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A Surging Warren Faces Attacks From More Moderate 2020 Candidates

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Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren looks on as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during Tuesday

Facing scrutiny from other candidates for the first time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's policy positions were described as unrealistic and expensive by her rivals in the Democratic debate.

(Image credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

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Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar To Endorse Bernie Sanders For President

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., speaks alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., outside the Capitol.

The two progressive congresswomen are part of "The Squad" — a quartet of freshman Democratic women of color who are popular with the party's base but who are frequent targets of Democrats and Trump.

(Image credit: Saul LOoeb/AFP/Getty Images)

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Why Renaissance Paintings Aren't as Green as They Used to Be

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The Italian late-Renaissance painter Angelo Bronzino spent two years on his 1591 painting “Noli me tangere,” or “Christ the gardener.” The oil-on-wood painting, which was commissioned by a man who wanted to adorn his father’s funeral chapel, would make any dead father proud, depicting a beefy Christ and Mary Magdalene dressed in vivid blues and greens. But if Bronzino saw the painting now, he would probably be sorely disappointed. Over the past four centuries, the once-brilliant green paint has faded into a mucky, unrecognizable brown.

Noli me tangere,” which hangs today in a gallery of the Louvre, is one of many Renaissance paintings that features a copper-based pigment called verdigris. When fresh, its shade of bluish green is rare and luminous. But like many pigments popular in the 15th through 17th centuries, verdigris is toxic and unstable, Arthur DiFuria, an art historian at the Savannah College of Art and Design, explained in an interview with Copper.org, the website of a trade group that represents the copper industry. By the 19th century, verdigris had fallen out of fashion—mostly due to its poisonous nature—but no one ever figured out why the brilliant green pigment darkened so severely. Now, researchers in France have sleuthed the chemistry behind verdigris’s shadowy tendencies in a study in Inorganic Chemistry published in September, 2019.

In Jean Fouquet’s "<em>Pietà</em>," the dark coat of the man on the left was originally a bright green.
In Jean Fouquet’s “Pietà,” the dark coat of the man on the left was originally a bright green. Public Domain

To anyone living in the 21st century, it might not be obvious that Renaissance paintings were once much colorful than they look now. “If you look at the paintings of, say, Leonardo da Vinci, they are very, very dark,” says Didier Gourier, a chemist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and an author of the study. “But they didn’t always look this way.”

Gourier knew that past researchers had speculated that light exposure and oxygen may have contributed to the darkening process, and he decided to analyze the chemical changes that took place in the verdigris. Though they had a plethora of paintings to choose from, the researchers selected two Renaissance paintings from the Louvre: Bronzino’s “Noli me tangere” and Jean Fouquet’s “Pietà.” Both works used plenty of verdigris that had sallowed over the years. Gourier took several samples, each smaller than a millimeter, and ran them through an electron microscope.

Presented with incredibly high-resolution images of the paint chips, they contrasted the color changes in verdigris sampled from the center of Bronzino’s painting against verdigris sampled right next to the frame, a shaded area that would have offered protection from light. Their suspicions were proven right when they found the frame-protected paint was far less deteriorated. When Gourier magnified a cracked paint sample from “Pietà,” he found that each crack had darkened, likely due to the diffusion of oxygen in the cracks. “The darkening is not systematic,” Gourier says. This inconsistency helps researchers pick out now-brown verdigris from originally brown paint, he says.

Microsamples taken from Bronzino's painting,<em>Noli me tangere</em> show vastly different levels of deterioration.
Microsamples taken from Bronzino’s painting,Noli me tangere show vastly different levels of deterioration. C2RMF, Inorganic Chemistry

To chemically confirm their theories, the researchers decided to recreate verdigris according to a medieval formula and see how they darkened over an accelerated time scale. “We had to speed up the darkening, because a painting in the Renaissance period would have taken several hundreds of years to darken,” Gourier says. “We calculated that 16 hours of LED illumination corresponds with several hundreds of years of illumination by museum light.”

Verdigris, technically known as copper acetate, has a simple recipe. Simply place metallic copper in vinegar and wait three or four weeks for the metal to react with the acid, producing blue-green copper acetate on its surface. (The Statue of Liberty appears blue-green for the same reason.) The researchers mixed the pigment with boiled linseed oil to make paint, as was the custom in the Renaissance. Gourier then placed the recreated verdigris on a thin sheet of glass to allow (simulated) centuries of light to pass through the sample. As if on cue, the gaudy verdigris darkened into muddled brown, just as the researchers expected.

