NPR Picks


It's 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change

"Mass Electrification (Batteries Hold The Power)"

"(Editor's note: Each story has two sections, the first reflecting the present and the second imagining the world of 2050.)"

"2019: I went looking for people who've mapped out this world without greenhouse emissions. I found them in Silicon Valley."

"Sila Kiliccote is an engineer. The back deck of her house, high up in the hills, overlooks Cupertino. Apple's circular headquarters is hidden in the morning mist. It's a long way from Istanbul, in Turkey, where she grew up; a great place to conjure up future worlds."

"'Maybe you'd like some coffee?' Kiliccote says."

"Her coffee machine is powered by solar panels on the roof. So is her laptop and her Wi-Fi."

"'Everything runs on electricity in this house,' she says."


Mysterious Type Of Killer Whale, Sought After For Years, Found In Southern Ocean

"Scientists say they've found a mysterious type of killer whale that they've been searching for for years. It lives in parts of the ocean near Antarctica — and it could be the largest animal to have remained unidentified by biologists."

"The notion that there might be some unusual kind of killer whale emerged in 1955. Photos from New Zealand showed a bunch of whales stranded on a beach. 'This was a very different-looking group of killer whales,' says Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

"The whales were smaller than other killer whales, and they had rounded heads and pointier fins. 'And most importantly,' Pitman adds, 'they had a little tiny eye patch,' a white spot under each eye characteristic of killer whales. These patches were unusually small, in some cases almost nonexistent."

"Biologists were mystified."


Thousands Of Israelis Now Call Berlin Home And Make Their Cultural Mark

"For decades after the Holocaust, many Jews refused to visit Germany. Some still do."

"But now it has become common to hear Hebrew spoken in the bakeries and bars of Berlin."

"At least 10,000 Israelis are estimated to have moved to the German capital in the last decade, according to Tal Alon, the Berlin-based editor of the Hebrew-language magazine Spitz. (The Israeli Embassy in Germany said it had no official statistic.)"

"Though the community is much smaller than some of the other immigrant groups in the city of more than 3.5 million, Israelis punch above their weight culturally. They are helping drive Berlin's blossoming culinary scene, with several high-end Israeli restaurants in the city including Layla, opened last fall by Tel Aviv celebrity chef Meir Adoni. And the director of Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater, Yael Ronen, is Israeli, as is Daniel Barenboim, the conductor of Berlin's state opera."


The Unintended Benefits Of Vaccines

"A new study shows that vaccination with a weakened strain of salmonella not only protects against typhoid fever but also seems to rev up the immune system to fight off other problems like influenza and yeast infection."

"By chance, in an earlier study looking at how the typhoid oral vaccine affects the gut, researchers noticed that the vaccine also triggered a protective response against influenza. So they designed a new study of 16 adults, reported Feb. 27 in the journal Science Advances, to look specifically at the broader, indirect effects of the vaccine on other infections. "This was the first time anyone looked at typhoid vaccine in this way," says Shaun Pennington of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who has a Ph.D. in infection and immunity and is an author of the new study."

"But this small study "fits into a larger story," says Dr. Michael Mina, a pathologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies how measles and the measles vaccine influence the immune system. "Live vaccines have the very broad benefit of going much further than protecting just against the targeted disease." Mina was not involved in the new typhoid study."



How Do You Preserve History On The Moon?

"Historic preservationists are hoping that the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer will persuade the United Nations to do something to protect Neil Armstrong's footprints in the lunar dust."

"Some of his boot marks are still up there, after all, along with other precious artifacts from humanity's first steps on another world. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind tools and science equipment, a plaque that read, "We came in peace for all mankind" and the U.S. flag, which has likely been bleached white by five decades of harsh ultraviolet light."

"Other than a dusting of lunar soil or the random micrometeorite impact, Tranquility Base has been an untouched time capsule since the astronauts departed — though that could change as more nations and even commercial companies start to explore the moon."

"'There has never been historic preservation off our planet. It's a really difficult subject,' says Michelle Hanlon, a law professor and space law expert at the University of Mississippi who co-founded For All Moonkind, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting historic sites in space."



Scientists Release Controversial Genetically Modified Mosquitoes In High-Security Lab

"Scientists have launched a major new phase in the testing of a controversial genetically modified organism: a mosquito designed to quickly spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species, NPR has learned."

"For the first time, researchers have begun large-scale releases of the engineered insects, into a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy."

"'This will really be a breakthrough experiment,' says Ruth Mueller, an entomologist who runs the lab. 'It's a historic moment.'"

