NPR Picks


Stephen Hawking: Exploring an 'Unfettered Mind

"Make a list of the world's most popular scientists and it's likely Stephen Hawking's name will be near or at the very top of the list."

"'Make a list of the world's most popular scientists and it's likely Stephen Hawking's name will be near or at the very top of the list.'"

"Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time and a professor at the University of Cambridge, is known as much for his scientific contributions to theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity, as he is for his willingness to make science accessible for the general public, says science writer Kitty Ferguson."


For Lab Mice, The Medical Advances Keep Coming

"When scientists want to test new therapies for cancer or heart disease, they frequently turn to mice for help. For most mice, this isn't the best thing that could happen to them. Being a research subject has definite disadvantages, at least for mice."

"But most people prefer a new therapy be tested in a rodent rather than making a human patient the guinea pig — if you'll forgive the twisted metaphor."

"So every year, mice get the latest therapies. And some of the time, they're cured. For example, Richard Vile, a researcher at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., works with a strain of lab mice that are prone to getting prostate cancer."


Debunked Science: Studies Take Heat in 2011

"2011 may go down as the year of the retraction in the scientific world."

"Among the highly publicized discoveries that got debunked this year: a genetic basis for longevity; a new form of life; an explanation for autism; and a link between a virus and chronic fatigue syndrome."

"All of these non-discoveries have something in common: They involved findings that both scientists and the public badly wanted to believe."

"One thing most people would like to believe is that science can help us live to be 100. So it was no surprise that people got pretty excited about a 2010 study in the journal Science that offered a genetic explanation for long life."


The Photographic Fascination With Twins

"One of the photos that made photographer Diane Arbus famous was Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967; it reverberated in The Shining and probably influenced Mary Ellen Mark's twin photos."

"It goes without saying that twins long have fascinated photographers — as well as scientists. How is it that identical twins with virtually identical DNA can be so different? Conversely, how is it that identical twins separated at birth can still have so much in common? An article in National Geographic's December issue explores the focus of recent research: How a third factor, beyond nature and nurture, might have a vital role in making us who we are. The term is epigenetics and the article explains it best."


Voyager I Speeds Towards the Brink of Interstellar Space

"The Voyager 1 spacecraft is 11 billion miles from the sun. And every minute, it gets 636 miles closer to its destination: the frontier of interstellar space."

"The craft is currently in what NASA calls, not undramatically, "the boundary between the solar wind from the Sun and the interstellar wind from death-explosions of other stars," an area that astrophysicists also call, less dramatically, a stagnation layer."

"When Voyager 1 crosses that threshold, it'll become the first man-made object to do so. That feat, along with the recent discovery of Kepler-22b, a potentially inhabitable planet, means that it's an exciting time to be an astrophysicist. Now, NASA and its two Voyager craft are heading into the great beyond."


Myth Busting the Truth About Animals and Tools

"A wasp uses a pebble as a hammer. An octopus carries around a coconut shell to hide in. A shrike impales its prey on a sharp thorn."

"Those are just a few examples of animal tool use that appear in the new book Animal Tool Behavior by Robert W. Shumaker, Kristina R. Walkup and Benjamin B. Beck. The book updates an edition published in 1980 by Beck. And in the new version, the authors try to dispel a number of persistent myths about animals and tools."

"Shumaker tells me about some of those myths during a walk around The Indianapolis Zoo, where he is vice president of life sciences. (He is also a member of the adjunct faculty at Indiana University.)"



U. S. Says Details of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret

"A committee that advises the government says that details of two controversial experiments on bird flu virus should not be made public, because of fears that the work could provide a recipe for a bioweapon."

"The government-funded experiments were done by researchers who wanted to understand if bird flu virus might change in the future to cause a pandemic in people. By tweaking genes, they made the deadly bird flu virus more contagious between lab animals."

"In a landmark decision, an expert panel known as the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the government, says key details of the work should not be published openly."


