the world’s oldest existing building granted LEED certification. Let’s go one step at a time. What is LEED certification? LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. The world’s oldest existing building to obtain LEED certification is the more than 500-years old Palazzo Foscari, the location of Ca’ Foscari University administrative headquarters. The courtyard of the green and sustainable Palazzo Foscari is an appropriate home for the Garbage Patch State art installation, which has been set up by artist Maria Cristina Finucci in collaboration, of course, with Ca’ Foscari University. The goal of the installation is to draw attention to the global problem of ocean pollution. Ca’ Foscari’s focus on sustainability-based initiatives is the result of the environmentally-forward mastermind of Carlo Carraro.  Carraro is President of Ca’ Foscari University, Professor of Econometrics and Director of the International Center for Climate Governance. Why a Garbage Patch State installation? The world’s oceans are heavily polluted by marine debris, mostly consisting of small bits of floating plastics. These bits are called microplastics and derive from the degradation of larger plastic debris. Indeed, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean — rather, they break down in smaller and smaller pieces. Marine debris becomes trapped by the circular ocean currents of the five gyres, where it builds up to form giant garbage patches. The Ca’ Foscari installation is called “The Garbage Patch State Venice” in honor of the Garbage Patch State — a State that includes the five garbage patches corresponding to the five gyres. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted the “Garbage Patch State” symbolic statehood in April thanks to the effort and commitment of Maria Cristina Finucci. The microplastics that make up the majority of garbage patches are almost invisible to the naked eye. Similarly, the giant patches of garbage are not captured by satellite imagery or aerial photographs. In addition, not all the trash floats on the surface. Denser debris is located under the surface. According to...

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