Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris reports on science issues for NPR's newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Harris, who joined NPR in 1986, has traveled to the ends of the earth for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest and the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis).

In 2010, Harris’ reporting uncovered that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. He covered the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, followed by Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR’s award-winning 2007-2008 “Climate Connections” series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many of the journalism and science industries’ most prestigious awards. The University of California at Santa Cruz awarded Harris the 2010-11 Alumni Achievement Award – the school’s highest honor. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry.

As part of the team that collaborated on NPR's 1989 series “AIDS in Black America,” Harris was awarded a Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, a first place award from the National Association of Black Journalists and an Ohio State Award. In 1988, Harris won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award for his report, “Anti-Noise: Can Technology Turn Noise into Quiet?” which explored a revolutionary technology that uses computer-generated noise to cancel out, not just mask, unwanted noise.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues. Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harris spent the summer of 1980 as a Mass Media Science Fellow reporting on science issues for The Washington Star, in Washington, D.C.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, as well as past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

A California native, Harris was valedictorian of his college graduating class at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology, with highest honors.

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12:01am

Fri October 21, 2011
Research News

'Living Fossils' Just A Branch On Cycad Family Tree

Originally published on Fri October 21, 2011 8:46 am

A giant dioon, seen at the United States Botanic Garden, is part of the cycad family and can be found growing in Mexico and Central America.

Maggie Starbard NPR

Although dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, there are still thought to be a few species left over from those days. Plants called cycads are among these rare "living fossils" — they have remained pretty much unchanged for more than 300 million years, but a study in Science magazine suggests that glamorous title may not be deserved.

There's no time machine in Washington, D.C., but Harvard botanist Sarah Mathews leads me to what's arguably the next best thing — a room made of glass in the U.S. Botanic Garden, just downhill from the U.S. Capitol.

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3:13pm

Wed October 5, 2011
Research News

Nobel-Winning Chemist Fought Hard For Acceptance

Daniel Schectman, left, discusses the quasicrystal's structure with collaborators in 1985, just months after shaking the foundations of materials science. Schectman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

H. Mark Helfer NIST

If you or your mate shaved this morning with one of those thin-foil electric shavers, that face probably brushed up against a strange form of matter called a quasicrystal. Norelco is unlikely to get a Nobel Prize for that invention, but the man who discovered quasicrystals, Daniel Shechtman, will get this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. And it didn't come easy.

Crystals, like diamonds and quartz, hold their sparkly allure because of the way the atoms inside those rocks line up so neatly.

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1:39pm

Fri September 23, 2011
Research News

New Data Put Cosmic Speed Limit To The Test

A neutrino detector like this one, seen at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1995, was used to collect data claiming that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light.
Fred Rick Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

A fundamental rule of nature is that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Now, physicists working in Europe say they may have discovered a sub-atomic particle that breaks that speed limit. But that extraordinary claim is being greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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12:01am

Fri September 16, 2011
Environment

Arctic Ice Hits Near-Record Low, Threatening Wildlife

Originally published on Sat September 17, 2011 12:00 am

Ice on the Arctic Ocean has melted to its second-lowest level on record. Above, ice in a fjord in Greenland.
Slim Allagui AFP/Getty Images

Ice on the Arctic Ocean has melted to its second-lowest level on record, according to researchers in Colorado who track this trend. The summertime melt coincides with a dramatic warming over the past decade, and it's already affecting wildlife in the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic ice comes and goes with the seasons; typically about half of the wintertime ice melts away by mid-September. After that low point, the ice regrows. In 2007, the amount of ice left in September hit a dramatic low.

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3:47pm

Thu September 15, 2011
Science

This Machine Can Suck Carbon Out Of The Air

Carbon Engineering's machine, currently under construction, will draw carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into a usable product.
Carbon Engineering

David Keith is a bit fidgety. Maybe that's because venture capitalists have asked to come see his carbon dioxide machine. Maybe it's because the project is running months behind schedule, as experiments so often do. Maybe it's because his critics say it'll never work.

Or maybe it's a taste of excitement, because it seems entirely possible that the trailer-truck-size machine that he's leaning up against is actually going to work.

"It's amazing to see all this talk and paper get turned into hardware," he says. "I really love it."

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3:14pm

Thu September 15, 2011
Space

Here Come The Suns: New Planet Orbits Two Stars

Originally published on Thu September 15, 2011 11:03 pm

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a planet that circles two stars instead of one. The planet, shown as the black dot in this artist's illustration, is similar to Saturn, though it is more dense and travels in a 229-day circular orbit around its two stars.
R. Hurt NASA/JPL-Caltech

A trillion is a huge number — when you're talking dollars or euros. But a trillion miles is not so much in the cosmic scheme of things. Astronomers say they've now found a planet that orbits two suns a mere thousand trillion miles from here. It's yet another example of a weird solar system being discovered around nearby stars.

Two years ago, NASA launched the Kepler observatory to look for Earth-like planets beyond our own solar system. It has found more than 1,000 apparent planets around distant suns.

