NPR Picks



'They Love Freedom': Ai Weiwei On His Lego Portraits Of Fellow Activists

"Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has had several confrontations with Chinese authorities. (He was once beaten so badly by police that he had to have brain surgery.) Through it all, Ai continued to make art, and his art continued to travel the world, sometimes without him."

"That's what happened with Trace, a series of Lego portraits Ai created while under house arrest. The artworks, which depict activists and political prisoners from around the world, were first shown at the former prison on San Francisco's Alcatraz Island in 2014, and nearly a million people saw them there. But at the time, Ai was still under house arrest and couldn't travel to the exhibition."

"Now, the artist has his passport back, and he was able to attend a new show of those portraits which opens Wednesday at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. NPR was there for his first look at Trace in a gallery setting:"



After The Amazon Deal: What Will Shopping At Whole Foods Feel Like?

"When the news broke that Amazon had agreed to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, the retail food sector went a little bananas."

"The stock prices of large food retail chains, such as Costco, tumbled a bit."

"And this headline from Business Insider helps explain it: Amazon is acquiring Whole Foods — and Walmart, Target, and Kroger should be terrified."

"The message is this: The brick-and-mortar retail business that pioneered organic, fresh food and the country's dominant e-commerce company make a powerful combination."

"Whole Foods was quick to point out, in a statement, that its stores will continue to operate under the Whole Foods Market brand, that its headquarters will remain in Austin, Texas, and that John Mackey will stay on as CEO."

"Nonetheless, a lot is about to change. We spoke to food analyst David Portalatin of the NPD Group, a market research company."



What Churchill And Orwell Had In Common: Both Could Say, 'My Side Is Wrong'

"Journalist Tom Ricks used to write about the present. His reports on the U.S. military won him two Pulitzer Prizes, and his 2006 book, Fiasco, was basically a takedown of U.S. policies in Iraq."

"But Ricks says the wars following Sept. 11 wore him down; so he left daily journalism, moved to an island off the coast of Maine and wrote a history called Churchill and Orwell — as in the British prime minister and the author of 1984."

"According to Ricks, both Winston Churchill and George Orwell lived through World War II and had a shared outlook on the war. 'At a time not unlike today — when people were wondering whether democracy was sustainable, when a lot of people thought you needed authoritarian rule, either from the right or the left — Orwell and Churchill, from their very different perspectives, come together on a key point: We don't have to have authoritarian government.'"

"Another key point, he says, is that they were 'both willing to say, 'No, my side is wrong on this.'"


Brain Cell Transplants Are Being Tested Once Again For Parkinson's

"Researchers are working to revive a radical treatment for Parkinson's disease."

"The treatment involves transplanting healthy brain cells to replace cells killed off by the disease. It's an approach that was tried decades ago and then set aside after disappointing results."

"Now, groups in Europe, the U.S. and Asia are preparing to try again, using cells they believe are safer and more effective."

"'There have been massive advances,' says Claire Henchcliffe, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. 'I'm optimistic.'"

"We are very optimistic about ability of [the new] cells to improve patients' symptoms," says Viviane Tabar, a neurosurgeon and stem cell biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.


At 'Washington Post,' Tech Is Increasingly Boosting Financial Performance

"When I started my career at The Washington Post in the late 1990s, the newsroom wore a dusty, outdated look as if it were paying homage to its legendary past. The Post of today occupies an updated building on D.C.'s renowned K Street, in modern, glass-walled offices with a Silicon Valley aesthetic."

"This is the Post after Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO and e-commerce visionary, bought it in 2013. Since then, the paper's business and technology has almost outshone its award-winning journalism."

"Before Bezos, the Post was losing revenue and its losses were widening, as it struggled to find income to replace its decline in print ads. The Post is now privately owned and doesn't discuss specific figures, but says revenue and profits are up, as subscribers grow and digital ad revenue increases. Its monthly Web traffic has grown 56 percent, to 78.7 million over the past two years, according to ComScore."


The Dangers Of Hidden Jargon In Communicating Science

"One of the challenges that can arise in communicating science and other forms of scholarship to non-experts is the jargon involved."

"How many people can confidently explain the meaning of broadband asymmetric acoustic transmissionmural lymphatic endothelial cells, or graded incoherence (to borrow some phrases from recent journal publications)?"

"But the most dangerous kind of jargon isn't the kind we notice. It's the kind that slips by. When technical definitions hide behind words we use in everyday speech, the opportunities for miscommunication abound. The expert thinks she has been clear; the recipient thinks he has understood. And yet, both could be wrong."



Meet Your Lucky Stars: NASA Announces A New Class Of Astronaut Candidates

"Just as class lets out for the summer across the country, a new one has just been announced."

"NASA has chosen 12 people from a pool of more than 18,300 applicants for two years of training before giving them the title of 'astronaut.'"

"The space agency received a record number of applicants after announcing an open application in December 2015."

