NPR Picks


How A Gene Editing Tool Went From Labs To A Middle-School Classroom

"On a Saturday afternoon, 10 students gather at Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn, to learn how to edit genes."

"There's a recent graduate with a master's in plant biology, a high school student who started a synthetic biology club, a medical student, an eighth grader, and someone who works in pharmaceutical advertising."

"'This is so cool to learn about; I hadn't studied biology since like ninth grade,' says Ruthie Nachmany, one of the class participants. She had studied anthropology, visual arts, and environmental studies in college, but is now a software engineer."


Scientists Pinpoint How A Flamingo Balances On One Leg

"Most anyone who has encountered a flamingo has probably been impressed by its signature ability to balance on a single long, spindly leg for remarkably long periods of time."

"But actually, scientists have now shown that what appears to be a feat requires almost no muscle activity from the bird."

"In fact, they found even a dead flamingo's body will naturally fall into a stable one-leg balance if positioned vertically. That research was recently published in Biology Letters."


At 5, Girl Becomes Youngest To Qualify For National Spelling Bee

"Edith Fuller, 5, has booked a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, after she out-spelled dozens of older competitors to win a regional bee in Tulsa, Okla. The home-schooled student will be the youngest competitor ever in the national spelling bee, which will hold its 90th contest in May."

"The folks at Scripps are already calling Fuller the latest 'spellebrity.'"

"Fuller beat kids more than twice her age at the Scripps Green Country Regional Spelling Bee this past weekend, outlasting dozens of other students and correctly spelling 37 words in around five hours of competition. Her final word, "jnana," is a Sanskrit word that refers to an elevated state of knowledge."

"Other words Fuller had to spell to earn her way to the national bee in Washington, D.C., include sevruga; virgule; Nisei; jacamar; and alim."


Energy Savings Can Be Fun, But No Need To Turn Off All The Lights

"A new company is doing more than just monitoring electricity use."

"It's making tracking your electrical data fun."

"Steve Reed of San Diego says he signed up for free with OhmConnect. He was eager to see how much his family could cut back on electricity at times when there is a high demand for it in the area."

"Soon, he got a text prompting him to lower use for an hour — from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. the next day."

"'The easiest thing in the beginning is to just avoid big power usage,' he says. 'The big item for most people is actually their air conditioner or their heater, a stove or an oven or a microwave. The big big-ticket items.'"

"On days when there is a high demand for electricity, extra power plants have to turn on, and they tend to be more polluting."

"'Any individual person couldn't really do much about this,' he says. 'This is something you can do that's very easy, and it helps.'"



Unscrambling The Nutrition Science On Eggs

"Historically, when humans have sought a reliable source of calories – particularly one that can be readily nabbed from an unsuspecting animal with minimal exertion and zero horticulture skills – we have often turned to eggs."

"We've pilfered the ova of countless creatures since Neolithic times. But it is the nutritive and symbolic capacities of the humble bird egg, primarily that of the chicken, that we have most consistently championed: reliable nourishment, a hangover cure, an emblem of rebirth — when necessary, a supreme projectile."

"As P.G. Wodehouse asked in his 1906 novel, Love Among The Chickens, 'Have you ever seen a man, woman, or child who wasn't eating an egg or just going to eat an egg or just coming away from eating an egg? I tell you, the good old egg is the foundation of daily life.'"


Indonesia Wakes Up And Smells Its Own Coffee — Then Drinks It

"The Indonesian island of Java has long been synonymous with coffee. But it's only in the past decade or so that Indonesians have begun to wake up and smell the coffee — their own, that is."

"Big changes are brewing in the country's coffee industry, as demand from a rising middle class fuels entrepreneurship and connoisseurship."

"The trend is clear at places like the Anomali Coffee shop in South Jakarta. It roasts its coffee just inside the entrance on the ground floor."

"If you walk into the roasting room at just the right moment, as the heat caramelizes the sugars in the coffee beans, it smells like someone is baking cookies."


Doctor Launches Vision Quest To Help Astronauts' Eyeballs

"Spending time in space changes people: Not just their outlook on life, but also their eyesight."

"For years, a North Texas doctor has been trying to find out what is causing this vision change among astronauts. His latest research provides some clues — and connects astronauts on the International Space Station, cancer patients on a roller coaster plane flight, and high-tech sleeping sacks."

"After spending six months on the International Space Station, Michael Barratt had a strange request when he finally stepped foot on Earth."

"He wanted a spinal tap."

"Barratt isn't a masochist, he's a NASA astronaut. While flying hundreds of miles above Earth in 2009, he noticed his vision was changing. He was struggling to read manuals and checklists."


Smog In Western U.S. Starts Out As Pollution In Asia, Researchers Say

"The U.S. is producing less air pollution, but smog levels are still rising in the western U.S. because of pollutants released in Asian countries that then drift over the Pacific Ocean. Researchers say their findings show the importance of a global approach to preserving air quality."

