NPR Picks


Oysters On The Half Shell Are Actually Saving New York's Eroding Harbor

"Across New York City, more than 70 restaurants are tossing their oyster shells not into the trash or composting pile, but into the city's eroded harbor. It's all part of Billion Oyster Project's restaurant shell-collection program."

"The journey from trash to treasure begins after an oyster half shell is turned upside down and left on an icy tray. Once discarded, it joins hundreds of thousands of other half shells collected in blue bins and picked up (free of charge) from restaurants five days a week by Billion Oyster Project's partner, The Lobster Place, a seafood supplier. The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor, just yards away from both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. There, rolling shell hills sparkle in the sun while "curing" out in the elements for one year, a process that rids them of contaminants."

"The shells then get a final cleaning and are moved to Billion Oyster Project's hatchery at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governors Island that offers technical and vocational training in the marine sciences. In an aquaculture classroom's hatchery, student-grown oysters produce larvae in an artificially induced springtime environment. In one to two weeks, each larvae grows a "foot" — a little limb covered in a kind of natural glue — and then is moved to a tank full of the "cured" restaurant shells, which serve as anchors for all of those sticky feet. This phase is critical: If larvae can't find a place to attach, they die. One reclaimed shell can house 10 to 20 new live oysters, depending on shell size."



Giraffes Inherit Spot Patterns From Their Mamas, Study Says

"The mottled spots giraffes are known for aren't random, according to a new study that suggests that the patterns are inherited maternally — and that they may impact the chances of a calf surviving its first few months of life."

"The roundness and smoothness of a giraffe's spots are inherited through its mother, wildlife biology researchers reported in the academic journal PeerJ last week."

"Giraffe coat markings are more complex and variable than the eye suggests: The researchers studied 11 spot attributes in total. The researchers did not document any mother-offspring similarity between the number of spots and their area and perimeter."

"The study has produced the first data of its kind. Scientists have previously hypothesized that variation in spot patterns may camouflage newborns against predators and that the animals' spots are conferred at random. One prominent biologist, Anne Dagg, described similarities between parents and offspring in a zoo population in 1968, but analysis and objective measurements of spot characteristics were lacking in wild giraffes until now."



In Changing Climate, Endangered Right Whales Find New Feeding Grounds

"Amy Knowlton pilots the 29-foot research vessel Nereid out of Lubec harbor and into the waters of the Bay of Fundy, off of easternmost Maine. A scientist with the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life Knowlton points to harbor porpoises chasing fish in the wind-swept waters on a recent morning."

"Then something much larger appears off the stern."

"'Whale behind us,' Knowlton says, steering closer. 'It's probably a humpback or fin whale, we'll get a better look.'"

"It turns out to be two humpback whales — a cool sighting, but not the kind she is after."


A Brain Scientist Who Studies Alzheimer's Explains How She Stays Mentally Fit

"As a specialist in Alzheimer's prevention, Jessica Langbaum knows that exercising her mental muscles can help keep her brain sharp."

"But Langbaum, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology, has no formal mental fitness program. She doesn't do crossword puzzles or play computer brain games."

"'Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease,' she says."

"Instead of using a formal brain training program, she simply goes to work."

"'My job is my daily cognitive training,' says Langbaum, the associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix."

"And that's true of most working people. 'While you're still in the work force you are getting that daily challenge of multitasking, of remembering things, of processing information,' she says."



The Robots Are Coming To Las Vegas

"At the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, robots are at the front line of room service. "Jett" and "Fetch" are delivery robots, designed to look like dogs, each about three feet high."

"They can bring items from the hotel's cafe right to your room. Among their many capabilities, they can travel alone across the lobby, remotely call for an elevator, and even alert guests when they arrive at their hotel room through an automated phone message."

"It's not just Vdara that's experimenting with this technology. Other Las Vegas hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental and Renaissance Las Vegas, are using automation to cater to customers' needs. And at bars like the Tipsy Robot, it's the machines that are making the drinks."

