NPR Picks

Monday
May202019

How The Brain Shapes Pain And Links Ouch With Emotion

"When Sterling Witt was a teenager in Missouri, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Before long, the curvature of his spine started causing chronic pain."

"It was 'this low-grade kind of menacing pain that ran through my spine and mostly my lower back and my upper right shoulder blade and then even into my neck a little bit,"' Witt says."

"The pain was bad. But the feeling of helplessness it produced in him was even worse."

"'I felt like I was being attacked by this invisible enemy,' Witt says. 'It was nothing that I asked for, and I didn't even know how to battle it.'"

"So he channeled his frustration into music and art that depicted his pain. It was 'a way I could express myself,' he says. 'It was liberating.'"

"Witt's experience is typical of how an unpleasant sensation can become something much more complicated, scientists say."

"'At its core, pain is just something that hurts or makes you say ouch,' says Karen Davis, a senior scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto. 'Everything else is the outcome of the pain, how it then impacts your emotions, your feelings, your behaviors.'"

 

Sunday
May192019

Billion-Dollar Gamble: How A 'Singular Hero' Helped Start A New Field In Physics

"Imagine spending 40 years and more than a billion dollars on a gamble."

"That's what one U.S. government science agency did. It's now paying off big time, with new discoveries about black holes and exotic neutron stars coming almost every week."

"And while three physicists shared the Nobel Prize for the work that made this possible, one of them says the real hero is a former National Science Foundation staffer named Rich Isaacson, who saw a chance to cultivate some stunning research and grabbed it."

"'The thing that Rich Isaacson did was such a miracle,' says Rainer Weiss, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the 2017 Nobel laureates. 'I think he's the hero. He's a singular hero. We just don't have a good way of recognizing people like that. Rich was in a singular place fighting a singular war that nobody else could have fought.'"

"Without him, Weiss says, "we would've been killed dead on virtually every topic." He and his fellow laureate Kip Thorne recently donated money to create a brand-new American Physical Society award in Isaacson's honor."

 

Saturday
May182019

The Generic Drugs You're Taking May Not Be As Safe Or Effective As You Think

"As the cost of prescription medication soars, consumers are increasingly taking generic drugs: low-cost alternatives to brand-name medicines. Often health insurance plans require patients to switch to generics as a way of controlling costs. But journalist Katherine Eban warns that some of these medications might not be as safe, or effective, as we think."

"Eban has covered the pharmaceutical industry for more than 10 years. She notes that most of the generic medicines being sold in the U.S. are manufactured overseas, mostly in India and China. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that it holds foreign plants to the same standards as U.S. drugmakers, but Eban's new book, Bottle of Lies, challenges that notion. She writes that the FDA often announces its overseas inspections weeks in advance, which allows plants where generic drugs are made the chance to fabricate data and results."

"'These plants know that [the FDA inspectors are] coming,' Eban says. 'I discovered [some overseas drug companies] would actually ... alter documents, shred them, invent them, in some cases even steaming them overnight to make them look old.'"

 

Friday
May172019

Herman Wouk, 'The Jackie Robinson Of Jewish-American Fiction,' Dies At 103

"Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk has died. Wouk was famous for his sprawling World War II novels, including The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and for his portrayal of Jewish-Americans in the novel Marjorie Morningstar. He died in his sleep today at his home in Palm Springs, Calif."

"Many people might remember Wouk for a certain incident in involving strawberries in The Caine Mutiny, which became a film in 1954. After having a breakdown at sea, the tyrannical Captain Queeg accuses his crew of stealing a quart of strawberries and becomes obsessed with finding the culprit."

"Humphrey Bogart played Queeg in the film, but he wasn't exactly what Wouk had in mind when he wrote the character. In the book, Wouk described the captain as 'a small man" with "strands of sandy hair across an almost bald head.' In 2004, the author told NPR, 'Now Captain Queeg is Humphrey Bogart. There's nothing you can do about it, and I'm perfectly content with [it.] That was one of the great performances, I think, of his career.'"

"The Caine Mutiny was Wouk's most celebrated book, but he had a substantial career both before and after it. He got his start in writing years earlier, in comedy. For five years starting in 1936, Wouk wrote jokes and sketches for the popular radio host Fred Allen. But after Pearl Harbor, the 26-year-old enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. In his off hours, Wouk began to write Aurora Dawn, a novel that got mixed reviews. His second book, City Boy, did worse. But The Caine Mutiny put him on the map. It won a Pulitzer Prize, it was a bestseller and it became a play and a movie."

