NPR Picks


Threatened Bluefin Tuna Sells For $3 Million In Tokyo Market

"The 612-pound tuna had to be wheeled into its new owner's sushi restaurant on a low platform, its mouth agape."

"Sushi chain owner Kiyoshi Kimura purchased the immense Pacific bluefin tuna in an auction on Saturday at a Tokyo fish market. The fish sold for a record 333.6 million yen, more than $3 million, The Associated Press reported."

"The Kiyomura Corp., which Kimura runs, footed the bill at over $5,000 per pound. The fish usually sells for up to $40 per pound, though the price can fluctuate to more than $200 per pound. The gigantic tuna will translate to more than 12,000 pieces of sushi for the company's Sushi Zanmai chain."

"'The tuna looks so tasty and very fresh, but I think I did (pay) a little too much,' Kimura told reporters outside the Tokyo market, according to Reuters. The frequent auction winner has been known to pay well above market price for the immense fish. This purchase more than doubles the last record he set of $1.76 million for a slightly smaller fish in 2013."



Freed From Copyright, These Classic Works Are Yours To Adapt

"Think Tarzan and the Golden Lion needed a different ending?"

"Perhaps you want to adapt Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet into a graphic novel."

"Or maybe you want to have a go at incorporating Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" into a virtual choir piece, as composer Eric Whitacre once did before encountering a copyright snag that killed the project."

"Well, the chance to dust off these three — and countless other works originally copyrighted in 1923 — has arrived. A large body of films, music, and books from that year entered the public domain on Jan. 1, the first time that's happened in 20 years. And that means they can be used according to the will of new creators who wish to adopt or adapt them."

"The list includes films like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, songs like Jelly Roll Morton's "Grandpa's Spells" and poetry collections like e.e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys. All these works were originally set to enter the public domain in 1999, but then Congress extended the copyright term by an additional 20 years for works between 1923 and 1977 — leading to that 20-year hiatus."



Scientists Have 'Hacked Photosynthesis' In Search Of More Productive Crops

"There's a big molecule, a protein, inside the leaves of most plants. It's called Rubisco, which is short for an actual chemical name that's very long and hard to remember."

"Amanda Cavanagh, a biologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, calls herself a big fan of Rubisco. "'It's probably the most abundant protein in the world,' she says. It's also super-important."

"Rubisco has one job. It picks up carbon dioxide from the air, and it uses the carbon to make sugar molecules. It gets the energy to do this from the sun. This is photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to make food, a foundation of life on Earth. Yay for Rubisco!"

"'But it has what we like to call one fatal flaw,' Cavanagh continues. Unfortunately, Rubisco isn't picky enough about what it grabs from the air. It also picks up oxygen. 'When it does that, it makes a toxic compound, so the plant has to detoxify it.'"

"Plants have a whole complicated chemical assembly line to carry out this detoxification, and the process uses up a lot of energy. This means the plant has less energy for making leaves, or food for us. (There is a family of plants, including corn and sugar cane, that developed another type of workaround for Rubisco, and those plants are much more productive.)"

"Cavanagh and her colleagues in a research program called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which is based at the University of Illinois, have spent the last five years trying to fix Rubisco's problem. ''We're sort of hacking photosynthesis,' she says."



China Becomes First Country To Land On Far Side Of Moon, State Media Announces

"That's one giant leap for China."

"China state television announced Thursday that China's Chang'e 4 lunar explorer, which launched in early December, "became the first ever probe to soft-land on the far side of the moon." The probe touched down at 10:26 Beijing time, the China Global Television Network said."

"The landing 'lifted the mysterious veil' from the far side, and "opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration," the broadcaster said, according to Reuters. (A soft landing is where a lander touches down as gently as possible; it is preferable to a hard landing.)"

"The six-wheeled rover landed in the southern section of the Von Kármán crater, near the moon's south pole, Chinese media reported. China's Xinhua News published a photo it says was taken by the probe "on the never-visible side of the moon." While photos of the normally hidden far side of the moon have been previously taken from space, this would be the first image ever captured from the surface."

"China's lunar lander is loaded with a variety of cameras and sensors, including ground-penetrating radar to peer beneath the lunar surface, reported NPR's Joe Palca while the probe was en route. 'Although Chang'e 4's mission is largely scientific, it is also a key bit of preparation for sending Chinese astronauts to the lunar surface,' wrote Palca. Only 12 humans have ever set foot on the moon, and all of them were Americans."



'Eye To I' Exhibition Celebrates Over A Century Of Self-Portraiture

"Why do artists paint so many self-portraits?"

"For starters, they're always available, says Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 'In the middle of the night when the urge strikes, you've got yourself.'"