'100 Cult Films: Some You'd Expect, But 'Star Wars'

"If one movie can sum up the definition of "cult film," it would probably be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Yeah, that is why it's up there at the top of the page.)"

""They've also helped to land the film on a new list of the top 100 cult films of all time. But that list also contains some surprising titles — sci-fi and fantasy mainstays like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, even family favorites like The Wizard of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music."

"So what's "cult" about those movies? NPR's Audie Cornish talked to the two film studies professors who put the list together for their new book 100 Cult Films. Ernest Mathijs teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver; Xavier Mendik teaches at Brunel University in London."


Writer Chistopher Hitchens Dies at 62

"The influential writer and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday at the age of 62 from complications of cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens confronted his disease in part by writing, bringing the same unsparing insight to his mortality that he had directed at so many other subjects."

"Over the years, Hitchens' caustic attention was directed at a broad range of subjects, including Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, Bob Hope, Michael Moore, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa."

"'If you're at Vanity Fair and you're talking about some of the things that Christopher has taken on, at the top of the list is going to be Mother Teresa,' said Graydon Carter, editor at Vanity Fair and a longtime friend."

"In 1994, Hitchens co-wrote and narrated a documentary on her called Hell's Angel."

"'This profane marriage between tawdry media hype and medieval superstition gave birth to an icon which few have since had the poor taste to question,' he said in it."



No 'God Particle' Yet: But Scientists Say Stay Tuned

"Physicists have a grand theory that describes how tiny particles interact to form all the stuff we see in the universe — everything from planets to toasters to human beings."

"But there is one particle predicted by this theory that has never been detected in experiments. It's called the Higgs boson. Scientists are dying to know if it really exists — and now researchers are closer to finding out than ever before."

"To hear the latest results from the search, physicists recently crammed into an auditorium at CERN, the world's largest particle physics lab, near Geneva. Someone wrote on Twitter, 'Room full to the rafters. People would hang from the lamps if the security guards would let them.'"


GOP Objects To 'Millionaires Surtax'; Millionaires We Found? Not So Much

"For the second week in a row, the Senate on Thursday voted down proposals to extend the payroll tax holiday through next year. In the case of the Democrats' proposal, Republicans objected to the "millionaires surtax" that would be used to pay for it."

"Ever since the idea of the surtax was introduced weeks ago, Republicans in Congress have railed against it, arguing that it is a direct hit on small-business owners and other job creators."

"The argument is that many small-business owners report company profits on their individual taxes because of the way their businesses are structured. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., says the surtax would hurt their ability to hire."


Reconstituting the Constitution: How to Rewrite It?

"Most Americans haven't read the U.S. Constitution in a long time, if ever. They may be able to tell you about the Second Amendment, or the Fifth, maybe even part of the First. But other than that? A lot of blank stares."

"Christopher Phillips has been leading what he calls "Constitution Café" discussions with people across the country. He's asking Americans to imagine themselves as framers of our founding document."

"The idea of traveling coast to coast to discuss philosophical topics with Americans is not new to Phillips."


Scientists Find Monster Black Holes, Biggest Yet

"Scientists have found the biggest black holes known to exist each one 10 billion times the size of our sun."

"A team led by astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered the two gigantic black holes in clusters of elliptical galaxies more than 300 million light years away. That's relatively close on the galactic scale."

"'They are monstrous,' Berkeley astrophysicist Chung-Pei Ma told reporters. 'We did not expect to find such massive black holes because they are more massive than indicated by their galaxy properties. They're kind of extraordinary.'"

"The previous black hole record-holder is as large as 6 billion suns."


The Deep-Sea Find That Changed Biology

"In 1977, a small crew of oceanographers traveled to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and stumbled across a brand new form of life. The discovery was so unusual, it turned biology on its head and brought into question much of what scientists thought they knew about where life can form and what it needs in order to survive."