"The goal is to see if the mosquitoes could eventually provide a powerful new weapon to help eradicate malaria in Africa, where most cases occur."

"'It's very exciting,' Mueller says."

"NPR was the only news organization allowed into the lab to witness the moment the releases began in early February."


Massive Loss Of Thousands Of Hives Afflicts Orchard Growers And Beekeepers

"Almond bloom comes nearly all at once in California — a flush of delicate pale blooms that unfold around Valentine's Day."

"And beekeeper Bret Adee is hustling to get his hives ready, working through them on a Central Valley ranch before placing them in orchards."

"He deftly tap-taps open a hive. 'We're gonna open this up, and you're going to see a whole lot of bees here,' Adee says."

"Under the lid, the exposed sleepy occupants hum away. He uses a handheld smoker to keep them calm and huddled around their queen."

"This third-generation beekeeper works night and day with a crew of more than 35. Adee has been busy staging more than 100 semi truckloads of his honey bee hives in almond orchards over a 200 mile swath of the Central Valley."

"When temperatures rise and the blooms open, his bees wake up and go to work. It's his hives' first yearly stop on a 6,500-mile tour across the nation."

"But this almond bloom, Adee's scrambling more than usual."


As More Electric Cars Arrive, What's The Future For Gas-Powered Engines?

"Most American automobiles are powered by internal combustion engines: Gas or diesel goes in, tiny explosions power pistons and turn a crankshaft, the car moves forward, and carbon dioxide goes out."

"But a growing chorus environmental activists, business analysts and auto executives are predicting a sea change as battery-powered electric vehicles grow in popularity."

"Going electric is not just an eco-friendly goal, an ambition that would help fight climate change. It's a business reality, according to industry analysts. But if the general path ahead is widely agreed on, the speed of the change — and the role that combustion vehicles will play during the transition — is far from clear."

"'Electrification, you cannot stop it anymore — it's coming,' says Elmer Kades, a managing director with the consulting firm AlixPartners. 'We have fantastic growth rates, between 50 and 60 percent on a global level.'"

"Electric vehicles are currently a tiny fraction of the car market, which is dominated by internal combustion engines. But many more electric car models will hit showrooms in the next few years, and several factors have analysts convinced that is part of a major transition in the industry."



Ph.D. Student Breaks Down Electron Physics Into A Swinging Musical

"A scientist just scored honors for a musical adaptation of his research on Friday."

"Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been named the 2018 winner of the 'Dance Your Ph.D.' contest."

"The competition, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to translate their research into an interpretive dance. The winner takes home $1000."

"It took Senarath Yapa six weeks to choreograph and write the songs for "Superconductivity: The Musical!" — a three-act swing dance depicting the social lives of electrons. The video is based on his master's thesis, which he completed while pursuing his degree at the University of Victoria in Canada."

"The 11-minute sing-songy rendition is far less paralyzing than the jargony title of Senarath Yapa's thesis alone: 'Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.'"



Sky Islands And Starry-Eyed Frogs: Breathtaking Photos Of Remote Ecosystems

"Prasenjeet Yadav's photography grew out of the wildlife and soil on his father's farm in the central Indian state of Maharashtra."

"As a kid he loved nothing more than to watch 'the ants and the birds. I'd look at the animals day in and day out' Yadav says. 'And not just see to them, but to try to understand what they are doing, to understand their behavior.'"

"That passion to comprehend the bugs and the birds led Yadav to get a master's degree in molecular biology. He eventually studied molecular ecology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Now he describes himself as a 'natural history, environment, ecology, conservation, science photographer based in India.'"

"The 30-year-old Yadav immerses himself in scientific field studies of remote ecosystems and endangered species."

"My approach always has been that these pictures should have a life beyond what I'm showing in them," Yadav says of his projects. "The story should be much larger than just the visuals. The story should reach out to a larger audience. It should create awareness and make people care a little bit."



Airbus To Stop Production Of A380 Superjumbo Jet

"European aerospace behemoth Airbus has announced it will stop building its A380 superjumbo jet after the plane's biggest customer, Dubai-based Emirates Airline, cut its order by 39 planes."

"Airbus has 'no basis to sustain production, despite all our sales efforts with other airlines in recent years,"' CEO Tom Enders said in a statement Thursday, adding: 'Today's announcement is painful." Airbus says it will deliver its final A380 to Emirates in 2021.'"

