NPR Picks


To Better Understand The Arctic, This Ship Will Spend A Year Frozen Into The Ice

"The mission is known as the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC. Its overarching goal is to collect a vast trove of data that can help improve how the Arctic is represented in climate models."

"To do that, a group of scientists will try to freeze an icebreaker into the ice — for an entire year."

"On a recent day in Tromso, Norway, around 200 people are cycling through the German icebreaker Polarstern as it sits docked in Breivika harbor. They're moving massive amounts of equipment on board, unpacking instruments and starting to install and test them."

"A row of snowmobiles sits on the concrete down below, ready for loading. A massive orange crane is lifting shipping containers, some of which will even be used as lab space, and placing them on the boat."

"One of the people involved in these preparations is Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."


Vineyards Facing An Insect Invasion May Turn To Aliens For Help

"Walking around a park near Allentown, Pa., I didn't even notice the bugs at first. Then Heather Leach arrived. She's an insect expert from Penn State University."

"She pointed me toward the trees, and suddenly I realized they were everywhere: spotted lanternflies. An army of gray bugs, each one about an inch long, black spots on their wings, was climbing the trees' trunks. They marched slowly along branches. They were sucking the trees' sap, excreting some of it as sugary water that rained down on us in a gentle shower."

"This is the latest great insect invasion to hit the United States."

"'They are kind of ugly, especially when there's thousands of them,' Leach says. 'Poke at them and you'll see how strong of a hopper they are; they just take off.' She demonstrates. The lanternflies jump so fast and so far, they're just a blur in the air. It makes me laugh."

"'Yeah, they can be entertaining,' Leach says. 'You see a lot of kids playing with them, trying to stomp on them.'"



Meet The Nuclear-Powered Self-Driving Drone NASA Is Sending To A Moon Of Saturn

"On the face of it, NASA's newest probe sounds incredible. Known as Dragonfly, it is a dual-rotor quadcopter (technically an octocopter, even more technically an X8 octocopter); it's roughly the size of a compact car; it's completely autonomous; it's nuclear powered; and it will hover above the surface of Saturn's moon Titan."

"But Elizabeth Turtle, the mission's principle investigator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, insists that this is actually a pretty tame space probe, as these things go."

"'There's not a lot of new technology,' she says."

"Quadcopters (even X8 octocopters) are for sale on Amazon these days. Self-driving technology is coming along quickly. Nuclear power is harder to come by, but the team plans to use the same kind of system that runs NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars. Everything that's going into Dragonfly is already being used somewhere else."

Which is not to say that the idea of a nuclear-powered drone flying around a moon of Saturn doesn't sound kind of crazy.


PHOTOS: Vanilla Boom Is Making People Crazy Rich — And Jittery — In Madagascar

"80% of the world's vanilla is grown by small holding farmers in the hilly forests of Madagascar. For a generation the price languished below $50 a kilo (about 2.2 pounds) but in 2015 it began to rise at an extraordinary rate and for the past four years has hovered at ten times that amount, between $400 and $600 a kilo."

"The rise is partly due to increased global demand, partly due to decreased supply, as storms have destroyed many vines, and a lot to do with speculation. Local middle men have rushed into the market, leveraging deals between village growers and the international flavor companies that distill the cured beans into extract and sell it to the big multinationals like Mars, Archer Daniels Midland and Unilever."

"In the meantime farmers are getting rich, richer than their wildest dreams. Felicité Raminisoa's family has gone from subsistence farming — a little rice, bananas and coffee "but these crops didn't improve our lives," said her father — to earning over $20,000 over the past four years. That's enough to buy a new house in town (where they're sending her four children to school), a new electricity generator, better mattresses, a cow and a rice threshing machine they hope to rent out for extra income."



The CIA's Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A 'Poisoner In Chief'

"During the early period of the Cold War, the CIA became convinced that communists had discovered a drug or technique that would allow them to control human minds. In response, the CIA began its own secret program, called MK-ULTRA, to search for a mind control drug that could be weaponized against enemies."