Though Gourier intentionally selected two paintings with poorly-aged verdigris, the pigment can be detected a little more clearly on other famous works of Renaissance art. Chemical analysis is required to know for sure that a particular painting used verdigris (and it goes without saying that a permit to sample a 15th-century masterpiece is not easily acquired), but the charismatic green can be spotted in several works by Sandro Botticelli, such as the resplendently verdant “The Mystical Nativity,” which depicts—you guessed it—Christ and the Virgin Mary. DiFuria also suspects that Jan van Eyck’s green-sheened “Ghent Altarpiece” uses verdigris. The greens in these paintings are presumably less prismatic than they would have been several centuries ago, but they still, somehow, seem to glow.


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Restoring the Salvator Mundi

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I first saw the Salvator Mundi on April 27, 2005. A longtime friend, an art historian and dealer in Italian Old Master paintings, brought it to the apartment I shared with my husband, Mario Modestini. He had just received it from a New Orleans auction house and was hoping that I would agree to restore it. As is now well known, the Salvator Mundi was later recognized as a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, and in 2017 it became the most expensive painting ever sold, bringing in $450.3 million at auction at Christie’s. But it was Mario, in the last months before his death, who first recognized the power of this disquieting portrait of divinity—a persona unseeing, all-knowing, eternal, pitiless, like the universe itself. After all that has happened since that day in April—the sale, the debates over authenticity, the accusations of manipulation—I often wonder what Mario would say about the doubters.

As my husband was, I am a restorer of Old Master paintings. I am good at it and treat my responsibility with the utmost gravity. The restoration of a badly damaged painting, especially when it is by a very great artist, always arouses criticism, not least from oneself. It is, unavoidably, an interpretation, like a musical performance except some of the notes are missing. All you have to go on are the well-preserved areas of original paint. These are sacrosanct.

While restoring the Salvator Mundi—work that I began in April 2005 and finished in September 2010—I made sure that my feeble retouches never masked these precious traces. To match the original paint, I built up the retouches in thin layers in the same sequence used by Leonardo. Fearful of covering any original paint, I used the tiny 000 sable watercolor brushes made by Winsor & Newton. Each brushstroke was carefully judged, based on knowledge of similar works and the formal structure of adjoining passages.

Even so, many of the gadflies who make their living on the fringes of the scholarly art world appear to believe that a restorer—in this instance, me—is capable of creating the Salvator Mundi. I suppose I should be flattered. One well-regarded art historian repeated this absurd notion in her soon-to-be published book on Leonardo. As Mario used to say, “She must be blind.”

The power of this disquieting portrait of divinity—a persona unseeing, all-knowing, eternal, pitiless.

It is now 500 years since the death of Leonardo and fewer than 20 paintings have been attributed to him. Many of them were not documented in his lifetime, and there are numerous copies by his followers. New attributions have always been contested and, understandably, must meet the highest standards. In 2008, after three years of examination, a majority of the National Gallery’s panel of experts accepted the Salvator Mundi, justifying its display in the museum’s 2011–12 exhibition.They responded to the magisterially painted blessing hand; the ringlet curls on the left, identical to those in Saint John the Baptist; the rendering of the hand refracted through the crystal sphere, with its accurately described inclusions; and the many-layered buildup of the flesh tones.

In 2017, the Salvator Mundi, Latin for “Savior of the World,” sold at auction for $450.3 million.

Since the sale, the painting has disappeared from public view and cannot speak for itself, leaving hacks and gossip-mongers to advance any tale or theory they choose. One of these is that the Louvre does not wish to include the painting in its exhibition on Leonardo—opening later this month—because its curators do not accept the attribution. I know with absolute certainty that this is pure fabrication. The reason for the Salvator Mundi’s absence from the Louvre show resides with the painting’s likely new owner, Saudi prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. (Most recently, the painting was scheduled to be unveiled at the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi outpost, before its display there, too, was postponed indefinitely.)

