NPR Picks


One Song Glory

"There's an episode of The Johnny Cash Show from 1969 where the man himself makes a little speech with a pretty big error. 'Here's a song that was reportedly sung by both sides in the Civil War,' Cash says, guitar in hand, to kick off a performance of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'"

"The real history on that point is clear: Julia Ward Howe wrote the song as a pro-Union, anti-slavery anthem. But then Cash goes on to say, ' .... which proves to me that a song can belong to all of us.' And about that, he's right."

"I should go easy on Cash for flubbing the history; I had it wrong, too. I didn't even know the "Battle Hymn" had ties to the Civil War up until recently, because I — and maybe you, if you grew up with a similar flavor of Christianity — only sang it in church. Little did I know the song, with its refrain of 'Glory, glory, hallelujah,' had been used to root for college football teams, or as an anthem for labor unions. Evangelist Billy Graham, who helped popularize the song among Christians, even took it to the Russian army chorus in 1992."

"'It's a good march,' says Sparky Rucker. A folk singer and historian who performs a show of Civil War music with his wife, Rucker says the 'Battle Hymn' rallies with its rhythm: 'It's just the right cadence to march along, if you're marching at a picket line or marching down the street carrying signs. ... It really gets your blood going [so] that you can slay dragons.'"

"Dragons are relative, however. Anita Bryant, the singer and conservative activist, used to perform the song at anti-gay rallies. During the 1964 presidential race, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater had to disown a campaign film that posed the election as a choice between two Americas — an "ideal" America, where the tune of the 'Battle Hymn' scored images of the founders and the Constitution, and a 'nightmare' America, featuring black people protesting and kids dancing to rock music."





Scientists Capture First Birth Of A Planet

"An international team of scientists has discovered a young planet — just 5 or 6 million years old — forging its own path through space and likely growing along the way."

"The scientists captured a photograph, which they say is the very first direct image of the birth of a planet still forming around a star."

"It's a major finding for those of us on Earth, a 4.5-billion-year-old planet."

"The newly discovered planet may be young, but it's huge: many times the size of Jupiter, which could fit 1,300 planet Earths inside."

"The images provide useful information about how planets, including those in our own solar system, form."

"A team of about 120 scientists worked on the research, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics."

"'It's a long-lasting and careful process,' to characterize a young planet, says André Muller, who worked at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. 'We worked for at least a year on it on a daily basis.'"

"The planet's name? PDS 70 b. That's based on the name of the star it orbits, PDS 70."


Many Common Sunscreens May Harm Coral. Here's What To Use Instead

"Hawaii Gov. David Ige is expected this week to sign the world's first ban on the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. The state is banning the products because of concerns they may be harming one of the state's biggest attractions — coral reefs."

"While it doesn't kick in until 2021, the move is already prompting a public health pushback."

"That's because up to 70 percent of sunscreens on the U.S. market contain oxybenzone. Up to 8 percent contain octinoxate, which often shows up on labels as octyl methoxycinnamate."

"'We're taking away a product, or products ... that have been shown over the course of time to be safe and effective' against skin cancer and sun damage, says Jay Sirois director of regulatory affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents sunscreen-makers."

"Indeed, both chemicals have had the Food and Drug Administration's OK for decades, but in recent years, some environmental research has suggested octinoxate can contribute to coral bleaching and that oxybenzone exposure leads to the death of baby coral."



Japan's Hayabusa2 Spacecraft Arrives At Its Asteroid Destination

"The Hayabusa2 spacecraft has made a successful rendezvous with the asteroid Ryugu, 177 million miles from Earth. Japan's JAXA space agency confirmed on Wednesday that the craft has taken up a position 12 miles off Ryugu. Up next for Hayabusa2: exploring the surface — and bringing a sample back to Earth."

"Hayabusa2 reached its destination 3 1/2 years after launching from Earth in late 2014. JAXA says the meetup went according to plan, as the craft used its thrusters to establish a constant distance from Ryugu, which can currently be seen zipping across the Gemini constellation."

"Japanese researchers will use Hayabusa2's current vantage point to study the asteroid and evaluate possible sites for collecting samples."

"'From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a beautiful shape similar to fluorite [known as the 'firefly stone' in Japanese],' said project manager Yuichi Tsuda. 'Now, craters are visible, rocks are visible and the geographical features are seen to vary from place to place. This form of Ryugu is scientifically surprising and also poses a few engineering challenges.'"



A Guide To Mosquito Repellents, From DEET To ... Gin And Tonic?