"Jasmin Moghbeli, one of the dozen candidates, spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro from Houston's Johnson Space Center, where she'll undertake the training program starting in August."

"Moghbeli, who says she's wanted to be an astronaut since the sixth grade, talked about what kind of candidate it takes to earn the coveted spot."

"Start looking into science, technology, engineering, math, those kinds of fields," the German-born, New York native says. But whatever you do, she says, love it.


Eagles Adopt Baby Red-Tailed Hawk, Putting Aside Violent Species Rivalry

"Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks are not typically friends — in fact, they have been known to fight each other to the death."

"That's why Canadian bird watchers were so surprised when they spotted a pair of bald eagles sharing a nest with and caring for a baby red-tailed hawk, in addition to their own three eaglets."

"The unexpected interspecies family is living in a Douglas fir at the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia, as the Vancouver Sun reported."

"And bird experts are putting forward two main theories about how a red-tailed hawk chick, a species that is a fraction of the size of an eagle, ended up in the nest."


'Becoming Cary Grant' Reveals The Self-Invention Of A Hollywood Icon

"There's a classic moment in the romantic thriller Charade, when Audrey Hepburn says to Cary Grant in exasperation,'Do you know what's the matter with you? ... Nothing.'"

"For decades, the whole world felt the same. Grant's unrivaled blend of charm, good looks and silliness — he hadn't a shred of pomposity or elitism — made him a movie star everyone loved. Everyone, that is, except Archie Leach, the actor's real-life self who wrote that he'd spent years cautiously peering from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant."

"The journey from Archie to Cary is the subject of Mark Kidel's enjoyable documentary, Becoming Cary Grant. Weaving together the actor's private home movies, excerpts from his unpublished writings and terrific clips from his Hollywood work, this Showtime film tells the story of an arduous act of self-invention."


315,000-Year-Old Fossils From Morocco Could Be Earliest Recorded Homo Sapiens

"A team of European and Moroccan scientists has found the fossil remains of five individuals they believe are the most ancient modern humans (Homo sapiens) ever found."

"In a remote area of Morocco called Jebel Irhoud, in what was once a cave, the team found a skull, bones, and teeth of five individuals who lived about 315,000 years ago. The scientists also found fairly sophisticated stone tools and charcoal, indicating the use of fire by this group."

"The researchers' claim is controversial, however, because anthropologists are still debating exactly what physical features distinguish modern humans from our more primitive ancestors."


Polar Photographer Shares His View Of A Ferocious But Fragile Ecosystem

"Conservation photographer Paul Nicklen has spent more than two decades documenting the ice and wildlife in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth — the Arctic and the Antarctic."

"It's a risky business: Nicklen often finds himself immersed in frigid waters, just a camera's length away from deadly predators. Once, in Antarctica, he came face-to-face with a 1,000-pound leopard seal: 'She opened up her mouth and her head is twice as big as a grizzly bear, and I am starring down her throat,' he says."

"Nicklen adds that his utmost concern is for the well-being of the animals he encounters. 'I want to get close, but I also never want to harass an animal,' he says. 'What you learn about these animals is how communicative they are, how intelligent they are, how social they are, how forgiving they are.'"


The Big Picture: How Food Photos Have Told Our Story Over The Decades

"Photography documents life — and food, whether in the fore or background, seems to always be in the picture. The two intersect in a new book, Feast for the Eyes, written by photography curator Susan Bright and published by Aperture."

"The way that food has been photographed over the years is a reflection on the times we live in. The first still-life like images of overflowing fruit baskets soon branched out into ways of commercializing food. As photography evolved, food was sometimes used to make statements during important moments in history, such the Great Depression or the fight for civil rights."

"And sometimes, food is just photographed as art for its own sake."

"Today, we want food to look real. In the past few decades, food photos have taken on a real-time documentary feel, from a chef captured mid-flambe to a scoop of ice cream that has just begun to melt."

"Though the style of photography has changed over the decades, the images in a Feast for the Eyes show that our relationship with food has always gone beyond the merely edible — whether it's humorous, artistic or political."


The Soprano And The Scientist: A Conversation About Music And Medicine

"Renée Fleming and Francis Collins have something unexpected in common: music."

Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, plays guitar. Fleming, of course, is a renowned soprano.

"She is also an Artistic Advisor at Large to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the two of them are joining forces this weekend for a program called Sound Health. The two-day event will explore connections between music, health, wellness and science through musical performances and presentations from neuroscientists."

"All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spoke with Fleming and Collins about their work together and what they hope to convey to the public about the intersection between art and science. They also sang a duet. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity."


Alan Alda's Experiment: Helping Scientists Learn To Talk To The Rest Of Us

"Alan Alda's father wanted him to become a doctor, but it wasn't meant to be. 'I failed chemistry really disastrously ... ' Alda says. 'I really didn't want to be a doctor; I wanted to be a writer and an actor.'"

"Which is exactly what happened, but Alda didn't leave science behind entirely. His new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, is all about communication — and miscommunication — between scientists and civilians."

