NPR Picks

Saturday
Sep162017

Ig Nobels Awarded For Research Into Big Ears, Feline Fluidity

"Can a cat be both a liquid and a solid? Does contact with a crocodile influence a person's willingness to gamble? And do old men really have big ears?"

"Those are just a few of the questions studied by scientists who received Ig Nobel Prizes at Harvard University on Thursday, at the less-than-prestigious ceremony put on by the otherwise-august institution for the past 27 years."

"'Each winner has done something that makes people laugh, then think,' said Marc Abrahams, who founded the awards in 1991 and writes for the decidedly non-peer-reviewed journal Annals of Improbable Research."

"This year's awards in physics, economics, medicine and even an Ig Nobel Peace Prize, included something described as "a replica of a human head supporting a replica of a question mark," along with a piece of paper saying you won an Ig Nobel (signed by actual Nobel laureates) and $10 trillion — Zimbabwean."

Friday
Sep152017

Cassini's Saturn Mission Goes Out In A Blaze Of Glory

"Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent a final command Friday morning to the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Not long after, accounting for the vast distance the message traveled, the order was received, putting the craft into a suicidal swan dive in which it plummeted into the ringed planet's atmosphere."

"Flight Director Julie Webster called "loss of signal" at about 7:55 a.m. ET, followed by Project Manager Earl Maize announcing "end of mission" as the spacecraft began to break up in Saturn's atmosphere."

"'Congratulations to you all,' Maize announced to applause. 'It's been an incredible mission, incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team.'"

Thursday
Sep142017

Coffee, Bees and Climate Change Are Linked In Ways You May Not Have Expecte

"Pollinators such as bees play a key part of producing the beans that go into your morning cup of coffee."

"In fact, they are responsible for about 20 to 25 percent of coffee production by increasing the plants' yield, Taylor Ricketts, the director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, tells The Two-Way. Bees actually increase the quality of the beans by making their size more uniform."

"But climate change is threatening both pollinators and the areas where coffee can grow. A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says it is the first to model the impact of climate change on both coffee and pollinators."

"The researchers projected that by 2050, climate change could reduce the amount of ground usable to grow coffee in Latin America by up to 88 percent. That's significantly higher than previous estimates."

Monday
Sep042017

Has Salt Gotten An Unfair Shake?

"For such a simple compound, salt is complicated."

"Sodium is a key element in table salt, and it's also essential for life. It helps regulate our blood volume. It shuttles nutrients into our bodies and brains. It allows our muscles to contract and our nerves to pulse with electricity. Yet for decades, we've been told to avoid it."

"Since the 1970s, most major nutrition and health guidelines have cautioned against eating too much sodium, citing associations with high blood pressure that could lead to heart attack and stroke. Recommendations put forth from the Institute of Medicine — now called the National Academy of Medicine — and jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture in particular have consistently urged us to restrict sodium intake to 2.3 grams per day, equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of salt. Some recommendations even go as low as 1.5 grams for certain people."

"Yet on average, Americans eat 3.4 grams per day, mostly cloaked by the fine print on processed food."

 

Sunday
Sep032017

Beer-Brewing Monks Are Helping Rebuild Earthquake-Devastated Town In Italy

"Large sections of Norcia's ancient walls lie in rubble. Its many centuries-old buildings are wrapped in steel girders, off-limits to the few people who visit what now looks like a ghost town."

"Located near Perugia in Italy's Umbria region, Norcia was the birthplace — in the year 480 — of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and patron saint of Europe. It was one of several Italian towns devastated last year by a series of earthquakes that claimed some 300 lives."

"The town's grandiose 13th century basilica was dedicated to the saint, but all that's left standing is the façade."

"The church and a nearby monastery had been home to a community of Benedictine monks, most of them from the U.S. After a series of big tremors last August, the monks sought shelter at their dilapidated grange on the mountainside high above the town. For months, they've lived in tents while they built more permanent housing on the mountainside, in what will now become their new monastery."

Friday
Sep012017

Coral Reef Fish Are More Resilient Than We Thought, Study Finds

"At a time when the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs are facing unprecedented destruction, researchers in Australia have found a small ray of hope for the fish that make the reefs their home."

"Fish are more resilient to the effects of ocean acidification than scientists had previously thought, according to research published Thursday in Scientific Reports."

"Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused by burning fossil fuels, is being absorbed by oceans and causing them to become more acidic. That dissolved carbon dioxide can cause erratic, risky behavior in fish that could impact their survival."

"For example, previous research demonstrates that exposing fish to high levels of carbon dioxide dulls their responses to predators, making them more likely to become a meal. Exposure can also make fish favor just one of their sides while moving, or make them more active and bold."

Thursday
Aug312017

Live In Hawaii, And Odds Are You'll Need Fewer Prescription Meds

"If you think you would be healthier if you lived in Hawaii, you may be right."

"People in Hawaii appear to be much less likely to overuse problematic prescription drugs, including opioid pain medications and antibiotics, than people in the mainland United States."

