Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio
Jun24

Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio

“Caravaggio’s life was even darker than his paintings.” This is how Italian microbiologist Giuseppe Cornaglia began an account of his uphill battle to figure out what microbial pathogen may have killed the famous and violent 16th and 17th century Italian painter, who died under rather curious circumstances in 1610. Cornaglia is part of a growing number of researchers who look into the dental pulp of skulls found in graves, in search of DNA from ancient pandemics. The field is called paleomicrobiology, and it’s been used to figure out what microbes caused the Plague of Athens, which indirectly helped Sparta topple Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and which in turn instigated the decline of classical Greece. Paleomicrobiology has also been used to show that tuberculosis was already in the New World before Columbus showed up carrying a host of other deadly pathogens on board. So, given that Caravaggio died under strange circumstances (more on that in a second), Cornaglia wanted to look at Caravaggio’s remains and see if he could detect the presence of a deadly pathogen in the artist’s dental pulp. Dental pulp harbors the DNA of microbes present in the person at death. The pulp tissue is covered by protective enamel so that contamination from other microbes can’t occur during the intervening centuries, before forensic researchers dig up the skeleton and crack open the tooth. The first problem Cornaglia faced was that he didn’t know where Caravaggio’s remains could be found. This is not entirely surprising when you learn more about the painter. Caravaggio was an angry guy and quick to pull out his sword. During a fight in 1606, at age 35, he tried to castrate his opponent during a street brawl in Rome, Cornaglia said. The castration was successful. But it also killed Caravaggio’s foe, leaving Caravaggio with a murder charge and a life on the run. The experience didn’t reign in Caravaggio’s predilection for violent fights. According to Cornaglia: “The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”… After some time spent in Sicily, unknown assailants attempted to murder Caravaggio in Naples, succeeding in disfiguring his face… Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation.” Digression: some researchers have wondered if Caravaggio’s inherent aggression was being exacerbated by lead poisoning, as the dude actually ATE off of...

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Was antiquity really so tacky?
May20

Was antiquity really so tacky?

The ancient Greeks did it, and now the Phoenicians too. Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the white marble statues from Greece’s golden era were originally painted in garish colors. The discovery of pigment residues on a multitude of classical era sculpture has been a boon for lovers of kitsch and a downer for pretty much everybody else. Yeah yeah, I know it’s good to know The Truth, and it is fascinating that they had such bad taste but, well… Sigh. So it turns out that the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic seafaring civilization who traveled around the Mediterranean from about 1500 BC to 300 BC, also painted and gilded their carvings. The Phoenicians invented an alphabet later adopted by the Greeks. One wonders if the Greeks also got their predilection for painting sculptures from the Phoenicians? A team of French and German researchers analyzed the surface of several Phoenician ivory sculptures held at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, in Germany, and found metal traces corresponding to ancient pigments and (gold) gilding. These metal traces are invisible to the naked eye, but can be detected using a technique called X-ray fluorescence. Ina Reich, the lead researcher of the Analytical Chemistry paper reporting the discovery, says she’s also found the same type of metal residues on Phoenician pieces at the Louvre–work which will be published elsewhere in the future. (I wrote a more science-y news article on the discovery here.) For the lovers of nanoscience out there, here’s a teaser: Reich also mentioned that some of the traces of leftover gold from Phoenician gilding had formed curious gold nanoparticles on the surface of the ivory after spending centuries underground. Reich is currently analyzing the gold nanoparticles, which she says would be impossible for forgers to emulate and thus may be a new cool new way to authenticate Phoenician...

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Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology
Feb17

Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer. This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson. Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons. “I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston. Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. This information is essential for answering all sorts of interesting research questions, such as why so many whales died and were buried together two million years ago. For example, the whales could have swum into a bloom of toxic algae and died or they might have fallen victim to a landslide. Pyenson went home to DC and immediately recruited the Smithsonian’s in-house 3D imaging and printing team (aka the Laser Cowboys), who came back with him to Chile and spent a week imaging the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. The team then went home and began analyzing the fossil images. They also also began printing out awesome replicas like the one you see above, which is many times smaller that the original. (The whale fossils span between 20-30 feet in real life.) Pyenson says the Smithsonian has industrial partners who will soon print out a full sized version pro bono, which would have otherwise cost the museum $1 million. It seems Pyenson’s team has already figured out why all these whales died but he’s staying mum about it, while the scientific paper winds its way through the peer-review process—so stay tuned. Once the discovery is published, Pyenson says they’ll put the data online so others around the globe can access and analyze it. Although this laser scanning and 3D printing could give researchers around the world the ability to study skeletons without physically handling them, old-school...