"People do the darnedest things in hopes of avoiding mosquito bites. They burn cow dung, coconut shells or coffee. They drink gin and tonic. They eat bananas. They spray themselves with mouthwash or slather themselves in clove/alcohol solution. And they rub themselves with Bounce. "You know, those heavily perfumed sheets you put in your dryer," says Dr. Immo Hansen, professor at the Institute of Applied Biosciences at New Mexico State University."

"None of those techniques have been tested to see if they actually keep mosquitoes away. But that doesn't stop people from trying them, according to a study that will be published this summer by Hansen and colleague, Stacey Rodriguez, lab manager at the Hansen Lab at NMSU, which studies ways to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. They and colleagues asked 5,000 people what they did to protect themselves against mosquitoes. Most used conventional mosquito repellents."

"Then researchers asked about their traditional home remedies. That's when the cow dung and dryer sheets came out. In interviews, Hansen and Rodriguez shared some of the responses they received. Their paper will be published this summer in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ."


Red Meat Allergies Caused By Tick Bites Are On The Rise

"Tick bites can cause all sorts of nasty afflictions. And if you're bitten by a Lone Star tick, here's one more to add to the list: a red meat allergy."

"Laura Stirling, 51, a Realtor who lives in Severna Park, Md., was diagnosed with the allergy last year. She got a tick bite while walking on a trail with her dog, Gunner, near her home."

"'I found [the tick] 3 or 4 inches to the left of my hip bone,' Stirling recalls. At the time, she say, she didn't think much of it. "'I just took it off and threw it away.'"

"Then, three weeks later, after she ate an Italian-style pork sausage for dinner, she had a horrible reaction. The reaction began about six hours after her meal, which is typical of this allergy."

"'It was the middle of the night. I woke up covered in hives,' Stirling recalls. She woke her husband with all her itching and scratching. She felt lightheaded, and she experienced stomachaches and other gastrointestinal troubles."



Tropical Forests Suffered 2nd-Worst Loss Of Trees On Record Last Year

"Last year marked another record year of loss for tropical forests."

"About 39 million acres of tree cover disappeared in 2017 – an area the size of Bangladesh – according to data released Wednesday by the World Resources Institute. That amounts to 40 football fields every minute for a whole year, making it the second-worst year of tree loss on record. The worst was just a year earlier, in 2016."

"To gauge the amount of loss, thousands of NASA satellite images from 2001 to 2017 were analyzed through artificial intelligence at the University of Maryland. Then, researchers at the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch assessed the changes in tree cover."

"'In some ways [our research] is not noteworthy,' Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst at WRI, told NPR. 'Things have been continuing as they have been. What's depressing is that there has been a lot of international and national commitments to reduce deforestation, and we are hoping this will have an impact, but the data is showing that it's not having as much of an impact as we hope.'"

"The report presents a bleak picture: Some areas are experiencing prolonged loss of lush forest, while new areas are becoming hot spots. "Places that haven't been on our radar so much are all of a sudden going through this major transformation," Weisse said."



How To Find The Summer Constellations (360° Video)

"Once, the sky was full of stories. Ancient cultures filled the heavens with heroes and monsters, and spent nights telling epics and memorizing patterns in the stars."

"These days, the stars are a little less familiar. Our skies are full of light pollution and, usually, obscured by a sturdy roof. But if you can get away from the city lights, you can still find a handful of the 88 officially recognized constellations with the help of this video guide, which allows you to look around in 360 degrees, mimicking the actual experience of stargazing."

"If 360-degree video isn't your thing, here are a few star-spotting tricks in written form."



Fear And Frustration Over EPA Move To Kill Chemical-Disaster Protections

"The Environmental Protection Agency intends to block an Obama-era proposal and effectively shield companies from scrutiny about how they prevent and respond to chemical disasters. At a hearing Thursday, agency officials got an earful from dozens of people who live and work near refineries and chemical facilities across the country."

"Grandmothers, teachers, firefighters and community activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge the agency to block the proposal. Representatives from industry groups countered that they're already doing enough to keep people safe and that companies don't need more oversight."

"Obama-era rules require companies to routinely disclose which hazardous chemicals they use, share information with emergency planners, submit to outside audits and publish reports on the root causes of explosions and leaks. The regulations were supposed to take effect in March 2017, but earlier that year, groups representing the chemical and petroleum industries petitioned the EPA to reconsider."

"Last month, after delaying the rules, the agency announced that it intends to block most of them from ever taking effect. But that decision isn't final pending public comment."



Stephen Hawking's Voice Is Being Broadcast Into Space

"The voice of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking is to be broadcast into space after his memorial service on Friday, according to British media outlets."

