Nell Greenfieldboyce

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

With reporting focused on general science, NASA, and the intersection between technology and society, Greenfieldboyce has been on the science desk's technology beat since she joined NPR in 2005.

In that time Greenfieldboyce has reported on topics including the narwhals in Greenland, the ending of the space shuttle program, and the reasons why independent truckers don't want electronic tracking in their cabs.

Much of Greenfieldboyce's reporting reflects an interest in discovering how applied science and technology connects with people and culture. She has worked on stories spanning issues such as pet cloning, gene therapy, ballistics, and federal regulation of new technology.

Prior to NPR, Greenfieldboyce spent a decade working in print, mostly magazines including U.S. News & World Report and New Scientist.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins, earning her Bachelor's of Arts degree in social sciences and a Master's of Arts degree in science writing, Greenfieldboyce taught science writing for four years at the university. She was honored for her talents with the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists.

Imagine that scientists wanted to take Ebola virus and see if it could ever become airborne by deliberately causing mutations in the lab and then searching through those new viruses to see if any spread easily through the air.

Would that be OK?

Scientists have discovered enigmatic markings on an ancient shell that's been sitting in a museum for more than a century — and they believe this may be the oldest known example of a deliberate geometric engraving made by a human hand.

Learning to name the colors is a ritual of childhood. At first kids have no clue; often they'll just say everything is "boo." Pretty soon, though, they can rattle off Roy G. Biv with aplomb. Still, that doesn't mean they understand what color actually is.

Mark Fairchild, who studies color and vision science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that even physicists get it wrong when they confidently assert that color is just a wavelength of light.

As cases of a worrisome respiratory virus continue to pop up in the Middle East, scientists who study it in the U.S. are struggling to understand how they'll be affected by a government moratorium on certain kinds of experiments.

Vincent Racaniello, who studies viruses at Columbia University, says Ebola has recently become his obsession.

"I find myself reading incessantly about Ebola when I should be doing other things," says Racaniello, host of the online show This Week in Virology, which has devoted several recent programs to Ebola.

An unusual government moratorium aimed at controversial research with high-risk viruses has halted important public health research, scientists told an advisory committee to the federal government on Wednesday.

Here's a question about the fine line between a prudent response and worrisome overkill: Is the sight of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovering over a cruise ship to pick up a blood sample (which is to be tested for Ebola) a sight that should inspire feelings of reassurance, or a nagging sense that something is not quite right?

The question is still in the air after the weekend's effort to airlift a few milliliters of blood from a passenger who was on board what is now being called the Ebola Cruise.

How many times do top officials have to say that the Ebola virus is not airborne?

A lot, apparently.

Here is President Obama Thursday: "This is not an airborne disease. It is not easy to catch."

And the day before: "It is not like the flu. It is not airborne."

And Friday, a reporter asked the inevitable question about airborne Ebola when Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, held a press briefing about nurse Nina Pham's transfer to the National Institute of Health.

The federal government will temporarily stop funding any new studies that could make three high-risk infectious diseases even more dangerous. The government is asking all scientists involved in this research now to voluntarily halt their current studies.

The unusual move comes after a long controversy over experiments with mutant forms of a bird flu virus.

Prehistoric cave paintings of animals and human hands in Indonesia are as ancient as similar paintings found in Western Europe, according to a new study that suggests humans may have carried this art tradition with them when they migrated out of Africa.

Hospitals have been on the lookout for the Ebola virus in the United States, and Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas was no exception. A nurse there did ask about the travel history of the patient who later turned out to be infected with the virus. But some members of the medical team didn't hear that the man had recently been in West Africa. So he was initially sent home — even though he was experiencing symptoms of Ebola, and that meant he was contagious.

Any research institution that receives federal funding will soon have to screen certain kinds of scientific experiments to see if the work could potentially be misused to endanger the public.

The new policy will take effect next year, and it's the latest effort by the U. S. government to come to grips with so called "dual-use" biological research—legitimate medical or public health studies that could reveal how to make already-worrisome germs or toxins even more destructive.

Back in August, scientists reported that the Ebola virus is mutating during this epidemic.

When a virus spreads between people and reproduces, it copies its genetic code in a sloppy way. So there can be unpredictable changes.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the reasons Ebola is so terrifying is that there's no vaccine and no cure. But the World Health Organization hopes to change that, with plans to quickly test experimental products during this outbreak.

