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.

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Shots - Health News
3:27 am
Mon July 21, 2014

Big Data Peeps At Your Medical Records To Find Drug Problems

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Tue July 22, 2014 12:43 pm

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.

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Space
1:28 am
Thu July 10, 2014

The Little Spacecraft That Couldn't

Early days: NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer C (also known as ISEE-3 and ICE) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside the Goddard Space Flight Center's dynamic test chamber when this photo was snapped in 1976.
NASA

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 1:03 pm

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.

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Science
12:03 pm
Thu June 26, 2014

A Shocking Fish Tale Surprises Evolutionary Biologists

A 6-foot-long electric eel is basically a 6-inch fish attached to a 5-1/2-foot cattle prod, researchers say. The long tail is packed with special cells that pump electricity without shocking the fish.
Mark Newman Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

Originally published on Sat July 12, 2014 10:39 am

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.

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Science
12:03 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

How To Become A Neanderthal: Chew Before Thinking

By comparing "Skull 17" from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era.
Javier Trueba Madrid Scientific Films

Originally published on Fri June 20, 2014 8:54 am

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."

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Science
1:25 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Is Collecting Animals For Science A Noble Mission Or A Threat?

DNA from these crab plovers, collected in Djibouti, Africa, should help scientists figure out how the unusual species fits into the family tree, says the Smithsonian's Helen James.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 6:29 am

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.

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Science
2:21 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Big Flightless Birds Come From High-Flying Ancestors

The egg definitely came before the chicken in this case — the skeleton is from a modern adult kiwi, the egg from its much bigger, long-extinct cousin, Aepyornis maximus.
Kyle Davis and Paul Scofield Canterbury Museum

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 6:06 pm

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.

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Science
10:18 am
Thu May 15, 2014

Why This Octopus Isn't Stuck-Up

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 6:18 pm

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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Environment
2:02 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

'Past The Point Of No Return:' An Antarctic Ice Sheet's Slow Collapse

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 8:04 am

Transcript

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.

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Shots - Health News
12:18 pm
Wed May 7, 2014

Chemists Expand Nature's Genetic Alphabet

Being able to insert the two man-made letters into DNA, alongside the usual four-letter alphabet, could teach old cells new tricks and lead to better drugs, researchers say.
courtesy of Synthorx

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 7:59 am

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.

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The Two-Way
1:02 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

Scientists Spot A Planet That Looks Like 'Earth's Cousin'

An artist's rendering of Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit in the habitable zone of a distant star.
T. Pyle NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Originally published on Thu April 17, 2014 6:06 pm

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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The Two-Way
7:40 am
Sun April 13, 2014

Climate Change Adjustments Must Be Fast And Major, U.N. Panel Says

The world must cut its greenhouse gas emissions to meet its goals, climate experts said Sunday. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (left to right) Youba Sakona, Ramon Pichs Madruga, Ottmar Edenhofer and Rajendra Pachauri hold copies of their new report in Berlin.
John MacDougall AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 5:33 am

A new report from the United Nations' panel on climate change says major action is needed, and fast, if policymakers want to limit global warming to acceptable levels.

There's an international target to control climate change: keeping the global temperature rise to just 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — that's 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says it's technically possible to meet that goal. But doing so will require rapid, large-scale shifts in energy production and use.

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Shots - Health News
1:06 pm
Thu April 10, 2014

Scientists Publish Recipe For Making Bird Flu More Contagious

Street vendors sell chickens at a market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in early 2013. Last year Cambodia reported more cases of H5N1 bird flu than any other country.
Mak Remissa EPA /LANDOV

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 1:13 pm

The Dutch virologist accused of engineering a dangerous superflu a few years ago is back with more contentious research.

In 2011, Ron Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Center took the H5N1 flu virus and made it more contagious. Now the team has published another study with more details on the exact genetic changes needed to do the trick.

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The Two-Way
11:45 am
Thu April 3, 2014

Smithsonian's Air And Space Museum To Get $30 Million Spiffier

Where's the moon rock? Curators say national treasures are often overlooked in the museum's current display, which hasn't changed much since 1976.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 5:34 pm

Throngs of museum-goers mill through the grand entrance hall of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., every day, gawking at such treasures as the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back, as well as Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

But the famous Milestones of Flight exhibit hasn't significantly changed since the museum opened in 1976.

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Shots - Health News
9:23 am
Wed April 2, 2014

Ethicists Tell NASA How To Weigh Hazards Of Space Travel

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide makes a space walk outside the International Space Station in 2012.
NASA Getty Images

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 5:55 am

NASA is hoping to soon venture out farther into space than ever before. But these long journeys mean astronauts could face greater risks to their physical and mental health than the space agency currently allows.