"Medicare beneficiaries in Hawaii used fewer opioid pain medications, fewer antibiotics, fewer antipsychotic drugs and fewer drugs labeled as risky for seniors on average than patients in any other state in 2015, according to a ProPublica analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Medicare's prescription program covers more than 42 million seniors and disabled people, and pays for more than one in every four prescriptions in the U.S."

"These four classes of medications are problematic for a number of reasons. Misuse and abuse of opioid painkillers has been linked to an ever-growing overdose epidemic. Overuse of antibiotics has been linked to the emergence of deadly superbugs that are resistant to drugs. Critics have faulted the use of antipsychotics in the elderly, particularly those with dementia, as a means of chemically restraining them. And the American Geriatrics Society has labeled some medications inappropriate for the elderly because they can increase the risk of falls, confusion and other problems."

 

Wednesday
Aug302017

How A Warmer Climate Helped Shape Harvey

"The rain just won't stop. More than two days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast, the downgraded storm continues to dump water across the region."

"So much rain has fallen in the Houston area that the National Weather Service has had to revamp its charts."

"Climate researchers agree that climate change can be partially to blame for the devastation. Here's how it has (and hasn't) shaped the course of the storm.

"Climate change may have helped Harvey to form and intensify"

"This year saw high sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, where Harvey formed. According to an analysis published in March, the Gulf stayed above 73 degrees Fahrenheit the entire winter."

"At the time Harvey intensified into a Category 4 hurricane, it was over a section of the Gulf that was about 4 degrees above normal, says Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo."

 

Tuesday
Aug292017

Why Are Atlantic Salmon Being Farmed In The Northwest?

"Earlier this month, a net pen broke apart near Washington state's Cypress Island. The pen held 305,000 Atlantic salmon, a non-native fish."

"The company that owns the pen, Cooke Aquaculture, says it is unsure exactly how many Atlantic salmon escaped, but the state estimatesbetween 4,000 to 185,700. Cooke and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are trying to collect and count the fish that did not escape so that they can get a better handle on how many broke out of the pen."

"The company initially cited the solar eclipse and high tides for the pen's failure, but tidal currents were not abnormally high when the pen broke apart. In fact, Cypress Island has seen higher tides every month this year."

Monday
Aug282017

Using Plastic Bags Is Now Illegal — And Punishable By Jail Time — In Kenya

"No matter where you go in Kenya — from the vast expanses of the Great Rift Valley to the white-sand beaches off the Indian Ocean — one thing is a constant: plastic bags."

"They hang off trees and collect along curbs. And in Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, there are so many of them that they form hills."

"But beginning today, almost all plastic bags are illegal in Kenya. Beginning today, if you're carrying your groceries in a plastic bag or put out your trash in a disposable one, you could be fined up to $38,000 or be sent to jail for up to four years."

"'It is toxin that we must get rid of,' Judi Wakhungu, the country's cabinet secretary for the environment, told reporters. 'It's affecting our water. It's affecting our livestock and even worst, we're ingesting this as human beings.'"

 

Saturday
Aug262017

Whole Foods Will Drop Prices On Monday, Amazon Says In Detailing New Grocery Strategy

"Amazon is cutting the prices of bananas, butter, organic eggs, and other best-selling staples at Whole Foods' 470 stores, promising customers lower costs and targeting the grocer's "Whole Paycheck" nickname. The online giant also says its Amazon Prime members will get special prices and perks."

"New prices will take effect on Monday — the same day Amazon says it will finalize its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods. The online marketplace, famous for disrupting the book industry and other retail segments, also laid out its plans for combining its business with an established brick-and-mortar chain."

"Amazon customers would be able to receive packages — and return items bought online — at Whole Foods locations that include its Lockers service, the retailer said, outlining what customers can expect to see."

 

Friday
Aug252017

Science 'Gone Wrong' Can Teach Us

An Aug. 14, 1932, headline in the The New York Times read: "Eclipse to be best until August 21, 2017."

"Sometimes scientists get it so right."

"But not always. Sometimes science goes wrong, and with terrible consequences."

"This is the topic of Paul A. Offit's very important book Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, just published in April."

"Consider this tale detailed in the book:"

"One of America's greatest conservationists, Madison Grant, was also one of our most virulent scientific, that is to say, pseudo scientific race theorists. In addition to saving the American bison and the bald eagle, protecting the Redwood tree, and founding the Bronx Zoo as well as the Wildlife Conversation Society, Grant wrote a "scientific treatise," The Passing of the Great Race, in which he advanced an account of the superiority of the nordic "race" and warned against the social and biological dangers of cross-breeding with other human races. Hitler would come to describe this book, which became a national and international bestseller, as his bible."

Thursday
Aug242017

Celebrating Intellectual Engagement On College Campuses

"According to the National Center for Education Statistics, last year 20.5 million students attended U.S. colleges and universities. The numbers shouldn't be much different this year."

"Right now, as August rolls over into September, millions of families are sending their kids off to college, for the first time or for a return year. It's an emotional and exciting time."

"It's a time, too, to understand and appreciate what happens after move-in day concludes and the hard work of the academic year begins. That's especially important just now because in recent months evidence has emerged for a growing hostility to higher education in this country."

