NPR Picks


Study: Sugar Rules The World And Ruins Teeth

"Ninety-five percent of 12-year-olds in the Philippines have tooth decay, or cavities. And cavities affect seven in 10 children in India, one-third of Tanzania teens and nearly one in every three Brazilians."

"These and other startling oral health statistics are the focus of a two-part series published this week in The Lancet. In it, more than a dozen dentists and public health experts call for radical action to end neglected and widespread oral disease."

"The culprit?"

"'Sugar is the causative agent for dental decay,' says Robert Weyant, one of the study authors and a dental public health expert at the University of Pittsburgh. 'Basically, without sugar, you won't develop decay.'"

"The Lancet study authors also point at what they call a failed dental system, where many dentists prioritize treatment over prevention efforts — like toothbrushing with fluoride and restricting sugar intake. Coupled with an overwhelming number of sweetened food and beverage options, cavities are on the rise, especially in low- and middle-income countries."

"That's because residents in those places are undergoing a global phenomenon known as a 'nutrition transition,' says Habib Benzian, a study coauthor and associate director of global health and policy at New York University's College of Dentistry."



Cool Your Jets! Science Might Explain Your Weird And Emotional Airplane Behavior

"Lady Gaga fills the tiny back-of-seat airplane screen. Then, (spoiler alert) A Star Is Born's tragic ending ensues and the waterworks begin."

"Amanda Wind, an airline passenger taking an early morning flight, felt tears welling up in her eyes. Soon, her sobs were so loud, she had roused several other passengers from their sleep."

"Her uncontrollable crying is not out of the ordinary. Neither are bizarre beverage orders, tirades against flight attendants or intimate bonds forged with seatmate strangers."

"Flying makes people do weird things."

"'When people get on a plane, they revert to a lizard brain where they forget all social decencies and common sense,' Kat Anderson, a flight attendant who has seen her fair share of oddities through three years of accommodating travelers, tells NPR's Weekend Edition."



Seeing Apollo Through The Eyes Of Astronauts

"Fifty years ago, two astronauts became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Like many explorers, they documented their accomplishment in photographs. The images they took are some of the most enduring of the 20th century, traveling from Life magazine to MTV to Twitter."

"For most of us, the photos brought back by Apollo 11 are iconic and a little difficult to comprehend. But for astronauts, they represent something more: hours of training, risks taken and the many people on the ground who worked to make the journey possible."

"NPR spoke to five former NASA astronauts who flew on space missions to learn how they see these photos. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity."



Climate Change Fuels Wetter Storms — Storms Like Barry

"People across southern Louisiana are spending the weekend worried about flooding. The water is coming from every direction: the Mississippi River is swollen with rain that fell weeks ago farther north, and a storm called Barry is pushing ocean water onshore while it drops more rain from above."

"It's a situation driven by climate change, and one that Louisiana has never dealt with, at least in recorded history. And it's raising questions about whether New Orleans and other communities are prepared for such an onslaught."

"'It is noteworthy that we're in our 260th day of a flood fight on the Mississippi River, the longest in history, and that this is the first time in history a hurricane will strike Louisiana while the Mississippi River has been at flood stage,' said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in response to a question about climate change at a Friday news conference."

"'If we anticipate that this could happen with more frequency going forward, then it has to inform a lot of things we do in the state of Louisiana to prepare for disasters in the future,' the governor continued."



A Genetic Test That Reveals Alzheimer's Risk Can Be Cathartic Or Distressing

"In a waiting room at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, a 74-year-old woman named Rubie is about to find out whether she has a gene that puts her at risk for Alzheimer's."

"'I'm a little bit apprehensive about it, and I hope I don't have it,' she says. 'But if I do, I want to be able to plan for my future.'"

"The gene is called APOE E4, and it's the most powerful known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's after age 65."

"APOE E4 doesn't cause the disease, and many of those who carry it never develop Alzheimer's."

"Still, about 1 in 4 people who carries a single copy will develop Alzheimer's by 85. Among people who get two copies (one from each parent) up to 55% will develop Alzheimer's by age 85."

Rubie is one of several participants in a research study at Banner who agreed to speak both before and after learning their APOE E4 status. The participants are identified only by first name to protect their privacy.

Like many people in their 60s and 70s, Rubie has seen dementia up close.



A Call For More Research On Cancer's Environmental Triggers

"We already know how to stop many cancers before they start, scientists say. But there's a lot more work to be done."

"'Around half of cancers could be prevented,' said Christopher Wild in the opening session of an international scientific meeting on cancer's environmental causes held in June. Wild is the former director of the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer."