I cannot deny that my privileged relationship with the Salvator Mundi—in this post-truth era—has been difficult. But after the nonsense has run its course, that trance-like gaze, confined by the dimensions of the panel yet exploding from it, will remain: the most supreme representation of spirituality that has ever been painted. This is what my husband, Mario, saw; what transfixed me; and what I humbly sought to restore. —Dianne Modestini


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WeWork pulls thousands of phone booths out of service over formaldehyde scare

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WeWork, the co-working empire once valued at $47 billion before reality struck, plunging the business and its investors into crisis, has another problem to add to its growing pile — one which doesn’t exactly reflect well on its core business of kitting out and maintaining modern working environments.

The problem is a safety concern affecting users of WeWork co-working spaces in the U.S. and Canada. Today the company emailed members in the regions to warn that around 1,600 phone booths installed at WeWork locations have been found to have elevated levels of formaldehyde — which it warns could cause health issues for people exposed to the gas.

WeWork blames the issue on a manufacturer of the booths.

The booths are provided in its co-working spaces for WeWork members to be able to take calls in private — given other common areas are shared by all users. 

“After a member informed us of odor and eye irritation, WeWork performed an analysis, including having an outside consultant conduct a series of tests on a sampling of phone booths. Upon receiving results late last week, we began to take all potentially impacted phone booths out of service,” it writes in an email to members.

Affected phone booths “are being taken out of service immediately, and will be removed from your location as soon as possible,” it adds. 

In addition to ~1,600 booths it has confirmed are affected, a further 700 booths are being taken out of service in what WeWork describes as “an abundance of caution” — i.e. while it carries out more checks — with the promise of a further update once it has concluded its tests. 

Members wanting to know which booths are safe to use in the meanwhile are told to contact the community team at their WeWork location.

WeWork also says alternative quiet spaces will be provided, such as in conference rooms and unused offices. 

Discussing the health risks of formaldehyde gas — a chemical which is used in various building materials –WeWork’s email warns: “Short-term exposure to formaldehyde at elevated levels may cause acute temporary irritation of the nose, throat, and respiratory system, including coughing or wheezing. These effects are typically transient and usually subside after removal of the formaldehyde source.

“Long-term exposure to formaldehyde, such as that experienced by workers in jobs who experience high concentrations over many years, has been associated with certain types of cancers. You can find additional information in this FAQ from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

The email encourages any WeWork members with health concerns to contact a doctor.

A tipster who sent us the email reported experiencing a sensation of “burning eyes” after using the booths.

They also said several people in their team had experienced the same issue.

“Some complained that they felt nauseous after spending time inside the booths,” the tipster wrote. “I never felt that, but the burning eyes was 100% there for me several times. Scary stuff.”

Reached for comment, a WeWork spokesperson confirmed the formaldehyde issue, saying it’s taking “a number” of booths out of service at “some” locations in the U.S. and Canada — due to “potentially elevated levels of formaldehyde caused by the manufacturer.”

“The safety and well-being of our members is our top priority, and we are working to remedy this situation as quickly as possible,” it adds in a statement.

It is not clear exactly how many WeWork locations contain affected booths at this point.

Nor has WeWork provided more detailed information about how long members might have been exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde — with its email merely suggesting some of the booths have been in place for “months.” 

“The potentially impacted phone booths have been installed over the past few months, exact timing varies based on location,” it writes.

Although clearly the level of exposure will vary from person to person depending on their use of the booths.

The company did not respond to a question asking whether any of its international WeWork locations are affected by the issue.

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Researchers find just two plague strains wiped out 30%-60% of Europe

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Remains of human plague victims in a mass grave in Toulouse, France, dating back to the Black Death period.

Enlarge / Remains of human plague victims in a mass grave in Toulouse, France, dating back to the Black Death period. (credit: Archeodunum SAS, Gourvennec Michaël)

The Black Death ravaged medieval Western Europe, wiping out roughly one-third of the population. Now researchers have traced the genetic history of the bacterium believed to be behind the plague in a recent paper published in Nature Communications. They found that one strain seemed to be the ancestor of all the strains that came after it, indicating that the pandemic spread from a single entry point into Europe from the East—specifically, a Russian town called Laishevo.

