NPR Picks

Tuesday
Aug012017

Who Were Your Millionth-Great-Grandparents?

"Human civilization began about 10,000 years ago with dawn of agriculture (give or take a millennia or so). This seems like such a long time that it can be hard to reconcile with the short span of our lives."

"But there is another way to look at it that puts not just civilization, but the whole of your ancestry, in a different light."

"Each of us constitutes a generation. We are the children of our parents who were the children of their parents (your grandparents) who were children of their parents (your great-grandparents)."

"You are, therefore, the latest step in a ladder of generations stretching backward in time and history. If we take each generation to be 25 years in length, then we can see something remarkable unspool."

Monday
Jul312017

New Florida Law Lets Residents Challenge School Textbooks

"Keith Flaugh is a retired IBM executive living in Naples, Fla., and a man with a mission. He describes it as 'getting the school boards to recognize ... the garbage that's in our textbooks.'"

"Flaugh helped found Florida Citizens' Alliance, a conservative group that fought unsuccessfully to stop Florida from signing on to Common Core educational standards."

"More recently, the group has turned its attention to the books being used in Florida's schools. A new state law, developed and pushed through by Flaugh's group, allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable via an independent hearing."

"Flaugh finds many objections with the books used by Florida students. Two years ago, members of the alliance did what he calls a 'deep dive' into 60 textbooks."

Saturday
Jul292017

From Rats To Humans, A Brain Knows When It Can't Remember

"The human brain knows what it knows. And so, it appears, does a rat brain."

"Rats have shown that they have the ability to monitor the strength of their own memories, researchers from Providence College reported this month in the journal Animal Cognition."

"Brain scientists call this sort of ability metacognition. It's a concept that became famous in 2002, when then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained to reporters:

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

Rumsfeld wasn't talking about rats. But he could have been, says Michael Beran, a comparative psychologist and associate professor at Georgia State University who was not part of the research."

Friday
Jul282017

The Ongoing Battle Between Science Teachers And Fake News

"Every year Patrick Engleman plays a little trick on his students. The high school chemistry teacher introduces his ninth-graders in suburban Philadelphia to an insidious substance called dihydrogen monoxide. It's involved in 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It's in every single cancer cell. This stuff, it'll burn you," he tells them."

"But dihydrogen monoxide is water. He says several of his honors classes decided to ban it based just on what he told them."

"The lesson here isn't that teenagers are gullible. It's that you can't trust everything you hear. In a time when access to information is easier than ever, Engleman says that his current students have much more to sift through than his past students. These days kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they've read online or heard elsewhere."

Thursday
Jul272017

PHOTOS: Japanese Scientists Turn Chrysanthemums 'True Blue'

"Japanese scientists have genetically engineered a chrysanthemum flower that is 'true blue' — a color that has long eluded flower breeders and researchers."

"Blue has proved a challenge to produce in many other popular flowers, including roses, carnations and lilies."

"It hasn't happened until now in chrysanthemums due to the "recalcitrant and unpredictable expression of introduced genes," Naonobu Noda from Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization tells The Two-Way. Noda is the lead author of the paper released today in Science Advances."

"When scientists tried previously to introduce genes to create a blue color, Noda said, the flower would "shut them off by as yet unknown mechanisms." Other attempts produced violet flowers, not blue ones."

Wednesday
Jul262017

'Dear Dickie': A Window Into Family History Through Post-WWII Love Letters

"'Dear Dickie,' the woman wrote on thin parchment paper. 'Here I am, so please don't scold me ...'"

"The Jan. 2, 1947, letter had made its journey from Honolulu to Kobe, Japan, courtesy of a 5-cent airmail stamp — evidence of an overseas courtship between two young people. She began with an apology for not writing sooner but quickly eased into flirting and teasing, anticipating the day when they would see each other again."

"The author —my grandmother Martha Kekauililani Matsuda — was just turning 20 years old and writing every other week for a year to a man stationed in Japan as part of the U.S. occupation after World War II. They would marry two years after these letters were written, and together, she and my grandfather Richard would raise eight children."

"My father recently found Grandma's letter and 27 others stashed inside a simple wooden box hidden at the bottom of a chest in my late grandparents' bedroom. Like many people who find old letters or beloved objects long forgotten, the discovery brought so much joy. But there was more: Not only did the letters provide a glimpse into our family's history, but they also shed light on our family's role in American history and offered insight into my own cultural identity, too."

 

Tuesday
Jul252017

Warming Climate Is Quieting Kauai's Colorful Forest Birds

"In Hawaii's Kauai island, the native forest birds are in peril. Once considered a paradise for the colorful songbirds, the island has lost more than half of those native species."