 

Thursday
May162019

Remote Island Chain Has Few People — But Hundreds Of Millions Of Pieces Of Plastic

"When a marine biologist from Australia traveled to a remote string of islands in the Indian Ocean to see how much plastic waste had washed up on the beaches, here's just part of what she found: '373,000 toothbrushes and around 975,000 shoes, largely flip-flops,' says Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania in Australia."

"And that's only what was on the surface."

"The Cocos Keeling Islands make up barely 6 square miles of land, about 1,300 miles off the northwest coast of Australia. It was a good place to measure plastic waste because almost no one lives there. That meant the plastic debris there wasn't local — it floated in — and no one was picking it up. It gave Lavers a good notion of just how much was bobbing around the ocean."

"She was flabbergasted."

"'So, more than 414 million pieces of plastic debris are estimated to be currently sitting on the Cocos Keeling Islands, weighing a remarkable 238 tons,' Lavers says.

There are 27 of these islands, most just a few acres in size. Lavers' team of researchers studied seven of them, mostly in 2017, by marking off transects on beaches and counting all the plastic inside each transect. They multiplied that number by the total beach area of all the islands. Lavers had done this before on other remote islands. 'You get to the point where you're feeling that not much is going to surprise you anymore,' she says, 'and then something does ... and that something [on the Cocos Keeling Islands] was actually the amount of debris that was buried.'"

Monday
May132019

How You (And Your Dog) Can Avoid Snake Bites — And What To Do If You Get Bitten

"It was a warm, wet winter this year across much of the United States. In most states, this means more greenery, more rabbits, more rodents and more snakes — which raises the risk of snake bites for humans and their canine companions."

"Biologist Gerad Fox is standing next to a loud rattlesnake. 'Right now he's in a classic strike posture, very defensive," says Fox. 'The rattle is a warning, saying, 'Back off. I'm dangerous. You should leave me alone.' "

"Fox teaches biology classes at Loma Linda University in California and also runs rattlesnake avoidance training classes for dogs."

I took my dog, Baxter, to one of these classes, where he learned how to recognize the sight and scent of snakes as a danger to avoid.

"'Snakes are part of our ecosystem and deserve to be there,' says Fox. They don't want to hurt us, he explains, but if you or your dog stumble on one by mistake, they will bite."

Sunday
May122019

'A Million Elephants' No More: Conservationists In Laos Rush To Save An Icon

"Centuries ago, the kingdom that made up much of modern-day Laos was called Lan Xang. In English: 'Land of a Million Elephants.'"

"Yet while the Asiatic elephant may have endured as a cultural icon for the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the numbers tell a story of a species in crisis."

"The Laos government and conservation groups estimate there are only about 800 elephants left in the country — 400 wild elephants, 400 in captivity."

"'Both populations are not sustainable and are actually declining,' says Anabel López Pérez, a biologist from Spain with the Elephant Conservation Center. 'And the problems that they face, both populations, are completely different.'"

"The root of the decline in wild elephant numbers is deforestation, says. Laos, which is notorious for over-deforestation thanks to demand for timber in neighboring China and Vietnam, only has about 40 percent of forest coverage today — down from 70 percent recorded in the 1950s. As the forests dwindle, that leads to habitat fragmentation and the elephants are unable to follow normal migration patterns, she says. This leads to human-elephant conflict."

Saturday
May112019

Where Camels Become Beauty Queens: Inside Mongolia's Biggest Camel Festival

"Humps and hair. That's the scene in Bulgan Soum, a tiny Mongolian town in the middle of the Gobi Desert about 160 miles north of the Chinese border."

"Bactrian camels arrive in all directions on foot, bearing bundled-up riders wedged between their two humps. It's early March. While the sky is cloudless, the wind can pick up quickly. Officially called the Thousand Camel Festival, the crowd that arrives for the kick-off approximates 100 camels."

"The two-day festival begins with a camel beauty pageant."

"'Mostly young people participate in the Beautiful Couple Contest. But we wanted to represent the older generation of herders,' says lifelong herder Enkhbaatar Dashnyam. At 59, he and his wife, Dulamsuren Yunden, 47, have been herding all their lives. They rely on their animals as a form of transport, and sell products from their wool and milk."