"After investing billions into the A380, Europe's largest aerospace company had hoped to overtake its biggest competitor, Boeing's 747 jet. Airbus had once positioned itself as a luxury airplane with enough amenities to rival the seven wonders of the world, which it proclaimed in one commercial ad. Some carriers included showers, lounges and duty free shops as well as bars on both decks of the A380s."

"After a stronger than expected start, Airbus struggled to sell the $446 million plane that can seat more than 800 passengers — the largest and most expensive commercial passenger aircraft ever made, and the first to have two full decks. Most airlines preferred smaller aircraft that were more economical to operate."



Butterflies V. Border Wall: National Butterfly Center Seeks Restraining Order

"The National Butterfly Center, in danger of losing access to most of its wildlife nature preserve along the Rio Grande, is asking a court to stop federal officials from building a border wall across its land."

"The North American Butterfly Association first sued more than a year ago after government officials allegedly cut down trees and cleared brush on its Texas property. The planned wall would cut the 100-acre property in two, with as much as 70 percent of the land inaccessible between the wall and the Rio Grande, Butterfly Center Executive Director Marianna Trevino Wright has told NPR."

"Trevino Wright told CNN last week that the case had been "languishing" in the court since then, and she was exploring further legal action. This week she asked the court to stop the government from bringing heavy machinery onto its land, until the court can rule on its original 2017 request."

"It's the latest court challenge brought by environmental groups that lament the damage caused by construction of barriers between U.S. and Mexico. On Monday a federal court ruled that the Trump administration has broad authority to waive environmental laws in the name of border security. The Department of Homeland Security has already said it will waive regulations to build along the Rio Grande."



Sweden's Cashless Experiment: Is It Too Much Too Fast?

"Cash is still king around the world, but there are pockets of places, especially in Europe, moving away from cash. And no one is dropping cash as fast as Sweden."

"In 2018, only 13 percent of Swedes reported using cash for a recent purchase, according to a nationwide survey, down from around 40 percent in 2010. In the capital, Stockholm, most people can't even remember the last time they had coins jingling in their pockets."

"By contrast, around 70 percent of Americans still use cash on a weekly basis, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center."

"In Sweden, however, especially in bigger cities, going cashless is becoming the norm. Purchases usually happen as digital transactions — by card, online or with Sweden's most popular mobile payment app, Swish."

"'It's good for both the guests and for us,' says Christopher Loob, general manager of Urban Deli, a restaurant and ecological food company in Stockholm that stopped accepting cash a year ago. 'It's saved us a lot of time in that we don't have to count cash anymore. There's hardly been any reaction. Almost everybody has the alternative payment method — a credit card.'"



Turks Examine Their Muslim Devotion After Poll Says Faith Could Be Waning

"Turkey has been governed for most of the past two decades by a party steeped in political Islam. So when a pollster recently surveyed personal beliefs, there was a finding that stood out: Levels of piety were flat, or even declining, compared with a decade ago."

"The apparent shift is not seismic, but it has Turks talking about where their country is headed."

"The survey, by the pollster Konda, is a follow-up to a similar poll in 2008, and the company broke down the results from each side by side to illustrate the comparison."

"While some see changes a decade later as a natural progression, Turkish analysts say the shift could be a backlash, especially among the young, against a religious president and his push to form what he calls a 'pious generation.'"

"Faith down, religious education up."

The percentage-point change for many of the questions is not dramatic: Respondents identifying as "pious" slid from 13 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2018, and those choosing "religious" dipped from 55 to 51 percent. Figures for "nonbeliever" and "atheist," which barely registered in 2008, are now at 2 and 3 percent, respectively.



Why We Can't Break Up With Big Tech

"Kashmir Hill wanted Amazon out of her life, completely."

"It was the first week of a six-week experiment in living without tech giants. She had a virtual private network, or VPN, that would keep her devices walled off from any Amazon product. She would avoid Whole Foods and power down her Kindles."

"But she had a problem. A small, chipper problem."


"She couldn't connect her Amazon Echo to the VPN. But if she just unplugged the smart speaker, someone, like her husband, might forget and plug it back in."

"Then a colleague suggested that she hide it. Say, in a drawer."

"Hill was so used to Alexa's constant presence, the convenient timers and music on demand, that she hadn't even considered putting the device away."

"'We've only had it for two years, and it already has the level of prominence where I couldn't have imagined just taking it off the counter,' she told NPR's Weekend Edition. 'I just can't believe that, especially since I'm a privacy reporter.'"


As Magnetic North Pole Zooms Toward Siberia, Scientists Update World Magnetic Model

"North is on the move, and that's a problem for your smartphone's maps."

