NPR Picks


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.



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."


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.'"



Blockbuster Films Keep Getting Longer; How And Why Did We Get Here?

"'No amount of money ever bought a second of time,' says Tony 'Iron Man' Stark, patient zero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, midway through the new Avengers: Endgame."

"As has frequently been the case in the nine Marvel films in which he has appeared, Mr. Stark is right but also wrong. Endgame, the long-promised commencement ceremony/farewell tour for the founding class of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, has both commodities in abundance. Contrast that with the 1990 Cannon Films production Captain America, starring Matt (Revenge of the Nerds) Salinger as Steve Rogers, which runs a svelte 97 minutes and looks like it may well have cost several hundred dollars."

"That was then. As the capstone of Marvel Studios' 11-year, 22-film saga, freely adapted from more than half a century of comic books, the no-expense-spared Endgame dares what few blockbusters have, occupying a bladder-taxing, intermission-free 182 minutes. But then, movies such as this one — franchise entries, popcorn flicks, movies that often harbor artistic ambitions but are always designed to draw a huge audience — began to Hulk out years before Iron Man arrived in May of 2008."


CDC Reports Largest U.S. Measles Outbreak Since Year 2000

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 695 measles cases in 22 states."

"'This is the greatest number of cases reported in the United States since measles was eliminated from this country in 2000,' according to a CDC statement issued late Wednesday."

"The agency attributed the high number of cases primarily to a few large outbreaks — one in the state of Washington and two others in New York City and New York state. The New York outbreaks are among the largest and longest lasting since 2000."

"'The longer these outbreaks continue, the greater the chance measles will again get a sustained foothold in the United States,' the CDC said."

"Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, in a statement, said the rise in measles cases is 'avoidable.'"

"'Measles is not a harmless childhood illness, but a highly contagious, potentially life-threatening disease,' he said. "'We have the ability to safely protect our children and our communities. Vaccines are a safe, highly effective public health solution that can prevent this disease. The measles vaccines are among the most extensively studied medical products we have, and their safety has been firmly established over many years in some of the largest vaccine studies ever undertaken.'"



FAA Certifies Google's Wing Drone Delivery Company To Operate As An Airline

"The Federal Aviation Administration has certified Alphabet's Wing Aviation to operate as an airline, in a first for U.S. drone delivery companies. Wing, which began as a Google X project, has been testing its autonomous drones in southwest Virginia and elsewhere."

"'Air Carrier Certification means that we can begin a commercial service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the United States,' Wing said in a statement posted to the Medium website."

"The company has touted many advantages of using unmanned drones to deliver packages, from reducing carbon emissions and road congestion to increasing connections between communities and local businesses."

"'This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy. Safety continues to be our Number One priority as this technology continues to develop and realize its full potential,' Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement from the agency."


Google Searches For Ways To Put Artificial Intelligence To Use In Health Care

"One of the biggest corporations on the planet is taking a serious interest in the intersection of artificial intelligence and health."

"Google and its sister companies, parts of the holding company Alphabet, are making a huge investment in the field, with potentially big implications for everyone who interacts with Google — which is more than a billion of us."

"The push into AI and health is a natural evolution for a company that has developed algorithms that reach deep into our lives through the Web."

"'The fundamental underlying technologies of machine learning and artificial intelligence are applicable to all manner of tasks,' says Greg Corrado, a neuroscientist at Google. That's true, he says, 'whether those are tasks in your daily life, like getting directions or sorting through email, or the kinds of tasks that doctors, nurses, clinicians and patients face every day.'"

"Corrado knows a bit about that. He helped Google develop the algorithm that Gmail uses to suggest replies."



After The Flames, Notre Dame's Centuries-Old Organ May Never Be The Same Again

"Olivier Latry, one of the chief organists at Notre Dame Cathedral, was the last artist to record on the famous instrument before the catastrophic fire on April 15 that damaged the church and caused its spire to collapse. This pipe organ is the largest in France and dates back centuries. Though it was spared from the flames, it will still require extensive renovation."

"Latry has been a chief organist at Notre Dame since 1985, and he played the organ to record his album, Bach to the Future, over the course of several late nights this past January, when the church was free of tourists and worshippers. On the day of the fire, Latry recalls getting SMS messages from friends that Notre Dame was burning and not believing it. For Latry, the shock still hasn't completely set in."

"'We were just terrified, absolutely terrified,' he says. 'This is probably the most famous organ in the world.'"

"The current instrument was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll during the 19th century, and some pipes, from previous organs, date back centuries. Latry says the organ pipes themselves — some 8,000 of them — were not severely damaged. The main issues may be fixing the water damage to the organ's wind chest from when firefighters put out the blaze."



In Korean DMZ, Wildlife Thrives. Some Conservationists Worry Peace Could Disrupt It

"The quiet of the late-winter morning is interrupted by a staccato of gunshots."

"'Military drills,"' shrugs Kim Seung-ho, 58, the director of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that does research on the wildlife in the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which is the border area between North and South Korea. A thick blanket of fog seeps over the forested hills on this late-winter morning as Kim stands, searching the horizon for birds, on the bank of the Imjin River just north of Paju, South Korea."

"This morning, Kim and the institute's intern Pyo Gina, 24, are on their weekly trip to count birds just outside the DMZ, a 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip of land that has been virtually untouched by humans for more than six decades. This strip of land became an unintentional wildlife sanctuary when the two Koreas pulled back from the area after an armistice was signed in their 1950-53 war."

"The DMZ is fortified with tall, barbed-wire fences, riddled with land mines and heavily guarded by the respective countries' militaries, keeping all human disturbances to a minimum. After people left the area, plants and wildlife were able to grow unrestrained. But with increasing goodwill between North and South Korea, environmentalists like Kim fear that the protected nature of the area is changing and may lead to detrimental effects on the wildlife."

'Einstein's Unfinished Revolution' Looks At The Quantum-Physics-And-Reality Problem

"Does reality need realism?"

"If that seems like a weird question to you, consider the fact that it's the one most pressing for physicists and for their most successful theory about the physical world. That theory is called quantum mechanics — and every digital electronic device you've ever used owes its existence to the understanding of atomic-scale physics that comes with it."

"But for all its success, quantum mechanics has one tiny problem: No one understands it."

"To be more exact, even a century after its birth, no one really understands what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of reality itself. That open and uncertain territory is the focus of Lee Smolin's new book Einstein's Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum."

"Smolin is an extremely creative thinker who has been a leader in theoretical physics for many years. He is also a gifted writer who manages to translate his own insights about how science works into engaging language and compelling stories. For full disclosure, I've had the pleasure of meeting Smolin a number of times at sciency events and admire his originality and iconoclasm. Both are on full display in Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. The fact that I very much disagree with him and his take on quantum mechanics made my enjoyment of the book even deeper."


Tiny Earthquakes Happen Every Few Minutes In Southern California, Study Finds

"Detecting very small earthquakes is notoriously difficult. The churning of the ocean, a passing car or even the wind can feel a lot like a minor quake to the sensors that blanket seismically active parts of the U.S."

"That's a problem for scientists who rely on data about all the earthquakes in a region to study what triggers the biggest, most destructive ones."

"Now, a team of scientists says it has found a way to accurately detect tiny earthquakes, and it has published a new, more comprehensive list of quakes that occurred over a recent 10-year period in Southern California. The work was published Thursday in the journal Science."


A Lost 'Little Boy' Nears 100: Poet And Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

"For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, living to be 100 is no fun. Speaking from his home in San Francisco recently, Ferlinghetti said he's practically blind now — he can't read, and he's skipping his big birthday bash at the bookstore he co-founded, City Lights in San Francisco."

'They're going to have quite a celebration,' he says. 'But I won't be there. It's no use, my appearing in public, because I couldn't speak. I mean, I could speak, but on account of my eyesight it would be' — he pauses to laugh — 'I don't know what it would be.'"

"Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti — who will turn 100 this Sunday, March 24 — has a lot to celebrate. Once a standout poet of the Beat Generation, his bookstore has become a popular landmark and the small press of the same name is still in business after more than 60 years. And he's just published a new novel."

"His 1958 book of poetry A Coney Island of the Mind sold more than a million copies. In it, he compares the horrors depicted in Goya's paintings of the Napoleonic Wars to scenes of post-World War II America:

We are the same people / only further from home / on freeways fifty lanes wide / on a concrete continent / spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness"

"Gerald Nicosia is a Bay Area critic who has written extensively about the Beat writers. He says Ferlinghetti is notable for writing poetry in everyday language."



Massive U.S. Machines That Hunt For Ripples In Space-Time Just Got An Upgrade

"Scientists are about to restart the two giant facilities in the United States that register gravitational waves, the ripples in the very fabric of the universe that were predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago."

"Einstein realized that when massive objects such as black holes collide, the impact sends shock waves through space-time that are like the ripples in water created by tossing a pebble in a pond."

"In 2015, researchers made history by detecting gravitational waves from colliding black holes for the first time — and this was such a milestone that three U.S. physicists almost immediately won the Nobel Prize for their work on the project."


Misophonia: When Life's Noises Drive You Mad

"For 18-year-old high school senior Ellie Rapp of Pittsburgh, the sound of her family chewing their dinner can be ... unbearable."

"'My heart starts to pound. I go one of two ways. I either start to cry or I just get really intensely angry. It's really intense. I mean, it's as if you're going to die,' she says."

"Rapp has been experiencing this reaction to certain noises since she was a toddler. She recalls a ride home from preschool when her mother turned on the radio and started singing, which caused Rapp to scream and cry hysterically."

"'That's my first memory ever,' Rapp says."

"Over the years, 'everybody was pretty confused, but on the inside I felt like I was going insane,' she says."

"It wasn't until middle school that she found a name for it. Her mom, Kathy Rapp, had been searching for years for help. Then she found an article on the Web about a condition known as misophonia."


Flying Taxis. Seriously?

"Two words for you: flying taxis. That's right. In the not-so-distant future, you'll open your ride-hailing app and, in addition to ground options like car, SUV, scooter or bicycle, you'll see on-demand air flight."

"At least that's according to the optimists at South by Southwest, the annual tech-music-film convention in Austin, Texas."

"When the flying taxi comes, most of us will be passengers. We might hail it on our smartphones and head to the rooftop, where a ride is waiting at the helipad. It might look like a minivan with wings and four seats; or more like a gigantic drone."

Either way, it won't fly itself anytime soon, experts say. One seat will be reserved for the driver-pilot.

"'If air taxis are going be what everybody wants them to be — thousands at a city, for example — we won't be able to find enough conventional pilots,' said Carey Cannon, chief engineer of technology and innovation at Bell."

"In a crowded pavilion at South By Southwest, Cannon has set up a virtual reality simulation of what it feels like to drive one of these small flying vehicles of the future. I decide to try it out."



Cholesterol Redux: As Eggs Make A Comeback, New Questions About Health Risks

"Eggs have made a big comeback. Americans now consume an estimated 280 eggs per person, per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that's a significant increase compared with a decade ago."

"Part of the renewed appeal stems from the dietary advice we got back in 2016. That's when the U.S. Dietary Guidelines dropped a longstanding recommended limit on dietary cholesterol. The move was seen as a green-light to eat eggs."

"But a new study published in the medical journal JAMA re-opens a longstanding debate about the risks tied to consuming too much dietary cholesterol."

"'What we found in this study was that if you consumed two eggs per day, there was a 27 percent increased risk of developing heart disease,' says researcher Norrina Allen, an associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University."

"'It was surprising,' Allen says."

"The researchers behind the JAMA study tracked the health of about 30,000 adults enrolled in long-term studies. On average, participants were followed for about 17 years."


Scientists Call For Global Moratorium On Creating Gene-Edited Babies

"A group of prominent scientists and bioethicists is calling for a global moratorium on any new attempts to bring gene-edited babies into the world."

"'We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,' the 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries write in an article published Wednesday by the journal Nature."

"The call was prompted by the announcement last year by a scientist in China, He Jiankui, that he had used the powerful new gene-editing technique CRISPR to create the world's first gene-edited babies. He says he edited the twin girls' DNA when they were embryos to try to protect them from the AIDS virus."

"The announcement was widely condemned as unethical and irresponsible. It also prompted an intense debate about whether more could have been done to have stopped the scientist — and should be done now to try to prevent any more researchers from going rogue."

"In response, the new coalition of scientists and bioethicists proposes that every country declare a moratorium, perhaps for five years, on scientists trying to create babies whose DNA has been edited."



Are Doctors Overpaid?

"Every year, medical students apply for residencies at hospitals around the country through the National Resident Matching Program. It's like a dating app for med students and hospitals, and it culminates this Friday, which is Match Day, when more than 30,000 students find out who they've got a really long date with."

"Some people view Match Week as a beautifully engineered dance between supply and demand that ensures the best and brightest learn how to be good doctors at top hospitals. Others, like Dean Baker, Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, say this residency system makes health care dramatically more expensive for Americans. A 2011 study in Health Affairs found American doctors, who make an average salary of almost $300,000, are paid around twice as much as doctors in other rich countries."

"Baker says 'doctors are seriously overpaid' and a big reason is rules that restrict the number of people who can get residencies. He calls these rules the work of 'a cartel,' and in economics, those are fighting words. A cartel limits the supply of something in order to increase the amount of money they can charge. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, is a classic example."


It's 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change

"Mass Electrification (Batteries Hold The Power)"

"(Editor's note: Each story has two sections, the first reflecting the present and the second imagining the world of 2050.)"

"2019: I went looking for people who've mapped out this world without greenhouse emissions. I found them in Silicon Valley."

"Sila Kiliccote is an engineer. The back deck of her house, high up in the hills, overlooks Cupertino. Apple's circular headquarters is hidden in the morning mist. It's a long way from Istanbul, in Turkey, where she grew up; a great place to conjure up future worlds."

"'Maybe you'd like some coffee?' Kiliccote says."

"Her coffee machine is powered by solar panels on the roof. So is her laptop and her Wi-Fi."

"'Everything runs on electricity in this house,' she says."


Mysterious Type Of Killer Whale, Sought After For Years, Found In Southern Ocean

"Scientists say they've found a mysterious type of killer whale that they've been searching for for years. It lives in parts of the ocean near Antarctica — and it could be the largest animal to have remained unidentified by biologists."

"The notion that there might be some unusual kind of killer whale emerged in 1955. Photos from New Zealand showed a bunch of whales stranded on a beach. 'This was a very different-looking group of killer whales,' says Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

"The whales were smaller than other killer whales, and they had rounded heads and pointier fins. 'And most importantly,' Pitman adds, 'they had a little tiny eye patch,' a white spot under each eye characteristic of killer whales. These patches were unusually small, in some cases almost nonexistent."

"Biologists were mystified."