"The judges are looking for earmarks of tradition; contestants who wear herding decorations and utensils will have a better chance of winning. Both members of this husband and wife duo wear leather boots with upturned tips and fur hats. Enkhbaatar's belt is slung with an ornate knife and a silver bowl."

 

Friday
May102019

The Tale Of Young 'Tolkien' Adopts The Language Of A Standard Biopic

"Let's specify right at the start that movies are not history, and that biopics take liberties."

"Not taking liberties would mean not shaping the material of life to make it dramatic, so you'd never get a scene like, say, the one in which a young Tolkien and his college buddies declare undying devotion — declaring their friendship 'a fellowship.'"

"I'm gonna guess that that particular coinage didn't happen like that."

"But if you know that this guy would later write a book called The Fellowship of the Ring, it's a conversation you might like him to have had in college."

"The film connects dots a bit literally for a story about a guy whose imagination it's championing, but it's reasonably accurate about the facts of Tolkien's early life: He was was born in South Africa and home-schooled in England by his mother after his father died. He was eventually accepted at Oxford, where he had to beg Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) to let him into a class on linguistics."

 

Thursday
May092019

When '1-In-100-Year' Floods Happen Often, What Should You Call Them?

"The Mississippi River is rising again as torrential rain falls across much of the Midwest. It's the latest in a series of storms that have flooded major cities and small communities along the length of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers on and off for more than a month."

"In some places, homes and businesses in what's known as the 100-year flood plain have been hit by multiple floods in a matter of weeks. One St. Louis suburb has now suffered three major floods since 2015, at least two of which were approximately 1-in-100-year events."

"When these sorts of floods happen back to back, many residents might start to wonder: Why are they even called 100-year floods?"

"'The educated layperson or elected officials, they think, 'Well, you scientists and engineers can't get it straight because we had a 100-year flood two years ago! Why are we having another one? You guys must have your numbers wrong.' It makes people think we don't know what we're doing,' says Robert Holmes, the national flood hazard coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey."

 

Tuesday
May072019

A Growing Push To Loosen Laws Around Psilocybin, Treat Mushrooms As Medicine

"Douglas rattles around a collection of glass jars in the storage closet of his Denver apartment. They're filled with sterilized rye grains, covered in a soft white fungus — a mushroom spawn. Soon, he'll transplant it in large plastic bins filled nutrients like dried manure and coconut fiber."

"Over the course of two weeks, a crop of mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient, will sprout. The species he grows include psilocybe cubensis."

"'I mean it's a relatively quiet thing to do. There's just lots of waiting,' says Douglas, which is his middle name. He didn't want to be identified because this is an illegal grow-and-sell operation; psychedelic mushrooms were federally banned in 1970, along with several other hallucinogens."

"'Mushrooms are really easy going, especially psilocybin,' he says. 'They kind of just grow themselves.'"

"Denver is at the forefront of a national movement that seeks to access these mushrooms, largely for medicinal use. On Tuesday, voters are weighing in on a ballot measure to decriminalize them. And while that may sound ambitious, a campaign in Oregon is gathering signatures for a ballot measure in the 2020 election and seeks to legalize mushrooms with a medical prescription for use in approved clinics."

 

Monday
May062019

Seafood Without The Sea: Will Lab-Grown Fish Hook Consumers?

"High-tech meat alternatives are grabbing a lot of headlines these days. Last month, the Impossible Burger marked a meatless milestone with its debut as a Burger King Whopper. Meanwhile, Lou Cooperhouse was in a San Diego office park quietly forging plans to disrupt another more fragmented and opaque sector of the food industry: seafood."

"His company, BlueNalu (a play on a Hawaiian term that means both ocean waves and mindfulness), is racing to bring to market what's known as cell-based seafood --- that is, seafood grown from cells in a lab, not harvested from the oceans."

"BlueNalu is aiming for serious scalability — a future where cities around the globe will be home to 150,000-square-foot facilities, each able to produce enough cell-based seafood to meet the consumption demands of more than 10 million nearby residents."