"Earth's geographic north pole is fixed. But the planet's magnetic north pole — the north that your compass points toward — wanders in the direction of Siberia at a rate of more than 34 miles per year."

"That movement may seem slow, but it has forced scientists to update their model of Earth's magnetic field a year earlier than expected so that navigational services, including map-based phone apps, continue to work accurately."

"The drift results from processes taking place at the center of the planet. Molten iron and nickel slosh and spin in the planet's core, essentially serving as a metallic conductor for Earth's magnetic field. Changes in that fluid flow lead to changes in the magnetic field."

"As a result of those changes, the accuracy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's World Magnetic Model (WMM) — a mathematical representation of the magnetic field — slowly deteriorates in the five-year periods between updates."



Hungary's New Holocaust Museum Isn't Open Yet, But It's Already Causing Concern

"Nearly 75 years ago, Hungarian police forced Rozsa Heisler onto a train, along with thousands of other Hungarian Jews."

"'We were crammed together for five days without food or water,' she recalls. 'We didn't know where we were going. Then we reached Auschwitz.'"

"Heisler's mother and grandfather were murdered at the concentration camp. She and her sister, sent on to a labor camp, survived on leftover potato peels."

"Now 93, the bright-eyed great-grandmother lives in a cozy apartment in Budapest, a city she proudly calls home. But she has no illusions about the role her country played decades before. 'We didn't see any German soldiers until we reached Auschwitz,' she says. 'It was Hungarians who deported us.'"

"She says Hungary has never been able to face its complicity. That's why she and many other Hungarian Jews are skeptical of a new Holocaust museum in development in Budapest, costing more than $23 million and financed by the Hungarian state. The building was finished in 2015, but unease over what it will present has delayed its opening in the years since."


2018 Was Earth's Fourth-Hottest Year On Record, Scientists Say

"Once again, the world was unusually hot in 2018. In fact, on average it was the fourth-hottest year around the planet since modern record-keeping began in 1880."

"If a warming planet were an Olympic sport, fourth wouldn't make the podium. But consider the context: The hottest five years on record are, in fact, the last five years. The year 2016, which was 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average, holds the top spot, with 2018 at 1.42 degrees F warmer."

"Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA, says the message is clear: 'The planet is warming. The long-term trends are extremely robust. There's no question.' And the cause is clear too, he adds: 'It's because of the increases in the greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere over the last 100 years.'"

"The climate report is an annual summary of research compiled by scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data are derived from both land-based and satellite monitoring, which Schmidt says is more accurate than ever."


Key West To Ban Popular Sunscreen Ingredients To Protect Coral Reef

"Key West voted late Tuesday to ban the sale of sunscreens containing certain chemicals linked to coral reef bleaching. The ban is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021."

"The Key West City Commission voted 6-1 to ban the sale, within city limits, of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, the Miami Herald reports. Some studies have linked the chemicals to cellular damage in coral reefs. But industry officials challenged the ban, saying the link between the chemicals and coral bleaching isn't proven."

"Only one living coral reef exists in North America, and it lives about six miles off the Keys. 'We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that,' said Mayor Teri Johnston. 'It's our obligation.'"


Life Along The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

"Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews' newest book, Caspian: The Elements, takes the reader on a meandering journey through oil-rich central Asia following traces of natural elements such as fire, gas, salt and water in people's everyday lives. Her images work as small, fascinating stories about how the region's residents interact with their environment in surprising ways."

"Natural elements show up in Dewe Mathews' photos through religion, ancient therapeutic practices and recreation. In one of the most striking series of images, Dewe Mathews shows people bathing in the region's celebrated crude oil at a spa in Naftalan, Azerbaijan. In other images she explores Ramsar, Iran, an area with some of the highest known levels of naturally occurring radiation. A more abstract image shows what water looks like as it slowly becomes ice in the Volga Delta in Astrakhan, Russia."

"Dewe Mathews worked on the project between 2010 and 2015. She was awarded the Robert Gardner photography fellowship in 2014 to help her finish the project. The book was published in collaboration with the Peabody Museum Press and Aperture in October 2018."

"What drew you to the Caspian region?"

"It all started in 2010 when my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to do an ambitious journey from Asia to Europe, from east to west. We wanted to physically experience the cultural shift between the two continents, so we flew to India for a friend's wedding and then made our way to Xinjiang, China's northwest province. That was where the proper journey started. From there, we hitchhiked through Central Asia and Europe, back to Britain."