NPR Picks

Saturday
Oct202012


"His public words have inspired millions, but for scholars, his private words and deeds generate confusion, discomfort, apologetic excuses. When the young Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' there's compelling evidence to indicate that he indeed meant all men, not just white guys."

"But by the 1780s, Jefferson's views on slavery in America had mysteriously shifted. He formulated racial theories asserting, for instance, that African women had mated with apes; Jefferson financed the construction of Monticello by using the slaves he owned — some 600 during his lifetime — as collateral for a loan he took out from a Dutch banking house; and when he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson pushed for slavery in that territory. By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative's plan to sell his slaves by saying, 'It [would] never do to destroy the goose.'"

Monday
Oct152012


"Journalist Chrystia Freeland has spent years reporting on the people who've reached the pinnacle of the business world. For her new book,Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, she traveled the world, interviewing the multimillionaires — and billionaires — who make up the world's elite super-rich. Freeland says that many of today's richest individuals gained their fortunes not from inheritance, but from actual work."

'These super-rich are people who, as they like to say, 'did it themselves,' " Freeland tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And what's interesting for me, and actually I didn't expect it, I think it's a paradox of this sort of working super-rich, which is that you would think ... that having done it yourself, you might have more sympathy, be closer to the 99 percent."

But, she says, that's often not the case. "In many ways, that personal history of really feeling like, 'I did this! By myself!' actually creates more of a chasm between them and the rest of us, and, I would say, a certain degree of disdain."

Sunday
Oct142012


"'I grew up wanting to fly,' says Graham Bowen-Davies. 'I guess I just settled for being an engineer.'"

"He's standing on an indoor track in southern Maryland, watching a giant helicopter take flight. At the end of each of its four spindly arms — arms he helped design and build — a giant rotor churns the air. In the cockpit sits the engine: a 0.7-horsepower, 135-pound graduate student named Kyle Gluesenkamp."

"Gluesenkamp is pedaling like crazy to keep the rotors spinning and the craft aloft."

"Bowen-Davies and dozens of his fellow students from the University of Maryland are chasing one of aviation's last milestones: the Sikorsky Prize. The American Helicopter Society (AHS) has promised $250,000 to the team that can build a human-powered helicopter. All it has to do is hover for a minute, reach a height of 3 meters (about 10 feet), and stay in a 10-meter box."

"Turns out, that's harder than it sounds. The prize has been unclaimed for more than three decades."

Thursday
Oct112012


"Doctors use liquid nitrogen — a substance registering a wickedly cold 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit — to freeze warts so they dry up and fall off. Yes, folks, this stuff kills tissue. So imagine what it might do to your stomach if you drink some."

"Unfortunately, a British teen recently found out the hard way.The Telegraph reports this week that an 18-year-old had a portion of her perforated stomach removed after sipping the stuff in a trendy cocktail where the substance was used to chill the glass and create a smoky vapor."

"And, as ABC News puts it, 'celebrity chefs, master mixologists and medical experts from around the world are steamed up' over it."

Tuesday
Oct092012


"The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the United States for their work on the 'fundamental interactions between light particles and matter.'"

"'The Nobel laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them,' the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement."

"Their work, the Nobel committee says, has laid the foundation for development of a super-fast computer based on quantum physics and precise clocks that could become 'the future basis for a new standard of time.'"

Monday
Oct082012


"The two scientists who won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine discovered that cells in our body have the remarkable ability to reinvent themselves. They found that every cell in the human body, from our skin and bones to our heart and brain, can be coaxed into forming any other cell."

"The process is called reprogramming, and its potential for new drugs and therapies is vast. If neurons or heart cells are damaged by disease or aging, then cells from the skin or blood potentially could be induced to reprogram themselves and repair the damaged tissue."

"The winners — John Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan and the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco — made their discoveries more than 40 years apart."

Saturday
Oct062012


"In the movie Goldfinger, a minion of bad guy Auric Goldfinger asks 007: 'Can I do something for you, Mr. Bond?'"

"'Just a drink,' Sean Connery's Bond replies, deadpan. 'A martini. Shaken, not stirred,' he intones."

"From Connery to Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, this preference is repeated again and again in 007 flicks. (Check out this video montage for the full Bond effect.)"

"So, its being the 50th anniversary of the first Bond movie and all, we wondered: Is there any scientific reason to prefer a martini that's mixed by shaking compared with one that's stirred? And, can you really taste the difference?"

 

To answer these questions, we headed to Bar Dupont in Washington, D.C. — a kinda swanky joint where locals hang out.

Friday
Oct052012

The Accountant That Changed the World

"The story of the birth of accounting begins with numbers. In the 1400s, much of Europe was still using Roman numerals, and finding it really hard to easily add or subtract. (Try adding MCVI to XCIV.)"

"But fortunately, Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) started catching on, and with those numbers, merchants in Venice developed a revolutionary system we now call "double-entry" bookkeeping. This is how it works:"

"Every transaction gets entered twice in financial records. If one day you sold three gold coins' worth of pepper, you would write that the amount of cash you had went up by three gold coins. You would also write in that the amount of pepper you had went down by three gold coins' worth."

Thursday
Oct042012


"You are 200 miles directly above the Martian surface — looking down. This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 27, 2010. (The color was added later.) What do we see? Well, sand, mostly. As you scroll down, there's a ridge crossing through the image, then a plain, then dunes, but keep looking. You will notice, when you get to the dunes, there are little black flecks dotting the ridges, mostly on the sunny side, like sunbathing spiders sitting in rows. Can you see them?"

"What are those things? They were first seen in 1998; they don't look like anything we have here on Earth. To this day, no one is sure what they are, but we now know this: They come, then they go. Every Martian spring, they appear out of nowhere, showing up — 70 percent of the time — where they were the year before. They pop up suddenly, sometimes overnight. When winter comes, they vanish."

"As the sun gets hotter, they get more spidery. Here's a closer image — like the one above, this gorgeous print was created by the photographer Michael Benson, just published in his new bookPlanetfall. It shows two mounds of sand. The spidery thingies, you'll notice, stay on the rises, not on the flat sandy plains."

Monday
Oct012012


"Today marks the 30th anniversary of a musical format many of us grew up with: the compact disc. It's been three decades since the first CD went on sale in Japan. The shiny discs came to dominate music industry sales, but their popularity has faded in the digital age they helped unleash. The CD is just the latest musical format to rise and fall in roughly the same 30-year cycle."

"Compact discs had been pressed before 1982, but the first CD to officially go on sale was Billy Joel's 52nd Street."

"The CD was supposed to have the last word when it came to convenience and sound quality. And for a while, it did. The CD dominated record sales for more than two decades — from the late 1980s until just last year, when sales of digital tracks finally surpassed those of physical albums. It's a cycle that has played out many times in the history of the music industry, with remarkable consistency."

Saturday
Sep292012


"In the spring of 1963, as the U.S. was mired in conflicts with Vietnam and Cuba and the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy called his old friend David Hackett to express his frustration at the U.S. men's ice hockey team — and their miserable record overseas."

JFK: Dave, I noticed that in the paper this morning that the Swedish team beat the American hockey team 17-2.
Hackett: Yeah, I saw that.
JFK: Christ! Who are we sending over there? Girls?

"This candid observation — and many more — are among the new trove of secret recordings just released by The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. A new book and CD set calledListening In includes more than 260 hours of transcribed conversations and 2.5 hours of audio recordings from inside the Kennedy White House."

Thursday
Sep272012


"On April 11 of this year, an extraordinary cluster of earthquakes struck off Sumatra. The largest shock, magnitude 8.7, produced stronger ground-shaking than any earthquake ever recorded. And it surprised seismologists by triggering more than a dozen moderate earthquakes around the world."

"The quakes are also a sign of big changes to come in the Earth's crust."

"But chances are you don't remember the April 11 quake off Sumatra. That's because it was far offshore, so nobody got severely shaken, and it didn't produce a killer tsunami. But the event didn't simply fade away for Ross Stein at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif."

Tuesday
Sep252012


"Sara Terry's first clue that something was wrong with her son, Christian, came just three weeks after he was born."

"'We went to check on him, just like any parents go and check on their kids just to make sure they're breathing,' says Terry, 34, of Spring, Texas. 'And we found him in his crib, and he wasn't breathing. He was blue.'"

"She and her husband were horrified. They rushed Christian to the hospital and learned he had several medical problems."

Tuesday
Sep182012


"Ever since James Watson and Francis Crick cracked the genetic code, scientists have been fascinated by the possibilities of what we might learn from reading our genes."

"But the power of DNA has also long raised fears — such as those dramatized in the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca, which depicted a world where 'a minute drop of blood determines where you can work, who you should marry, what you're capable of achieving.'"

"That was science fiction. Just three years later, President Bill Clinton announced that the once-futuristic dream of reading someone's entire genetic code — their genome — had become a reality. It took hundreds of scientists nearly a decade to painstakingly piece together the first real look at the entire human genetic blueprint. It cost $3 billion just to make that rough draft."

Monday
Sep172012


"On this morning 150 years ago, Union and Confederate troops clashed at the crossroads town of Sharpsburg, Md. The Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest single day in American history."

"The battle left 23,000 men killed or wounded in the fields, woods and dirt roads, and it changed the course of the Civil War."

"It is called simply the Cornfield, and it was here, in the first light of dawn that Union troops — more than a thousand — crept toward the Confederate lines. The stalks were at head level and shielded their movements."

Sunday
Sep162012


"He led a flock of endangered cranes across Siberia on a motorized hang glider. He dominates opponents in judo. He rode a Harley across the deck of a battleship, and he's been photographed riding a horse ... shirtless."

"He's Russian President Vladimir Putin, and for all his eclectic activities — even his classical piano training — he is not 'The Most Interesting Man in the World.'"

"That title belongs to actor Jonathan Goldsmith. Actually, the trademark technically belongs to beer maker Dos Equis — but Goldsmith does play him on TV."

Saturday
Sep012012


"Scientists in Germany have been able to get enough DNA from a fossilized pinky to produce a high-quality DNA sequence of the pinky's owner."

"'It's a really amazing-quality genome,' says David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston. 'It's as good as modern human genome sequences, from a lot of ways of measuring it.'"

"The pinky belonged to a girl who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists aren't sure about the exact age. She is a member of an extinct group of humans called Denisovans. The name comes from Denisova cave in Siberia, where the pinky was found."

"Two years ago, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig reported that they had been able to get just enough DNA from the fossil to make a rough sequence of her DNA. But Matthias Meyer developed a far more efficient way of recovering ancient DNA, so he went back to the tiny amount of DNA left over from the first effort, and reanalyzed it."

Wednesday
Aug292012


"Thermodynamics — the branch of physics dealing with heat and its relation to other forms of energy — is profound stuff."

"Rooted in the engineering realities of engines and air conditioners, it also rises above these day-to-day realities to embrace heady, universal principles in complexity, order, chaos and organization. Thermodynamics touches everything that really matters in human life, including — most famously — the nature of time. It is profound and slippery."

"Some of this slipperiness showed up in responses to my physics and cities posts for the NPR Cities project. Some folks got angry with me because they claimed the second law is only relevent to closed systems. Some of the criticism comes from a misreading of what "closed" means in thermodynamics."

Friday
Aug242012


"The only remaining laboratory of one of the greatest American inventors may soon be purchased so that it can be turned into a museum, thanks to an Internet campaign that raised nearly a million dollars in about a week."

"The lab was called Wardenclyffe, and it was built by Nikola Tesla, a wizard of electrical engineering whose power systems lit up the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and harnessed the mighty Niagara Falls."

"'He is the developer of the alternating current system of electrical transmission that we use throughout the world today,' says Jane Alcorn, president of a nonprofit group called The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, which wants to buy the site and preserve the lab by making it a museum."

Wednesday
Aug222012


"When astronomers survey the universe, the landmarks are galaxies, those gigantic agglomerates of stars and interstellar gas spread across the immensity of space. A typical spiral galaxy, like our own Milky Way, boasts hundreds of billions of stars grouped along hundreds of thousands of light-years. That means that it takes a beam of light all that time to go from one extreme of the galaxy to the other, traveling, as light does in a vacuum, at 186,282 miles per second."

"But galaxies are much more than what the eyes can see. Nested in their center are enormous black holes, some with masses equal to many millions of suns. Those behemoths gobble up matter around them, creating the bright "eyes" that we see in telescopic pictures such as this one. As matter falls into the black hole, it radiates energy, which telescopes of different types (from optical to radio and X-ray) detect."