NPR Picks


North Korea Designed A Nuke. So Did This Truck Driver

"This year, deep inside a mountain, North Korea detonated a giant nuclear bomb."

"The weapon was powerful; at least 10 times more destructive than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. The North claimed it was an advanced, thermonuclear design. The test came just months after a report that some intelligence officials believed North Korea had successfully "miniaturized" some of its nukes in order to fit them on top of missiles."

"The apparently rapid progress alarmed politicians and pundits, and it worried average Americans, many of whom hadn't thought much about nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War."

"But a 71-year-old truck driver named John Coster-Mullen wasn't surprised. Nuclear weapons are not particularly "hard" to design and build, he says. "Compared to what they do in manufacturing today for making a light bulb, these are simple. They really are," he says."


'Fascinating And Also A Little Bit Uncomfortable': Andrew Wyeth At 100

"In 1977, nearly 30 years after Andrew Wyeth's most famous painting "Christina's World" was created, critic Robert Rosenblum was asked to name the most overrated and most underrated artists. He put Wyeth in both categories."

"'Robert Rosenblum's comment is accurate to a degree but also simplistic,' says Michael Komanecki, chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. He's often asked to weigh in on Wyeth. 'Andy has been described to me as, 'Oh, the critics treat him so badly.' Well, it's not at all true — he enjoyed a tremendous critical reputation for decades.'"

"Wyeth has certainly enjoyed tremendous commercial success. The Farnsworth has an entire center devoted to the work of Andrew Wyeth, his father N.C. Wyeth and Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth. The museum's collection of Andrew's work shows a range that's broader than the seemingly literal realism of his familiar paintings — with their fine brushwork, muted palette and depictions of his rural neighbors. Here, there are watercolors of coastlines with energetic, impressionistic brushstrokes and a bright palette. These are surprises."


SpaceX Rocket Launch Lights Up The California Sky, Freaks Out Some Residents

"An iridescent streak lit up the sky over Southern California on Friday night, stopping traffic and leading some residents to marvel and others to worry about a UFO or even a nuclear bomb attack. In reality, it was a SpaceX rocket lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, Calif., carrying 10 satellites for the Iridium constellation. They will be used in mobile voice and data communications."

"In a bid to ease the minds of worried witnesses, the Los Angeles Fire Department released a statement saying the 'mysterious light in the sky is reported to be the result of [Vandenberg] Air Force Base launching rocket to put satellite into space.'"

"SpaceX CEO Elon Musk didn't help matters when he tweeted, 'Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea.'"

The glowing contrail could be seen as far away as Phoenix, reports The Associated Press.

"People were wondering if it had something to do with movies, or TV or a UFO," Jimmy Golen, who was touring the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank at the time, told the wire service.



The Christmas Of Now: A Convergence Of Pasts

"Ebenezer Scrooge was famously visited by three ghosts in A Christmas Carol. The past, present and future all converged on poor Scrooge in an effort to save him from his own narrow vision of the world and wake him to the wonders of the life right before his eyes."

"As we navigate the frantic pace of this holiday season we, like Scrooge, might stop to let the past, present and future converge on us for the same reason. Luckily we don't need any scary spectral visitations on Christmas Eve. All we have to do is step outside and let the night sky transport us back in time."

"So put on your coats, and your gloves and don't forget your scarf because you can't rush this. The truth of time — your time — will take a moment to sink in."

"Once you get out there your job is to find a star and focus on it for a second. Now here is a question: Are you seeing that distant sun as it is now, right now?"



Climate Change Likely To Increase Volcanic Eruptions, Scientists Say

"A warming planet due to human-induced climate change will likely contribute to an increase in volcanic activity, according to a recent study in the journal Geology."

"While a relationship between climate and volcanism might seem counter-intuitive, it turns out that pressure exerted by thick glaciers on the Earth's crust — what geologists call "surface loading" – has an impact on the flow of magma below the surface."