"It's a growing trend that could mean big changes for the 300,000 people who work in the city's gaming and hospitality industries. A recent study by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA) found that two-thirds of all jobs in Las Vegas will most likely be automated by 2035."



Scientists Find What Could Be A History-Making Moon

"Scientists may have detected the first moon orbiting a planet in a far-off solar system, though they caution that they still want to confirm the finding with another round of telescope observations."

"'The fact is, it's so strange and it's the first of its kind,' says David Kipping, an astronomer at Columbia University. 'That demands a higher level of rigor and skepticism than you would normally apply to a run-of-the-mill detection.'"

"Still, he and colleague Alex Teachey say in the journal Science Advances that they have good evidence that a Neptune-size moon is orbiting a Jupiter-like planet, in a solar system about 8,000 light-years away."

That planet, called Kepler-1625b, is one of thousands that scientists have recently detected around distant stars. No one, however, has ever conclusively found an alien moon.



8-Year-Old Girl Discovers Iron Age Sword In Swedish Lake

"Earlier this summer, an 8-year-old girl named Saga Vanecek was doing what she often does: wading in Sweden's Lake Vidöstern."

"'I like to walk around finding rocks and sticks in the water, and then I usually walk around with my hands and knees in the water and in the sand,' she explained to Radio Sweden yesterday."

"It was then that she felt something odd beneath her hand and knee. She lifted the object and saw that it had a handle."

"She pulled it out of the water and carried it over to her father. 'Dad, I found a sword,' she said."

"'I'm not sure you should be touching it anymore,' he replied. 'It looks fragile.'"

"Saga and her father took the sword to authorities and found that it was very old indeed."

"'Indeed an amazing story!' Mikael Nordström, head of the cultural heritage department at the Jönköpings County Museum, told NPR in email. 'We now believe that the sword is about 1,500 years old.'"



Here Are The Winners Of The 2018 MacArthur 'Genius' Grants

"What could possibly bring together a painter, an economist, a pastor and a planetary scientist? If you ask the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the answeris simpler than you may think: They've all shown creativity, potential for future achievements — and the likelihood that $625,000, meted out over five years, will help them complete their grand designs."

"In fact, those criteria fit all 25 winners of this year's MacArthur Fellowship, better known by its affectionate nickname, the 'genius' grant. Their pursuits span a range nearly as wide as the world itself."

"That spectrum includes mapping legal aid across the country for the benefit of low-income populations, uncovering abuse in West Virginia's coal industry, and coming up with radical fictions and bringing down pernicious artistic tropes."

"Now, with a rather sizable infusion of cash that has no strings attached, it includes some even loftier aspirations.



Nobel Prize In Chemistry Honors Work That Demonstrates 'The Power Of Evolution'

"American Frances H. Arnold has won half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work in changing how chemists produce new enzymes, sharing the prize with another American, George Smith, and Sir Gregory Winter of the U.K. for research that has led to new pharmaceuticals and cancer treatments."

"'This year's prize is about harnessing the power of evolution,' the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the winners. This year's laureates have 're-created the process in their test tubes ... and make evolution many times faster.'"

"Arnold is only the fifth woman to win the prize in its 117-year history. She conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. Enzymes produced through 'directed evolution' in laboratory settings are used to manufacture everything from renewable fuels to pharmaceuticals."



Decades Old Chemicals, New Angst Over Drinking Water

"In some parts of the country people are learning their drinking water contains pollution from a group of chemicals called Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances(PFAS). These chemicals have been linked to illnesses, including cancer. But a lot of questions remain including how exactly they affect people's health and in what doses."

"These chemicals have been around for decades but the issue gained urgency in recent years as water suppliers tested for and found PFAS pollution as part of an Environmental Protection Agency program."

"The EPA is working on a plan to manage PFAS but members of Congress are pushing the EPA to move faster. A few states already have established strict new standards to limit the compounds in drinking water. And in some places, such as the Philadelphia suburbs, PFAS pollution has become an issue in mid-term election races."

"As scientists and policy-makers work to limit human exposure to the compounds here are a few key points that are worth knowing."



Scientists Who Sparked Revolution In Cancer Treatment Share Nobel Prize In Medicine

"James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo have won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries which led to the development of cancer therapies that work by harnessing the body's own immune system."

"Allison, 70, is currently chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Honjo, 76, is a distinguished professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study and a professor in the department of immunology and genomic medicine at Kyoto University in Japan."

"Their work centers on harnessing the immune system to arrest the development of cancer. The discoveries led to one of the decade's major advance in cancer therapy — drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. Several such drugs have been approved for use in the U.S."

"According to his website, Honjo discovered a key protein – Programmed Cell Death Protein 1 — in controlling whether cells live or die, a central process in determining whether cells become cancerous and grow into tumors or behave normally."



'Extremely Rare' 2-Headed Snake Stuns Social Media, Charms Scientists

"The venomous fangs of a copperhead snake are one thing. But the recent sighting of a rare two-headed snake in Northern Virginia is alarming — and mesmerizing — both social media spectators and scientists."

"Earlier this month, a Woodbridge resident stumbled upon the young mutant reptile in a neighbor's yard. 'I wanted to look away but couldn't stop looking at it. Plays trick[s] on the eyes,' Stephanie Myers told USA Today after finding the snake and posting photos of it to her Facebook page."

"What's even more exceptional is that the snake was discovered alive, according to state herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer, a reptiles and amphibians specialist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries."



Bones Reveal The Brontosaurus Had An Older, Massive Cousin In South Africa

"Millions of years before the brontosaurus roamed the Earth, a massive relative was lumbering around South Africa."

"Scientists think this early Jurassic dinosaur was, at the time, the largest land creature ever to have lived. And unlike the even bigger creatures that came later, they think it could pop up on its hind legs."

"They've dubbed the newly discovered dinosaur Ledumahadi mafube, which translates in the Sesotho language to 'a giant thunderclap at dawn.' And the discovery sheds light on how giants like the brontosaurus got so huge."

"The discovery didn't happen quickly — it took years to get this dinosaur out of the ground. 'It's quite a long, sort of drawn-out story. It starts, I think, around 1990,' says Universidade de São Paulo paleontologist Blair McPhee, one of the researchers who discovered the dinosaur."


Beluga Charms British With Impromptu Visit

"Dave Andrews couldn't believe what he was seeing. And then he couldn't believe what he was tweeting."

"'Can't believe I'm writing this, no joke - BELUGA in the Thames off Coalhouse Fort,' the Norfolk, England, resident posted on Twitter Tuesday."

"The ecologist and ornithologist, as described on his Twitter account, had spotted a beluga whale swimming in the River Thames east of London, far from its normal habitat."

"A beluga swimming in the Thames is undoubtedly rare, and a social media frenzy ensued."

"Sky News caught the animal on camera from a helicopter above the river."

"Shortly after that, the Natural History Museum in London quoted their whale expert as saying, 'The white body colour, absence of a prominent dorsal fin, bulbous forehead and general swimming motion all suggest very strongly that this is a beluga whale.'"


Study: Roundup Weed Killer Could Be Linked To Widespread Bee Deaths

"The controversial herbicide Roundup has been accused of causing cancer in humans and now scientists in Texas argue that the world's most popular weed killer could be partly responsible for killing off bee populations around the world."

"A new study by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin posit that glyphosate — the active ingredient in the herbicide — destroys specialized gut bacteria in bees, leaving them more susceptible to infection and death from harmful bacteria."

"Researchers Nancy Moran, Erick Motta and Kasie Raymann suggest their findings are evidence that glyphosate might be contributing to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that has been wreaking havoc on honey bees and native bees for more than a decade."



