NPR Picks


Antarctica Has Lost More Than 3 Trillion Tons Of Ice In 25 Years

"Scientists have completed the most exhaustive assessment of changes in Antarctica's ice sheet to date. And they found that it's melting faster than they thought."

"Ice losses totaling 3 trillion tonnes (or more than 3.3 trillion tons) since 1992 have caused global sea levels to rise by 7.6 mm, nearly one third of an inch, according to a study published in Nature on Wednesday."

"Before 2010, Antarctica was contributing a relatively small proportion of the melting that is causing global sea levels to rise, says study co-leader Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds."

"But that has changed. 'Since around 2010, 2012, we can see that there's been a sharp increase in the rate of ice loss from Antarctica. And the ice sheet is now losing three times as much ice,' Shepherd adds."

"The annual sea level rise that's attributed to Antarctica has tripled, from 0.2mm to 0.6mm, he says."

"'That's a big jump, and it did catch us all by surprise,' Shepherd says."



Macedonia Gets New Name, Ending 27-Year Dispute With Greece

"Ever since the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, Greece has been fighting the country over its name. Today the 27-year impasse ended as two nations finally came to a resolution: The former Yugoslav republic is getting a new name, the Republic of North Macedonia."

"'There is no way back,' Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a press conference, Reuters reports, after he spoke with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras. 'Our bid in the compromise is a defined and precise name, the name that is honorable and geographically precise — Republic of Northern Macedonia.'"

"When Yugoslavia disintegrated, one of its pieces declared itself the Republic of Macedonia. But its southern neighbor, Greece, has regions that use the same name, and both countries argued that they had the rightful claim to it."

"'We have a deal. I'm happy because we have a good deal which covers all the preconditions set by the Greek side,' Tsipras said, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty."

"The issue has been heated, and one with very real repercussions for Macedonia: It hasn't been able to join the European Union or NATO because Greece opposed its name. It was admitted to the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, because of Greece's objection."



Why Are Some of Africa's Biggest Baobab Trees Dying Off?

"Baobab trees — ancient, otherworldly behemoths with bulbous trunks that splinter into a constellation of spindly branches — are some of Africa's most iconic living things."

"Until late last year, the Platland tree in South Africa, also known as Sunland, was their queen. It was the continent's biggest baobab, at 111 ft. around, 62 ft. high and more than 1,000 years old. It had a cavernous central hollow that hosted a fully functional cocktail bar with seating for 15 people."

"Beginning in Spring 2016, the tree began to split apart. By November 2017, it had crumbled completely."

The bar's owners blamed rot caused by heavy rain and threw a barbeque to honor its passing.

But if the Platland's demise was sudden and tragic, it wasn't unique: A new survey of baobab trees across several countries in southern Africa found that most of the two dozen oldest and biggest trees have died or significantly deteriorated in the last decade.



Math Bee: Honeybees Seem To Understand The Notion Of Zero

"Honeybees understand that "nothing" can be "something" that has numerical meaning, showing that they have a primitive grasp of the concept of zero."

"That's according to a newly published study in Science, which shows that bees possess a mathematical ability once thought to exist only in dolphins, primates, birds and humans who are beyond the preschool years."

"This is quite amazing, in my view, that bees can really do it," says Andreas Nieder, a scientist who studies how animals' process the idea of 'nothing' and was not part of the research team."

"He says zero was discovered relatively recently in human history, and was essential in the development of both mathematics and science. 'It's a hard and very abstract concept,' Nieder says. 'It is a sort of eccentric uncle in the number family.'"


David Douglas Duncan, Photographer Of Wars And Picasso, Dies At 102

"David Douglas Duncan went everywhere and took extraordinary pictures at every stop."

"Duncan, who died Thursday in the south of France at age 102, was one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century."

"He worked in so many places, over so many years, that his personal archive amounts to a remarkable one-man global history tour — from the brutal realities of the Korean and Vietnam wars, to a playful Pablo Picasso in his studio, to Bedouin tribes crossing the Saudi Arabian desert on camels as the first oil wells rise, irrevocably changing their lives."

"Duncan, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 23, 1916, became a Marine officer and combat photographer in World War II, covering the U.S. forces as they advanced across the Pacific. He was aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 as the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo Bay."

"This set the tone for his career."

"Duncan was best known as a war photographer whose work was prominently featured in Life magazine."



Kilauea Lava Flow Swallows 279 Homes In 2 Coastal Subdivisions

"An oceanfront subdivision known as Vacationland is the latest to be swallowed by lava flows as the Kilauea volcano continues to reshape the landscape on Hawaii's Big Island."

"Meanwhile, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck near the volcano's summit."

"The molten rock covered Vacationland and only a few structures remained intact in nearby Kapoho Beach Lots subdivision, the U.S. Geological Survey said."

"A total of 22 fissures have appeared since May 3, when Kilauea suddenly became more active, according to Hawaii Public Radio."

"'The flow front from the fissure 8 lava flow has now completely filled Kapoho Bay and created a delta about 0.8 miles from the former coastline,' USGS Volcanologist Jessica Ball said in a daily update at 9:30 a.m. Hawaii time."


Physicists Say They Have Evidence For A New Fundamental Particle


This story of a tiny particle could be really big. Physicists say they have evidence for the existence of a new fundamental particle, as they call it. If it's confirmed, it could overturn what scientists think they know about how the universe is put together. NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: You may not be intimately familiar with particles called neutrinos, but they're intimately familiar with you. Thousands of billions of them are passing through your body every second. They're one of the most abundant particles in the universe, and they fit into something called the standard model. That's a set of predictions about just about everything - all fundamental building blocks of matter and the forces that work on them.

JANET CONRAD: One of the patterns that we've noticed in the standard model is that things seem to come in threes.

PALCA: That's MIT particle physicist Janet Conrad.

CONRAD: So, for example, there are three families of quarks.


From Chaos To Calm: A Life Changed By Ketamine

"For six years now, life has been really good for James. He has a great job as the creative director of an advertising firm in New York City. He enjoys spending time with his wife and kids."

"And it has all been possible, he says, because for the past six years he has been taking a drug called ketamine."

"Before ketamine, James was unable to work or focus his thoughts. His mind was filled with violent images. And his mood could go from ebullient to dark in a matter of minutes."

"Ketamine "helped me get my life back," says James, who asked that we not use his last name to protect his career."

"Ketamine was developed as a human and animal anesthetic in the 1960s. And almost from the time it reached the market it has also been used as a mind-bending party drug."


To Raise Awareness For Climate Change, 50-Year-Old Makes Bid To Swim Across Pacific

"Japan, wearing a shark repellent bracelet and an armband to track radiation in the ocean. He hopes to reach San Francisco in six months as the first person to swim across the Pacific Ocean."

"A successful 5,500-mile journey will be a feat of athleticism and a major scientific opportunity. Lecomte, a Frenchman now living in Texas, is traveling alongside a boat with a six-person crew. He'll swim eight hours per day on a route that includes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the White Shark Migration Area."

"Scientific partners, including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, have provided equipment for the swimmer's crew to conduct research on his body and the ocean along the way. They'll gather over 1,000 water samples, in part to gather data on pollution and plant life."

"Lecomte has been planning the journey since he swam across the Atlantic Ocean 20 years ago. This time, he'll pick up each morning exactly where he left the night before, in hopes that this swim will become an official record. and Discovery have teamed up to track the journey, which Lecomte is doing in part to raise awareness for climate change."

"'The ocean is in peril,' he says. 'I think it's my duty to use my passion to make a little change.'"


This Room Is Thought To Have Been Michelangelo's Secret Hideaway And Drawing Board

"It was an art historian's chance discovery of a lifetime. Over 40 years ago, a museum director in Florence, Italy, found a hidden room whose walls were covered in drawings believed to be the work of Michelangelo and his disciples."

"Although the drawings are not signed by the master, art experts say some of the sketches in charcoal and chalk are almost certain to be Michelangelo originals. They could shed light not only on the Renaissance artist's creative process but also on a mysterious and dangerous period in his life."