"But unlike Impossible Foods, BlueNalu is not creating a plant-based seafood alternative like vegan Toona or shrimpless shrimp. Instead, Cooperhouse and his team are extracting a needle biopsy's worth of muscle cells from a single fish, such as a Patagonian toothfish, orange roughy and mahi-mahi."

 

Sunday
May052019

In 'Ask Dr. Ruth,' The Famous Sex Therapist Looks Inward At Last

"Dr. Ruth brought sex education into America's homes at a time when frank talk about the subject was considered off-color and out-of-bounds in broadcasting."

"But Ruth Westheimer was more guarded when it came to talking about her own life story: a young Jewish girl who became a refugee during World War II after her parents died in the Holocaust."

"At age 90, Dr. Ruth is opening up. An upcoming documentary on Hulu, Ask Dr. Ruth, profiles Westheimer's life and journey, revealing a side of her life that even her own children never fully understood until recently."

"'I have changed my mind with this film,' she said in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon."

Saturday
May042019

After A Big Failure, Scientists And Patients Hunt For A New Type Of Alzheimer's Drug

"Scientists are setting a new course in their quest to treat Alzheimer's disease."

"The shift comes out of necessity. A series of expensive failures with experimental drugs aimed at a toxic protein called amyloid-beta have led to a change in approach."

"The most recent disappointment came in March, when drugmaker Biogen and its partner Eisai announced they were halting two large clinical trials of an amyloid drug called aducanumab."

"'It was like being punched in the stomach,' says Phil Gutis, 57, an Alzheimer's patient in one of the trials. 'Participating in this trial, it gave me hope for the future.'"

"Gutis, who once was a reporter for The New York Times and worked as an advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union, had hoped the experimental drug would preserve some of his remaining memories."

"I'm just being erased," he says.

The day before the aducanumab trial ended, Gutis had been leafing through pictures of his dog, Abe, a Jack Russell terrier who died last year. He was trying to remember the companion who'd shared his life for 12 years.

 

Friday
May032019

Army Soldier Falls Into Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano After Straining For Better View

"A 32-year-old soldier, straining to get a better view of the inside of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, was seriously injured after he fell from a 300-foot-high cliff into the volcano crater."

"According to a parks spokesman, the man climbed over a metal guardrail to get a better vantage point. Then the ground beneath him collapsed."

"Army officials say the man is a soldier from Schofield Barracks, on the island of Oahu, and was on Hawaii's Big Island for training exercises. An eyewitness saw the man fall into the volcano around 6:30 p.m. and immediately notified authorities."

"Rescue workers were able to rappel down the inside of the volcano, where they found the man on a ledge 70 feet below the rim. They attached him to a stretcher and airlifted him out of the crater, with the help of a military helicopter."

"He was flown to Hilo Medical Center in critical condition. On Thursday his condition was upgraded to stable."

"'Visitors should never cross safety barriers, especially around dangerous and destabilized cliff edges,' John Broward, chief ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, said in a statement, according to The New York Times. He warned that crossing safety barriers could result in serious injuries or death."

 

Thursday
May022019

How Drug Companies Helped Shape A Shifting, Biological View Of Mental Illness

"Historian and Harvard professor Anne Harrington believes that pharmaceutical companies have played an oversized role in determining how mental illness is treated in the United States — leading to a rise in the use of antidepressant drugs."

"Harrington's new book, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry's Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, chronicles the history of psycho-pharmaceuticals, such as Prozac and Xanax, which have been used to treat depression and anxiety, as well as lithium, the first drug to treat what is now called bipolar disorder."

"Prior to the 1970s, Harrington says, society tended to distinguish between forms of depression that should be treated medically versus depression caused by 'bad stuff going on in your life,' which was thought to be treated best by talk therapy."

"But as pharmaceutical companies began to market antidepressant drugs, the focus of treatment for many people moved away from talk therapy. Harrington says this shift has not always served patients well."

"'We don't know enough about the biology of these mental disorders to know whether or not some of the reasons are biological — in the sense that medicine likes to think of these things as diseases — and whether it's just because they're having terrible problems,' Harrington says. 'I would love to see a larger, more pluralistic set of options.'"

 

Wednesday
May012019

Celebrities Need Comfort Food Too: A Hollywood Hangout Turns 100

"The legendary Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard opened before there was a Hollywood sign. For 100 years now, stars, studio heads and writers have settled into the restaurant's red leather banquettes to negotiate, gossip, drink and eat."