"MK-ULTRA, which operated from the 1950s until the early '60s, was created and run by a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating the program, calls the operation the 'most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.'"

"Some of Gottlieb's experiments were covertly funded at universities and research centers, Kinzer says, while others were conducted in American prisons and in detention centers in Japan, Germany and the Philippines. Many of his unwitting subjects endured psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of LSD, according to Kinzer's research."

"'Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people's minds, and he realized it was a two-part process,' Kinzer says. 'First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void. We didn't get too far on number two, but he did a lot of work on number one.'"


Scientists Create A Device That Can Mass-Produce Human Embryoids

"Scientists have invented a device that can quickly produce large numbers of living entities that resemble very primitive human embryos."

"Researchers welcomed the development, described Wednesday in the journal Nature, as an important advance for studying the earliest days of human embryonic development. But it also raises questions about where to draw the line in manufacturing 'synthetic' human life."

"Other scientists have previously created synthetic embryos, which are also known as embryoids. These entities are made by coaxing human stem cells to form structures found in very early human embryos. The research has raised questions about how similar to complete embryos they could and should be allowed to become."

"The new work takes such research further by creating a method that can rapidly generate relatively large numbers of embryoids."

"'This new system allows us to achieve a superior efficiency to generate these human embryo-like structures,' says Jianping Fu, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the research."



EPA Chief Pledges To Severely Cut Back On Animal Testing Of Chemicals

"The Environmental Protection Agency says it will aggressively reduce the use of animals in toxicity testing, with a goal of eliminating all routine safety tests on mammals by 2035."

"Chemicals such as pesticides typically get tested for safety on animals like mice and rats. Researchers have long been trying to instead increase the use of alternative safety tests that rely on lab-grown cells or computer modeling. The EPA's administer, Andrew Wheeler, has now set some specific deadlines to try to speed up that transition."

"In a signed memo made public Tuesday, he's directed the agency to reduce all requests for, and funding of, studies with live mammals by 30 percent by 2025. He says he wants the agency to essentially eliminate all mammal study requests and funding by 2035, with the use of live mammals only allowed after that with special permission."

"'I really do think that with the lead time that we have in this — 16 years before we completely eliminate animal testing — that we have enough time to come up with alternatives,' says Wheeler."

"He notes that he wrote an op-ed for his college newspaper on the need to reduce animal testing back in 1987."

"'I didn't think we were that far away from banning animal testing then,' Wheeler says. 'Part of why I'm doing this today is because it's been 30 years and we haven't made enough progress.'"



Not All 'Lost' Jazz Albums Are Created Equal

"Historians and critics have pored over the recordings of these jazz greats like Miles DavisJohn Coltrane and Stan Getz so exhaustively, it might feel like they've left no stone unturned. And yet, fans are seeing a slew of exciting new discoveries lately from these and other artists — so-called "lost" albums by some of the biggest names in jazz."

"'For jazz historians and record producers, the work never finishes,' Nate Chinen of Jazz Night in America and NPR member station WGBO says. 'There's always another lead to be pursued, another corner to be explored and when we think we know everything about an artist ... There's often something else that we hadn't considered.'"

"In addition to that air of exploration, Chinen says that the jazz industry has 'commercial motivation' to pump out such albums and cites the 2018 album Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, released via Impulse! Records, which sourced material from John Coltrane's 1963 sessions and reference tapes as a shining example. 'It sold over a quarter of a million copies.'"


Saving California's Kelp Forest May Depend On Eating Purple Sea Urchins

"A favorite dish for purple sea urchins living off the coast of California is kelp. Problem is, those kelp forests are shrinking dramatically and that's hurting the marine ecosystem. So a group of scientists ran an experiment to see if these sea urchins can become a top menu item themselves."

"Just off the Monterey Peninsula, a boat sways in the ocean. Three divers get ready to jump in. They're students from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, a graduate school for marine scientists. The assignment, count purple sea urchins."

"'Catch you on the flip side,' says Shelby Penn."