"'Cancer biology and treatment is where most of the money goes,' he said, but prevention warrants greater attention. 'I'm not saying that we shouldn't work to improve treatment, but we haven't balanced it properly.'"

"Perhaps no question about cancer is more contentious than its causes. People wonder, and scientists debate, if most malignancies stem from random DNA mutations and other chance events or from exposure to carcinogens, or from behaviors that might be avoided."

At the conference in Charlotte, N.C., scientists pressed for a reassessment of the role of environmental exposures by applying modern molecular techniques to toxicology. They called for more aggressive collection of examples of human pathology and environmental samples, including water and air, so that cellular responses to chemicals can be elucidated.



Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn't The Whole Story

"Plastic waste gets a lot of attention when photos of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic bags hit the news. Pieces of plastic also litter cities, and tiny plastic particles are even floating in the air."

"Largely overlooked is how making plastic in the first place affects the environment, especially global warming. Plastic actually has a big carbon footprint, but so do many of the alternatives to plastic. And that's what makes replacing plastic a problem without a clear solution."

"Plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. Your plastic water bottle, your grocery bag, your foam tray full of cucumbers ... they're all made from oil or natural gas. It takes lots of energy to make that happen."

"'The real story of plastics' impact on the environment begins at the wellheads where it comes out of the ground,' says Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law. 'And it never, ever stops.'"



Moon Rocks Still Awe, And Scientists Hope To Get Their Hands On More

"Darby Dyar says that as a kid, whenever Apollo astronauts returned from the moon, she and her classmates would get ushered into the school library to watch it on TV."

"She remembers seeing the space capsules bobbing in the ocean as the astronauts emerged. "They climbed out and then they very carefully took the lunar samples and put them in the little rubber boat," Dyar says, recalling that the storage box looked like an ice chest."

"Nearly a half-ton of moon rocks were collected by the six Apollo missions to the lunar surface. And as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 first landing mission approaches, NASA has decided to open a still-sealed, never-studied moon rock sample that has been carefully saved for decades, waiting for technology to advance."

"Dyar is one of the scientists picked to do experiments on this pristine sample. She has spent her whole career studying the moon rocks she first saw on television as a child, although back then she never would have guessed it."

"'I was growing up in Indiana in the 1960s. Girls didn't do science,' Dyar says. 'I never saw a woman scientist.'"



The Promises And Pitfalls Of Gene Sequencing For Newborns

"Sequencing a person's DNA is now a routine task. That reality has left doctors looking for ways to put the technology to work."

"A decade ago, a top federal scientist said, "Whether you like it or not, a complete sequencing of newborns is not far away." Dr. Francis Collins, who made that statement, has been head of the National Institutes of Health for the intervening decade. But his prophecy hasn't come to pass, for both scientific and practical reasons."

"Scientists have found that, so far, a complete genetic readout would be a poor substitute for the traditional blood test that babies get at birth to screen for diseases."

"Even when genetic testing provides useful information, it also can raise unsettling questions."

"One of the big concerns about running gene scans on newborns is how families will receive and make sense of the results."

"Christine Kim, a graduate student who studies international health, volunteered for a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to explore that issue."

"'I think when it's your first [child], you want to be as prepared as possible, even though there's no way to actually prepare for the experience,' she said."


As NASA Aims For The Moon, An Aging Space Station Faces An Uncertain Future

"When a rocket carrying the first module of the International Space Station blasted off from Kazakhstan in November of 1998, NASA officials said that the station would serve as an orbiting home for astronauts and cosmonauts for at least 15 years."

"It's now been over 18 years that the station has been continuously occupied by people. The place is impressive, with more living space than a six-bedroom house, two bathrooms and a large bay window for looking down at Earth."

"NASA and its international partners have spent decades and more than $100 billion to make the station a reality. The trouble is, as the agency sets its sights on returning people to the moon, the aging station has become a financial burden. And it's not clear what its future holds."

"NASA spends between $3 billion and $4 billion a year operating the station and flying people back and forth. That's about half the agency's budget for human exploration of space."



New Markers For Alzheimer's Disease Could Aid Diagnosis And Speed Up Drug Development

"Alzheimer's disease begins altering the brain long before it affects memory and thinking."

"So scientists are developing a range of tests to detect these changes in the brain, which include an increase in toxic proteins, inflammation and damage to the connections between brain cells."

"The tests rely on biomarkers, shorthand for biological markers, that signal steps along the progression of disease. These new tests are already making Alzheimer's diagnosis more accurate, and helping pharmaceutical companies test new drugs."

