NPR Picks


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."



Study: A Daily Baby Aspirin Has No Benefit For Healthy Older People

"Many healthy Americans take a baby aspirin every day to reduce their risk of having a heart attack, getting cancer and even possibly dementia. But is it really a good idea?"

"Results released Sunday from a major study of low-dose aspirin contain a disappointing answer for older, otherwise healthy people."

"'We found there was no discernible benefit of aspirin on prolonging independent, healthy life for the elderly,' says Anne Murray, a geriatrician and epidemiologist at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, who helped lead the study."

"The study involved more than 19,000 people ages 65 and older in the United States and Australia. The results were published in three papers in the New England Journal of Medicine."

"There is still strong evidence that a daily baby aspirin can reduce the risk that many people who have already suffered a heart attack or stroke will suffer another attack."

"And there is some evidence that daily low-dose aspirin may help people younger than 70 who have at least a 10 percent risk of having a heart attack avoid a heart attack or stroke, according to the latest recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force."


Here Are The 2018 National Book Award Longlists, Featuring A Fresh Category

"Every year the National Book Foundation features a few fresh faces or unfamiliar names among the nominees for its annual literary prize. This time around, though, there's a twist. One of the actual National Book Award categories is something readers have not seen for quite some time: a prize for a work in translation."

"Not since the early 1980s — that heady (and brief) era when the prize was renamed the American Book Award — has the National Book Foundation formally recognized translated literature. The group hasn't even added a new category, period, for more than two decades."

"But this November, when the organization holds its ritzy gala in New York City, honors will be doled out to one exemplary work of fiction or nonfiction that has been translated into English and published in the U.S."

"For now, 10 books remain in the running for that prize."

"That's the case for the classic categories, as well. Check out the longlists of nominees for the National Book Awards below, and check back here on Oct. 10, when the finalists are expected to be announced."



Champagne Makers Bubble Over A Bumper Crop Caused By European Drought

"Bells toll at the abbey where Dom Perignon is buried in the French region of Champagne. The Benedictine monk is said to have discovered the method for turning wine into champagne here more than 300 years ago."

"As far as the eye can see, neat rows of vines look as if they're stitched across the rolling hillsides."

"This time of year, those vines are laden with clumps of dark purple grapes — pinot noir and pinot meunier — as well as light green chardonnay grapes. The three varieties are blended to make champagne. This year, the grapes are plentiful and plump, which is not always the case in France's northernmost wine making region."

"'Champagne's climate is harsh,' says Vincent Chaperon, a cellar master at Dom Perignon Champagne. We have 'a lot of frost – winter frost — but spring frost as well. The average temperature is quite low, there's not so much sun. And 200 days of rain [a year]. But with the evolution of climate, things have been moving in the good way, so less rain, more sun, warmer temperatures, less frost. At this moment and for about the last 15 years, the impact has been positive.'"



6-Figure Price Tag Expected For Rare Apple-1 Computer At Auction

"Before Apple was a trillion-dollar company, before its phones and laptops came to dominate the tech industry, it was just a California startup working out of a garage. Now, one of the first products the company ever made — the Apple-1 computer — is about to be the star of a live auction on Sept. 25 in Boston."

"'The Apple-1 is so iconic of that era, of the garage era of Silicon Valley, that I think there is almost no other object that really encapsulates what it does culturally and technologically,' says Dag Spicer, senior curator for the Computer History Museum, which has an Apple-1 in its collection. Spicer says it's one of their most popular pieces."

"Looking at an Apple-1 is kind of like looking at the Rosetta Stone. You don't totally understand what you're seeing, but you sense its significance."

"'The Apple-1 didn't come with a keyboard, didn't come with a monitor or anything like that,' says Corey Cohen, an expert who restores Apple-1 computers. 'It really was just the board, but the board itself was really the first you could only 'buy assembled' computer.'"



Infectious Theory of Alzheimer's Disease Draws Fresh Interest

"Dr. Leslie Norins is willing to hand over $1 million of his own money to anyone who can clarify something: Is Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia worldwide, caused by a germ?"