"According to this report at Inside Higher Ed last month, based on figures released by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Republicans have a negative impression of the impact colleges have on society. That's way up from 37 percent two years ago, and up even from the 45 percent last year. (This issue is definitively partisan: In the new report, 19 percent of Democrats view colleges negatively.)"

Wednesday
Aug232017

Scientists Hope To Farm The Biofuel Of The Future In The Pacific Ocean

"The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp."

"The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. "It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day," says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California."

"Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it's turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process."

Tuesday
Aug222017

You 2.0: Why We're Bad At Predicting Our Own Happiness - And How We Can Get Better

"How great would it be to win a brand new car? How horrible would it be to get laid off from your job? Research by psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard University suggests, not that great and not that horrible (respectively)."

"Among the many things Gilbert studies is how people make predictions about future events—specifically, how we make predictions about how we'll feel about future events. One of the most important questions we ask when making any decision is "how will this make me feel?" But no matter how much time we spend thinking about the future, we don't get any better at predicting it. That's why, as Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, divorce lawyers and people who remove tattoos continue to have a steady stream of customers."

"This week, Shankar talks to Dan Gilbert about where we go wrong in making our predictions, and how we can use this research to lead happier lives."

Monday
Aug212017

In Turkey, Schools Will Stop Teaching Evolution This Fall

"When children in Turkey head back to school this fall, something will be missing from their textbooks: any mention of evolution."

"The Turkish government is phasing in what it calls a values-based curriculum. Critics accuse Turkey's president of pushing a more conservative, religious ideology — at the expense of young people's education."

"At a playground in an upscale, secular area of Istanbul, parents and grandparents express concern over the new policy."

"'I'm worried, but I hope it changes by the time my grandchildren are in high school,' says Emel Ishakoglu, a retired chemical engineer playing with her grandchildren, ages 5 and 2. 'Otherwise our kids will be left behind compared to other countries when it comes to science education.'"

Sunday
Aug202017

Wreckage Of USS Indianapolis, Sunk By Japanese In WWII, Found In Pacific

"For 72 years since the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank after being struck by Japanese torpedoes in the waning days of World War II, her exact resting place had been a mystery."

"But a team of researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen now says they have positively identified the wreckage, 18,000 feet below the surface in the Philippine Sea."

"The sinking of the Indianapolis — on its return from a secret mission to deliver components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped days later on the Japanese city of Hiroshima — became the single-largest loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy."

"After delivering its cargo to the tiny island of Tinian, north of Guam, the ship was on its way to the Philippines when it was hit by two torpedoes from the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58 on July 30, 1945."

"Indianapolis sank in just 12 minutes, with 300 of her crew going down with the ship. With few lifeboats, many of the remaining 900 faced death by exposure or shark attack until they were spotted three days later by a U.S. Navy patrol plane. By the time they were reached by rescuers, only 317 of the crew of 1,196 aboard were still alive."

 

Saturday
Aug192017

From Greece, A Message In A Bottle Reaches Isolated Gaza

"A message in a bottle washed ashore this week in Gaza."

"'Hello! Thank you for picking up this bottle!' began the letter in neat black handwriting.'We are currently on holiday in Rhodes and would love to know how far this bottle got – even if it's just the next beach!'"

"The bottle floated much farther than the next beach. It traveled nearly 500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea, from the Greek island of Rhodes, past Turkey and Cyprus to the Palestinian seaside enclave of Gaza — and into the fishing net of Jihad al-Soltan, a 54-year-old Palestinian fisherman and father of seven."

"He said it was the first piece of personal mail he had ever received."

"Gaza is an isolated place. For the past decade, ever since the Palestinian militant group Hamas took control of this strip of land, its neighbors Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the territory."

Friday
Aug182017

Exclusive: Inside The Lab Where Scientists Are Editing DNA In Human Embryos

"From the thirteenth floor of a glass tower at the Oregon Health & Science University, you get a panoramic view of downtown Portland and the majestic mountains in the distance. But it's what's happening inside the building that's brought me here."

"'Should we go do this thing?' lab manager Amy Koski asks."

"She's just gotten a call from the fertility clinic three floors down. A woman undergoing in vitro fertilization has had her eggs extracted. One of the eggs is too immature to be used to try to create a baby, so she's donating it to research."

"Koski grabs a small metal box and rushes to the elevator. It's her portable incubator."

"'You want to keep the eggs very happy and warm,' she says. 'When you're jostling them and moving them, they get a little unhappy.'"

Thursday
Aug172017

Chemists Say You Should Add A Little Water To Your Whiskey. Here's Why

"It's a common refrain among whiskey enthusiasts: Add a few drops of water to a glass to open up the flavors and aroma of the drink."

"For example, hard-liquor expert Alice Lascelles said in a demonstration for The Sunday Times that 'if you're tasting with a master blender, they will always add some water at some stage.'"

"But the science behind this claim has been murky. A couple of chemists in Sweden set out to figure out why adding a little water would improve the drink's taste."

"They say the taste improvement happens because alcohol molecules and those that determine whiskey's taste tend to stick together. Their findings were published Thursday in Scientific Reports."

"First, the scientists developed computer model simulations that strip whiskey down to its most basic elements: water and ethanol, or alcohol."