"'For the future, we hope that we might be able to use these biomarkers in order to stop or delay the memory changes from ever happening,' says Maria Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer's Association. (The association is a recent NPR sponsor.)"

"The first Alzheimer's biomarker test was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in in 2012."

"It's a dye called Amyvid that reveals clumps of a protein called amyloid. These amyloid plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer's."



Arctic Fox Sets Record In Walking From Norway To Canada

"A young female fox, just shy of her first birthday, stunned scientists by covering an unbelievable distance during a short, four-month trek. The animal, also known as a coastal or blue fox, traveled more than 2,700 miles from Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway, to Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada. The journey is among the longest dispersal events ever recorded for the species."

"Researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute first fitted the fox with a tracking collar in 2017 and released her into nature as part of a larger and ongoing study about the spatial ecology of arctic foxes, according to a report led by researchers Eva Fuglei and Arnaud Tarroux."

"For months the fox stayed along the coastline of western Spitsbergen. Toward the end of March 2018, she took off, changing course several times when she met open water."

"After finding ice-covered sea for the first time, the fox left Spitsbergen. Having traveled for 21 days and about 939 miles, she arrived in Greenland on April 16, 2018."

"Similarly, in 2010 an adult female arctic fox in the Canadian Arctic set off on a journey. She traveled more than 2,800 miles in total but over a longer period of 5.5 months. She used sea ice to link distant regions, as did the Svalbard fox, which eventually arrived on Canada's Ellesmere Island on July 1, 2018."



Get A Glimpse: Total Solar Eclipse Will Pass Over South Pacific, South America

"Billions of fish in the Pacific Ocean will be treated to an awe-inspiring celestial event today. That's because a total solar eclipse will be visible over a huge swath of the southern Pacific."

"Land animals including humans in Chile and Argentina will also get to observe the total spectacle, as will anybody connected to the Internet. And most parts of South America will be able to see a partial eclipse."

"Much like eclipse fever hit the United States in 2017, people here in Chile are excited to see the eclipse. There's been nonstop media coverage, and places in the path of totality are expecting a huge influx of visitors."

"For a little more than two minutes, people in what's known as the path of totality will have the stunning experience of the sun's light being completely obscured by the moon. (In an amazing cosmic coincidence, even though the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, it's also 400 times closer — so from Earth they appear to be the same size.)"


Scientists Make Model Embryos From Stem Cells To Study Key Steps In Human Development

"Scientists have created living entities that resemble very primitive human embryos, the most advanced example of these structure yet created in a lab."

"The researchers hope these creations, made from human embryonic stem cells, will provide crucial new insights into human development and lead to new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriages, birth defects and many diseases. The researchers say this is the first time scientists have created living models of human embryos with three-dimensional structures."

"The researchers reported their findings Monday in a paper published in the journal Nature Cell Biology."

"But the research is stirring debate about how far scientists should go in creating living models of human embryos, sometimes call embryoids."

"'It's very exciting work,' says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at the Case Western Reserve University and Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the research. 'But it does send folks down the road to thinking very seriously about where the limits may be ethically for this work.'"

"For decades, scientists have worked to understand some of the earliest steps that enable an embryo to develop into a fetus. But some of the most crucial early steps have been a mystery. That's because they occur in a woman's womb and can't be studied. Scientists are prohibited from studying human embryos in their labs beyond 14 days of development."



France Suffers Through Hottest Day In Its History — 113 Fahrenheit

"In the small, quaint town of Villevieille, southern France, the temperature soared to 113.2 degrees on Friday."

"Météo-France, the national weather service, issued its highest warning level for four regions of the country."

"'Tons of all-time records in the Mediterranean area, very wildly hit,' Météo-France meteorologist Etienne Kapikian wrote on Twitter. He said the temperature at Montpellier airport, 110.3 degrees Fahrenheit, 'surpassed the previous all-time record' by 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with measurements first taken in 1946."

"French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe described the heat as "exceptional in its precocity and intensity," saying government preparations were not an overreaction but a necessity."

"Some 4,000 schools closed for the day out of concern for children's safety, he said. As part of emergency heat wave plans, public cooling rooms had opened in Paris and other cities, and parks and pools stayed open for extended hours. Parisians could also use a smartphone app to find places to cool down."

"But at least four people have drowned in France this week, according to France 24."


Oh Dear: Photos Show What Humans Have Done To The Planet

"Humans have made an indelible mark on the planet. Since the mid-20th century, we've accelerated the digging of mines, construction of dams, expansion of cities and clearing of forests for agriculture — activity that will be visible in the geological record for eons to come."