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6:23pm

Thu September 1, 2011
Science

For Protesters, Keystone Pipeline Is Line In Tar Sand

Originally published on Thu September 1, 2011 9:39 pm

U.S. Park Police officers arrest demonstrators in front of the While House on Thursday. They were protesting against a proposed 1,700-mile-long pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Dozens of environmental activists showed up in front of the White House Thursday to get arrested in a peaceful protest against a proposed oil pipeline that would cut across the American Midwest.

Organizers said that over the past 10 days, about 800 people have been handcuffed and bused off to a police station in this ongoing action.

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5:00am

Sat August 20, 2011
Race To The Arctic

Trying To Unravel The Mysteries Of Arctic Warming

A polar bear makes its way across the ice in Canada's Northwest Passage. Melting ice in the Arctic will make survival increasingly difficult for wildlife in the region.
Jackie Northam NPR

The Arctic is heating up faster than anyplace on Earth. And as it heats, the ice is growing thinner and melting faster. Scientists say that sometime this century, the Arctic Ocean could be free of ice during the summers. And that transition is likely to be chaotic.

Arctic sea ice has always seen dramatic swings. Every winter, the ocean is completely covered with ice. It starts to melt in the late spring, and by September about half that ice has melted away.

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12:01am

Fri August 19, 2011
Research News

Black Researchers Getting Fewer Grants From NIH

A new study finds that when applying for scientific research grants from the National Institutes of Health, white researchers succeeded 25 percent of the time, while blacks about 15 percent of the time. Above, the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Md.
NIH

If you glance around university corridors or scientific meetings, it's obvious that African-Americans are uncommon in the world of science. A study in Science magazine now finds that the black scientists who do start careers in medical research are at a big disadvantage when it comes to funding.

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5:00pm

Wed August 17, 2011
Environment

Caribbean Coral Catch Disease From Sewage

White pox disease on a frond of the endangered elkhorn coral on Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys. The bacteria the overlying coral tissue, exposing the coral's white limestone skeleton underneath.
James W. Porter University of Georgia

Human beings occasionally get diseases from animals, such as swine flu, rabies and anthrax. A new study finds that humans can also spread disease to wildlife, with grim results. A bacterium from our guts is now rampaging through coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Those reefs were already in slow decline, but they took a huge hit starting in 1996, when a disease called white pox appeared in the Florida Keys.

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6:14am

Sun August 7, 2011
Animals

Fighting Decline, Micronesia Creates Shark Sanctuary

Micronesian islands have declared vast areas of the Pacific Ocean to be a sanctuary for sharks. It's the latest move in a trend to create zones where sharks can live undisturbed.

These top predators are in serious decline around the world because they are being over-fished. Mostly, they are caught to feed an insatiable appetite for shark-fin soup in Asia.

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4:59am

Fri August 5, 2011
Space

Dark Streaks On Mars May Be Sign Of Liquid Water

Originally published on Fri August 5, 2011 1:58 pm

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Scientists have discovered features on Mars that could be signs of running water. If that's true, it would be big news for scientists looking for signs of life on Mars. After all, practically everywhere on Earth where there's running water, there's also life.

NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: First off, we already know that Mars has water on it, lots of water. But Phil Christensen, a long-term Mars watcher from Arizona State University, says that knowledge isn't all that exciting to biologists.

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12:01am

Wed July 6, 2011
Energy

At U.S. Nuclear Reactors, Crews Train For The Worst

Engineers at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Generating Station in Mississippi practice disaster and emergency situations in a mock-up control room. Every nuclear plant in the U.S. has control room simulators that are nearly exact replicas of the real facilities.
Richard Harris NPR

Some nuclear industry officials say if Japan had U.S.-style training for its operators, they might have fared better during the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. In Japan, workers train on generic simulators. Here, every nuclear power plant has an exact mockup of its control room so plant operators can practice more realistic disaster scenarios.

Take for example the Grand Gulf Nuclear Generating Station, south of Vicksburg, Miss., on the Mississippi River.

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12:01am

Tue July 5, 2011
The Science Of Japan's Nuclear Crisis

What Went Wrong In Fukushima: The Human Factor

Workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant spray a substance to help reduce dust on April 1. Experts say it's likely that workers at the plant could have reduced the severity of the accident if they had made different decisions during the crisis.
TEPCO

Japanese officials are still trying to understand all the factors that contributed to the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Officials already have concluded that the plant was not designed to withstand the 40-foot tsunami that hit it on March 11. But it is also likely that workers at the plant could have reduced the severity of the accident if they had made different decisions during the crisis.

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12:01am

Tue June 21, 2011
Environment

Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure

The American public is less likely to believe in global warming than it was just five years ago. Yet, paradoxically, scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is real and caused largely by human activities.

Something a bit strange is happening with public opinion and climate change.