"'Scientists found Asian air pollution contributed as much as 65 percent of an increase in Western ozone in recent years,' NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Shanghai. 'China and India, where many consumer products are manufactured, are the worst offenders.'"

"The problem, scientists say, is that Asian countries' emissions of nitrogen oxides — which sunlight then breaks down in reactions that produce ozone — have tripled since 1990. When those harmful gases circulate to North America, they offset gains in U.S. air quality that have come from cutting nitrogen oxide emissions by 50 percent."


WHO's First-Ever List Of The Dirty Dozen Superbugs

"The World Health Organization for the first time has issued a list of the top 12 "priority pathogens." They're disease-causing bacteria that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics, says WHO. Yet the development of new antibiotics to treat them has slowed to a crawl."

"'We are fast running out of treatment options,' says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's assistant director-general for Health Systems, in a statement."

"WHO says its new list is an attempt to get drug company and public research labs to make it a priority to collaborate on new treatments for the bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health. "If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we need are not going to be developed in time," says Kieny."


Photographer Builds A 'Photo Ark' For 6,500 Animal Species And Counting

"National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore is 11 years into a 25-year endeavor to document every captive animal species in the world using studio lighting and black-and-white backgrounds. So far, he's photographed 6,500 different species, which leaves approximately 6,000 to go."

"Sartore tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that presenting the animals in the studio, rather than in nature, gives them equal importance in the eye of the viewer. 'A mouse is every bit as glorious as an elephant, and a tiger beetle is every bit as big and important as a tiger,' he says. 'It's a great equalizer.'"

"Sartore chronicles his project in the new photography book, The Photo Ark. The ultimate goal of his project is to help ensure that the future existence of his subjects, many of which are either endangered or on the verge of extinction."


A Taste For Pork Helped A Deadly Virus Jump To Humans

"It was a balmy Sunday evening in early 1999, and Dr. Kaw Bing Chua hadn't had lunch or dinner."

"There wasn't time to eat. Chua was chasing a killer. And he thought maybe he had finally tracked it down."

"He slid the slide under the microscope lens, turned on the scope's light and looked inside. 'A chill went down my spine," Chua says. 'The slide lit up bright green, like bright green lanterns.'"

"Right there, in Chua's hands, was a virus the world had never seen before. And as he soon learned, it's also one of the most dangerous ones."

"Now Chua had enough of the virus to kill everyone in the lab. Maybe worse."

"The new virus — eventually called Nipah — is on the World Health Organization's list of viruses most likely to cause a global pandemic. It's the virus that inspired the 2011 movie Contagion. And just this past January, governments and philanthropists pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a Nipah vaccine because it poses such a big threat."



VX: The Nerve Agent Used To Kill Kim Jong Nam Is Rare And Deadly

When the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed at a Malaysian airport last week, poisoning was instantly suspected. But on Friday, Malaysian authorities revealed that an autopsy had turned up not just any poison, but a rare nerve agent known as VX.

VX is among the deadliest chemical weapons ever devised. A colorless, odorless liquid, similar in consistency to motor oil, it kills in tiny quantities that can be absorbed through the skin. A relative of the nerve agent Sarin, VX disrupts communications between nerves and muscles. Victims of VX initially experience nausea and dizziness. Without an antidote, the chemical eventually paralyzes the diaphragm, causing suffocation.

That may have been the fate of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader. Security footage showed that Kim was approached by two women who appeared to cover his face with a cloth. Moments later, he fell ill and sought help. He died before reaching a hospital.

If the Malaysian analysis is correct and VX was the culprit, that would seem to suggest that the North Korean state itself is behind the killing.


Mildred Dresselhaus, 'Queen Of Carbon' And Nanoscience Trailblazer, Dies At 86

"From humble origins as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, raised in the Bronx in the depths of the Great Depression, Mildred Dresselhaus scaled to great heights in the scientific community and attained the status of royalty — even if only in nickname."

"Dresselhaus, the "Queen of Carbon" and pioneer of nanoscience, died Monday at the age of 86, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During her celebrated career, she sought to prepare a path for potential successors — the female scientists whom she mentored and opened doors for across decades."

"'When I came, we only had 4 percent of women at MIT, period, and fewer even in physics,' Dresselhaus told NPR in 2007, recalling when she was hired by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1960. 'And today we're getting close to the 50 percent mark.' That's an amazing achievement in one lifetime."

"'Of course, she added modestly, 'I didn't have that much to do with making it all happen.'"


Should Scientists March? U.S. Researchers Still Debating Pros And Cons

"Scientists around the United States are getting ready to do an unprecedented experiment: They plan to march en masse in Washington, D.C., and other cities on April 22, to take a stand for the importance of public policies based on science."

"Some researchers predict that this March for Science will release much needed energy and enthusiasm at a time when science is under threat; others worry it will damage science's reputation as an unbiased seeker of truth."

"The idea for the march emerged soon after the inauguration of President Trump, and the Women's March that took place the next day. Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine, says she posted a message proposing a march for science on Twitter."

