NPR Picks


One Man's Quest To Capture America's Endangered Zoo Animals With a Camera

"To spend a day in the life of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, there are a few things you have to get used to. Really long drives, for one. Tigers charging at you. And, of course ... well ... messes."

"'I'm the only studio portrait photographer I know whose subjects routinely poop and pee on the background right in front of me,' he says from behind the lens."

"It's a comical sight here behind the scenes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore: Sartore, two animal handlers and a ridiculous amount of gear are cramped into a tiny, 50-degree back room. All for a puffin. Sartore is doing all he can to coax the little guy into a handsome headshot. In my mind, this is fun, but for him, it's serious business."


Dog Gone Genetics: A Few Genes Control Fido's Looks

"Humans are complicated genetic jigsaw puzzles. Hundreds of genes are involved in determining something as basic as height."

"But man's best friend is a different story. New research shows that almost every physical trait in dogs — from a dachshund's stumpy legs to a shar-pei's wrinkles — is controlled by just a few genes."

"Writer Evan Ratliff has been looking into dog genetics for National Geographic Magazine. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that that quirk makes it extremely easy for breeders to develop new, custom-designed dogs — like the German hunters who bred the original dachshunds a few hundred years ago."


Wait Just A Second and Other Things To Do With It

"Let me take a second here"

"Not very long, was it?"

"But a second tied up delegates to the UN's International Telecommunication Union, who postponed a decision this week on whether to abolish the extra second that's added to clocks every few years to compensate for the earth's natural doddering."

"The earth slows down slightly as we spin through space. No one falls off, but earthquakes and tides routinely slow the earth by a fraction of a fraction of a second, which makes clocks minutely wrong. If not corrected, it could make a minute of difference a century."

"So every few years, official clocks around the world repeat a second. The last "leap second," as it's called, was added at the end of 2008."


Why Do So Many People Have Trouble Believing in Evolution?

"The evidence is clear, as in a February 2009 Gallup Poll, taken on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, that reported only 39 percent of Americans say they "believe in the theory of evolution," while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don't have an opinion either way."

"The same poll correlated belief in evolution with educational level: 21 percent of people with a high school education or less believed in evolution. That number rose to 41 percent for people with some college attendance, 53 percent for college graduates, and 74 percent for people with a postgraduate education."

"Clearly, the level of education has an impact on how people feel about evolution."


'In Our Prime'? What It Means To Be Middle Aged

"Not so long ago, being middle-aged was associated with being over the hill. But not anymore — nowadays, 60 is the new 40. In her new book, In Our Prime, Patricia Cohen, a culture reporter for The New York Times (who isn't shy about telling us she's 51), explores the evolution of that oft-maligned, middle period of life."

"Traditionally, people have seen 40 as the entry point to middle age, but perception of the "start date" varies widely depending on job and gender, Cohen says. Men, for example, think middle age starts earlier than women do. And the older people are, the later they say middle age begins."

"I like to say that middle age is something of a 'Never Never Land,'" Cohen tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Younger people never want to enter it, and older people never want to leave it once they get there."


Will the Real Ronald Reagen Please Stand Up?

"It's no secret who the most popular Republican is in this year's GOP presidential race. In just one single debate last year, GOP candidates mentioned the former President Ronald Reagan 24 times."

"Right now, each candidate is vying for the mantle of Reagan conservatism. Yet some historians, and even some of the folks who worked for Ronald Reagan, are now wondering whether Reagan himself was enough of a Reagan conservative — at least the way it is defined today."

"So what exactly is a Reagan conservative anyway? If he were alive, could Reagan get the GOP nod?"


Why X-Rayed Food Isn't Radioactive and Other Puzzles

"Earlier this week, we were surprised to learn that food manufacturers increasingly X-ray foods to screen for foreign objects that can break a tooth. That sounds like a good idea."

"But the notion of X-rayed food also sparked a lively debate in The Salt's comments section on whether this poses a health threat. After all, we do know that some X-rays can damage DNA in the human body. So what does radiation mean for food?"

"To find out, we called around to experts on radiation, food, and safety for their thoughts. First we called Kelly Classic, a radiation health physicist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a spokeswoman for the Health Physics Society."


[Norwegian Wood: Love and Loss and Memory, Too

[I am so happy that they have finally made a movie based on one of Haruki Murakami's best novels. I hope that I will be able to find it on iTunes.]

"Hey, you're not a liar, are you?"

"It's 1967, and veracity is prized on college campuses. That's why outgoing Tokyo student Midori (Japanese-American model-actress Kiko Mizuhara) interjects that odd question into her very first conversation with a quiet classmate, Watanabe (Death Note star Kenichi Matsuyama)."

"In fact he's not a liar. But the truth is knotty in Norwegian Wood, deftly adapted by Franco-Vietnamese writer-director Tran Anh Hung from Haruki Murakami's most popular novel. (Published in 1987, the book has reportedly sold 12 million copies and been translated into 33 languages.)"

"There's the matter of Watanabe's high school friend, Kizuki, who killed himself. And Kizuki's girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who might now be Watanabe's girlfriend. She's at a rustic asylum outside Kyoto, and the doctor says she shouldn't see Watanabe for now. It's a bit much to explain."


Middle Age Brains Are Already Past Their Prime

"You may want to read this twice if you're older than 45. In fact, you may have to."

"That's because your mental abilities are already in decline, according to a study of 7,390 British civil servants just published in BMJ, the British Medical Journal."

"For men and women who were between 45 and 49 when first tested, the ability to reason declined 3.6 percent over the next decade, the study found. And the decline was even faster for people in their 50s and 60s, especially men."



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."