"The correlation affects "magma flow and the voids and gaps in the Earth where magma flows to the surface as well as how much magma the crust can actually hold," the study's lead author Graeme T. Swindles, an associate professor of Earth system dynamics at the University of Leeds, wrote in an email to Scientific American."


Life Expectancy Drops Again As Opioid Deaths Surge In U.S.

"Life expectancy in the U.S. fell for the second year in a row in 2016, nudged down again by a surge in fatal opioid overdoses, federal officials report Thursday."

"'I'm not prone to dramatic statements,' says Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics. 'But I think we should be really alarmed. The drug overdose problem is a public health problem and it needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it.'"

"The trend is especially concerning because life expectancy is considered an important indicator of the general well-being of a nation."

"'It gives you sort of an overall sense of what's going on,' Anderson says."

"Life expectancy, which is the average time someone is expected to live, generally has been rising steadily for decades in the United States, with only occasional downward ticks."


Illinois Holocaust Museum Preserves Survivors' Stories — As Holograms

Holocaust survivor Sam Harris has told the story of how he survived the Holocaust hundreds of times.

He's talked about his experience in the Nazis' concentration camps with school groups and in videos for oral history archives. He even wrote a children's book.

But when he sat down to tell his story in Los Angeles a couple months ago, it was different.

In a Hollywood studio, surrounded by green screens, Harris answered questions for five or six hours a day. By the time it was all done, he'd answered nearly 2,000.

Sam Harris was getting made into a hologram.

"Oh my gosh, it's like being on the moon," Harris said. "I just looked at it and said, is that me?"


NIH Lifts Ban On Research That Could Make Deadly Viruses Even Worse

"Scientists could soon resume controversial experiments on germs with the potential to cause pandemics, as government officials have decided to finally lift an unusual three-year moratorium on federal funding for the work."

"The research involves three viruses — influenza, SARS, and MERS — that that could kill millions if they mutated in a way that let the germs spread quickly between people."

"The bird flu virus H7N9, for example, is known to have infected more than 1,500 people, and 40 percent of them died. But unlike common flu strains, this one does not spread easily in humans."

"Biologists say they may need to alter these viruses in the lab to understand what genetic changes matter in starting pandemics, so they can understand the risks and get ready. But some of their past efforts to tinker with viruses have made other scientists uneasy."


For LSD, What A Long Strange Trip It's Been

"The next day, he writes, 'A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me... everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light.'"

"LSD seems to shut off certain controls in the brain, allowing signals from one part of the brain to flow unchecked to other regions – particularly the regions that process sensory inputs from the outside world and the regions that define our sense of self. This might explain why LSD can cause hallucinations. It's also why it could plausibly be beneficial to treat depression or anxiety, allowing signals in the brain to bypass pathways that aren't working so well."

"Years of experimentation with LSD both in the laboratory and as a recreational drug suggest that it is physically and mentally safe for healthy individuals. But it can also bring on terrifying hallucinations and sensations, including anxiety and paranoia, especially if people aren't prepared for the experience."

"In the 1950s, the U.S. Army tested LSD's potential to incapacitate enemy soldiers, but it turned out to be too expensive and difficult to deliver by aerosol. The CIA also tested it as tool for mind control by administering it to people, sometimes illegally and without their knowledge or consent, in the notorious Project MKUltra."



PHOTOS: Animals That Could Disappear Because Of Us

"Earth is facing an extinction crisis – and humans shoulder the blame."

"Wildlife poaching and illegal trade. Climate change. Urbanization. Mining. These are some of the myriad things we do that endanger animals and, in the process, damage our own well-being."

"Three-quarters of the earth's estimated 8.7 million species are at risk, according to a 2011 PLoS Biology study. Of course it's not always our fault, but even the most conservative estimates, like one published in a 2015 Science study that uses the fossil record, suggest that the current extinction rate based on vertebrate data is up to a hundred times higher than it would be without human intervention."

"Scientists and news reporters throw about these numbers, but for the half of humans who dwell in cities, the problem may seem pretty distant. We may not notice the fallen ash trees crisscrossing the forest or the gradual disappearance of the North American red wolf."