"What's happening on Kauai could be an early warning for the other Hawaiian islands."

"Native Hawaiian songs tell stories of the islands, including one that was inspired by the last mating call of a now extinct bird, the Kauai O'o. "

"'We still sing it with hope in our hearts,' says Sabra Kauka, a Native Hawaiian who is a revered teacher of the island's culture."

"'Our seabirds, our mountain birds they are just indicators of the health of the earth,' she says."

Monday
Jul242017

Snooty The Manatee Dies, And A Florida Community Mourns

"Two days after his 69th birthday, Snooty the manatee has died in what the South Florida Museum says was 'simply a heartbreaking accident.' The manatee drowned after being trapped by a hatch door, officials said Sunday."

"Snooty was the oldest manatee in captivity — and he was believed to be the oldest on record, according to the South Florida Museum, which houses the Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Fla."

"'Aquarium staff is heartbroken,' said Jeff Rodgers, the museum's provost and chief operating officer."

"Staff members who arrived at work this morning weren't able to find all the manatees, Rodgers said Sunday afternoon. He said an underwater hatch that accesses a plumbing area "had somehow been knocked loose" — and that while the other, younger, manatees had been able to go in and out of the area, Snooty had gone through but hadn't been able to get himself back out. The manatee was roughly 1,300 pounds — about twice the size of the other animals."

Sunday
Jul232017

The Next 'Game of Thrones' Could Be Set In Post-Apocalyptic Africa

"The next Game of Thrones could be a sci-fi epic set in Africa."

"On Monday, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor posted an announcement on her Facebook page:

"I'm finally free to announce this: My World Fantasy Award winning novel WHO FEARS DEATH has been optioned by HBO and is now in early development as a TV series with George R. R. Martin as executive producer. Note: This did not happen overnight. It's been nearly 4 years coming."

Martin is, of course, the author of the novels that became the HBO smash hit Game of Thrones and also serves as a co-executive producer of the series."

"The news is a major win not just for Okorafor but for African fiction and representation of African issues on television. To understand why, it's important to understand the themes Okorafor explores in her work."

Saturday
Jul222017

John McCain Was Diagnosed With A Glioblastoma, Among The Deadliest Of Cancers

"Doctors use words like 'aggressive' and 'highly malignant' to describe the type of brain cancer discovered in Arizona Sen. John McCain."

"The cancer is a glioblastoma, the Mayo Clinic said in a statement Wednesday. It was diagnosed after doctors surgically removed a blood clot from above McCain's left eye."

"Doctors who were not involved in his care say the procedure likely removed much of the tumor as well."

"Glioblastomas, which are the most common malignant brain tumor, tend to be deadly. Each year in the U.S., about 12,000 people are diagnosed with the tumor. Most die within two years, though some survive more than a decade."

Friday
Jul212017

Is Inflammation Bad For You Or Good For You?

"Chronic, low-level inflammation seems to play a role in a host of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancer and even depression. And even though the science on inflammation and disease is far from settled, tests and treatments are being promoted that claim to reduce that risk."

"That's even though inflammation is also a force for good, protecting against infection and injury. Acute inflammation occurs when you sprain your ankle or get a paper cut. It's part of the immune system's box of tricks to spark a defense and promote healing."

"But when that response is constantly triggered, over time it can damage the body instead of healing it. That's what happens in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. And increasingly, inflammation has been implicated in more common chronic diseases, too, though its exact role hasn't been nailed down."

Thursday
Jul202017

Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?

"Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads."

"It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you're not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?"

"That's the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel."

"At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement."

 

Wednesday
Jul192017

Elon Musk Warns Governors: Artificial Intelligence Poses 'Existential Risk'

"Tesla CEO Elon Musk, speaking to U.S. governors this weekend, told the political leaders that artificial intelligence poses an "existential threat" to human civilization."

"At the bipartisan National Governors Association in Rhode Island, Musk also spoke about energy sources, his own electric car company and space travel. But when Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, grinning, asked if robots will take everyone's jobs in the future — Musk wasn't joking when he responded."

"Yes, 'robots will do everything better than us,' Musk said. But he's worried about more than the job market."

"'AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don't think people fully appreciate that,' Musk said. He said he has access to cutting-edge AI technology, and that based on what he's seen, AI is 'the scariest problem.'"

"Musk told the governors that AI calls for precautionary, proactive government intervention: 'I think by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it's too late,' he said."

Tuesday
Jul182017

That Drug Expiration Date May Be More Myth Than Fact

"The box of prescription drugs had been forgotten in a back closet of a retail pharmacy for so long that some of the pills predated the 1969 moon landing. Most were 30 to 40 years past their expiration dates – possibly toxic, probably worthless."