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Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age
Jun28

Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age

Pottery found in a Chinese cave near Xianrendong, about 100 kilometers south of the Yangtze River, is 20,000 years old, say Chinese and American researchers. The announcement pushes back the invention of this craft by 2,000 years, to smack dab in the middle of the last ice age–a time when humans were probably looking for ways to diversify their food supply. (And keep it warm.) Access to pottery allowed hunter-gathers to do more sophisticated cooking, such as grind grains, ferment alcohol and extract marrow from animal bones, explains Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who led the research just published in the journal Science. “Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants,” they note. That’s right, folks: we’ve been creating pottery for twice as long as we’ve been sowing...

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Making Use Of A Medical Museum’s Oddities
Jan10

Making Use Of A Medical Museum’s Oddities

Artful Science is back to regularly scheduled programming! One of the quirkiest parts of my sabbatical last fall in Philadelphia was discovering the Mütter, a delightfully macabre museum packed with all manner of medical oddities carefully arranged in a 19th century parlor room style setting. By medical oddities, I mean a wall of human skulls from around the world, slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, a cast of the conjoined twins Cheng and Eng, floating body parts exhibiting gangrene and other diseases, as well as the museum’s pièce de résistance, the cadaver of an obese woman who turned into a giant piece of soap instead of degrading like deceased bodies normally do. This collection sounds like it could be the basis for a 19th century travelling freak show but instead the medical artifacts are respectfully displayed–and they are also being used to advance current medical research. (This latter point is perhaps not so surprising since the museum is under the purview of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the U.S.’s oldest professional medical association.) For example, because the museum coffers contain diseased tissue samples dating back two centuries, the Mütter was able to provide infectious disease scientists from Canada with samples of cholera DNA from the 19th century. “They turned one of our back rooms into a clean room,” says Anna Dhody, the Mütter Museum’s curator. Then they put on white jumpsuits and masks and extracted samples from three intestines of people who died of cholera over a hundred years ago, she says. The researchers sequenced the old cholera DNA and compared it to the deadly pathogen’s modern day genome. By studying how cholera evolves over time, scientists may be able to predict how the pathogen will evolve in the future—and this may permit researchers to develop ways to thwart its spread. The museum also contains a plethora of examples of human developmental disease, from birth defects to bone disorders. One compelling example is the skeleton of a man with an ailment called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a rare disease in which a person’s connective tissue, muscle and ligaments turn slowly in to bone. This usually begins before the age of 10. There are only about 700 people in the world with this disease and many diagnostic procedures on patients with FOP accelerate the disease’s progression. It’s a Catch-22 that the Mütter’s FOP skeleton is helping researchers escape, says Robert Hicks, the museum’s director, during a tour in December. The Mütter gives medical researchers and doctors access to the fragile skeleton to help them understand exactly how the soft tissue eventually turns into bone. In fact, one of these doctors is Frederick Kaplan, who works...

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Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings
Oct24

Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra. Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s. The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada. In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya. Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years. (As an aside, Cardell was also involved in the discovery of ancient ovens that were used to bake bones in order to create a patina added to Granada’s medieval walls as a strengthening agent.) But back to the Islamic paintings. Cardell’s team used a technique called micro-X-ray diffraction to distinguish between lapis lazuli, a blue pigment used by the original Islamic artists, and ultramarine, a synthetic version of lapis lazuli, which has been made industrially from 1828 onwards. Although the blue pigments in lapis lazuli and ultramarine share the same complex chemical formula, the scientists could distinguish between the two by looking at the texture of the paint. The lapis lazuli originated in Afghani mines, and thus has a potpourri of grain sizes as well as some impurities. Conversely, the ultramarine was made industrially and thus has really tiny, similarly-sized grains. Cardell’s team also saw evidence of some other blue pigments in Madrasah Yusufiyya’s paintings, including azurite (copper carbonate) which hails from the Islamic era and another called blue smalt, which originated in the 19th century and is made from finely ground potassium cobalt glass. Besides touching up the Madrasah Yusufiyya paintings using the same colors of the original Islamic artists, Cardell’s team also discovered that the Christians did a little souping up. For example, they found that Christian artists added gold gilding on top of certain sections that were originally blue. Although Moorish artists did paint with gold (there is some in the Alhambra),...

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