NPR Picks


Science 'Gone Wrong' Can Teach Us

An Aug. 14, 1932, headline in the The New York Times read: "Eclipse to be best until August 21, 2017."

"Sometimes scientists get it so right."

"But not always. Sometimes science goes wrong, and with terrible consequences."

"This is the topic of Paul A. Offit's very important book Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, just published in April."

"Consider this tale detailed in the book:"

"One of America's greatest conservationists, Madison Grant, was also one of our most virulent scientific, that is to say, pseudo scientific race theorists. In addition to saving the American bison and the bald eagle, protecting the Redwood tree, and founding the Bronx Zoo as well as the Wildlife Conversation Society, Grant wrote a "scientific treatise," The Passing of the Great Race, in which he advanced an account of the superiority of the nordic "race" and warned against the social and biological dangers of cross-breeding with other human races. Hitler would come to describe this book, which became a national and international bestseller, as his bible."


Celebrating Intellectual Engagement On College Campuses

"According to the National Center for Education Statistics, last year 20.5 million students attended U.S. colleges and universities. The numbers shouldn't be much different this year."

"Right now, as August rolls over into September, millions of families are sending their kids off to college, for the first time or for a return year. It's an emotional and exciting time."

"It's a time, too, to understand and appreciate what happens after move-in day concludes and the hard work of the academic year begins. That's especially important just now because in recent months evidence has emerged for a growing hostility to higher education in this country."

"According to this report at Inside Higher Ed last month, based on figures released by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Republicans have a negative impression of the impact colleges have on society. That's way up from 37 percent two years ago, and up even from the 45 percent last year. (This issue is definitively partisan: In the new report, 19 percent of Democrats view colleges negatively.)"


Scientists Hope To Farm The Biofuel Of The Future In The Pacific Ocean

"The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp."

"The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. "It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day," says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California."

"Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it's turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process."


You 2.0: Why We're Bad At Predicting Our Own Happiness - And How We Can Get Better

"How great would it be to win a brand new car? How horrible would it be to get laid off from your job? Research by psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard University suggests, not that great and not that horrible (respectively)."

"Among the many things Gilbert studies is how people make predictions about future events—specifically, how we make predictions about how we'll feel about future events. One of the most important questions we ask when making any decision is "how will this make me feel?" But no matter how much time we spend thinking about the future, we don't get any better at predicting it. That's why, as Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, divorce lawyers and people who remove tattoos continue to have a steady stream of customers."

"This week, Shankar talks to Dan Gilbert about where we go wrong in making our predictions, and how we can use this research to lead happier lives."


In Turkey, Schools Will Stop Teaching Evolution This Fall

"When children in Turkey head back to school this fall, something will be missing from their textbooks: any mention of evolution."

"The Turkish government is phasing in what it calls a values-based curriculum. Critics accuse Turkey's president of pushing a more conservative, religious ideology — at the expense of young people's education."

"At a playground in an upscale, secular area of Istanbul, parents and grandparents express concern over the new policy."

"'I'm worried, but I hope it changes by the time my grandchildren are in high school,' says Emel Ishakoglu, a retired chemical engineer playing with her grandchildren, ages 5 and 2. 'Otherwise our kids will be left behind compared to other countries when it comes to science education.'"


Wreckage Of USS Indianapolis, Sunk By Japanese In WWII, Found In Pacific

"For 72 years since the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank after being struck by Japanese torpedoes in the waning days of World War II, her exact resting place had been a mystery."

"But a team of researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen now says they have positively identified the wreckage, 18,000 feet below the surface in the Philippine Sea."

"The sinking of the Indianapolis — on its return from a secret mission to deliver components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped days later on the Japanese city of Hiroshima — became the single-largest loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy."

"After delivering its cargo to the tiny island of Tinian, north of Guam, the ship was on its way to the Philippines when it was hit by two torpedoes from the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58 on July 30, 1945."

"Indianapolis sank in just 12 minutes, with 300 of her crew going down with the ship. With few lifeboats, many of the remaining 900 faced death by exposure or shark attack until they were spotted three days later by a U.S. Navy patrol plane. By the time they were reached by rescuers, only 317 of the crew of 1,196 aboard were still alive."



From Greece, A Message In A Bottle Reaches Isolated Gaza

"A message in a bottle washed ashore this week in Gaza."

"'Hello! Thank you for picking up this bottle!' began the letter in neat black handwriting.'We are currently on holiday in Rhodes and would love to know how far this bottle got – even if it's just the next beach!'"

"The bottle floated much farther than the next beach. It traveled nearly 500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea, from the Greek island of Rhodes, past Turkey and Cyprus to the Palestinian seaside enclave of Gaza — and into the fishing net of Jihad al-Soltan, a 54-year-old Palestinian fisherman and father of seven."