"Some scientists are calling it the Anthropocene era, or the age of the humans ("anthropos" is Greek for human)."

"Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier were inspired by this ongoing discussion of the debate over this new geological era. These three Canadian artists traveled to 22 countries to research and document 'places of obvious, physical human incursions on the landscape,' says filmmaker de Pencier."

"They created over 50 images capturing the impact of humans on the Earth, like a sprawling, 30-acre garbage dump in Kenya, large swaths of deforestation in Borneo and waterways damaged by oil siphoning in Nigeria."

"Their expansive, multidisciplinary body of work is called The Anthropocene Project."

"The project, which includes photographyfilmvirtual reality and augmented reality, took four years to complete and launched in September 2018. The exhibition is currently on display at the Fondazione MAST Museum in Bologna, Italy. And their film will be shown in the U.S. this fall."



Pass The Brazier: Early Evidence Of Cannabis Smoking Found On Chinese Artifacts

"People have been smoking pot to get high for at least 2,500 years. Chinese archaeologists found signs of that when they studied the char on a set of wooden bowls from an ancient cemetery in western China."

"The findings are some of the earliest evidence of cannabis used as a drug."

"'We've known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp,' says Mark Merlin, a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who reviewed the study published in Science Advances.'Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties.'"

"The set of 10 wooden braziers come from eight tombs at the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau in what is now China's Xinjiang region. Researchers found chemical evidence of cannabis in residue on nine of the braziers, which held small stones that were apparently heated and used to burn the plants."

"Yimin Yang, an archaeologist at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and a co-author of the study, says the location of those artifacts suggests cannabis smoke was 'being used during funeral rituals, possibly to communicate with nature or spirits or deceased people, accompanied by music.'"



Killing Coyotes Is Not As Effective As Once Thought, Researchers Say

"In a rugged canyon in southern Wyoming, a helicopter drops nets over a pair of coyotes. They're bound, blindfolded and flown to a landing station. There, University of Wyoming researchers place them on a mat. The animals stay calm and still while technicians figure out their weight, age, sex and other measurements. Graduate student Katey Huggler fits the coyotes with tracking collars."

"'What really is most important to us is that GPS data,' says Huggler, who's the lead on this project. What that data has been showing is, boy, do coyotes roam. Huggler is amazed at one young female that wandered long distances."

"'It was like 110 miles as the crow flies, turned around, came back three days later,' she says. '[Coyotes] are moving fast, but they're also moving really far.'"

"Huggler says all that roaming changes during the short window when mule deer fawns are born, showing that coyotes are indeed targeting them. Mule deer populations around the West are down — 31% since 1991 — and some people blame coyotes. It stands to reason that killing some coyotes could help improve mule deer numbers, but University of Wyoming wildlife professor Kevin Monteith points out if you wipe out a pack of coyotes, it leaves a hole in the habitat, and nature dislikes a vacuum."


Lonnie Bunch III Takes Helm Of The Smithsonian: 'I Feel The Weight Of History'

"Lonnie Bunch III's interest in the past began with an incomplete story. His grandfather, a sharecropper-turned-dentist, would read history books to him, and Bunch would wonder why the pictures of black children contained little detail — why the captions simply read 'unknown children' or 'anonymous.'"

"The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bunch has dedicated his life to telling a fuller, rounder and more complex historical narrative. He'll continue that mission in taking the reins of the entire Smithsonian Institution as its first African American secretary, overseeing 19 museums, 21 libraries and the National Zoo."

"It is crucially important for the Smithsonian to recognize it has an obligation to help America understand the fullness of itself, not just a portion of itself," Bunch tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"When he assumes the position on June 16, he will become the first black person to lead the Smithsonian, and also the first historian to become secretary."



A Musical Brain May Help Us Understand Language And Appreciate Tchaikovsky

"What sounds like music to us may just be noise to a macaque monkey."

"That's because a monkey's brain appears to lack critical circuits that are highly sensitive to a sound's pitch, a team reported Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience."

"The finding suggests that humans may have developed brain areas that are sensitive to pitch and tone in order to process the sounds associated with speech and music."

"'The macaque monkey doesn't have the hardware,' says Bevil Conway, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health. 'The question in my mind is, what are the monkeys hearing when they listen to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony?'"

"The study began with a bet between Conway and Sam Norman-Haignere, who was a graduate student at the time."

"Norman-Haignere, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, was part of a team that found evidence that the human brain responds to a sound's pitch."

"'I was like, well if you see that and it's a robust finding you see in humans, we'll see it in monkeys,' Conway says."