Now, an independent group of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has weighed in on how NASA should make decisions about the kinds of risks that are acceptable for missions that venture outside low Earth orbit or extend beyond 30 days.

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The Two-Way
1:01 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

New Dwarf Planet Found At The Solar System's Outer Limits

This diagram for the outer solar system shows the orbits of Sedna (in orange) and 2012 VP113 (in red). The sun and terrestrial planets are at the center, surrounded by the orbits (in purple) of the four giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Kuiper belt, which includes Pluto, is shown by the dotted light blue region.
Scott S. Sheppard Carnegie Institution for Science

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 6:44 am

Scientists have spotted a new dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. It's a kind of pink ice ball that's way out there, far beyond Pluto.

Astronomers used to think this region of space was a no man's land. But the new findings suggest that it holds many small worlds — and there are even hints of an unseen planet bigger than Earth.

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Space
3:22 am
Tue March 18, 2014

Space Thief Or Hero? One Man's Quest To Reawaken An Old Friend

Early days: NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer C (also known as ISEE-3 and ICE) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside the Goddard Space Flight Center's dynamic test chamber when this photo was snapped in 1976.
NASA

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 5:56 pm

More than 30 years ago, Robert Farquhar stole a spacecraft.

Now he's trying to give it back.

The green satellite, covered with solar panels, is hurtling back toward the general vicinity of Earth, after nearly three decades of traveling in a large, looping orbit around the sun.

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Science
1:27 am
Mon February 24, 2014

At 4.4 Billion Years Old, Oz Crystals Confirmed As World's Oldest

The colors of the zircon crystals range from transparent to deep red.
Courtesy of University of Wisconsin

Originally published on Mon February 24, 2014 12:06 pm

Scientists have used a powerful new technique to prove that some tiny crystals found in Western Australia are indeed the oldest known materials formed on Earth.

Back in 2001, scientists reported that one of the zircon crystals was about 4.4 billion years old — so old that not everyone believed it.

"There have been challenges, because nothing in science goes without being questioned. It always has to be proven," says John Valley, a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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The Two-Way
1:39 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

If Yellowstone Could Talk, It Might Squeak. Blame The Helium

Sunset on the Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park.
Bill Young Flickr

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 6:02 pm

A huge amount of ancient helium is rising up from the rocks beneath Yellowstone National Park — about enough to fill up a Goodyear blimp every week.

The gas comes from a vast store of helium that's accumulated in the Earth's crust for hundreds of millions of years, scientists report in the journal Nature this week.

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Science
12:06 pm
Thu February 13, 2014

Robot Construction Workers Take Their Cues From Termites

Climbing robots, modeled after termites, can be programmed to work together to build tailor-made structures.
[Image courtesy of Eliza Grinnell, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 5:58 pm

Termites can build huge, elaborate mounds that rise up from the ground like insect skyscrapers; scientists have now created little robots that act like termites to build a made-to-order structure.

"Termites are the real masters of construction in the insect world," says Justin Werfel of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. "The largest termite mound on record was 42 feet tall."

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Shots - Health News
1:30 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

Drugmakers And NIH Band Together To Speed Up Research

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
NIH

The National Institutes of Health is teaming up with major drug companies in a new effort to identify disease-related molecules and biological processes that could lead to future medicines.

The public-private partnership is called AMP, for the "Accelerating Medicines Partnership," and it will focus first on Alzheimer's disease, Type 2 diabetes, and two autoimmune disorders: rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

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Shots - Health News
12:59 am
Wed January 29, 2014

Ancient Plague's DNA Revived From A 1,500-Year-Old Tooth

Graduate student Jennifer Klunk of McMaster University examines a tooth used to decode the genome of the ancient plague.
Courtesy of McMaster University

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 9:11 am

Scientists have reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in history nearly 1,500 years ago.

They did it by finding the skeletons of people killed by the plague and extracting DNA from traces of blood inside their teeth.

This plague struck in the year 541, under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, so it's usually called the Justinian plague. The emperor actually got sick himself but recovered. He was one of the lucky ones.

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Science
1:33 am
Mon January 27, 2014

Grand Canyon May Be Older (And Younger) Than You Think

The eastern Grand Canyon was about half-carved (to the level of the red cliffs above the hiker) from 15 million to 25 million years ago, an analysis published Sunday suggests. But the inner gorge was likely scooped out by the Colorado River in just the past 6 million years.
Laura Crossey University of New Mexico

Originally published on Mon January 27, 2014 9:31 am

In recent years geologists have hotly debated the age of the Grand Canyon. Some think it's young (just 6 million years old), while others argue that it dates back 70 million years — to the days of dinosaurs.

Now one group says the Grand Canyon is neither young nor old. Instead, these geologists say, it's both.

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Science
1:38 am
Thu January 9, 2014

There She Blew! Volcanic Evidence Of The World's First Map

A reproduction of the mural from a room in Catalhoyuk, a Neolithic settlement in Turkey.
Sarah Murray Flickr

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 8:21 am

A new study of volcanic rocks suggests that an ancient mural may indeed depict an erupting volcano, adding new weight to a theory that this image is a contender for the world's oldest known landscape painting or map.

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Space
1:26 am
Tue December 31, 2013

Bon Voyage, Voyager: Old Friends Take Stock

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Originally published on Tue December 31, 2013 7:37 am

For the scientists who have emotionally traveled with NASA's Voyager mission for decades, 2013 will be remembered as the year they knew Voyager 1 had finally become the first explorer from Earth to enter the mysterious realm of interstellar space.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, both blasted off in 1977, more than 35 years ago. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, then Saturn — and then on toward the unknown region that lies between stars.

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Shots - Health News
1:46 am
Mon December 23, 2013

Screening Newborns For Disease Can Leave Families In Limbo

Vera Wojtesta was one of 300 babies flagged by New York's newborn screening program as at risk of having life-threatening Krabbe disease.
Ben Shutts Courtesy of the Wojtesta family

Originally published on Tue December 24, 2013 2:24 pm

For Matthew and Brianne Wojtesta, it all started about a week after the birth of their daughter Vera. Matthew was picking up his son from kindergarten when he got a phone call.

It was their pediatrician, with some shocking news. Vera had been flagged by New York's newborn screening program as possibly having a potentially deadly disease, and would need to go see a neurologist the next day.

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Science
10:03 pm
Tue December 3, 2013

Polar Bear Researcher Gets $100,000 In Settlement With Feds

Threatened Arctic polar bears have become controversial icons of climate change.
Gerald Hoberman Getty Images

Originally published on Wed December 4, 2013 12:19 pm

A scientist whose observations of drowned polar bears raised alarms about climate change has received $100,000 to settle a whistle-blower complaint against an agency of the Department of the Interior.

Under the settlement, wildlife researcher Charles Monnett retired from his job at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Nov. 15, and the agency agreed to remove a letter of reprimand that officials had placed in his file.

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Shots - Health News
12:44 pm
Thu November 14, 2013

Bacterial Competition In Lab Shows Evolution Never Stops

The plate on the left contains about equal numbers of colonies of two different bacteria. After the bacteria compete and evolve, the lighter ones have taken the lead in the plate on the right.
Courtesy of Michael Wiser

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 8:49 am

Evolution is relentless process that seems to keep going and going, even when creatures live in a stable, unchanging world.

That's the latest surprise from a unique experiment that's been underway for more than a quarter-century.

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Animals
12:02 pm
Thu November 14, 2013

Old Dogs, New Data: Canines May Have Been Domesticated In Europe

A dog burial in Greene County, Ill. This fossil dates back to about 8,500 years ago.
Courtesy of Del Baston, Center for American Archaeology

Originally published on Thu November 14, 2013 6:34 pm

Scientists have used some new tricks and old dogs to show that thousands of years ago, wolves may have first become man's best friend in Europe.

Researchers extracted DNA from ancient wolf or dog fossils and compared it with DNA from modern dog breeds and wolves. Until recently, labs didn't have the kind of genetic tools they'd need to work with such old dog DNA and do this kind of detailed comparison.

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Space
1:01 am
Tue November 5, 2013

Galaxy Quest: Just How Many Earth-Like Planets Are Out There?

This is an artist's illustration of Kepler-62f, a planet in the "habitable zone" of a star that is slightly smaller and cooler than ours. Kepler-62f is roughly 40 percent larger than Earth.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Originally published on Tue November 5, 2013 9:36 am

A team of planet hunters estimates that about 22 percent of the sun-like stars in our galaxy may have planets about the size of Earth that are bathed in similar amounts of sunlight — and potentially habitable.

That's the conclusion of a new analysis of observations taken by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009 to hunt for potentially habitable Earth-like planets around other stars.

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Animals
1:19 am
Fri November 1, 2013

The Tail's The Tell: Dog Wags Can Mean Friend Or Foe

Friend Or Foe? Scientists say dogs react differently to the direction of another dog's tail wag.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri November 1, 2013 9:41 am

Dogs can pick up emotional cues from another dog by watching the direction of its wagging tail, a new study suggests.

In a series of lab experiments, dogs got anxious when they saw an image of a dog wagging its tail to its left side. But when they saw a dog wagging its tail to its right side, they stayed relaxed.

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