"Their professor, Luke Gardner, waits on deck. He expects they'll find plenty of urchins. And that's not a good thing."

"What they do is they just eat everything in sight," Gardner says.

These spiny creatures are mowing down California's kelp forests. Kelp is a vital part of the ecosystem. It provides food and shelter for numerous animals, including abalone, rockfish and sea otters.



Chip-And-Ship Forest Clearing May Help Prevent Wildfire Disasters

"A huge mechanical claw scoops up several ponderosa pine logs and feeds them into an industrial chipper. Thousands of wood chunks are then blasted into a large shipping container."

'It goes anywhere from one to four to three up to seven small ones can just kind of throw in that little jaws there,' explains Jeff Halbrook, a research associate with Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute. Today he's overseeing what's fondly known as the chip-and-ship pilot project about 20 minutes west of Flagstaff."

"These trees being fed into the chipper were recently cut from the nearby Coconino National Forest. A crew of six has been working for days to pack the shipping containers as tightly as possible, stuffing each one with about 40,000 pounds of chipped wood. Then another machine hoists the container onto a nearby railcar. In about two weeks, nearly 60 containers will arrive at a port in South Korea."

"'They primarily use these wood chips for production of energy. Moving away from the fossil-based energy operation in South Korea,' says Northern Arizona University forestry professor Han-Sup Han."



Opinion: Earth Has Survived Extinctions Before, It's Humans Who Are Fragile

"It takes only a few paragraphs in Genesis for the Earth to take shape, sprout with life, and then human beings. Of course, that development actually took millions of years."

"But this week, as the world watched a huge hurricane gather in the Earth's warming waters, and wreak terrible destruction on life in the islands of the Bahamas and other places, there was another humbling reminder that human beings really only play a supporting role in the history of the Earth."

"Scientists have uncovered what they call the Great Oxidation Event. They say it destroyed almost all life on Earth about 2 billion years ago, even before the rise and extinction of the dinosaurs, a mere millions of years ago."

"Malcolm Hodgskiss, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford and co-lead author of the study, says researchers found barite, an ancient mineral, in rocks in Canada's subarctic. The rocks have chemical signatures locked inside that help scientists determine what the Earth's atmosphere was like when they were formed."

"Scientists say the Earth's only living inhabitants about 2 billion years ago were microorganisms. But when they photosynthesized, that process that turns light into chemical energy, the tiny organisms saturated the Earth with oxygen — too much oxygen. The excess essentially poisoned the atmosphere for 80 to 99.5% of the organisms that then thrived on Earth; and left the planet almost lifeless."



How Should Scientists' Access To Health Databanks Be Managed?

"More than a million Americans have donated genetic information and medical data for research projects. But how that information gets used varies a lot, depending on the philosophy of the organizations that have gathered the data."

"Some hold the data close, while others are working to make the data as widely available to as many researchers as possible — figuring science will progress faster that way. But scientific openness can be constrained by both practical and commercial considerations."

"Three major projects in the United States illustrate these differing philosophies."

"VA scientists spearhead research on veterans database."

"The first project involves three-quarters of a million veterans, mostly men over age 60. Every day, 400 to 500 blood samples show up in a modern lab in the basement of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston. Luis Selva, the center's associate director, explains that robots extract DNA from the samples and then the genetic material is sent out for analysis."

"The blood samples themselves end up in gigantic, automated freezers for future use — one in Boston and a backup facility at a VA location in Albuquerque, N.M."



What Will A Reconstructed Notre Dame Look Like? The Answer Is Up For Debate

"Notre Dame Cathedral may have been saved from the flames on April 15, but the medieval monument is still in grave danger of collapsing, according to French culture minister Franck Riester. The site was closed for three weeks over the summer for lead pollution cleanup, and now workers are racing the clock to stabilize the structure and clear remaining rubble so that reconstruction can be begin."

"On the day of the fire, President Emmanuel Macron made a hopeful declaration that the Paris landmark would be restored and open to the public within five years, an ambitious goal in view of the French capital hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics."