"He said it was the first piece of personal mail he had ever received."

"Gaza is an isolated place. For the past decade, ever since the Palestinian militant group Hamas took control of this strip of land, its neighbors Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the territory."


Exclusive: Inside The Lab Where Scientists Are Editing DNA In Human Embryos

"From the thirteenth floor of a glass tower at the Oregon Health & Science University, you get a panoramic view of downtown Portland and the majestic mountains in the distance. But it's what's happening inside the building that's brought me here."

"'Should we go do this thing?' lab manager Amy Koski asks."

"She's just gotten a call from the fertility clinic three floors down. A woman undergoing in vitro fertilization has had her eggs extracted. One of the eggs is too immature to be used to try to create a baby, so she's donating it to research."

"Koski grabs a small metal box and rushes to the elevator. It's her portable incubator."

"'You want to keep the eggs very happy and warm,' she says. 'When you're jostling them and moving them, they get a little unhappy.'"


Chemists Say You Should Add A Little Water To Your Whiskey. Here's Why

"It's a common refrain among whiskey enthusiasts: Add a few drops of water to a glass to open up the flavors and aroma of the drink."

"For example, hard-liquor expert Alice Lascelles said in a demonstration for The Sunday Times that 'if you're tasting with a master blender, they will always add some water at some stage.'"

"But the science behind this claim has been murky. A couple of chemists in Sweden set out to figure out why adding a little water would improve the drink's taste."

"They say the taste improvement happens because alcohol molecules and those that determine whiskey's taste tend to stick together. Their findings were published Thursday in Scientific Reports."

"First, the scientists developed computer model simulations that strip whiskey down to its most basic elements: water and ethanol, or alcohol."


Fact Check: 'Whatabout' Those Other Historical Figures? Trump's Question Answered

"So this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?.... [Jefferson] was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?" — President Trump, Aug. 15, 2017

"The president made this statement Tuesday while jabbing at reporters over a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists protested the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee."

"And he used one of his standard rhetorical techniques, 'whataboutism.'"

"While defending the protesters and claiming that they weren't all white supremacists, he changed the subject to attack others. "What about the alt-left?" he said, when asked about the white nationalist alt-right. ("Alt-left" is a term seemingly invented for whataboutism, making liberals seem like the moral equivalents of the "alt-right," whose members coined that term themselves.)"


Who Were Your Millionth-Great-Grandparents?

"Human civilization began about 10,000 years ago with dawn of agriculture (give or take a millennia or so). This seems like such a long time that it can be hard to reconcile with the short span of our lives."

"But there is another way to look at it that puts not just civilization, but the whole of your ancestry, in a different light."

"Each of us constitutes a generation. We are the children of our parents who were the children of their parents (your grandparents) who were children of their parents (your great-grandparents)."

"You are, therefore, the latest step in a ladder of generations stretching backward in time and history. If we take each generation to be 25 years in length, then we can see something remarkable unspool."


New Florida Law Lets Residents Challenge School Textbooks

"Keith Flaugh is a retired IBM executive living in Naples, Fla., and a man with a mission. He describes it as 'getting the school boards to recognize ... the garbage that's in our textbooks.'"

"Flaugh helped found Florida Citizens' Alliance, a conservative group that fought unsuccessfully to stop Florida from signing on to Common Core educational standards."

"More recently, the group has turned its attention to the books being used in Florida's schools. A new state law, developed and pushed through by Flaugh's group, allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable via an independent hearing."

"Flaugh finds many objections with the books used by Florida students. Two years ago, members of the alliance did what he calls a 'deep dive' into 60 textbooks."


From Rats To Humans, A Brain Knows When It Can't Remember

"The human brain knows what it knows. And so, it appears, does a rat brain."

"Rats have shown that they have the ability to monitor the strength of their own memories, researchers from Providence College reported this month in the journal Animal Cognition."

"Brain scientists call this sort of ability metacognition. It's a concept that became famous in 2002, when then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained to reporters:

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

Rumsfeld wasn't talking about rats. But he could have been, says Michael Beran, a comparative psychologist and associate professor at Georgia State University who was not part of the research."


The Ongoing Battle Between Science Teachers And Fake News

"Every year Patrick Engleman plays a little trick on his students. The high school chemistry teacher introduces his ninth-graders in suburban Philadelphia to an insidious substance called dihydrogen monoxide. It's involved in 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It's in every single cancer cell. This stuff, it'll burn you," he tells them."

"But dihydrogen monoxide is water. He says several of his honors classes decided to ban it based just on what he told them."

"The lesson here isn't that teenagers are gullible. It's that you can't trust everything you hear. In a time when access to information is easier than ever, Engleman says that his current students have much more to sift through than his past students. These days kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they've read online or heard elsewhere."


PHOTOS: Japanese Scientists Turn Chrysanthemums 'True Blue'

"Japanese scientists have genetically engineered a chrysanthemum flower that is 'true blue' — a color that has long eluded flower breeders and researchers."

"Blue has proved a challenge to produce in many other popular flowers, including roses, carnations and lilies."

"It hasn't happened until now in chrysanthemums due to the "recalcitrant and unpredictable expression of introduced genes," Naonobu Noda from Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization tells The Two-Way. Noda is the lead author of the paper released today in Science Advances."

"When scientists tried previously to introduce genes to create a blue color, Noda said, the flower would "shut them off by as yet unknown mechanisms." Other attempts produced violet flowers, not blue ones."


'Dear Dickie': A Window Into Family History Through Post-WWII Love Letters

"'Dear Dickie,' the woman wrote on thin parchment paper. 'Here I am, so please don't scold me ...'"

"The Jan. 2, 1947, letter had made its journey from Honolulu to Kobe, Japan, courtesy of a 5-cent airmail stamp — evidence of an overseas courtship between two young people. She began with an apology for not writing sooner but quickly eased into flirting and teasing, anticipating the day when they would see each other again."

"The author —my grandmother Martha Kekauililani Matsuda — was just turning 20 years old and writing every other week for a year to a man stationed in Japan as part of the U.S. occupation after World War II. They would marry two years after these letters were written, and together, she and my grandfather Richard would raise eight children."

"My father recently found Grandma's letter and 27 others stashed inside a simple wooden box hidden at the bottom of a chest in my late grandparents' bedroom. Like many people who find old letters or beloved objects long forgotten, the discovery brought so much joy. But there was more: Not only did the letters provide a glimpse into our family's history, but they also shed light on our family's role in American history and offered insight into my own cultural identity, too."



Warming Climate Is Quieting Kauai's Colorful Forest Birds

"In Hawaii's Kauai island, the native forest birds are in peril. Once considered a paradise for the colorful songbirds, the island has lost more than half of those native species."

"What's happening on Kauai could be an early warning for the other Hawaiian islands."

"Native Hawaiian songs tell stories of the islands, including one that was inspired by the last mating call of a now extinct bird, the Kauai O'o. "

"'We still sing it with hope in our hearts,' says Sabra Kauka, a Native Hawaiian who is a revered teacher of the island's culture."

"'Our seabirds, our mountain birds they are just indicators of the health of the earth,' she says."


Snooty The Manatee Dies, And A Florida Community Mourns

"Two days after his 69th birthday, Snooty the manatee has died in what the South Florida Museum says was 'simply a heartbreaking accident.' The manatee drowned after being trapped by a hatch door, officials said Sunday."

"Snooty was the oldest manatee in captivity — and he was believed to be the oldest on record, according to the South Florida Museum, which houses the Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Fla."

"'Aquarium staff is heartbroken,' said Jeff Rodgers, the museum's provost and chief operating officer."

"Staff members who arrived at work this morning weren't able to find all the manatees, Rodgers said Sunday afternoon. He said an underwater hatch that accesses a plumbing area "had somehow been knocked loose" — and that while the other, younger, manatees had been able to go in and out of the area, Snooty had gone through but hadn't been able to get himself back out. The manatee was roughly 1,300 pounds — about twice the size of the other animals."


The Next 'Game of Thrones' Could Be Set In Post-Apocalyptic Africa

"The next Game of Thrones could be a sci-fi epic set in Africa."

"On Monday, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor posted an announcement on her Facebook page:

"I'm finally free to announce this: My World Fantasy Award winning novel WHO FEARS DEATH has been optioned by HBO and is now in early development as a TV series with George R. R. Martin as executive producer. Note: This did not happen overnight. It's been nearly 4 years coming."

Martin is, of course, the author of the novels that became the HBO smash hit Game of Thrones and also serves as a co-executive producer of the series."

"The news is a major win not just for Okorafor but for African fiction and representation of African issues on television. To understand why, it's important to understand the themes Okorafor explores in her work."


John McCain Was Diagnosed With A Glioblastoma, Among The Deadliest Of Cancers

"Doctors use words like 'aggressive' and 'highly malignant' to describe the type of brain cancer discovered in Arizona Sen. John McCain."

"The cancer is a glioblastoma, the Mayo Clinic said in a statement Wednesday. It was diagnosed after doctors surgically removed a blood clot from above McCain's left eye."

"Doctors who were not involved in his care say the procedure likely removed much of the tumor as well."

"Glioblastomas, which are the most common malignant brain tumor, tend to be deadly. Each year in the U.S., about 12,000 people are diagnosed with the tumor. Most die within two years, though some survive more than a decade."