NPR Picks


Drought In Central Europe Reveals Cautionary 'Hunger Stones' In Czech River

"A lengthy drought in Europe has exposed carved boulders, known as "hunger stones," that have been used for centuries to commemorate historic droughts — and warn of their consequences."

"The Associated Press reports that hunger stones are newly visible in the Elbe River, which begins in the Czech Republic and flows through Germany."

"'Over a dozen of the hunger stones, chosen to record low water levels, can now be seen in and near the northern Czech town of Decin near the German border,' the AP writes."

"One of the stones on the banks of the Elbe is carved with the words 'Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine': 'If you see me, weep.'"

"A team of Czech researchers described that stone in detail in a 2013 paper about the history of droughts in Czech lands."

"The stone is also chiseled with 'the years of hardship and the initials of authors lost to history," the researchers wrote:'

It expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people. Before 1900, the following droughts are commemorated on the stone: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893."


Ancient Bone Reveals Surprising Sex Lives Of Neanderthals

"In the Altai mountains of southern Siberia, there's a cave that was inhabited for millennia. It's called Denisova, and it shelters something remarkable: the bones of different types of ancient human relatives."

"Back in 2010, researchers analyzed a fossilized pinky finger bone found in the cave, and discovered a whole new branch of the human family tree. They were dubbed Denisovans: a group of now-extinct hominins genetically different from either Neanderthals or modern humans, who were roaming the planet at the same time."

"After that discovery, researchers kept sifting through thousands of bone fragments in the cave, many of them from animals, until they found one that seemed like it could be from some kind of human relative. It turned out to belong to a young female who lived 90,000 years ago, whom they call Denisova 11."

"Now they have sequenced her genome, and as they announced in Nature on Wednesday, they found something quite surprising: She had a Neanderthal for a mother and a Denisovan for a father."



World's Largest Shipping Company Heads Into Arctic As Global Warming Opens The Way

"Maersk, the world's largest container line, is about to test the frigid waters of the Arctic in a trial of shorter shipping lanes that could become viable as warmer temperatures open up the Northern Sea Route."

"On or around Sept. 1, Denmark-based Maersk plans to send its first container ship through the Arctic to explore whether the once inhospitable route could become feasible in the future. Many analysts see the test as a turning point for both the shipping industry and the Arctic."

"Over the past decade, as Earth has warmed, global shipping companies have increasingly eyed the Arctic as a way to cut precious — and expensive — travel time. Some shipping companies, including Maersk's main rival, China-based Cosco, are already plying Arctic waters carrying heavy equipment, such as wind turbines."

"However, conditions have been seen as too harsh and unpredictable for massive shipping containers. Now Maersk is going to give it a try with what it says is a one-off voyage. It is sending the Venta Maersk — a new ship with a reinforced hull and a capacity of 3,600 containers — into the polar sea."



Alleged Nazi Labor Camp Guard Deported To Germany

"U.S. officials say a 95-year-old former Nazi labor camp guard named Jakiw Palij who lied about his wartime work when he immigrated to the United States has been deported to Germany."

"Palij, who lived in Queens in New York City, was investigated and denaturalized more than a decade ago. His deportation was ordered in 2004. But for years, no country would take him in."

"On Monday, he was sent to Germany, according to the State Department. The Department of Justice says Palij is the 68th Nazi removed from the U.S."

"Palij has previously denied that he worked at a camp, and maintained that he served as a Nazi guard only because his family was threatened."

"In a statement, the White House praised the work of administration agencies, particularly Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, in deporting Palij."


South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North

"In August 1950, 14-year-old Ahn Seung-choon was still asleep at home early one morning when her mother woke her up, screaming that her 17-year-old brother had been taken by North Korean soldiers."

"'Someone took your brother, and you are still sleeping!' Ahn recalls her mother shouting. Her mother had tried to chase the boy and his abductors, but she had babies to take care of at home and couldn't follow them for long."

"'After that day, we didn't hear anything about him,' Ahn says 68 years later in Suwon, a city south of the capital Seoul."

"The summer of 1950 marked the start of a brutal three years for Ahn, now 82, and millions of other Koreans caught up in a war that involved the U.S., China and the United Nations. The Cold War conflict left more than 3 million Koreans dead, wounded or missing."

"Amid fighting, Ahn and her family fled their village near Pyeongchang; she was wounded in a bombing as she and her mother and siblings crossed a mountain pass."



Should You Get That Scan? Your Doctor Might Not Be Great At Helping You Decide

"Your doctor probably nags you to schedule cancer screening tests like mammograms and colonoscopies. These tests, after all, can be life-saving, and most doctors want to make sure you get them done."

