Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we have decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most mind-blowing events each month. While February 2017 was lacking the kind of high-profile attacks, elections, or conflicts that send newsrooms into a frenzy, it was still plenty strange, plenty scary, and plenty interesting. Here are ten things that rocked the world while we were looking elsewhere.
10Romania Was Wracked by the Biggest Protests since the Fall of Communism
The history of Romania is one of rulers pressing their boots down onto ordinary people’s faces. But it is also a history that shows you can only screw with regular Romanians so long. In 1989, Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu found that out the hard way. Now, 28 years later, it is the turn of Romania’s leftwing PSD government to learn the lesson.
After passing emergency legislation that would have got the party’s leader off a much-deserved corruption charge, the PSD found themselves on the receiving end of the biggest protests since the 1989 revolution. An estimated 300,000 Romanians took to the streets in sub-zero temperatures, calling for PSD politicians to be locked up. Ordinary people turned out en masse to show their hatred of political corruption. The PSD went into panic mode.
Although the government reversed the legislation in mid-February, protests are continuing, albeit on a smaller scale. As of February 28, 5,000 protesters were still camped out in Bucharest, demanding the government’s resignation.
9North Korea Carried out a Terrifying Assassination
Now would be a good time to take a moment to thank God you have never encountered VX. A nerve agent from the same family as Sarin, VX is the deadliest chemical weapon known to man. Classified as a weapon of mass destruction, it causes convulsions, paralysis, blindness, and a very, very painful death. It is the sort of weapon you would not want a friendly state to have in its arsenal, let alone a rogue one. On February 13, North Korea used it to assassinate Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother Kim Jong-Nam at a Malaysian airport.
Nam was once first in line for the North Korean throne. After being caught trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland with a fake passport he was passed over for succession. Since his father’s death, Nam had been highly critical of Kim Jong-Un, likely paving the way for his brutal murder.
Twisted as it is, this story could have been even scarier. The assassin—a North Korean woman wearing a “LOL” t-shirt—sprayed VX straight into Nam’s face. In even tiny doses, VX can kill astonishing numbers of people. It is sheer luck the nerve gas did not take out any bystanders.
8A New Dead Sea Scrolls Cave Was Found
In 1947, a shepherd boy wandered into a cave on the north shore of the Dead Sea and stumbled over one of the greatest discoveries in history. The Dead Sea Scrolls were an ancient collection of manuscripts detailing previously unknown fragments of Jewish, Christian, and Middle Eastern history. They included early versions of Biblical books, giving a unique insight into the formation of the Hebrew Bible. Between 1947 and 1967, 11 such caves were uncovered. Fast forward to 2017, and we may have just found a twelfth.
The new cave was uncovered by a joint team from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Liberty University in Virginia, the first such find in 60 years. Unfortunately, it was empty. Although there were pots that had clearly once contained scrolls, the parchments themselves had apparently been looted by Bedouins decades before.
Yet the story does not end there. The team believes there are many more caves out there, with potentially dozens of scroll caves still uncovered. Their find could be the start of a process that will one day reveal yet more priceless Dead Sea Scrolls.
7We Discovered a Whole New Solar System
Forty light years away, the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 burns with a fraction of the intensity of our sun. First discovered by a Chilean observatory in 2016, this tiny, almost-lifeless star was suspected of having as many as two exoplanets in its orbit. Then NASA pointed their Spitzer telescope at it, and we discovered this was an underestimate. Orbiting TRAPPIST-1 was an entire new solar system, one NASA considers capable of supporting life.
The seven planets are so close to their star that orbits would last only a matter of days. They would be incapable of turning, showing one permanently-burning face to TRAPPIST-1, and one permanently-frozen face to the inky void of space. Yet along the line between day and night, a habitable zone would exist, a place of liquid water and stable temperatures, surrounded by a sea of ice and fire.
For any life that does exist in the system, looking upwards would mean looking into a world of wonders. TRAPPIST-1 would hang on the horizon, bigger than our moon—while the six other planets rumbled overhead, so large they dominated the sky.
6A Crazy Russian Millionaire Tried to Bring Back the Romanov Empire
On July 16, 1918, the deposed Romanov family was taken to the basement of a house in Russia and executed by the Bolsheviks. The massacre marked the end of Russian Imperial rule and ushered in the age of Communism. But the dream of reestablishing the monarchy did not die there. Fast forward to 2017, and millionaire Anton Bakov is in advanced talks to revive the long-dead Romanov Empire.
Bakov’s plan falls into the “so crazy it might just work” category. Using his vast fortune, the businessman and former Russian MP intends to buy up three islands from Pacific nation Kiribati and transform them into a new Romanov outpost. The islands would be an autonomous state, have their own infrastructure, university, and amenities for Russians fed up of Putin’s rule. Ever desperate for money, the government of Kiribati is on the verge of giving the deal a possible go-ahead.
At least, they were. Between initial writing of this article and publication, the government of Kiribati rejected Bakov’s proposal. Bakov has vowed to try and continue his empire-building project elsewhere.
5The US Dropped its Commitment to a Two-State Solution
For decades, the central pillar of US-Middle East diplomacy has been a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Sometimes, this has seemed a realistic goal. At others, an impossible fantasy. But a commitment to the idea of two states has always been there . . . until now. This February, President Trump signaled an end to US interest in a two-state solution.
It is no exaggeration to say this is the biggest shakeup of US foreign policy since Nixon made his game-changing trip to China. All US diplomacy in the region has been focused towards establishing a Palestinian state and recognizing Israel as a separate, Jewish nation. Ending this push has the potential to change how every country deals with the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It also has the potential to fundamentally change Israel. Although the current government backs a one-state solution, demographics mean that Jews would become a minority. It has been said that this state could therefore be either Jewish or democratic, but likely not both.
4The Internet’s Two Biggest Provocateurs got Dramatically Shut Down
Just one month ago, YouTube star PewDiePie and controversial conservative media personality Milo Yiannopoulos were the kings of internet provocation. Then, in less than 30 days, both saw their careers go into a tailspin for similar reasons.
First, PewDiePie got into trouble over anti-Semitic comments. If you do not know him, the 27-year old Swede is YouTube’s biggest star, with 53 million subscribers and a Disney contract. He is a fan of provocative humor, which recently included paying two men in India to hold up a sign saying “Death to All Jews”. While PewDiePie claims he was doing it for the lolz, neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer began using his name to promote anti-Semitism. The controversy proved toxic enough to lose PewDiePie millions and send him tumbling from grace.
Only days later, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos got smashed for apparent pro-pedophilia comments. A professional provocateur, Yiannopoulos makes outrageous comments as a way of exercising his right to free speech. His history of liberal-baiting remarks was enough to get him invited to speak at the respectable Republican CPAC conference. But when his remarks strayed into the sort of territory that outraged conservatives, CPAC suddenly discovered they were not so keen on unfettered free speech after all. Yiannopoulos’ speech was canceled, he quit his job at Breitbart, and there are now, ironically, calls for him to be deported to his native Britain.
3Indonesia Stared into the Abyss
Indonesia is home to over 200 million Muslims, from a total population of nearly 250 million. Its constitution defines it as a secular state, and Islam is intended to be separate from governance. Until now. As Gubernatorial elections got underway in the capital, Jakarta, the very notion of Indonesian democracy was seemingly put on trial.
It started when hardline Muslim clerics began saying that non-Muslims should not be allowed to hold office in Indonesia. Jakarta’s current governor, the Chinese-Christian Ahok, said these clerics were deceiving voters. In no time at all, he was arrested on blasphemy charges and massive anti-Ahok, pro-Islam protests were sweeping the capital. Ahok’s supposedly-centrist rivals jumped on the bandwagon, raising the prospect of hardline, populist Islam taking root in one of the world’s most-populous countries.
Luckily for believers in democracy, Ahok won the highest share of the February vote, despite facing a vicious anti-Christian, anti-Chinese campaign against him. While he will still go through to a run-off against an Islamist rival, commentators have suggested the result shows Jakarta’s residents are more interested in multiculturalism than they are in turning their country into an intolerant, theocratic state.
2We Captured the First Light of a Dying Star
Supernovae are one of the biggest, most destructive forces in the universe. Caused when a dying star runs out of fuel and dramatically explodes, they can briefly burn bright enough to outshine all the other stars in their home galaxy. Until recently, it was considered remarkable to capture readings from one week after it blew. From February 2017, that will have to be revised. Researchers managed to capture a full-spectrum reading only three hours after a distant star erupted.
The blast occurred in the spiral galaxy NGC 7610, a twisting wheel of light rotating in the darkness some 160 million light years away. Within minutes, astronomers had noticed what was happening. Less than three hours later, telescopes across the planet were trained on SN 2013fs, collecting reams of data on the ancient death of this distant star.
From a scientific perspective, this was all kinds of incredible. Not only was it a “first!” moment, it gave us new insight into what happens when a star blows its top. Thanks to some excellent luck, new secrets of the universe were revealed in this one incredible flash of light.
1We Saw the Horrors of Syria’s Worst Slaughterhouse
In future years, Syria’s Saydnaya prison may be as infamous as Cambodia’s hideous S24 genocide jail. Owned by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Saydnaya has long been known as perhaps the civil war’s worst torture camp. On February 7, Amnesty International suggested it was even worse than we thought. After interviewing over 80 former guards, prisoners, judges, and regime defectors, they revealed Saydnaya was the focal point of an extermination program designed to execute as many of Assad’s enemies as humanly possible.
The numbers are shocking. As many as 13,000 people are believed to have been executed in Saydnaya, their bodies dumped on the outskirts of Damascus in the middle of the night. Those who were not murdered were tortured and starved, eventually succumbing to disease. Their bodies were buried in mass graves. The Amnesty interviews cover the period of the war up to 2015 and it is thought thousands more have since been killed.
Disturbingly, Saydnaya is just one of Assad’s many slaughterhouses. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that at least 60,000 have been tortured to death in regime prisons since the start of the conflict, a figure that does not include the 13,000 executed at Saydnaya. The brutality is equal to anything Kim Jong-Un could dream up. Sadly, the world seems unwilling to do a single damn thing about it.