Astronomers Want To Know: Does This Interstellar Visitor Have A Message For Us?

"It's time to find out what, if anything, our 'mysterious interloper' has to say."

"That, at any rate, is the guiding idea for a team of astronomers, who announced Monday they plan to check out an interstellar object for signs of life. Beginning Wednesday, the group Breakthrough Listen will closely scan the asteroid 'Oumuamua, a recently spotted space rock that hails from outside our solar system."

"The skinny object is the first of its kind that scientists have observed. And since it has already whipped around our sun and embarked on its long return to parts unknown, researchers working with the international organization want to seize their limited opportunity to find out if it really is just a naturally occurring phenomenon — and not something more."

"'Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust,' the group said in its announcement."



NPR's Favorite TV Shows Of 2017

"Before we begin, a note: See how the adjective up there in that headline is "favorite," not "best?" That's intentional."

"There's just too much television out there for a comprehensive ranking; the TV landscape has never been more expansive than it is today. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are adding so many shows so quickly they don't so much stream as cascade. Cable gems like Game of Thrones and Insecure continue to glimmer, but don't count out basic cable and broadcast networks — NBC's The Good Place, for example, is the only show that all three of us agreed deserved an end-of-year shoutout."

"Our list of 2017 favorites is personal and idiosyncratic, which is as it should be. TV now boasts more voices, telling more stories, than ever before, and those stories are finding discrete audiences hungry for them. TV is starting to look less monolithic, and more like the people watching it — all of the people watching it." — Glen


An Asteroid Gets Its Close-Up As Geminids Light Up The Sky

"This week, the skywatchers will experience a flashy double feature: The Geminid meteor shower — one of the year's best — will coincide with an unusually close encounter by an asteroid."

"That asteroid? It's called 3200 Phaethon, discovered by a NASA satellite in 1983. With a diameter of about 3 miles, it's the third-largest near-Earth asteroid classified by the space agency as 'potentially hazardous.'"

"On Saturday, Phaethon will come within 0.069 astronomical units — about 6.4 million miles — of Earth. That is when NASA plans to take detailed radar images of the asteroid at its Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert and at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico."

"NASA says this encounter with Phaethon is the Earth's closest since 1974, and the closest it will be until 2093."



Arctic's Temperature Continues To Run Hot, Latest 'Report Card' Shows

"The Arctic is a huge, icy cap on the planet that acts like a global air conditioner. But the air conditioner is breaking down, according to scientists who issued a grim "report card" on the Arctic today."

"They say the North Pole continues to warm at an alarming pace — twice the rate as the rest of the planet, on average. This year was the Arctic's second-warmest in at least 1,500 years, and possibly longer. The warmest year ever was 2016."

"Researchers say there was less winter ice in the Arctic Ocean than ever observed. And ocean water in parts of the polar Barents and Chukchi seas was a whopping 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than just a few decades ago."

"It's a trend that has some calling the state of the Arctic a "new normal." Arctic scientist Jeremy Mathis says that term doesn't work for him."


Why A Pill That's 4 Cents In Tanzania Costs Up To $400 In The U.S.

"Two pills to wipe out hookworm could cost you four cents. Or $400."

"It just depends where you live."

"The four cents is in Tanzania. That'll cover the two pills it takes to knock out the intestinal parasite. But in the United States, where hookworm has reemerged, the price for two 200 mg tablets of albendazole can cost as much as $400."

"The pill will put an end to the problems hookworm can cause, such as anemia and protein deficiency as well as stunting growth in children."

"And it's not just a problem with the anti-hookworm pill. Drugs for diseases of the developing world, in particular the so-called "neglected tropical diseases" like hookworm and leishmaniasis, are enormously more expensive in the United States than in the developing world."

"'There really is no good reason for this price,' says Dr. Jonathan Alpern of the albendazole price tag. Alpern works for the HealthPartners Institute, the research division of a health-care organization in Minnesota."



In The U.S., Flu Season Could Be Unusually Harsh This Year

"Health officials are warning that the United States may have an unusually harsh flu season this year."