"The room is located in Florence's Basilica di San Lorenzo. That was the official church of the Medici family — the famous patrons of the arts who governed Florence, and later Tuscany, for centuries."

"Around 1520, the Medicis commissioned Michelangelo to design a family mausoleum. It came to be known as the Medici Chapels."

"Visitors to the Chapels speak in hushed tones as they admire the nude marble sculptures adorning the tombs of Lorenzo de' Medici and two other relatives. The naked forms — allegories of four parts of day — project an intense sensation of serenity and philosophical contemplation."



Kilauea's Fast-Moving Lava Threatens Another Community, Volcanic Haze Reaches Guam

"It has been 27 days since the massive eruption of Kilauea sent lava gushing from cracks, spreading destruction through communities in the southeastern corner of Hawaii's Big Island. And now volcanic haze drifting across 4,000 miles threatens some residents of Guam, according to officials."

"The National Weather Service reported volcanic haze produced by the activity of the rumbling volcano has been carried along by strong winds over the Mariana Islands."

"'Residents with respiratory health problems should stay indoors and avoid being outdoors when haze is seen,' Guam's homeland security office said in a statement. 'Mariners and pilots should be aware of lower visibilities caused by this haze.'"

Although the haze does not contain sulfur dioxide or other toxic chemicals, a NWS official told NPR the particles in the air can still be harmful to people with sensitive respiratory systems. The official added the haze is expected to dissipate by the end of Thursday morning but will likely return as Kilauea continues to erupt.


Pathogens On A Plane: How To Stay Healthy In Flight

"If you want to cut your risk of catching the flu on your next flight, pick a window seat and stay put."

"That's a key take-home message of a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

"'I have always chosen window seats,' says Vicki Hertzberg, a biostatistician at Emory University, who co-led the research with scientists at The Boeing Co. 'But after this study, I have stopped moving around as much on flights.'"

"People in window seats come into contact with fewer passengers, Hertzberg and her team found, because they leave their seats less often than those sitting near the aisle. And they are farther away from the action in the aisle, with its potentially coughing and otherwise germy passersby."

""So the window seats are a little less risky than the aisle seats,' Hertzberg says."


Are There Risks From Secondhand Marijuana Smoke? Early Science Says Yes

"The inspiration arrived in a haze at a Paul McCartney concert a few years ago in San Francisco."

"'People in front of me started lighting up and then other people started lighting up,' says Matthew Springer, a biologist and professor in the division of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco. 'And for a few naive split seconds I was thinking to myself, 'Hey, they can't smoke in AT&T Park! I'm sure that's not allowed.' And then I realized that it was all marijuana.'"

"Recreational pot was not legal yet in the state, but that stopped no one. 'Paul McCartney actually stopped between numbers and sniffed the air and said, 'There's something in the air — must be San Francisco!' ' Springer recalls."

"As the visible cloud of pot smoke took shape, so did Springer's idea to study the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke."



50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Confronts The Past

"One of the most horrible events of the Vietnam War took place 50 years ago this week. The story of Hugh Thompson, Jr., the American soldier who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, has been made into an opera being performed all over the country, most recently at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA — the same location composer Jonathan Berger gathered instrumentalist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington to discuss the collaboration in the first place."

"I was 13, 14 years old when it happened," Berger says of the massacre. "A riveting moment. For me, it was sort of my political awakening."

Later, Berger would learn of U.S. Army pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr., who witnessed American soldiers on a bloody rampage, raping and killing Vietnamese civilians that day.


Scientists Are Amazed By Stone Age Tools They Dug Up In Kenya

"Our ancestors in Kenya's Southern Rift Valley made some pretty innovative tools. And they made them far earlier than previously thought."

"The oldest innovations were axes designed to be held in the palm of the hand. They were shaped like a tear drop, with a rounded end and a pointed eye. The edges were wavy and sharp. And they look as if they were great at chopping down branches — or chopping up the carcass of a large animal."