"Some artists can't afford models, others are simply vain. Portrait Gallery curator Brandon Fortune thinks self-portraits let artists work out technical problems. And of course, there's posterity: 'They're also done as a kind of self-reflection," Fortune says. "To present a persona to the world that may not be true or authentic, but is the character the artist wants to be remembered as.'"

"More than 70 of these autobiographical artworks are now on view at the Portrait Gallery in an exhibition called Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today. Twenty-one-year-old Edward Hopper is moody, in a charcoaled turtle neck. Diego Rivera does not disguise his double chin. Jim Dine has no chin — or head, for that matter — he just etches his bathrobe."


The 'Pop Art' Of Armenia's Revolution Is ... Calligraphy?

"Under a little white tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., an artist named Ruben Malayan is teaching kids and visitors how to write the letter "A" in Armenian calligraphy."

"Little do they know that Malayan, 47, is the creator of the iconic protest posters that became a symbol of Armenia's revolution in April. A report from Al-Jazeera in May called Malayan's placards the 'pop art of the revolution.'"

"Using a mix of traditional calligraphy and bold block script, Malayan hand-painted placards that said 'defend the revolution' and 'be brave' — then gave them away to people in the streets. Protesters pressured Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to step down. A few weeks later, he did."

"In June, he came to the U.S. for two weeks to share the art of Armenian calligraphy at the Smithsonian festival."

"In workshops, he demonstrated how to ink letters onto paper using a pen with a flat metal nib. His strokes — black line after black line, in perfect symmetrical succession — are hypnotic."



Way Beyond Pluto, An Icy World Is Ready For Its Close-Up

"About a billion miles beyond Pluto, a spacecraft is closing in on an icy minor planet — a mysterious little place that's only about 20 miles across."

"If all goes well, NASA will start the new year with the most far-off exploration of a world ever, flying past it about 2,200 miles from the surface while taking images with an onboard telescope and camera. The closest approach will be at 12:33 a.m." ET on Jan 1.

"'Really, we have no idea what to expect,' Alan Stern, principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission, said during a recent news conference."

"The New Horizons probe is about the size of a grand piano. It has been flying through space for more than a dozen years. In 2015, it reached Pluto, and what had long been just a fuzzy circle in photographs was revealed to be a stunning, dark-reddish world made of frozen nitrogen and methane, with ice mountains."

"'The exploration of Pluto that we conducted was scientifically spectacular,' Stern said."



Social Worker Led Frugal Life To Leave Nearly $11 Million To Children's Charities

"Friends remember Washington state social worker Alan Naiman as being frugal. He wore old shoes held together with duct tape, bought his apparel at the grocery store, drove jalopies and ate at cheap restaurants. But when he died of cancer in January 2018, at age 63, the people around him learned that he had quietly saved millions for a higher cause."

"Naiman left most of his $11 million estate to organizations serving abandoned, impoverished, sick and disabled children."

"'He left it all to charities — mostly to kids, the section of society that couldn't really help themselves,' his friend Shashi Karan told NPR."

"Naiman had no spouse or biological children. But his elder brother, who was disabled and died in 2013, "kind of colored the way he looked at things," his friend Susan Madsen told The Associated Press."

"Before spending two decades at Washington's Department of Social and Health Services, where he reportedly earned about $67,200 a year, Naiman was a banker."

"'He made a career change into social services probably around the time he was fostering,' Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families spokeswoman Debra Johnson told NPR. A dedicated and valued employee, he shared fond memories of the children he fostered, she said."

"Despite living a modest life, he amassed a great deal of wealth by saving his work wages, taking on side jobs and inheriting millions from his parents."

"Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Naiman thought about taking more road trips or moving to a house with a view, Karan said. But those dreams receded after the diagnosis. Instead, he spent his time researching charities."


2018 Was A Milestone Year For Climate Science (If Not Politics)

"2018 was a hot year — in fact, the fourth warmest on record. The only years that were, on average, warmer were the past three, according to the World Meteorological Organization."

"It has been warming for decades now. But 2018 brought several major new and markedly more precise reports from scientists about what climate change is doing to the weather and how dire they expect the consequences to be."

"That didn't stop President Trump and others from continuing to question the evidence."

"'Is there climate change?' Trump said to reporters from Axios on HBO in November. 'Yeah. Will it go back like this?' he added, motioning up and down with his hand. "I mean will it change back? Probably. That's what I think.'"

"Another politician who weighed in on the clear evidence of a warmer planet was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, when he was campaigning this past fall."


'Miracle' Boy Survives Avalanche After Being Buried Alive For 40 Minutes

"A 12-year-old boy survived 40 minutes buried under an avalanche in the French Alps on Wednesday, a feat rescuers called a 'miracle.'"