New Book: Vaccines Have Always Had Haters

"Vaccinations have saved millions, maybe billions, of lives, says Michael Kinch, associate vice chancellor and director of the Center for Research Innovation in Business at Washington University in St. Louis. Those routine shots every child is expected to get can fill parents with hope that they're protecting their children from serious diseases."

"But vaccines also inspire fear that something could go terribly wrong. That's why Kinch's new book is aptly named: Between Hope and Fear: A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity."



San Diego Rhino Finds A New Home In Tanzania

"A rhinoceros born and raised in San Diego is getting used to a new home in Tanzania. The eastern black rhino is one of about 740 of the critically endangered animals left alive, and he recently completed a 68-hour journey to Africa."

"'That was quite the feat,' said Beverly 'Beezie' Burden who works at the African reserve managed by the Singita Grumeti Fund."

"'It involved two trucks. Three different airplanes. Five countries. And I think something like 10,000 miles. So he came quite a long way, but he did it. And we did it. And it happened with a great amount of celebration when he landed here,' Burden said."


In Lab Turned Casino, Gambling Monkeys Help Scientists Find Risk-Taking Brain Area

"Experiments with two gambling monkeys have revealed a small area in the brain that plays a big role in risky decisions."

"When researchers inactivated this region in the prefrontal cortex, the rhesus monkeys became less inclined to choose a long shot over a sure thing, the team reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology."

"'They did not like the gambles anymore,' says Veit Stuphorn, an author of the study and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University."

The finding in our fellow primates adds to the evidence that human brains are capable of constantly adjusting our willingness to take risks, depending on factors such as what's at stake.

"'For a long time, people thought that this is like a personality trait, that some people are risk-takers and others are not,' Stuphorn says. But recent research has shown that the same person who is very cautious about personal investments may be an avid bungee jumper."



Have A Cool Idea To Help End World Hunger? Pitch It To The U.N.

"Let's figure out how to end hunger forever. And do it fast."

"That's the lofty goal of the World Food Programme's Innovation Accelerator, a two-year-old venture inspired by the startup scene. It's gathering an arsenal of ideas to help fight hunger — both by brainstorming internally and supporting outside entrepreneurs — to test out in the real world as quickly as possible."

"There are more than two dozen projects already underway. Some are still in early stages of development, such as an artificial intelligence program that can analyze images collected by drones after a natural disaster. The plan is to train it to automatically flag potential problems, like a collapsed bridge. Other concepts are further along, such as Dalili, a smartphone app designed to help needy families who buy food at shops that have been contracted by WFP to provide food assistance. The app lists what's available where and for what price, so customers can better plan out their grocery shopping. A pilot program was launched in two cities in Lebanon last November, and it's now gone nationwide."

"This progress is monitored from the Accelerator's modern offices in downtown Munich, which sit atop the headquarters of Rischart, one of Germany's best-known bakeries. So, fittingly, the scent of fresh bread and pastries wafts up each morning to greet the 25-person staff, a mix of folks dedicated to project management, fundraising, partnerships and communications."



Japanese Billionaire Books First Moonshot Aboard SpaceX's 'Big Falcon Rocket'

"Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa stood before the audience gathered at SpaceX headquarters Monday evening and was greeted by cheers when he echoed a line from a famous speech by President John F. Kennedy, proclaiming 'I choose to go to the moon.'"

"Maezawa was introduced by SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk in Hawthorne, Calif. He is the first to book a trip as a private passenger with the commercial space company for a voyage that hasn't been attempted since NASA's Apollo missions ended in 1972."

"Forbes ranks Maezawa as the 18th richest person in Japan. While he might not be a household name in the West, he is famous in his own country as the founder of the Amazon-like shopping portal Zozotown, Japan's largest online retailer. He is best known elsewhere for paying a record $110 million last year for a 1982 painting by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat."