By Clive Cookson
The release on Thursday of a stunning map of the oldest light in the universe will almost certainly be the event of the year for cosmologists.
The European Space Agency’s “cosmic microwave background” image, compiled from Planck satellite observations, will remind people that there are two complementary ways of gathering evidence to help scientists understand the universe at the most fundamental level.
One is to create extreme conditions – ultra-small versions of the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8bn years ago – on Earth, by smashing together subatomic particles at almost the speed of light. That’s how physicists used the Large Hadron Collider at Cern last year to discover the Higgs boson. Read more
Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)
There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.
The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.
On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.
Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution. Read more
A tale of two Middle East anniversaries
March 15 marks the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria and on March 20 it will have been a decade since the start of the Iraq war, a conflict that still reverberates around the region and the world. Abigail Fielding-Smith, FT correspondent in Damascus; David Gardner, senior international affairs commentator, and Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, join Shawn Donnan. Read more
By Giulia Segreti in Rome
Since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down on February 28, saying he was now “simply a pilgrim who is starting the last stretch of his pilgrimage on this earth”, the Catholic Church has been in a state of sede vacante, literally “vacant seat”. The cardinals are gathering in Rome to elect a new pope; here is how they will do it.
When will the next pope be elected? A date for the beginning of the conclave of cardinals, when the election process begins, has not been chosen by the college of cardinals. However, one of Benedict’s last decrees means they can bring the election forward and break the usual rule of having a minimum of 15 days after a pope dies or leaves office provided all the cardinals who can vote have gathered. So they could start any day now.
Who gets to choose? Only cardinals, or “princes of the church”, and not all of them. There are at present 210 members of the college of cardinals but only those under the age of 80 on the first day of the sede vacante can pick a pope, which whittles it down to 115. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic and only elector, opted to not join the conclave following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and his decision to resign as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Because of old age and an inability to reach Rome, Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, from Indonesia, will not be entering the conclave, either. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
The success of a book can sometimes tell you as much about the times as about the book itself. That may be the case with Why Nations Fail, which was published last year to great acclaim from reviewers and prize juries, and even compared to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Read more
Last Sunday morning, “El Niño Verde” – as Jorge Emilio González, a young Mexican senator, is known – was driving down a central thoroughfare in Mexico City in his Mercedes Benz. When the police stopped him for a breathalyzer test, the gallant young rake protested, and gave a false name. But the police insisted, whereupon the bodyguards of the 40-year old senator for the state of Quintana Roo jumped out of their car, and threatened the hapless cops. Normally, this story would be of no transcendence whatsoever – just another run-of-the-mill tale of corruption and the impunity of power. But the local press have leapt on the story with glee – perhaps because it is a telling, and may be even hopeful, vignette of the state of modern Mexico.
To describe “El Niño Verde” as a politician probably stretches the definition of the word, although politics runs in the family. His grandfather was a senator and one-time presidential candidate. His father then founded Mexico’s “Green Party” – another misnomer, although it does explains González’s nickname, which literally means “the green boy”. In one infamous incident in 2004, González was filmed in conversation with a property developer who wanted his help, for a price, to facilitate planning permission to build a hotel in an ecologically protected area near the tourist resort of Cancun. There are other far more tawdry tales that have since attached to this clearly unpleasant young man. And, each time, he has managed to wriggle free, exercising the impunity that he long enjoyed as a member of an old political clan. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
In the 1970s, Mogens Glistrup, a prominent Danish politician, became famous for suggesting that his country replace its armed forces with a recorded message saying “we surrender” in Russian. Read more
How dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear test?
Within hours of the North Korean nuclear test this week, the UN security council was meeting in emergency session. But how dangerous is this development, and what is likely to happen next? James Blitz, diplomatic and defence editor, Christian Oliver, former Seoul correspondent, and Simon Mundy, the current FT correspondent in Korea, join Gideon Rachman. Read more
John Brennan – Barack Obama’s nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director – testifies before the Senate intelligence committee today. The hearing offers a rare moment of public scrutiny of the government’s expanded use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, which has returned to the news this week.
By Shannon Bond in New York with Geoff Dyer in Washington. All times are GMT.
John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday for CIA director is shaping up to be a rare moment of scrutiny into the war on terror, especially the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Among politicians, there is little opposition to the basic idea of targeted killings, but a growing feeling among some members of both parties that the programme has got out of control. Here are 10 questions he should be asked.
1) Legality. The legal opinion that justifies killing suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who are Americans is being shared with some members of Congress, but is secret for everyone else. If the government claims the authority to kill some of its citizens, at the very least shouldn’t the legal justification be made public?
2) The Decider. According to a leaked summary of the legal opinion, drone strikes can be authorised by an “informed, high-level official”. How senior does that official have to be? Only the president? His counter-terrorism adviser? Military commanders in the field? And what happens if other high-level officials disagree? Read more