"'And someone else said 'Yeah, that's a great idea,' and then someone else said, 'Yeah, I had the same thought,' " Gill recalls. 'And so then we all kind of glommed together and started working on it.'"


At 40, Paris' Pompidou Center Is Still 'An Unexpected Trip'

"This year, the Paris museum that looks like a jumble of giant, colored pipes with an escalator in a clear plastic tube zigzagging up its side turns 40."

"Nowadays, that museum — the Pompidou Center — has a secure place in the heart of Paris and in Parisians' hearts. But it wasn't always the case."

"'When it was first built, the reaction was one of horror,' said Serge Lasvignes, president of the Pompidou Center, who recounted the museum's beginnings at a recent meeting with the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris, of which NPR is a member."

"'Le Monde newspaper called the museum's construction the 'rape of Paris,' and city politicians thought their money had been totally wasted,' said Lasvignes. The 10-floor museum required 15,000 tons of steel and cost millions to build. Critics said it looked like an oil refinery."


The Next Pandemic Could Be Dripping On Your Head

"Welcome to the bat cave. No, we're not talking about the secret headquarters of a superhero."

"This is Gomantong — an ancient cave carved out of 20 million-year-old limestone in the middle of the Borneo rain forest in Malaysia. It's part of a vast network of tunnels and caverns. And it's the perfect hideout for bats."

"Up at the top are millions of bats. Literally millions. They hang upside down all day long from the cave's ceiling, sleeping and pooping."Oh dear! We've been dripped on," says Mike Lindley-Jones, a doctor from Australia, as some liquid falls on his head. "Is this bat urine?"

"'No, it's just water,' says Jimmy Lee, an officer with the Sabah Wildlife Department, who is guiding us through the cave, along a wooden boardwalk."

"Then Lindley-Jones suddenly grabs the handrail covered in guano."

"'Don't touch your face!' Lee warns, because inside that bat excrement could be something potentially dangerous."


New Research Shows How 'Atmospheric Rivers' Wreak Havoc Around The Globe

"An 'atmospheric river' is a colorful term for a sinuous plume of moisture that travels up from the tropics — a single plume can carry more water than the Mississippi River at its mouth. But new research shows that atmospheric rivers are also among the most damaging weather systems around."

"The atmospheric rivers that soaked California this winter did some good — they ended an epic drought in the state."

"'This has been a very active winter, atmospheric river-wise,' reports Jeff Zimmerman of the National Weather Service. 'We've probably had 10 or more ... this winter.' The norm is just a few; being a La Nina year, with cooler water in the eastern Pacific, was part of the reason for the abundance."


When A Politician Says 'Fake News' And A Newspaper Threatens To Sue Back

"A news outlet publishes a story that a Republican politician dismisses as "fake news." Sounds familiar, right?"

"But in this case, there's a twist. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado is accusing state Sen. Ray Scott of defamation and threatening to sue. If filed, legal experts said it would be the first suit of its kind, potentially setting a legal definition for what is considered fake news and what is not."

"The dispute began with an opinion column in the newspaper supporting a bill that would give journalists and others greater access to public records. Scott, who represents Grand Junction and serves as assistant majority leader in the state Senate, postponed a hearing and vote on the bill."

"The column urged him to move it forward. 'We call on our own Sen. Scott to announce a new committee hearing date and move this bill forward.'"


In Massachusetts, Coastal Residents Consider How To Adapt To Climate Change

"Living by the ocean might sound nice, but in the era of climate change, it's a risky proposition."

"As sea levels rise, coastal residents are faced with tough choices: try to fortify their homes, move to higher ground or just pull up roots and leave."

"Homeowners in Nahant, Mass., are grappling with these wrenching questions. The community lies on a rocky crescent moon of land in the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston."

"For its entire history, it has been at the mercy of the ocean."

"To get to the town back in the 1800s, you would cross a beautiful beach at low tide that connected it to the mainland. At high tide, you had to take a boat. These days, there's a four-lane road built on that beach, and it sits just a few feet above the water."


Spain's 'Robin Hood Restaurant' Charges The Rich And Feeds The Poor

"On a frigid winter night, a man wearing two coats shuffles into a brightly lit brick restaurant in downtown Madrid. Staff greet him warmly; he's been here many times. The maître d' stamps his ID card, and the hungry man selects a table with a red tablecloth, under a big brass chandelier."

"The man, Luis Gallardo, is homeless — and so are all the diners, every night, at the city's Robin Hood restaurant. Its mission is to charge the rich and feed the poor. Paying customers at breakfast and lunch foot the bill for the restaurant to serve dinner to homeless people, free of charge."

"It's become Spain's most sought-after lunch reservation. The restaurant has poached staff from luxury hotels. Celebrity chefs are lining up to cook once a week. For paying clients, the lunch is fully booked through the end of March."

"The restaurant opened in early December, and is run by an 80-year-old Catholic priest, Ángel García Rodriguez, whom everyone knows simply as 'Padre Ángel.'"