"But they stress that flu seasons are notoriously difficult to predict, and it's far too early to know for sure what may happen."

"The concern stems from several factors, including signs that the season started a few weeks earlier than usual. 'When you have an early start with regional outbreaks, that is generally not a good sign,' says Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 'Sometimes that's the forerunner of a serious season'."

"An early start could mean a longer season, which could mean more people end up getting infected with the flu."

"Another reason for concern is that Australia had a severe flu season this year."


Strange Parallels: Alternative Histories In Physics And Culture

"Certain pivotal events in history seem to open up a schism in time, separating what really happened from countless other 'what ifs.'"

"World War II, with its succession of controversial decisions, included many such pivotal moments, culminating in President Truman's order to launch atomic bombs on Japan. Physicists were sharply divided about that choice: Some such as Albert Einstein regretted the bomb's development — given that the Germans, as it turned out, had made little progress — and others, such as John Wheeler, one of its many developers in the Manhattan Project, argued that it should have been built and launched earlier to end the war sooner and save millions of lives. Wheeler's argument was personal; his younger brother Joe, a soldier in combat, had sent him a postcard with the plea "hurry up!" shortly before being killed."

"Speculative fiction writers mined the ambiguities of World War II with great passion, producing such seminal works as The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges (who wrote the piece near the start of the war, and set it in World War I), and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (who created his bold vision of an alternative ending to WWII with Axis victors long after its real finale). Each author pondered time as a maze of ever-splitting paths, in which though we happen to find ourselves on one succession of strands, there are countless other choices that each have their own reality."



What Would Enrico Fermi Think Of Science Today?

"I have been living with Enrico Fermi for the past four years."

"Well, I have been living with him metaphorically — as I have just completed a full-scale biography of Fermi. So, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how he would view today's scientific landscape."

"Fermi's contributions to physics were so broad ranging, his interests so wide, that he made a mark in virtually every area of the field. I find it irresistible to speculate what he would make of physics today or how he would view some of our broader debates on the role of science and society."

"Certain areas of physics have entered a true golden age — and Fermi would be absolutely delighted. Particle physicists have spent the past four decades piecing together the "Standard Model," and it seems to work, at least as far as it goes. The quark theory of matter, the unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions, and the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2015 would fascinate and please him immensely. He was, after all, one of the first physicists to explore the atomic nucleus with high-energy accelerators."


This Year's Hurricane Season Was Intense. Is It A Taste Of The Future?

"With the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season finally over, scientists are taking stock of what they say was a monumental year."

"A total of 10 hurricanes swept the region. Six were major storms of Category 3 or higher, and three of those were Category 4 or higher when they made landfall, spreading havoc from the Caribbean to Texas."

"The Atlantic Ocean is vast and has always made its own weather. But a typical year sees about six hurricanes, not 10. And three strong hurricanes hitting land — Harvey, Irma and Maria — is extraordinary."

So what's going on?

Meteorologist Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research says hurricanes feed off ocean heat. "Having high ocean heat content below the surface means that they can be sustained and remain stronger, more intense than they otherwise would," he says.


In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr

"If you're reading this through some kind of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi gadget, here's an interesting fact: Some ideas behind that technology can be traced back to a famous actress from the 1930s. Her name was Hedy Lamarr."

"The story of this stunning beauty of the silver screen is told in the new documentary Bombshell. From a scandalous debut in the pre-war European film Ecstasy to Hollywood films including Algiers and Samson And Delilah, the documentary tells little-known details of how she was worked grueling days by Hollywood producers and spent her nights in her own laboratory where she loved to invent."

"'She had this double identity that is so fascinating to all of us,' says Alexandra Dean, the director of Bombshell. "She was on sound stages all day with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart – I mean, the biggest stars. And at night, she was going home and inventing. And she was inventing with her sometime-boyfriend, Howard Hughes."

"'He gave her the laboratory; he gave her access to his chemists. So she had people helping her with her ideas. And I think that's what gave her the bold vision for the invention that she would become famous for.'"