Good news: Proof that laughter is the best medicine and scientists grow plants in lunar soil

·8-min read

It can be hard to find among the headlines but some good news is good news.

Here is your weekly digest of what’s going well in the world.

These are this week’s positive news stories:

  1. Technology reveals Stonehenge’s secrets.

  2. Spain could become the first European country to offer paid menstrual leave.

  3. Proof that laughter really is the best medicine.

  4. Scientists have managed to grow plants in lunar soil, which could make longer stays on the moon a reality.

  5. A new project that is giving every prison in England and Wales an orchard.

Watch the video above for more on each story, or read on below.

1. Technology reveals Stonehenge’s secrets

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. But despite being instantly recognisable, it’s still a mystery in many ways.

Archaeologists still haven’t been able to figure out what Stonehenge was used for and how and why it was built. But new findings are helping uncover some of those secrets.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham in England and Ghent University in Belgium have discovered thousands of prehistoric pits in the area around Stonehenge, thanks to state-of-the-art technology.

They say this radically changes their understanding of one of the most intensively investigated prehistoric sites in the world.

The largest pit they found – which is four metres wide and two metres deep – is the oldest trace of human activity yet discovered on Salisbury Plain.

It dates back more than 10,000 years to the Early Middle Stone Age, when Britain was reinhabited by hunter-gatherers following the last Ice Age.

Researchers say the pit was probably dug as a hunting trap for large animals such as deer, wild boar and aurochs, a now-extinct type of wild ox.

They say it’s the best hint they’ve had to date as to what the landscape around Stonehenge would have looked like when the monument was built, which will help them discover what it might have been built for.

Technology was fundamental to this new discovery.

There are the two really big breakthroughs, says Henry Chapman, one of the lead researchers from the University of Birmingham. "One of those is possibly less exciting, but it is about how methodologically we actually understand geophysical data. We do lots of these surveys but actually pulling meaning from those, particularly for the things that don't make immediate sense, that's a big step forward."

The other thing is that "we've also identified the earliest activity at Stonehenge and this goes back thousands of years prior to when Stonehenge was constructed. So we're talking over 10,000 years ago."

"The idea that people who were hunting and gathering, we now see are building huge pits (...) is something which we didn't really expect people that long ago to be doing, particularly around Stonehenge."

He says the discovery also highlights a different type of archaeology, “which maybe we'll start seeing in other places as well."

And while the Stonehenge landscape is unique, the methods used by the team there can be used by researchers at other historical sites. Sensor technologies and computer-based analysis could be the key to solving the ancient mysteries that remain around the world.

The question is, where will be next?

2. Spain could become the first European country to offer paid menstrual leave.

Spain’s government is considering plans to allow women to take unlimited paid "menstrual leave" from work.

If the bill is passed, it will be the first European country to take such a step.

Reports last week suggested three to five days would be offered to women experiencing severe period pain, but the government has announced there will be no limit on the number of days they can take.

Women would need to give their employer a doctor's note, and the leave would be paid by the country's social security system.

'According to the Spanish Gynaecology and Obstetrics Society, around a third of women who menstruate suffer from severe pain known as dysmenorrhea. Of which symptoms include acute abdominal pain, diarrhoea, headaches and fever.

But despite this painful reality for one in three women worldwide, menstrual leave is currently offered only in a small number of countries including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia.

The Spanish measure is part of a package of proposals that will be sent to the Spanish parliament for debate.

These also include lowering VAT on feminine hygiene products in shops and making period products available for free in social and educational centres.

Read more about this story, written by Euronews' Natalie Huet, here.

3. Proof that laughter really is the best medicine.

The NHS, the UK’s National Health Service, is set to officially prescribe stand-up comedy courses to help trauma patients “see the funny side” of things after a pilot programme proved successful.

The scheme, founded by British comedian Angie Belcher, is called Comedy on Referral and it will allow patients to attend a free six-week course where they will write jokes based on their trauma and perform them on stage.

"The big change I see in people really is around confidence," says Belcher. "Comedy is about giving you the power to look at your story and use it positively so that you can change the narrative of things."

The founder of Comedy on Referral says comedy doesn't just document situations, "it actually analyses life. And whenever we analyse life, we get more out of it or think about things in a different way."

Belcher says her students always seem taller after they've been on stage, "and it's a life-changing thing. And a lot of people have it on their bucket list anyway, have things to do, don't they? They want to try stand-up comedy."

Belcher says she is conscious of the fine line between using personal stories and triggering memories of past trauma. But Comedy on Referral works with psychologists who support participants with therapeutic writing techniques, as well as general practitioners and the mental health charity Samaritans.

"I don't get people in a room and say, right, tell me all your deep, darkest series. Tell me about your trauma. It's more a process of getting people to think about what their comedic persona is," she says.

The scheme will be prescribed in various locations across the UK, including eight London boroughs.

4. Scientists have managed to grow plants in lunar soil, which could make longer stays on the moon a reality.

"For us, the first message is, 'Holy cow, plants can grow in lunar soil!' Besides that, we've now learned that there are some things we'll have to know and be able to do better if we want to grow crops," said Robert Ferrell of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

For the first time, scientists have been able to use soil from the moon to grow plants.

The results are promising enough that NASA is already envisioning greenhouses on the moon. Being able to grow plants on the moon could in future make longer stays there a reality, which could have huge benefits for research.

The lunar soil was collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back in 1969.

University of Florida researchers planted it with thale cress, a small flowering plant native to Eurasia and Africa.

All the seeds sprouted, although the plants did end up stunted. But scientists are thrilled with their results and are planning to repeat the experiment.

"That was the first step in what's going to hopefully be a very long, multi-decade process of figuring this stuff out and when we get back to the moon, doing it on the lunar surface," said Stephen Elardo, a geologist at the University of Florida.

Robert Ferl, co-author of the study, says growing plants on the moon is the key to a long-term stay on the moon by helping provide not just food but also clean air and water for astronauts and other visitors.

And the timing couldn’t be better, as NASA is planning to put man back on the moon by 2025.

5. A new project that is giving every prison in England and Wales an orchard.

The Orchard Project’s goal is for every household in the UK to be within walking distance of a community-run orchard – and has now extended its scheme to include prisons.

Orchards are a refuge for wildlife and the fruit that falls to the ground encourages the growth of healthy fungi in the soil. This then allows plants to draw in more water and nutrients, as well as helping trees to absorb even more carbon.

And the orchards have brought rewards for inmates too. Besides enhancing their environment, the orchards also provide the chance to learn gardening skills and gain qualifications that can help inmates find jobs upon release.

Some are also employed to look after the orchard and earn a wage for doing so. In addition to this, inmates get to taste the fruit of their labours.

The project is funded by the Ministry of Justice, and so far staff from around 30 prisons across England and Wales have been trained in how to plant and care for an orchard.

And if you're still hungry for more positive news, there's more below…

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