By November, two promising vaccines will have been tested on people to see if they're safe, says Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at WHO.

The latest numbers on the Ebola outbreak are grim: 2,473 people infected and 1,350 deaths.

That's the World Health Organization's official tally of confirmed, probable and suspect cases across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But the WHO has previously warned that its official figures may "vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."

So how bad is it really?

While the Ebola outbreak continues to rage in West Africa, it is also unfolding — in a virtual sense — inside the computers of researchers who study the dynamics of epidemics.

Policymakers look to these simulations to get a sense of how the outbreak might spread. They also can use them to run experiments to see which public health measures should take priority.

A smoldering debate about whether researchers should ever deliberately create superflu strains and other risky germs in the interest of science has flared once again.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization has unanimously endorsed the idea of offering unproven vaccines or treatments to help combat the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

This outbreak is unusual not just because it has spread to four countries and involves so many people, says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization. It is also the first Ebola outbreak that could possibly benefit from a range of potential experimental treatments and vaccines.

No one likes it when a new drug in people's medicine cabinets turns out to have problems — just remember the Vioxx debacle a decade ago, when the painkiller was removed from the market over concerns that it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

To do a better job of spotting unforeseen risks and side effects, the Food and Drug Administration is trying something new — and there's a decent chance that it involves your medical records.

An audacious quest to reconnect with a vintage NASA spacecraft has suffered a serious setback and is now pretty much over.

The satellite launched in 1978 and has been in a long, looping orbit around the sun for about three decades. Earlier this year, NPR told you about an effort to get in touch with this venerable piece of NASA hardware and send it on one more adventure.

But there are no guarantees when you try to recapture the past.

The electric eel's powerful ability to deliver deadly shocks — up to 600 volts — makes it the most famous electric fish, but hundreds of other species produce weaker electric fields. Now, a new genetic study of electric fish has revealed the surprising way they got electrified.

Scientists have long puzzled over the origin and evolution of our closest relative, the Neanderthal. Now, researchers say Neanderthals seem to have developed their distinctive jaws and other facial features first, before they evolved to have big brains.

That's according to an analysis of 17 skulls, all taken from one excavation site in a mountain cave in Atapuerca, Spain, known as the Sima de los Huesos — the "pit of bones."

Behind the scenes at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, there's a vast, warehouse-like room that's filled with metal cabinets painted a drab institutional green. Inside the cabinets are more than a half-million birds — and these birds are not drab. Their colorful feathers make them seem to almost glow.

Big, flightless birds like the ostrich, the emu and the rhea are scattered around the Southern Hemisphere because their ancestors once flew around the world, a new study suggests.

That's a surprise, because it means birds in Australia, Africa and South America independently evolved in ways that made them all lose the ability to fly.

Octopus arms keep from getting all tangled up in part because some kind of chemical in octopus skin prevents the tentacles' suckers from grabbing on.

That was the surprise discovery of scientists who were trying to understand how octopuses manage to move all their weird appendages without getting tied in knots.

Unlike humans, octopuses don't have a constant awareness of their arms' locations. It's kind of like the eight arms have minds of their own. And as an octopus arm travels through the water, its neighboring arms are constantly in reach.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Antarctica is covered with the biggest mass of ice on earth. The part of the ice sheath that's over West Antarctica is thought to be especially vulnerable to climate change. Scientists now say a slow collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is both underway and irreversible. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this could eventually raise sea levels more than 10 feet.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: For decades, scientists have worried about the West Antarctic ice sheet.

For the first time, scientists have expanded life's genetic alphabet, by inserting two unnatural, man-made "letters" into a bacterium's DNA, and by showing that the cell's machinery can copy them.

The advance means that scientists have a new tool for exploring how life encodes information, which could help them understand life's origins.

What's more, this is a step towards giving living cells new abilities, like being able to make more and better medicines, cheaper and faster.

Scientists who have been hunting for another Earth beyond our solar system have come across a planet that's remarkably similar to our world.

It's almost the same size as Earth, and it orbits in its star's "Goldilocks zone" — where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, and maybe just right for life.

But a lot about this planet is going to remain a mystery, because it's 500 light-years away.

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