"But when it comes to explaining the ways that certain screenings can cause you harm, your doctor may not be doing such a good job."

"A study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at how well doctors talked about the risks and benefits of lung cancer screening — and, well, they could use some help."

"The study was small — only 14 doctors' visits were evaluated — but it examined uncensored conversations between doctors and patients, providing a window into what actually goes on in the exam room."

"Published as part of a JAMA series called Less Is More, the study is part of a growing body of research on the costs — both financial and otherwise — of too much treatment and testing."


A Grand Noodle Riddle, Cracked: Here's How To Snap Spaghetti Into Just 2 Pieces

"Perhaps you've heard that classic anecdote about Richard Feynman, the Nobel-winning theoretical physicist, who famously spent hours with a buddy puzzling over why uncooked spaghetti always breaks into more than two pieces."

"Perhaps you're one of those incorrigible monsters who break their pasta before boiling it (how dare you) and wonder why you end up having to vacuum afterward."

"Or perhaps you have no idea what we're talking about. In which case, just watch this slow-motion video of spaghetti snapping, set to some truly moving piano music."

"Whatever the case may be, you've probably noticed there's a mystery here: Why the hell doesn't spaghetti just snap in half — and is there anything in this wide world that can make it actually do so?"

"As it turns out, a pair of scientists figured out the answer to that first question more than a decade ago: Essentially, the dry noodle bends before it breaks, so that when it breaks, it does so with more power, sending vibrations racing back through the remaining pieces, bending and breaking them in turn. The discovery won them an Ig Nobel for silly or surprising research — but it did not, in fact, answer how anyone can overcome this effect and make a single clean break."



'Respect' Wasn't A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One

"On this day 50 years ago, a little-known gospel singer from Detroit went into a New York City recording studio to try to jump-start her career. No one saw it coming, but the song Aretha Franklin laid down on Valentine's Day 1967 would go on to become one of the greatest recordings of all time."

"'Respect' hit the top of the charts four months later and turned Aretha Franklin into a feminist champion. The track was actually a clever gender-bending of a song by Otis Redding, whose original reinforced the traditional family structure of the time: Man works all day, brings money home to wife and demands her respect in return."

"Franklin's version blew that structure to bits. For one, Redding's song doesn't spell out "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" like Franklin's does. It also doesn't have the backup singers and their clever interplay. So much of what made 'Respect' a hit — and an anthem — came from Franklin's rearrangement. She remembered how it all came together when she spoke with WHYY's Fresh Air in 1999."


Scientists Race To Improve 'Living Drugs' To Fight Cancer

"Aaron Reid is lying in a hospital bed at the National Institutes of Health when doctors arrive to make sure he's ready for his experimental treatment."

"'How's your night? Any issues?"' asks Dr. Katherine Barnett, a pediatric oncologist, as they begin to examine Reid."

"Reid, 20, of Lucedale, Miss., has been fighting leukemia ever since he was nine years old. He's been through chemotherapy and radiation twice, a bone marrow transplant and two other treatments."

"But the leukemia keeps coming back. This time, the cancer is all over his body. He can feel the pain in his bones. He's here today for what could be his last hope."

"'The big plan for the day: Get the cells," says Dr. Andrea Gross, another pediatric oncologist."

"The cells are an experimental version of a relatively new cancer therapy called CAR-T. These CAR-T cells are sometimes called 'living drugs' because they are engineered from patients' own immune system cells."



Florida's Gulf Coast Battles Deadly And Smelly Red Tide

"Florida this week declared a state of emergency because of a slow-moving natural disaster — red tide."

"Red tide is toxic algae that have persisted off Florida's Gulf Coast for nearly a year. In recent weeks, the algae bloom has worsened, killing fish, turtles and dolphins and discouraging tourism on some of the state's most beautiful beaches."

"Scores of dead fish were visible on the shore of Manatee Beach on a recent morning. There was a smell from the fish, but something more — an acrid smell that can make you cough. Mary Vanswol, who was at the beach with her husband, James, said, 'Uh, the smell is terrible. And it's affecting my lungs. I'm coughing, not so much him, but I am. It's just sad to see all the dead fish.'"

"The Vanswols live nearby and usually go swimming. But not today. After getting a look at the dead fish and the murky, slightly reddish-hued water, Mary Vanswols said they were leaving. 'I wouldn't even walk along the edge of it. I just don't think it's safe,' she said."


Uh-Oh, Germany Is Rapidly Running Out Of Beer Bottles

"In Germany, beer consumption is up as temperatures remain unusually high. This is good and bad news for the beer industry."