Technically, we're talking about the second plague pandemic. The first, known as the Justinian Plague, broke out about 541 CE and quickly spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. (The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, for whom the pandemic is named, actually survived the disease.) There continued to be outbreaks of the plague over the next 300 years, although the disease gradually became less virulent and died out. Or so it seemed.

In the Middle Ages, the Black Death burst onto the scene, with the first historically documented outbreak occurring in 1346 in the Lower Volga and Black Sea regions. That was just the beginning of the second pandemic. During the 1630s, fresh outbreaks of plague killed half the populations of affected cities. Another bout of the plague significantly culled the population of France during an outbreak between 1647 and 1649, followed by an epidemic in London in the summer of 1665. The latter was so virulent that, by October, one in 10 Londoners had succumbed to the disease—over 60,000 people. Similar numbers perished in an outbreak in Holland in the 1660s. The pandemic had run its course by the early 19th century, but a third plague pandemic hit China and India in the 1890s; there are still occasional outbreaks today.

Image of <em>Yersinia pestis</em> seen at 200× magnification with a fluorescent label.

Image of Yersinia pestis seen at 200× magnification with a fluorescent label. (credit: CDC/Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory)

"The second plague pandemic has arguably caused the highest levels of mortality of the three recorded plague pandemics," the authors wrote in Nature Communications. "It serves as a classic historical example of rapid infectious disease emergence, long-term local persistence, and eventual extinction for reasons that are currently not understood." And that makes studies of the genetic history of the bacterium behind the plague of great interest to epidemiologists, since genetic factors could influence the emergence and spread of such deadly pandemics.

Medieval doctors believed the disease spread via "bad air," or "miasmas." The real culprit is a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. While visiting Hong Kong in 1894 to study a plague outbreak there, a French scientist named Alexandre Yersin (who had studied under Louis Pasteur) extracted pus from a dead soldier’s swollen lymph node (bubo) and injected it into guinea pigs; all the guinea pigs died.

The bodies of a large number of dead rats around Hong Kong contained the same type of bacteria. Yersin concluded that Y. pestis was the culprit for the spread of plague. (It was discovered independently by a Japanese scientist named Shibasaburō Kitasato, but the microbe is named after Yersin.) Other experiments with plague-infected rats and fleas revealed that when an infected rat was introduced to a group of healthy rats, the healthy ones only became sick if fleas were present. Y. pestis proved to be so virulent that mice died after being infected with just three bacilli.

A variant strain of Y. pestis was likely also the culprit behind the Justinian plague, according to genetic analysis of the teeth of two German victims and the remains of Justinian plague victims in an ancient German burial site. It was largely the same strain as bacterial samples gleaned from London's plague pits. And recent studies of ancient Y. pestis DNA reconstructed from plague victims in southern France, Barcelona, London, and Oslo were identical.

For Maria Spyrou and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this was clear evidence that a single strain spread throughout Europe during the Black Death. But where did it come from, and how specifically did it spread? Without genomic data from early outbreaks in Russia and only a limited number of published genomes for Y. pestis, making a definitive conclusion is difficult.

So Spyrou et al. set out to expand the selection of genomes from various time periods and locations, the better to study the early stages of the pandemic, as well as the genetic diversity that appeared in Europe after the Black Death. They were able to reconstruct plague genomes from the teeth of 34 victims culled from a collection of 180 teeth from nine sites, including two from Laishevo, which is part of Russia's Volga region. They also reanalyzed existing published data from the same time period.

A single strain did indeed prove to be the forerunner to all the strains from the second pandemic, although the team noted that earlier strains may yet be found in DNA samples from sites yet to be tested. Neither was there much genetic diversity between samples from victims during the Black Death, bolstering the view that Y. pestis found its way to Europe via a single entry point.

Once Y. pestis found a foothold in medieval Europe, it branched off into clades. Analysis of Y. pestis genomes from later in the second pandemic revealed two sister lineages. One appears to be responsible for the spread of Y. pestis eastward, since that lineage includes strains from 14th-century Bergen op Zoom, London, and the city of Bolgar, as well as some strains from Africa. The second, post-Black Death lineage showed an unusual degree of genetic diversity within local pockets in Germany, Switzerland, England, and France. Since there appear to be no modern descendants of this lineage, the authors surmise that it went extinct.

DOI: Nature Communications, 2019. 10.1038/s41467-019-12154-0  (About DOIs).

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