"Today, the Smithsonian Institution houses that remarkable discovery: a pale and fleshy, 4-foot-long worm that floats in the kind of pickle jar you'd see in your neighborhood delicatessen. It might not look like much now, but Kristian Fauchald, the Smithsonian's curator of worms, says that in 1977, this worm had everyone scratching their heads. At up to 7 feet in length, he says, "these are enormous beasts compared to normal worms." And they were thriving in large numbers without any obvious source of food or light."


Russia By Rail: Setting Off From Moscow

"Seven time zones, nearly 6,000 miles, and a lot of tea and borscht. That only begins to describe the long journey by David Greene, NPR's Moscow correspondent. He's been in Russia for just over two years and for his last reporting trip, he's riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok."

"While crossing the world's largest country and bridging two continents, he'll make stops to capture the mood and the culture of Russia at an important milestone, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union."


The Search for New Analyists to Make Sense of 'Big Data'

"Businesses keep vast troves of data about things like online shopping behavior, or millions of changes in weather patterns, or trillions of financial transactions — information that goes by the generic name of big data."

"Now, more companies are trying to make sense of what the data can tell them about how to do business better. That, in turn, is fueling demand for people who can make sense of the information — mathematicians — and creating something of a recruiting war."

"DJ Patil, with venture capital firm Greylock Partners, is on a perpetual manhunt, looking for a rare breed: someone with a brain for math, finesse with computers, the eyes of an artist and more."


A New Roving Science Lab Charts a Course for Mars

"It's time to go back to Mars. Once every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars are aligned just right, so it's possible to send a spacecraft from here to there. That special time is now."

"NASA's latest mission, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), launched Saturday morning. It's another six-wheeled rover, but much larger than the rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed on Mars in 2004. They weighed under 400 pounds. MSL weighs nearly a ton and is about the size of a small compact car."

"Another important difference between MSL and its predecessors is it doesn't rely on solar panels for its power. Instead, it's carrying 8 pounds of plutonium that gives off heat that is converted to electricity."


A Prince and a Showgirl, On Location and at Odds

"There's an old story about Marilyn Monroe window-shopping with a friend on 5th Avenue, at the height of her fame. The friend was suddenly struck by the fact that they'd walked several blocks together on a busy New York sidewalk without anyone appearing to notice the best known and most glamorous star in all of motion pictures."

"Monroe wasn't in disguise — quite the contrary, she wasn't even wearing sunglasses. Still, passers-by were simply passing by."


Robert Johnson and Pablo Casals' Game-Changers Turn 75

"Nov. 23, 1936, was a good day for recorded music. Two men, an ocean apart, each stepped up to a microphone and began to play. One was a cello prodigy who had performed for the queen of Spain; the other was a guitar player in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. But on that day, Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson each made recordings that would change music history.

"'Honeyboy Edwards, who died this year, not long after being interviewed for this story, says he first met Robert Johnson in those juke joints: "He wasn't famous then," Edwards says. "He was just a quiet man who played guitar.'"

"'75 years ago, Johnson walked into the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. He had been brought there by Ernie Oertle, an executive with the American Record Company, which had refashioned a hotel room into a makeshift studio. The company had brought people from all over the country to record, and the range of artists in the hotel that day was startling. Blues musician and writer Scott Ainslie lists them: 'Gospel musicians, polka bands, string bands.'"


For Thanksgiving, Debunk Your Family's Chain Email

"At Thanksgiving dinner, there's probably a good chance you'll end up sitting beside your uncle."

"You love your uncle, but you could do without all those chain emails that he forwards to you, the ones that claim the government is forcing you to get rid of your light bulbs, that "Obamacare" is going to put a tax on home sales and that President Obama fits the biblical description of the Antichrist. (Note to uncles: We're not singling you out. Chain emails get forwarded by aunts, grandparents and plenty of other relatives.)"

"So as part of our Message Machine partnership with NPR, PolitiFact has put together this handy guide to chain emails and other viral messages. Hide it under the green bean casserole and you can pull it out if your uncle brings up the chain emails."