"Specifically, it will be directed toward the nearest black hole. Hawking, who died in March, revolutionized the scientific understanding of black holes — and won the hearts of people across the world with his tireless scientific advocacy."

"Hawking is being interred at Westminster Abbey on Friday, with a thousand members of the public (selected through a lottery system) present for the ceremony. The physicist's remains will be placed between those of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin."

"His voice will be broadcast into space after the service honoring his life."

"Hawking's words 'have been set to an original score by composer Vangelis, most famous for his Chariots of Fire film theme,' the BBC reports."


Antarctica Has Lost More Than 3 Trillion Tons Of Ice In 25 Years

"Scientists have completed the most exhaustive assessment of changes in Antarctica's ice sheet to date. And they found that it's melting faster than they thought."

"Ice losses totaling 3 trillion tonnes (or more than 3.3 trillion tons) since 1992 have caused global sea levels to rise by 7.6 mm, nearly one third of an inch, according to a study published in Nature on Wednesday."

"Before 2010, Antarctica was contributing a relatively small proportion of the melting that is causing global sea levels to rise, says study co-leader Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds."

"But that has changed. 'Since around 2010, 2012, we can see that there's been a sharp increase in the rate of ice loss from Antarctica. And the ice sheet is now losing three times as much ice,' Shepherd adds."

"The annual sea level rise that's attributed to Antarctica has tripled, from 0.2mm to 0.6mm, he says."

"'That's a big jump, and it did catch us all by surprise,' Shepherd says."



Macedonia Gets New Name, Ending 27-Year Dispute With Greece

"Ever since the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, Greece has been fighting the country over its name. Today the 27-year impasse ended as two nations finally came to a resolution: The former Yugoslav republic is getting a new name, the Republic of North Macedonia."

"'There is no way back,' Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a press conference, Reuters reports, after he spoke with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras. 'Our bid in the compromise is a defined and precise name, the name that is honorable and geographically precise — Republic of Northern Macedonia.'"

"When Yugoslavia disintegrated, one of its pieces declared itself the Republic of Macedonia. But its southern neighbor, Greece, has regions that use the same name, and both countries argued that they had the rightful claim to it."

"'We have a deal. I'm happy because we have a good deal which covers all the preconditions set by the Greek side,' Tsipras said, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty."

"The issue has been heated, and one with very real repercussions for Macedonia: It hasn't been able to join the European Union or NATO because Greece opposed its name. It was admitted to the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, because of Greece's objection."



Why Are Some of Africa's Biggest Baobab Trees Dying Off?

"Baobab trees — ancient, otherworldly behemoths with bulbous trunks that splinter into a constellation of spindly branches — are some of Africa's most iconic living things."

"Until late last year, the Platland tree in South Africa, also known as Sunland, was their queen. It was the continent's biggest baobab, at 111 ft. around, 62 ft. high and more than 1,000 years old. It had a cavernous central hollow that hosted a fully functional cocktail bar with seating for 15 people."

"Beginning in Spring 2016, the tree began to split apart. By November 2017, it had crumbled completely."

The bar's owners blamed rot caused by heavy rain and threw a barbeque to honor its passing.

But if the Platland's demise was sudden and tragic, it wasn't unique: A new survey of baobab trees across several countries in southern Africa found that most of the two dozen oldest and biggest trees have died or significantly deteriorated in the last decade.



Math Bee: Honeybees Seem To Understand The Notion Of Zero

"Honeybees understand that "nothing" can be "something" that has numerical meaning, showing that they have a primitive grasp of the concept of zero."

"That's according to a newly published study in Science, which shows that bees possess a mathematical ability once thought to exist only in dolphins, primates, birds and humans who are beyond the preschool years."

"This is quite amazing, in my view, that bees can really do it," says Andreas Nieder, a scientist who studies how animals' process the idea of 'nothing' and was not part of the research team."

"He says zero was discovered relatively recently in human history, and was essential in the development of both mathematics and science. 'It's a hard and very abstract concept,' Nieder says. 'It is a sort of eccentric uncle in the number family.'"


David Douglas Duncan, Photographer Of Wars And Picasso, Dies At 102

"David Douglas Duncan went everywhere and took extraordinary pictures at every stop."

"Duncan, who died Thursday in the south of France at age 102, was one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century."

"He worked in so many places, over so many years, that his personal archive amounts to a remarkable one-man global history tour — from the brutal realities of the Korean and Vietnam wars, to a playful Pablo Picasso in his studio, to Bedouin tribes crossing the Saudi Arabian desert on camels as the first oil wells rise, irrevocably changing their lives."