"'I think of the hand axes as the Swiss army knife of the Stone Age,' says paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and one of the lead scientists in a new study by a team of international scientists."

"The researchers also found that the next technological revolution, marking the beginning of the Middle Stone Age happened tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought."


Life's Nice In The Nordic Ice: Finland, Neighbors Top U.N. Happiness Index

"Sure, Norway may have dominated the Winter Games last month in Pyeongchang, handily sweeping the Olympic medal count — but the country has just been knocked from its perch atop another international ranking: the World Happiness Report. The country's Nordic neighbor, Finland, has unseated the Norwegians with a smile."

"As of this writing, the Finns are the happiest people in the world."

"At least, that's according to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Solutions Network — which on Wednesday released its annual rankings of 156 countries, using a statistical model based on a gamut of considerations ranging from their citizens' healthy life expectancy and income to their governments' levels of social support and government corruption. This model showed Finland leaping from its fifth-place finish in last year's report to first."

"Don't cry for Norway, though. The Olympic powerhouse fell no further than second."

"In fact, this list's leaders may have shuffled a bit — but, as the report explains, "the top ten positions are held by the same countries as in the last two years." And that means a very Nordic leaderboard: Of those 10, only Switzerland (5), Canada (7), New Zealand (8) and Australia (10) hail from somewhere other than Europe's northern reaches."



Stephen Hawking, Who Awed Both Scientists And The Public, Dies

"There aren't very many scientists who achieved rock star status. Stephen Hawking, who has died at the age of 76, family members told British media early Wednesday, was definitely a contender."

"'He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,' the family statement said, according to The Guardian. 'His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, 'It would not be much of a universe if it wasn't home to the people you love.' We will miss him for ever.'"

"Hawking was probably the best-known scientist in the world. He was a theoretical physicist whose early work on black holes transformed how scientists think about the nature of the universe."

"But his fame wasn't just a result of his research. Hawking, who had a debilitating neurological disease that made it impossible for him to move his limbs or speak, was also a popular public figure and best-selling author. There was even a biopic about his life, The Theory of Everything, that won an Oscar for the actor, Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Hawking."



This Is Why You Don't See People-Sized Salmon Anymore

"While the orcas of Puget Sound are sliding toward extinction, orcas farther north have been expanding their numbers. Their burgeoning hunger for big fish may be causing the killer whales' main prey, chinook salmon, to shrink up and down the West Coast."

"Chinook salmon are also known as kings: the biggest of all salmon. They used to grow so enormous that it's hard now to believe the old photos in which fishermen stand next to chinooks almost as tall as they are, sometimes weighing 100 pounds or more."

"'This has been a season of unusually large fish, and many weighing from 60 to 70 pounds have been taken,' The Oregonian reported in 1895."

"Now, more than a century later, 'it's not impossible that we see individuals of that size today, but it's much, much rarer,' University of Washington research scientist Jan Ohlberger says."


Medical Cargo Could Be The Gateway For Routine Drone Deliveries

"One shred of solace that surfaced as hurricanes and tropical storms pummeled Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last fall was the opportunity to see drones realize some of their life-saving potential."

"During those disasters unmanned aircraft surveyed wrecked roads, bridges and rail lines. They spotted oil and gas leaks. They inspected damaged cell towers that had left thousands unable to call for help. "Drones became a literal lifeline," former Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told the agency's drone advisory committee in November."

"The drones used needed a special exemption from a set of FAA rules, known as Part 107, that normally require small drones to fly below 400 feet, stay within the operator's visual line of sight and avoid populated areas."


Penguins Mug For Camera, Take A Pretty Great 'Selfie'

"Emperor penguins are known to be social and curious. But you probably didn't know that they are also reasonably good at framing a video shot."

"When an expeditioner with the Australian Antarctic Division left his camera on the ice while visiting a penguin colony, the birds quickly hustled over to investigate."

"It's worth noting that the penguins did not actually push the record button – it was already rolling — but did manage to produce a hilarious 38-second video."

"'[I]t didn't take long for the naturally curious birds to seize the opportunity for a selfie,' the Australian Antarctic Division said."