"Anyone who's dined at Musso's has an opinion about it — and after 100 years, that adds up to a lot of opinions. They include: 'It's our favorite place to go for special events," and "We go for the martinis, not the food," and "The food's not bad, especially the chicken pot pie every Thursday.'"

"Musso's specializes in comfort food from an earlier generation — some dishes have been on the menu for decades. You can order tongue, calf liver, lamb kidneys, sweetbreads or sauerbraten. (When Rolling Stone Keith Richards is in LA he gets the liver and onions.)

Welsh rarebit, another old-school dish, is not for calorie counters. It's a melted cheddar cheese sauce spiked with beer, mustard, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce poured over toast points and served on a platter with a big spoon. (There are tomato slices on the side for the dieters at the table.) Some people order the rarebit without really knowing what it is, says server Sergio Gonzalez. "Where's the rabbit?" they ask."

"The menu has been lightened up over the years according to Musso's fourth generation owner/operator Mark Echeverria. But the dishes that last the longest are the comfort foods. 'People want to know they can come into a restaurant and get that dish that they had 30 years ago,' he says."

 

Tuesday
Apr302019

Even In The Robot Age, Manufacturers Need The Human Touch

"Robots have revolutionized auto manufacturing, making plants safer and products more reliable — and reducing the number of people involved in the process. But walk inside a modern auto plant, and you'll quickly realize that robots have hardly replaced the human touch — at least, not in some areas."

"Volvo's car plant in Ridgeville, S.C., which opened last year, provides an object lesson. The facility produces the S60, a luxury sedan, for the U.S. market as well as for export."

"The beginning of the production line is highly automated; in the first of three large buildings, robots outnumber human workers 300 to 200. But the end of the process is dominated by people."

"Let's start with the robots. Behind a safety fence, a half-dozen robot arms move in coordination as they spot-weld a car body together, whirring softly. The lights in this section of the massive building are dimmed because the robots don't require much light to complete their work."

Robots are indisputably better than humans at some tasks. They're precise and consistent, and they excel at repeating an identical motion over and over again.

Jeff Moore, Volvo's vice president of manufacturing in the Americas, says that in deciding which jobs to assign to a robot, the company starts by focusing on monotonous, physically demanding work — especially anything that carries safety concerns.

 

Monday
Apr292019

If Mueller Report Was 'Tip Of The Iceberg,' What More Is Lurking Unseen?

"If the political interference documented in special counsel Robert Mueller's report was just the 'tip of the iceberg,' what else is lurking out of sight beneath the surface?"

"That was the question posed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a speech in New York City, one in which he defended his handling of the Russia investigation and suggested there could be much more to it beyond that contained in Mueller's report."

"'The bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord and undermine America, just like they do in many other countries,' Rosenstein said on Thursday."

"Mueller's focus was on the two best-known aspects of Russia's "active measures": the theft and release of material embarrassing to political targets and the use of social media platforms to crank up agitation among an already divided populace."

"Some of the Russian schemes that Mueller left out of his report also are known."

"On Friday, for example, a federal judge sentenced a woman to 18 months in prison after she pleaded guilty to serving as an unregistered Russian agent from around 2015 until her arrest last summer."

Sunday
Apr282019

Pushing Against the Boundaries of Koreanness

"As part of an introspective look at her life as a Korean-Canadian, photographer Hannah Yoon takes portraits of other Koreans who challenge the hyphen that so often defines them."

"'Since I grew up in a small city with 90 percent of the population being white, I found myself wanting to blend in,' Yoon says. 'Naturally, I ended up being the token Asian in a lot of my social groups and I enjoyed the attention. I didn't realize I was being tokenized and was just happy to be acknowledged.'"

"In her community, Yoon was introduced as the 'little Asian friend,' with her skin, eyes and jet-black hair serving as perpetual reminders of who she was. 'No matter how much I tried to blend in, I realized I wouldn't,' the photographer says."

"While sharing her experience, Yoon introduces the South Korean concept of Han and how it fits into her life and work. 'It translates to a collective sorrow, angst and pain. Han simultaneously expresses a longing for an end to silent suffering and a sense of hope and humble perseverance. In many ways, Han captures the spirit of postwar South Korea and its people, including those who grew up outside the country.'"