"While the breweries have more than enough beer to go around, they're running out of bottles because customers are not returning their empties quickly enough."

"Germans care about the environment about as much as their beer; that's why the glass bottles are recycled. Customers pay a small deposit on each one, which they get back when they return it to a store."

"There are about 4 billion beer bottles in circulation somewhere in Germany, and each bottle is refilled up to 30 times, according to Inside magazine, which caters to the drink industry. But as Germans drink more in this heat, and empty bottles pile up by the back door at home, trouble is brewing for the beer-makers."

"Christian Schuster, from the Greif brewery in Bavaria, recently appealed to customers to return their crates of empty vessels promptly or go without beer."



Ambitious 'Human Cell Atlas' Aims To Catalog Every Type Of Cell In The Body

"If you flip open a biology textbook or do a quick search on Google, you'll quickly learn that there are a few hundred types of cells in the human body."

"'And it's true, because in broad categories, a few hundred is a good characterization,' says Aviv Regev, a core member of the Broad Institute, a genetics research center in Cambridge, Mass."

"But look a little closer, as Regev has been doing, and a far more complicated picture emerges."

"'No one really knows how many there will be,' she says. Immunologists had already counted more than 300 in the immune system alone. The eye's retina, other research showed, has more than 100. How many in the whole body? Regev won't even try to predict."


In Parts Of California Blanketed With Wildfire Smoke, Breathing Is 'A Chore'

"Debbie Dobrosky noticed a peculiar hue in the sky on August 6 — "a very ugly yellow casting" — as she peeked outside. A large cloud of smoke had begun to cover the sun."

"By the next day, the smoke was so heavy that "even inside my apartment I've had to use my inhaler twice this morning, which is not a normal thing," says Dobrosky, a Riverside County, Calif., resident who lives about 30 miles from a fast-growing fire in the Cleveland National Forest."

"'Today I'm stuck inside, there's no going out,' says Dobrosky, 67, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung condition."

"At least 17 large fires are burning across California, and dozens more throughout other Western states, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres, sending toxic pollutants into the air and contaminating water supplies. The air quality in certain areas — particularly near California's massive Mendocino Complex Fire in the northern part of the state — is among the worst officials have ever seen."

"With temperatures at times reaching into the triple digits, unpredictable winds and desiccated brush that serves as kindling, there's no end in sight to this year's fire season."


A Songwriting Mystery Solved: Math Proves John Lennon Wrote 'In My Life'

"Lennon-McCartney is likely one of the most famous songwriting credits in music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote lyrics and music for almost 200 songs and The Beatles have sold hundreds of millions of albums. The story goes that the two Beatles agreed as teenagers to the joint credit for all songs they wrote, no matter the divide in work."

"Over the years, Lennon and McCartney have revealed who really wrote what, but some songs are still up for debate. The two even debate between themselves — their memories seem to differ when it comes to who wrote the music for 1965's 'In My Life.'"

"If the songwriters' memories (perhaps tainted by the mind-altering era they were writing in) have failed, how can this mystery ever be solved? Well, we can get by with a little help from math."

"Mathematics professor Jason Brown spent 10 years working with statistics to solve the magical mystery. Brown's the findings were presented on Aug. 1 at the Joint Statistical Meeting in a presentation called 'Assessing Authorship of Beatles Songs from Musical Content: Bayesian Classification Modeling from Bags-Of-Words Representations.'"


NASA Braves The Heat To Get Up Close And Personal With Our Sun

"Early Saturday morning, if all goes as planned, 91-year-old Eugene Parker will watch a NASA spacecraft named after him blast off on an unprecedented mission to study the sun."

"'It's my first rocket launch, so that will be very interesting,' says Parker, a retired astrophysicist who lives in Chicago."

"NASA has never named a spacecraft after a living person before. But Parker's colleagues say it's appropriate that this one bears his name. The Parker Solar Probewill get up-close-and-personal with the fiery sun, closer than any spacecraft ever, and Parker is almost a God-like figure among those who study this special star."

"'In our field, he's definitely a celebrity,' says Angela Olinto, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, where Parker worked for decades. 'Most of science is done by a lot of small steps by a lot of different people. He is one of those few people that we know that have made big breakthroughs a few times.'"

"His first came in 1958, when Parker predicted that the sun was constantly spewing out a stream of charged particles at supersonic speeds. He called it the solar wind."



Hawaii Volcano Quiets After Months-Long Eruption

"After more than three months, the volcanic eruption on Hawaii's Big Island appears to be slowing."