"But what exactly will a reconstructed and restored Notre Dame look like? That's still a matter of debate."

"Days after the fire ripped through the 850-year-old cathedral, destroying its spire and roof, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international architecture competition. The competition, Philippe said, would determine if the spire should be reconstructed — and if so, whether it would replicate the 19th century design by French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc or be something more modern."



440 Years Old And Filled With Footprints, These Aren't Your Everyday Maps

"At the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, 19 maps, nearly 440 years old, are on display — and they look spectacular. 'Works on paper are delicate so we're only allowed to put them on display for nine months out of 10 years,' says Blanton Museum communications director Carlotta Stankiewicz."

"The Mapping Memory exhibition contains work by indigenous mapmakers from the late 1500s. The maps demonstrate a very different sense of space than maps drawn by Europeans. They're not drawn to scale; instead, they're deeply utilitarian."

"A map of Culhuacán, for example, shows rivers running straight, with tiny arrows in the middle, indicating which way they flow. The pathways curve like snakes, with footprints or hoofprints indicating whether the paths can be walked or ridden.

"This was the first museum in the country to have a dedicated curator to Latin American art," says Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton Museum of Art. The University of Texas at Austin has one of the earliest and largest collections of Mexican and Latin American art and documents in the world — more than 300,000 pieces — which it began acquiring in earnest in 1921. 'The interest in Latin America was longstanding because Texas history is Mexican history and vice versa,' Wicha says."

"In 1577, King Philip II of Spain wanted to know whom exactly he was ruling and where in his vast kingdom they were. His viceroy in what was then called New Spain had little idea, so he asked the indigenous groups in what is now Mexico, to draw the maps — which are now on view."



Australia Says Great Barrier Reef Has 'Very Poor' Outlook, Climate Change To Blame

"A major Australian government report is warning that the time to take action to protect the Great Barrier Reef's long-term future is now."

"The Australian federal government says the overall outlook of the reef to "very poor," a downgrade from the "poor" grade assigned to the reef in 2014, the last time Australia released this type of report."

'Despite concerted efforts and investments, the condition of the Great Barrier Reef has declined since 2014, and this is largely due to the impacts from climate change,' said David Wachenfeld, the chief scientist of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government agency that released the report."

"The biggest threats to the reef remain the same as in 2014: climate change, runoff from the land, coastal development and some kinds of fishing."

"'What has changed this time is the increasing prominence of climate change as a greater threat than the others,' says Wachenfeld."

Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to warming ocean temperatures. Since the last report, two major coral bleaching events have hit the reef, causing unprecedented coral loss. Sea temperature extremes cause colorful coral to expel tiny algae, causing coral to appear white and putting it at risk of dying if the ocean temperature don't return to normal.



UK Biobank Requires Earth's Geneticists To Cooperate, Not Compete

"There's an astonishing outpouring of new information linking genes and health, thanks to the efforts of humble Englishmen and women such as Chritopeher Fletcher. The 70-year-old man recently drove 90 miles from his home in Nottingham to a radiology clinic outside the city of Manchester."

"He is one of half a million Brits who have donated time, blood and access to their medical records to a remarkable resource called UK Biobank. The biobank, in turn, has become a resource for more than a thousand scientists around the world who are interested in delving into the link between genes, behaviors and health."

"Popularity of the resource is snowballing. Just this week, a major study using the data explored the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior. And as researchers discover the biobank's value, there's a strong incentive to add to the database to make it even richer."

"That's why Fletcher finds himself at a radiology clinic. A decade ago, he had donated a blood sample to the nascent UK Biobank and told scientists they were free to poke around in his medical records."

"The scientists have now asked him back, to contribute medical scans that will help medical researchers correlate imagery with health conditions and genes."

"Fletcher will get a scan of his heart and internal organs, to look for buildup in his arteries and fat deposits around his organs, as well as a brain MRI."

"He will spend half a day at the clinic, donating his data to science."