"But to Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System, the cache was an opportunity to answer an enduring question about the actual shelf life of drugs: Could these drugs from the bell-bottom era still be potent?"

"Cantrell called Roy Gerona, a University of California, San Francisco, researcher who specializes in analyzing chemicals. Gerona had grown up in the Philippines, and had seen people recover from sickness by taking expired drugs with no apparent ill effects."

Monday
Jul172017

Artificial Sweeteners Don't Help People Lose Weight, Review Finds

"The theory behind artificial sweeteners is simple: If you use them instead of sugar, you get the joy of sweet-tasting beverages and foods without the downer of extra calories, potential weight gain and related health issues."

"In practice, it's not so simple, as a review of the scientific evidence on non-nutritive sweeteners published Monday shows."

"After looking at two types of scientific research, the authors conclude that there is no solid evidence that sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose help people manage their weight. And observational data suggest that the people who regularly consume these sweeteners are also more likely to develop future health problems, though those studies can't say those problems are caused by the sweeteners."

 

Sunday
Jul162017

Beam Me Up, Scotty ... Sort Of. Chinese Scientists 'Teleport' Photon To Space

"These days, advances in science seem to be sounding more like science fiction."

"Chinese scientists have announced they successfully 'teleported' information on a photon from Earth to space, spanning a distance of more than 300 miles."

"So is this like "beaming" in Star Trek or "apparating" wizards in Harry Potter? Kind of, says Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University."

"'It's somewhere in between,' Greene tells NPR's David Greene (no relation) on Morning Edition. 'But honestly, you should be super excited about that. It's a crazy, wonderful thing that we can do this.'"

"But before you start dreaming about teleporting into work when you're running late, let's talk about what that all actually means."

 

Thursday
Jul132017

'Living Drug' That Fights Cancer By Harnessing Immune System Clears Key Hurdle

"A new kind of cancer treatment that uses genetically engineered cells from a patient's immune system to attack their cancer easily cleared a crucial hurdle Wednesday."

"A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee unanimously recommended that the agency approve this 'living drug' approach for children and young adults who are fighting a common form of leukemia. The agency doesn't have to follow the committee's recommendation but usually does."

"The treatment takes cells from a patient's body, modifies the genes, and then reinfuses those modified cells back into the person who has cancer. If the agency approves, it would mark the first time the FDA has approved anything considered to be a 'gene therapy product.'"

Wednesday
Jul122017

Is The Universe Conscious?

"The history of science — in particular the physical sciences, like physics and astronomy — can be told as the incremental realization that there is large-scale coherence in the universe."

"By large-scale coherence, I mean that some of the same physical laws hold at scales as diverse as the atom and the galaxy, and even the universe as a whole. In a sense, the universe speaks one language and scientists act as the interpreters, translating this language in terms that humans can understand and relate to."

"For example, physicists base many of their theories on the law of energy conservation, that energy is always transformed but not created or destroyed — or on fancier ones, such as electric-charge conservation, which states that the total amount of electric charge is the same before and after subatomic particles such as electrons and protons interact: The particles before and after the interactions may change, but not the total amount of electric charge. That these laws hold not only in a controlled laboratory environment but also in the Earth's or Jupiter's atmospheres, in the core of stars, and even near the Big Bang itself is nothing short of amazing."

Tuesday
Jul112017

Pairing Wine And Weed: Is It A California Dream Or Nightmare?

"In the epicurean world, Northern California is famous for two intoxicants — wine and weed. With recreational marijuana about to be legal in the Golden State, some cannabis entrepreneurs are looking to the wine industry as a model."

"On the elegant terrace of a winery overlooking the vineyard-covered hills of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, a dozen invited guests are sipping pinot noir, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and taking hits off a water pipe."

"They have come for a farm-to-table meal of kale salad, roasted vegetables and grilled flatiron steak paired with wine and certain types of marijuana."

"'What we've found so far is that sativas go well with whites, indicas go well with reds,' says Sam Edwards, president of the Sonoma Cannabis Company."

Monday
Jul102017

NASA Spacecraft Gets Up Close With Jupiter's Great Red Spot

"Scientists are about to get an up-close and personal look at the planet Jupiter's most famous landmark, the Great Red Spot."

"NASA's Juno spacecraft will be directly over the spot shortly after 10 p.m. ET Monday, July 10, about 5,600 miles above the gas giant's cloud tops. That's closer than any spacecraft has been before."

"The spot is actually a giant storm that has been blowing on Jupiter for centuries. It's huge, larger than Earth in diameter."

"'It's lasted a really long time,' says Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and principal scientist for NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter. 'No scientists really understand exactly how that storm is created or why it could last so long.'"