"Duncan, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 23, 1916, became a Marine officer and combat photographer in World War II, covering the U.S. forces as they advanced across the Pacific. He was aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 as the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo Bay."

"This set the tone for his career."

"Duncan was best known as a war photographer whose work was prominently featured in Life magazine."



Kilauea Lava Flow Swallows 279 Homes In 2 Coastal Subdivisions

"An oceanfront subdivision known as Vacationland is the latest to be swallowed by lava flows as the Kilauea volcano continues to reshape the landscape on Hawaii's Big Island."

"Meanwhile, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck near the volcano's summit."

"The molten rock covered Vacationland and only a few structures remained intact in nearby Kapoho Beach Lots subdivision, the U.S. Geological Survey said."

"A total of 22 fissures have appeared since May 3, when Kilauea suddenly became more active, according to Hawaii Public Radio."

"'The flow front from the fissure 8 lava flow has now completely filled Kapoho Bay and created a delta about 0.8 miles from the former coastline,' USGS Volcanologist Jessica Ball said in a daily update at 9:30 a.m. Hawaii time."


Physicists Say They Have Evidence For A New Fundamental Particle


This story of a tiny particle could be really big. Physicists say they have evidence for the existence of a new fundamental particle, as they call it. If it's confirmed, it could overturn what scientists think they know about how the universe is put together. NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: You may not be intimately familiar with particles called neutrinos, but they're intimately familiar with you. Thousands of billions of them are passing through your body every second. They're one of the most abundant particles in the universe, and they fit into something called the standard model. That's a set of predictions about just about everything - all fundamental building blocks of matter and the forces that work on them.

JANET CONRAD: One of the patterns that we've noticed in the standard model is that things seem to come in threes.

PALCA: That's MIT particle physicist Janet Conrad.

CONRAD: So, for example, there are three families of quarks.


From Chaos To Calm: A Life Changed By Ketamine

"For six years now, life has been really good for James. He has a great job as the creative director of an advertising firm in New York City. He enjoys spending time with his wife and kids."

"And it has all been possible, he says, because for the past six years he has been taking a drug called ketamine."

"Before ketamine, James was unable to work or focus his thoughts. His mind was filled with violent images. And his mood could go from ebullient to dark in a matter of minutes."

"Ketamine "helped me get my life back," says James, who asked that we not use his last name to protect his career."

"Ketamine was developed as a human and animal anesthetic in the 1960s. And almost from the time it reached the market it has also been used as a mind-bending party drug."


To Raise Awareness For Climate Change, 50-Year-Old Makes Bid To Swim Across Pacific

"Japan, wearing a shark repellent bracelet and an armband to track radiation in the ocean. He hopes to reach San Francisco in six months as the first person to swim across the Pacific Ocean."

"A successful 5,500-mile journey will be a feat of athleticism and a major scientific opportunity. Lecomte, a Frenchman now living in Texas, is traveling alongside a boat with a six-person crew. He'll swim eight hours per day on a route that includes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the White Shark Migration Area."

"Scientific partners, including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, have provided equipment for the swimmer's crew to conduct research on his body and the ocean along the way. They'll gather over 1,000 water samples, in part to gather data on pollution and plant life."

"Lecomte has been planning the journey since he swam across the Atlantic Ocean 20 years ago. This time, he'll pick up each morning exactly where he left the night before, in hopes that this swim will become an official record. and Discovery have teamed up to track the journey, which Lecomte is doing in part to raise awareness for climate change."

"'The ocean is in peril,' he says. 'I think it's my duty to use my passion to make a little change.'"


This Room Is Thought To Have Been Michelangelo's Secret Hideaway And Drawing Board

"It was an art historian's chance discovery of a lifetime. Over 40 years ago, a museum director in Florence, Italy, found a hidden room whose walls were covered in drawings believed to be the work of Michelangelo and his disciples."

"Although the drawings are not signed by the master, art experts say some of the sketches in charcoal and chalk are almost certain to be Michelangelo originals. They could shed light not only on the Renaissance artist's creative process but also on a mysterious and dangerous period in his life."

"The room is located in Florence's Basilica di San Lorenzo. That was the official church of the Medici family — the famous patrons of the arts who governed Florence, and later Tuscany, for centuries."

"Around 1520, the Medicis commissioned Michelangelo to design a family mausoleum. It came to be known as the Medici Chapels."

"Visitors to the Chapels speak in hushed tones as they admire the nude marble sculptures adorning the tombs of Lorenzo de' Medici and two other relatives. The naked forms — allegories of four parts of day — project an intense sensation of serenity and philosophical contemplation."