"The boy was skiing on an off-piste section of the slopes at the La Plagne ski resort in Bourg Saint-Maurice when he was swept away and separated from his group, French police told the Associated Press."

"According to officials, he was going down the slope ahead of seven other skiers and 'was caught when a large section of snow detached and roared down the mountain.' The deluge of snow, ice and rocks carried the boy at least 110 yards but it's unclear how deeply he was buried."

The region of the Alps where the avalanche occurred had a massive snowfall earlier this month, after a late start to the ski season, which kept many local resorts shuttered longer than expected. Courchevel, where La Plagne is located, had about 15 inches of snow over a single weekend and although that brought some relief to business owners, it created a high risk of avalanches.



Sicily Is Shaken By Earthquake As Mount Etna Erupts Once Again

"First came the eruption. Then, the quake."

"An overnight earthquake, triggered by Mount Etna's eruption two days ago, caused injuries and damage in Eastern Sicily early Wednesday morning. The volcano has been spewing ash and lava has flowed down its slopes since it began erupting on Monday."

"The quake registered 4.8 magnitude, according to Italian news agency ANSA, which reported 600 people were displaced by the temblor. Officials said the quake was one of about 1,000 tremors — most of them small — related to Etna's eruption, The Associated Press reports."

"NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that Italy's Civil Protection Agency set up temporary shelters for those whose homes were damaged or who were too frightened to go home."

"At least 10 people were injured, according to the AP, and others sought medical care for panic attacks or shock."

"A section of a major roadway was closed, as was the railway along the Ionian coast, ANSA reported."


There's A Lot At Stake In The Weekly U.S. Drought Map

"Crippling drought this year has caused more than $1 billion in damage. As it's played out, anyone affected by the drought or trying to manage it has turned to a once obscure map that's become key to understanding what's happening: the U.S. Drought Monitor."

"That includes water planners who decide resource allotments. Farmers who need water for their livelihood. Federal bureaucrats who use the map to calculate aid for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program."

"And then there are citizen scientists like Dave Kitts outside of Sante Fe, N.M."

'I think it's a little obsessive, but I check it every Thursday,' says Kitts, who's lived on the same 2-acre spread in New Mexico for decades. Dry years like this past one can crust the soil and kill his pinyon trees."

"'It's just upsetting and depressing to me,' he says. 'And when it moves the other direction it definitely lifts my spirits.'"

Scientist Mark Svoboda started the drought map 20 years ago, when Congress took an interest after drought struck Washington, D.C. He directs the National Drought Mitigation Center at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.



Dow Suffers Record-Breaking Christmas Eve Losses

"The stock market was only open for half a day Monday, and that was more than enough time for the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 2.9 percent to 21,792.20, breaking 1918's record for the worst Christmas Eve performance."

"Other U.S. indexes fell too. The Nasdaq lost 2.2 percent to 6,192.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.7 percent to 2,351.10."

"U.S. stocks are on track for their worst year since 2008, which was during the Great Recession, and their worst December since 1931, which was during the Great Depression."

"The markets have been dealing with concerns of a slowing global economy, the trade dispute with China and last week's interest rate increase — the fourth by the Federal Reserve this year."

"Over the weekend, reports surfaced that President Trump was asking advisers if he could legally fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell. Trump nominated Powell last year to take over the Fed, but since interest rates began rising, Trump has upped his rhetoric against Powell."



Gingerbread Cred: Bakers Craft Winning Edible Art Down To The Last Detail

"Nadine Orenstein never expected to judge gingerbread houses. But several years ago, the curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art happened to see a program on the Food Network about a competition in Asheville, N.C., and was intrigued by the intricate — and edible — Christmastime entries. She happened to mention the show to a colleague, who happened to know one of the judges, who happened to be on the lookout for a new judge to add to the panel."

"The rest, as they say, is history. Fourteen years later, Orenstein is still a judge for the National Gingerbread House Competition, which in November celebrated its 26th year at Asheville's Omni Grove Park Inn. 'In a way, it's very similar to what I do as a career and, in some ways, completely different,' she says."

"The biggest difference, of course, is that each entry must be entirely edible — although it's fairly rare for the judges to actually eat the sweet creations — and must consist of at least 75 percent gingerbread. Disco dust and hologram powder are permitted, according to the rules, while no entrant under the age of 13 may use hot sugar, for safety reasons. And don't be fooled by the name of the competition, because the entries are not limited to houses — dragons, pirate ships and bonsai trees are also welcome."