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5:37pm

Mon June 20, 2011
The Science Of Japan's Nuclear Crisis

Reports: Why Things Fell Apart At Fukushima Plant

Japanese officials say conditions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have markedly improved since the March 11 disaster, but the plant still won't be completely stabilized until early next year. At a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Association in Vienna Monday, officials released two reports that detail what went wrong — and what went right — in the aftermath of the crisis.

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3:57pm

Wed June 15, 2011
Science

Fukushima Workers Tackle Highly Radioactive Water

Today, workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan tested out a system that will start cleaning up an enormous volume of radioactive water there.

The water has flooded many buildings at the complex, and it has seriously complicated efforts to bring the crisis there to an end. But it's also essential to keep the reactor cores from overheating.

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12:01am

Fri June 10, 2011
Environment

Thinning Snows In Rockies Tied To Global Warming

The snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has been gradually thinning over the past century. Using tree ring measurements from subalpine larch trees like these in the Lake Chelan Wilderness in Washington State, researchers were able to put the Rocky Mountain data in long-term historical context.
Jeremy S. Littell UW Climate Impacts Group

The snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has been gradually thinning over much of the past century, and a new study attributes much of that to global warming.

This year is a notable exception — unusually heavy snowfall throughout the Rockies this winter has caused a lot of flooding and water-management headaches downstream. But taking the long view, the trend is toward less and less snow.

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5:13pm

Thu June 2, 2011
Health

Scientists Probe Why E. Coli Strain Is So Virulent

A couple of E. Coli bacteria captured in an image from the Helmholtz Center for Research on Infectious Diseases in Berlin earlier this week.
Manfred Rohde Getty Images

The bacterium that is causing all the trouble in Europe is similar to the dreaded E. coli that has caused occasional but deadly outbreaks in the United States and elsewhere in the world. But the strain that has struck Germany is not so well known to science.

That leaves researchers puzzling over exactly why it's causing so many deaths, and wondering how long the epidemic will last.

At least medical scientists know quite a bit about its method of attack.

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3:43pm

Fri May 27, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Sorry, Charlie! Better Luck Next Time Getting Endangered Species Status

A chunk of bluefin tuna (center) at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan Getty Images

The federal government has decided not to list Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species. No, this is not the chunky tuna you mix with mayonnaise for sandwiches. We're talking about huge, majestic fish that are caught, shipped off for top dollar to places like Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, sliced up, and sold around the world as high-end sushi.

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12:01am

Fri May 27, 2011
Research News

Of War And Kisses: How Adversity Shapes Culture

An Israeli Air Force cadet kisses his girlfriend before being sworn in for duty in 2003. A new study that measures the rigidity of a culture's social rules and standards — including when and where it's appropriate to kiss — found Israel to be culturally loose.
Marco Di Lauro Getty Images

Countries tend to have personalities just like people do. Researchers have set out to define those differences, using a scale that measures how tight the social rules and standards are. They find that cultural rules — as simple as when and where it's appropriate to kiss — are often shaped by a nation's experience with war, disease and other challenges.

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9:18am

Thu May 12, 2011
Japan In Crisis

U.S. Looks To Reinforce Nuclear Safety

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard an update today about the situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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12:01am

Thu May 12, 2011
Science

A New, Somewhat Moldy Branch On The Tree Of Life

Two cells — one marked mostly in green, the other in blue — of a newly discovered organism that were found in water samples collected from the University of Exeter pond. Scientists think these "cryptomycota" use their tails to propel themselves while searching for food.
Meredith Jones Nature

If you think biologists have a pretty good idea about what lives on the Earth, think again. Scientists say they have just now discovered an entirely new branch on the tree of life. It's made up of mysterious microscopic organisms. They're related to fungus, but they so different you could argue that they deserve their very own kingdom, alongside plants and animals.

This comes as a big surprise. Just a few years ago, Prof. Timothy James and his colleagues sat down and wrote the definitive scientific paper to describe the fungal tree of life.

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7:30am

Sat May 7, 2011
Environment

World's Farmers Feel The Effects Of A Hotter Planet

Scientists have long predicted that — eventually — temperatures and altered rainfall caused by global climate change will take a toll on four of the most important crops in the world: rice, wheat soy and corn.

Now, as world grain prices hover near record highs, a new study finds that the effects are already starting to be felt.

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12:01am

Mon April 25, 2011
Environment

Losing, But Slowly, In Struggle To Fight Back The Sea

Some of the nation's richest and most important ecosystems lie where the ocean meets the land. It's these same coastal areas that are going to disappear as sea level continues to rise as a result of climate change.

But in one wildlife refuge in North Carolina, conservationists are attempting what would seem to be impossible: fighting back the sea.

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8:05pm

Mon April 11, 2011
The Science Of Japan's Nuclear Crisis

Cleaning Up Fukushima: A Challenge To The Core

The Japanese government raised its assessment of the crisis at the troubled nuclear power plant to the highest possible level.

The rating was bumped up from five to seven on an international scale used to evaluate the seriousness of nuclear incidents.

The move was based on new data on the amount of radiation released in the early days of the crisis, not on any recent change in the plant's status.

The accident in Japan is now in the same category as the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.

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