"By 'germ' he means microbes like bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. In other words, Norins, a physician turned publisher, wants to know if Alzheimer's is infectious."

"It's an idea that just a few years ago would've seemed to many an easy way to drain your research budget on bunk science. Money has poured into Alzheimer's research for years, but until very recently not much of it went toward investigating infection in causing dementia."

"But this 'germ theory' of Alzheimer's, as Norins calls it, has been fermenting in the literature for decades. Even early 20th century Czech physician Oskar Fischer — who, along with his German contemporary Dr. Alois Alzheimer, was integral in first describing the condition --noted a possible connection between the newly identified dementia and tuberculosis."

"If the germ theory gets traction, even in some Alzheimer's patients, it could trigger a seismic shift in how doctors and understand and treat the disease."



Where Are The Most Viruses In An Airport? Hint: It's Probably Not The Toilet

"When you go through airport security, you might wish you had a pair of gloves on like the TSA agents do."

"Researchers have evidence that the plastic trays in security lines are a haven for respiratory viruses. The trays likely harbor more of these pathogens than the flushing button on the airport toilets, researchers reported last week in BMC Infectious Diseases."


"'Yeah. When I walk into the security line and see the TSA agents wearing those gloves, I'm like, 'Don't touch me with those,' " says Dr. Mark Gendreau, at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals in Beverly, Mass., who specializes in aviation medicine and wasn't involved in the study. (Note: Per protocol, TSA agents are supposed to use fresh gloves before touching a passenger.)"

"The study was teeny-weenie. Virologists looked for viruses on 90 surfaces at the Helsinki Airport. And they took only eight samples from the plastic security trays over the course of three weeks. Half of those samples showed signs of at least one respiratory virus, such as influenza A or a coronavirus that can cause severe respiratory infections. (In contrast, none of the 42 samples taken from surfaces around the toilets showed traces of these viruses.)"



Paul Simon Tinkers With His Classics On 'In The Blue Light'

"Paul Simon says he's ready to stop touring and retire from music. But first, he's going back through his discography to do a little tinkering."

"'Simon has released his fourteenth and possibly final album. In the Blue Light, out now, is a collection of the famed singer-songwriter's older songs, rearranged — and in some cases, partially rewritten — to fix the things Simon didn't like about them the first time around. But don't call him a perfectionist. "I have nothing against the word,' Simon says. 'It just doesn't apply to me. You can't be perfect. It's either musical or it's not musical.'"

"Simon says the reworks of classics like 'The Sound of Silence' and 'Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy' are a good example of 'fixing things that I thought could be fixed.' Some of the tracks on the album have new verses while others have different production and emotive inflections."

"Although he doesn't feel he's made an absolutely flawless song, Simon says some of his hits, like his 1970 Grammy-winning signature song,'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' have stood the test of time in a gratifying way."

"'I think the big measuring thing is, 'Will something last a hundred years?' If you write a song and it lasts a hundred years I'd say, 'Well, that's a hit.' And I have a couple songs that I have a shot at it, you know?'"

"Simon spoke with NPR's David Greene about In the Blue Light, the luxury of fixing flaws while he still can and why his fans are really the last composers. Hear their conversation at the audio link."



'Predatory Bacteria' Might Be Enlisted In Defense Against Antibiotic Resistance

"Here's a bold idea to fight back against bacteria that can't be stopped by antibiotics: Go after them with germ-eating microbes. That reasoning lies behind an intriguing line of research that might also be put to use in the event of a germ-warfare attack."

"It might seem strange to think of microbe-eating microbes, but "actually they're found in almost every ecosystem on Earth," says Brad Ringeisen, deputy director of the Biological Technologies Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency."

"They're even living inside us, but at levels so low that they aren't effectively battling back against dangerous germs. DARPA has been funding research to see if these predatory bacteria can be harnessed as our allies."

"It's been very exciting," Ringeisen says, as this exploratory phase of research is gradually coming to a successful conclusion.