"When it comes to judging, however, it's the details that loom large, even when they might only measure a few millimeters. Nothing escapes the eagle eyes of the judges, from a wall that is just slightly off-kilter to meticulously hand-painted playing cards."



Huge Martian Crater 'Korolev' Appears Topped With Miles Of Pristine Snow

"New images of Mars show an enormous crater that measures nearly 51 miles across and is filled with ice year-round, the European Space Agency reported."

"Known as the Korolev Crater, located near the Martian north pole, it's topped by 'what appears to be a large patch of fresh, untrodden snow – a dream for any lover of the holiday season,' said a statement by ESA, which released the images Thursday."

"But the space agency noted that the red planet is "a little too distant for a last-minute winter getaway." (Mars is about 140 million miles from Earth, according to NASA. The distance can vary considerably, because each planet moves in its own orbit around the sun.)"

"The Martian crater was named after Sergei Korolev, the chief architect of the Soviet space program. Korolev, who died in 1966, worked on missions to the moon and Mars, and the launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite."

"The floor of the icy crater is more than a mile below its rim, which helps create a phenomenon called a cold trap, keeping the ice stable and permanently frozen, ESA said."



Researchers Show Parachutes Don't Work, But There's A Catch

"Research published in a major medical journal concludes that a parachute is no more effective than an empty backpack at protecting you from harm if you have to jump from an aircraft."

"But before you leap to any rash conclusions, you had better hear the whole story."

"The gold standard for medical research is a study that randomly assigns volunteers to try an intervention or to go without one and be part of a control group."

"For some reason, nobody has ever done a randomized controlled trial of parachutes. In fact, medical researchers often use the parachute example when they argue they don't need to do a study because they're so sure they already know something works."

"Cardiologist Robert Yeh, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and attending physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, got a wicked idea one day. He and his colleagues would actually attempt the parachute study to make a few choice points about the potential pitfalls of research shortcuts."

"They started by talking to their seatmates on airliners."


Scientists Find A Brain Circuit That Could Explain Seasonal Depression

"Just in time for the winter solstice, scientists may have figured out how short days can lead to dark moods."

"Two recent studies suggest the culprit is a brain circuit that connects special light-sensing cells in the retina with brain areas that affect whether you are happy or sad."

"When these cells detect shorter days, they appear to use this pathway to send signals to the brain that can make a person feel glum or even depressed."

"'It's very likely that things like seasonal affective disorder involve this pathway,' says Jerome Sanes, a professor of neuroscience at Brown University."

"Sanes was part of a team that found evidence of the brain circuit in people. The scientists presented their research in November at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. The work hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, but the researchers plan to submit it."

"A few weeks earlier, a different team published a study suggesting a very similar circuit in mice."


Gatwick Airport Shuts Down After Drones Fly Near Its Runway

"Flights in and out of Britain's Gatwick Airport are suspended, after drones were spotted flying over its airfield Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The cancellations, which now extend to at least 4 p.m. local time, triggered chaos for passengers as the effects rippled outward from the busy airport."

"Two drones were seen flying over the airfield south of London around 9 p.m. local time Wednesday night, Gatwick said in a tweet. The airport was able to briefly open around 3 a.m., but more drone reports followed."

"'I have a drone on my airfield,' Gatwick's Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe told the BBC."


Green 'Christmas Comet' Visible In Night Sky

"This month, a comet called 46P/Wirtanen is doing a dramatic fly-by, giving Earth an unusually good view of its greenish glow."

"The timing of the comet's apparition — and its seasonally appropriate coloring — have led some to dub it the 'Christmas Comet.'"

"On Sunday, Wirtanen's proximity to Earth placed it in the top 10 of Earth's modern 'comet close encounters,' according to the University of Maryland's astronomy department. And few of those other close-proximity comets were bright enough to see with the naked eye, as Wirtanen is."

"'This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries,' Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement."

"On Sunday night, at its closest point, the comet was about 30 times as far away as the moon. While that evening offered the prime viewing opportunity, the comet will continue to be visible from some locations worldwide for several more days."


Magical Photos Bring Fables From Mbomo To Life

"Traditional fables from the Republic of Congo are collected in a new book, Congo Tales: Told By The People Of Mbomo — and illustrated with painterly photos that have a touch of magical realism."

"Eva Vonk, a Dutch film producer, came up with the concept for Congo Tales. It's the first project from a new multimedia series called "Tales of Us," which aims to communicate the importance of protecting remote ecosystems and the people who live there."

"Over the course of three years, Vonk, along with a local radio producer and a community activist, gathered tales told by people all over the Mbomo district in the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world. It's home to thousands of plant and animal species and to people as well."

"The basin is under threat from mining and logging, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies."