NPR Picks


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."


Would the World Be Off Without Religion?

"A rabbi, a descendant of Charles Darwin, a philosopher and a scholar walk into an auditorium."

"It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but the group came together for the latest Intelligence Squared U.S. debate and faced off two against two on the motion 'The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.'"

"Before the Oxford-style debate, moderated by ABC News' John Donvan, the audience at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts voted 52 percent in favor of the motion and 26 percent against, with 22 percent undecided. Afterward, 59 percent of the audience agreed the world would be better off without religion, while 31 percent disagreed — making the side arguing for the motion the winners of the debate. Ten percent of the audience remained undecided."


Climate Panel: More Extreme Weather On the Way

"Brace yourself for more extreme weather. A group of more than 200 scientists convened by the United Nations says in a new report that climate change will bring more heat waves, more intense rainfall and more expensive natural disasters."

"These conclusions are from the latest effort of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a consensus statement from researchers around the world."

"And since this is a consensus, the conclusions are carefully couched. Take, for example, the issue of rainfall. "It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the 21st century over many regions," says the report, which defines "likely" as more than a 66 percent chance."


Meet the World's Most Expensive Photograph: Part 2

"It's a $4 million question: What makes this photo so special?"

"'Does it come with several Ferraris?' offers an arts editor here. Well, that would make more sense, but no, not that we know of. "One can only assume the collector really likes stripes of green and gray," jokes Unfortunately, though, we don't know who bought it."

"Andreas Gursky's Rhein II fetched $4,338,500 at a Christie's auction last week, breaking the record for the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction."


Exploring Supernovae Leads to Physics Nobel Prize

"Last month, the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to three scientists who discovered that, since the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding at an accelerating rate. Before the discovery, scientists assumed that gravity slowed down the expansion of the universe. But the data collected by one team led by astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter and another team led by physicist Brian Schmidt indicated otherwise."

"When we started getting results that showed that it was not slowing ... [that] in fact it wasn't slowing at all — it was speeding up — it was a pretty big shock," says Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "At the time, when you first get those results, it doesn't worry you too much ... because you know you haven't finished doing the calibration. The more we did the calibration, the more the results didn't go away."


Stephen King Plots To Save JFK in '11/23/63'

"Stephen King's latest novel deals in horror — not the evil of monsters and supernatural beings, but the horror of a real national tragedy. In 11/22/63, King tells the story of a small-town teacher who goes back in time to stop one of the watershed events of American history — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy."

"Writing this book was a departure for the science-fiction master. 'There are so many actual happenings,' King tells NPR's Audie Cornish. 'A lot of the characters in 11/22 are real people. That was the challenge, but it was also the fun of the book.'"


"Stairway to Heaven" Turns 40

"'Stairway to Heaven.' Those three little words have come to mean so much. Led Zeppelin's eight-minute classic turns 40 this week, and it still sets the bar for headbanging chutzpah, if not sophisticated songcraft."

"Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were woodshedding in Wales when they devised their faery-strewn folk-metal psychedelia masterwork. Bassist/arranger John Paul Jones added mood-setting recorders and drummer John Bonham brought his protean thwunk to the game. The song may or may not have borrowed key elements from an instrumental by the American band Spirit, with whom they once toured. But nobody but Zep could have molded those chord progressions into such a masterpiece of excess."


For Gertrude Stein: Collecting Art Was a Family Affair

"A reunion of art is taking place in Paris right now. Works that haven't been there together in almost a century are reunited once again. The art was collected by writer Gertrude Stein and her brothers starting in the early 1900s. The Steins bought paintings right out of the studios of young avant-garde artists — Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and others who would become masters as the 20th century progressed."

"The Steins' tiny apartment — situated on a narrow, tree-lined street — was jammed full of paintings. Gertrude's brother, Leo, got there first, in 1902, and Gertrude moved in the next year."

"The Rue de Fleurus apartment was smaller than most people's dining rooms," says Rebecca Rabinow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the show will open in February. "These pictures were just stacked from floor to ceiling. There was no electric light at the beginning, so people would sometimes light matches so they could see the pictures in the dark comers."


Walmart Plans Ambitious Expansion Into Medical Care

"WalMart wants to be your doctor."

"The nation's largest retailer is planning to offer medical services ranging from the management of diabetes to HIV infections, NPR and Kaiser Health News have learned."

"In the same week in late October that Wal-Mart said it would stop offering health insurance benefits to new part-time employees, the retailer sent out a request for partners to help it 'dramatically ... lower the cost of healthcare ... by becoming the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation.'"


The Plutonium Problem: Who Pays For Space Fuel?

"When NASA's next Mars rover blasts off later this month, the car-sized robot will carry with it nearly eight pounds of a special kind of plutonium fuel that's in short supply."

"NASA has relied on that fuel, called plutonium-238, to power robotic missions for five decades."

"But with supplies running low, scientists who want the government to make more are finding that it sometimes seems easier to chart a course across the solar system than to navigate the budget process inside Washington, D.C."


Secret 'Watch List' Reveals Failure To Curb Toxic Air

"The system Congress set up 21 years ago to clean up toxic air pollution still leaves many communities exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals."

"Pollution violations at more than 1,600 plants across the country were serious enough that the government believes they require urgent action, according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. Yet nearly 300 of those facilities have been considered "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency for at least a decade."

"About a quarter of those 1,600 violators are on an internal EPA "watch list," which the agency has kept secret until now."


Degas' Dancers: Behind The Scences, At The Barre

"It's not often that an art show makes visitors stand up straighter. But Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint — an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. — has that effect. Ballet dancers in gauzy skirts stretch and bend and twist on oil and pastel canvases in the museum's galleries, which showcase more than 30 works by Edgar Degas."

"The last gallery even includes two mirrors and a real ballet barre, mounted at hip height along one mirror. When a dancer from the Washington Ballet reached the end of the exhibit, she couldn't resist stretching one leg on the barre."

"You can't just walk past it," says Morgann Rose, a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet. "I see a ballet barre, and I have to do something — [it's] kind of an addiction," she laughs.