"'People are dying because we can't communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another,' he writes. 'It sounds like an exaggeration, but I don't think it is. When patients can't relate to their doctors and don't follow their orders, when engineers can't convince a town that the dam could break, when a parent can't win the trust of a child to warn her off a lethal drug. They can all be headed for a serious ending.'"

"Alda explains why empathy is crucial to successful science conversations, and describes his work at the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science."


Paninis Are Pa-nonos: Mayor Of Florence Takes Aim At Tourist Picnicking

"Florence has taken aim at picnicking tourists. The problem: visitors who choose to dine on the steps of the Italian city's historic churches."

"Earlier this week, just before lunchtime, the city began hosing down the front steps of a basilica where sightseers like to sit and eat. Mayor Dario Nardella's goal is to make the steps wet enough that tourists won't gather there."

"Tourists 'eat and drink and make it dirty,' Nardella told Toscana TV. 'They're treating our churches like they're a restaurant. And they're not restaurants. These are religious and cultural sites that you should love and care for.'"

"Tourism is big business in Florence. The Guardian reports that more than 12 million tourists a year have visited the city since Nardella took office in 2014."


Climate Accord Decision Is A Win For Self-Destruction

"We astronomers are trained to think long."

"A hundred million years, a hundred thousand years — after a while these impossible-seeming timescales become so familiar you can kind of feel them in your bones."

"That training also yields an unusual perspective on the daily events of politics. Sometimes, when I worry about this vote or that court decision, I think about how people in Imperial Rome (2,000 years ago), Song Dynasty China (1,000 years ago) or the Iroquois Nation (400 years ago) must have had similar worries over the events and personalities of their day. The wheel of cosmic and planetary history is always turning — and we only get our turn on it for a moment. That's why almost everything we do will be forgotten in just a few thousand years."



Meet Frédéric Bazille, The Impressionist Painter Who Could Have Been

"France's ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, is a fan of 19th-century French painter Frédéric Bazille. But I had a confession to make when I spoke with him about the National Gallery's "Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism" exhibition. I said that I usually walk right past Bazille's paintings and go straight to the impressionists — and I assume I'm not the only one who does that."

"Araud understands, but says he likes Bazille for the opposite reason: The impressionists are so well-known, he says, 'I've reached a point where I don't look at them anymore.'"

"Those impressionists were also Bazille's pals. National Gallery curator Kimberly A. Jones says Bazille "was very much part of that sort of charmed circle. Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley — he was right at the heart of everything."


An Illustrated Guide To Master The Elements Of Cooking — Without Recipes

"Samin Nosrat has become known as the chef who taught Michael Pollan to cook, after the famed food writer featured her in his book Cooked and his Netflix show of the same name."

"Now, she's sharing her wisdom with the masses in her new, illustrated cookbook called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. The key to good cooking, she says, is learning to balance those elements and trust your instincts, rather than just follow recipes."

"Nosrat's own formal culinary education came at Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., founded by Alice Waters. She first went there as a diner, then asked for a job and got one, working her way up. And it was while cooking at Chez Panisse that Nosrat had the revelation that eventually led to this cookbook — that salt, fat, acid and heat are the fundamental elements to good food."

"'The elements and the tenets of professional cooking don't always get translated to the home cook,' she tells NPR's Rachel Martin. 'Recipes don't encourage you to use your own senses and use your own judgement. And salt, fat, acid and heat can be your compass when you maybe don't have other tools.'"


The Science Behind The Super Abilities Of Sherpas

"Sherpas are extraordinary human beings."

"In the high peaks of the Himalayas, members of the Nepalese ethnic group are famous for their speed-climbing records, ascents of routes that no one has ascended before, expert guiding and other skills."

"What makes Sherpas so good at climbing into the wispy atmosphere of the world's tallest mountains?"

"They may be better at harnessing oxygen than the rest of us, suggests a new study, which also offers insights that could eventually help ordinary people whose tissues become deprived of oxygen because of medical conditions."

"'You don't need to spend very long in that part of world to see that the people living there, particularly the Sherpas, perform extremely well at altitude — a lot better than we do,' says Andrew Murray, a physiologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and one of the study authors."

"'There's certainly something really remarkable about their ability.'"


Juno Spacecraft Reveals Spectacular Cyclones At Jupiter's Poles

"NASA's Juno spacecraft has spotted giant cyclones swirling at Jupiter's north and south poles."

"That's just one of the unexpected and puzzling findings being reported by the Juno science team."

"Juno arrived at Jupiter last summer. It's the first spacecraft to get a close-up look at the planet's poles. It's in an orbit that takes it skimming close to the cloud tops of the gas giant once every 53 days."

After each close pass, the spacecraft sends a trove of data back to Earth.

"Scientists weren't expecting to see cyclones at the poles. "You point a camera at terra incognita on Jupiter, and 'surprise!' you get a surprise," says Cornell University's Jonathan Lunine, director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and a member of the Juno science team."