Optimists For The Win: Finding The Bright Side Might Help You Live Longer

"Good news for the cheery: A Boston study published this month suggests people who tend to be optimistic are likelier than others to live to be 85 years old or more."

"That finding was independent of other factors thought to influence life's length — such as "socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors," the researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say. Their work appears in a recent issue of the science journal PNAS."

"'We wanted to consider, in the current issue, benefits of psychological resources like optimism as possible new targets for promoting healthy aging,' says Lewina Lee, who headed the study. She's a clinical research psychologist at Boston University. 'The more we know about ways to promote healthy aging the better.'"

"Researchers already knew from previous work that optimistic individuals tend to have a reduced risk of depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases. But might optimism also be linked to exceptional longevity? Lee looked at medical records from two long term research studies — one involving female nurses and the other involving men, mostly veterans."

"The study included 69,744 women and 1,429 men. Both groups completed survey measures to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking and alcohol use. In the survey, study participants were asked if they agreed with statements such as "in uncertain times I usually expect the best" or 'I usually expect to succeed in things that I do.'"



Have You Seen Any Nazi Uranium? These Researchers Want To Know

"Timothy Koeth's office is crammed with radioactive relics – old watches with glowing radium dials, pieces of melted glass from beneath the test of the world's first nuclear weapon."

"But there is one artifact that stands apart from the rest: a dense, charcoal-black cube, two-inches on a side. The cube is made of pure uranium metal. It was forged more than 70 years ago by the Nazis, and it tells the little-known story of Germany's nuclear efforts during World War II."

"'From a historical this cube weighs a lot more than five pounds,' Koeth, a physicist at the University of Maryland, says as he holds it in his hand."

"The cube entered Koeth's life on a hot August day in 2013. He was out for a jog when a friend called him on his phone."

"'They said 'I need to meet you as soon as possible,' " Koeth says."

"Koeth told his friend to drive to a nearby parking lot. Twenty minutes later, he found himself staring at a small satchel in the trunk of the car. Inside, wrapped in paper towels was the cube."

"'I looked at my friend and I said, 'do you know what that is?' " Koeth recalls. "And my friend said, I think so, 'Do you know what it is?' "



Duped In The Deli Aisle? 'No Nitrates Added' Labels Are Often Misleading

"Packing a turkey sandwich in your kid's lunchbox, or serving up bacon or hot dogs?"

"When shopping for processed meats, many health-conscious consumers look for products with words like 'no nitrates added' or 'uncured' on the packaging. But we may have been misled, experts say."

"A new report finds that deli meats with those labels actually contain similar levels of nitrates as meats that don't carry these labels."

"Part of the explanation lies in federal labeling rules for processed meats. When hot dog or bacon manufacturers use natural curing agents, such as celery powder, in lieu of synthetic sodium nitrite, they can be required to use terms such as 'no nitrates added' and 'uncured.' In other cases, food manufacturers may add these claims voluntarily, perhaps for marketing reasons."

"The 'labels could make people think these meats are healthier,' says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports.'But our tests show they are not.'"

"Consumer Reports tested 31 deli meat products including roast beef, salami, turkey and ham. The products included both name brands and store brands."



Opinion: It's Your Right To See Your Medical Records. It Shouldn't Be This Hard To Do

"At a time when many insurers and health information technology companies are busily assembling databases of hundreds of millions of medical records, Americans find it difficult to get access to their own."

"If you try to get yours, be prepared for confusing policies, ill-informed staff, wasted time and high costs. Even then, you may not get the records you seek. And all of this is at odds with your federal rights."

"Last week a relative of mine relayed a typical story. She requested her medical records in digital format, a right endorsed in federal statutes. Now, two months later, she is still struggling to get them. The hospital had contracted with a third party, and evidently this company transacts only through snail mail."

"My colleagues and I have previously investigated records access. In a study published last fall, we surveyed 83 top American hospitals and found discrepancies were common between the policies hospitals described on patient authorization forms and what employees later said to patients on the phone."