"Geologists at the Hawaiian Volcanic Observatory say the flow of lava from a crack in the earth at the foot of the Kilauea volcano has greatly diminished in recent days. It was lava from that vent, Fissure 8, that ran toward the coast in a molten river, inundating two seaside communities and reshaping the island's southeast coast."

"That doesn't mean the event is over. Tina Neal, the scientist in charge of the observatory, noted that eruptions like this typically wax and wane."

"'It could be weeks or months before we feel comfortable calling the eruption and the summit collapse over,' she said in a press release."

"Still, any reprieve is welcome news to the residents of the Big Island's Puna District, who have been living in a state of uncertainty since the eruption began on May 3."



For Berlin, Invasive Crustaceans Are A Tough Catch And A Tough Sell

"In a shaded stream in the middle of Berlin's rambling Tiergarten park, fisherman Klaus Hidde lowered himself into the water recently. Several children stood on a platform above him and watched him wade in, wearing high rubber overalls. Hidde pulled a netted trap out of the water and shook it in the air."

"'There's too few,' Hidde says, shaking his head."

"Hidde and his son are the only people licensed to catch thousands of Louisiana crawfish that have invaded the waters of two parks in Berlin. The goal is to solve the problem by selling the catch to chefs and businesses. But on this day, there are a scant 100 crawfish between three nets."

"'They're not even a hundredth of a percent' of the solution to the problem, Hidde says, as he shakes the dark red crustaceans into a black bin."

"This is the third year Louisiana crawfish have been seen in Berlin. City wildlife officer Derk Ehlert says when crawfish first appeared, the city released eels into the waterways, hoping they'd catch the crawfish and eat them. But then the next year, there were still 3,000 crawfish in the parks. This year there are 10 times as many and they seem to be spreading. At one point, hundreds of crawfish clambered out of the lake and ambled along the Tiergarten's shaded paths."



Last Surviving Crew Member Has 'No Regrets' About Bombing Hiroshima

"On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first time a nuclear weapon had been used in warfare."

"There were three strike planes that flew over Hiroshima that day: the Enola Gay, which carried the bomb, and two observation planes, the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil."

"Russell Gackenbach was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and a navigator on the mission. Today, the 95-year-old is the only surviving crew member of those three planes."

"Gackenbach enlisted in the Army Aviation Cadet Program in 1943. After completing his training, he was approached by Col. Paul Tibbets, who was recruiting officers for a special mission. Tibbets said it would be dangerous but if they were successful, it could end the war."

"The 509th Composite Group, lead by Tibbets, spent months training in Wendover, Utah, before being shipped off to an American air base on the Pacific island of Tinian."

"Their planes were reconfigured B-29 Superfortress bombers. They had different engines, fewer guns and a larger bomb bay."


Diet Hit A Snag? Your Gut Bacteria May Be Partly To Blame

"Have you ever been on a diet but didn't hit your goal weight? Your gut bacteria may be part of the explanation."

"New research suggests the mix of microbes in our guts can either help — or hinder — weight-loss efforts."

"'We started with the premise that people have different microbial makeups, and this could influence how well they do with dieting,' explains Purna Kashyap, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn."

"As part of the study, Kashyap and his collaborators tracked the progress of people who were enrolled in a lifestyle-intervention program for weight loss. The participants were advised to follow a low-calorie diet, and they were tracked closely for about three months."

"'We found that people who lost at least 5 percent of their body weight had a different gut bacteria as compared to those who did not lose 5 percent of their body weight,' Kashyap explains. Their findings are published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings."



Europe Deals A Blow To CRISPR Technology, U.S. Approves 'Bleeding' Veggie Burger

"Last week was a momentous one for the future of genetically engineered foods, both in the U.S. and in Europe. On July 24, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Impossible Burger, an all-veggie burger that 'bleed' and sizzles just like meat. The burger's star ingredient — a protein called heme that renders blood red and helps make meat a carnivore's delight — was granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. In 2015, the FDA had required that the $400 million Silicon Valley startup, Impossible Foods, demonstrate that their heme, made by genetically modified yeast, was safe."

"But across the pond, two days later, Europe's highest court issued a very different decision: it ruled that in Europe, gene-edited crops should be subject to the same strict regulations the continent uses for genetically modified (GM) organisms. It was a major setback for advocates of genetically engineered crops."

"Predictable reactions followed. While Impossible Foods celebrated its approval, an environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Earth (FOE) called the FDA ruling tremendously disappointing. Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner for FOE, says the ruling 'is exactly why we need an overhaul of our regulations with the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the FDA.' Meanwhile, Nigel Halford, a crop geneticist at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, told Nature News that the European ruling was 'a real hit to the head,' noting that companies in Europe will not be willing to invest in a technology with no commercial application."