National / International News
Many Christian denominations officially oppose legislation that would legalize medically assisted suicide. But some individual churches, pastors and congregants are lending support to the cause.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Army medics got really good at treating wounded troops. Scientists want to adapt these new technologies and tricks to help injured people in poor countries.
The freshman senator from Arkansas, who wrote the letter to Iran and rallied 46 other Republicans to object to a nuclear deal, revealed his guilty pleasure: eating birthday cake nearly every day.
Overall, college students aren't enrolling in foreign language classes as much as they used to. But more people are enrolling in Korean language classes.
One of New York City's thorniest political issues is over how to make its elite high schools more representative. A new study says that many popular proposals won't help diversity — and might hurt it.
The world may run out of elephants. Poachers kill an estimated 40,000 of the big animals a year, even though trading in ivory has been essentially illegal for more than 20 years.
But 150 years ago, ivory was booming and nobody worried about elephants. The gorgeous material could be shaped into lots of things — and was. But for one entrepreneur, ivory’s specialness was a big problem.
That man was the father of American billiards — and the his ivory problem made him, in a sense, the grandfather of the modern world. Which is to say, of plastics.
It's tempting to call Michael Phelan the Steve Jobs of billiards.
"I think that would be an understatement," says Michael Shamos, author of "The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards."
"While Steve Jobs did amazingly brilliant things, he was not fully responsible for the computer," says Shamos, who is a computer-science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. "But Phelan, in many ways, was responsible for the uptake of billiards in the United States."
And billiards, says Shamos, was the single most-popular amusement for men in the second half of the 19th century.
Phelan was the top player, a best-selling author, and the first big manufacturer of billiards tables.
To popularize the game, he helped standardize the gear — which, in the case of the balls, meant maintaining a very high standard.
"The billiard ball has to have certain physical properties," Shamos says. "It has to rebound properly. It has to be of uniform density."
In the 19th century, that meant it had to be made of ivory, which wasn’t cheap.
What's more, billiard balls required the top grade of ivory, much of which was wasted in the process.
"The average number of billiard balls that could be obtained from a single tusk," Shamos says, "is three."
Phelan and his partners saw the reliance on ivory as a threat to his industry's growth. It was as if the Apple Watch could be sold only in the $10,000 gold edition, because the gold was necessary to make the device function.
"They were really desperate, I don't think is too strong a word, to find some kind of substitute material," says Robert Friedel, a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of the book "Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid," which tells the story of what happened next.
Phelan advertised a prize of $10,000 — the equivalent of almost $3 million today, compared to the wages earned by laborers at the time — for the discovery of a satisfactory substitute for ivory in making billiard balls. The contest prompted a printer named John Wesley Hyatt to experiment with a newly discovered material, nitrated cellulose: cotton fiber treated with nitric and sulfuric acid.
"That material turned out to have very interesting properties," Friedel says. "In particular, it dissolves, and it creates a kind of syrupy liquid."
After more than five years of tinkering, Hyatt produced the first plastic, which he called celluloid — but it doesn’t win Phelan’s prize.
"Celluloid is a wonderful material," Friedel says. "It’s a beautiful plastic, and it has a wonderful range of uses. But. Billiard balls is not one of them."
Balls made with celluloid just don’t bounce right.
Hyatt looked for another market, and eventually found a hit, producing fake ivory for knick-knacks: knife handles, combs, hand mirrors, all kinds of things.
"Celluloid a terrific faux-ivory," Friedel says. "And it’s a great faux-tortoise-shell, and amber and coral — there are all sorts of great effects you can get from it.
Billiard balls kept getting made out of ivory. Which was OK — for the billiards industry anyway — because Europeans keep colonizing and exploiting more of Africa. It was not great for the people of Africa, as documented in books like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost."
It was also terrible for elephants. By 1910, the elephant population had dropped to the point where billiard-ball makers, among others, were getting acutely worried about the ivory supply.
Right around then, a chemist named Leo Baekeland came up with a new kind of plastic, made from petroleum, naming it bakelite, after himself.
Among bakelite's advantages: It could be liquefied during production, and fillers could be added.
"With that capability," Friedel says, "you can vary the density, you can vary the elasticity— and you can make a perfect billiard ball."
Celluloid got supplanted by newer plastics except for one key use, one product for which celluloid is said to perform better than any other material: ping-pong balls.
Celluloid balls got bumped from tournament play just last year. It was a controversial decision.
In an interview with NPR, Ernest Moniz says the deal has expanded the time it would take Iran to make a bomb significantly — from two months to a year.
Weather permitting, a "blood moon" eclipse — the penultimate in a four-eclipse cycle — can be seen in its totality by those living on the U.S West Coast.
Most of the official candidates for president so far are unknown to the typical voter. Turns out, it's not hard to do.
Garry Shigeharu Greene grew up in Los Angeles. He worked for a pool maintenance business and eventually he became the owner, but it all fell apart.
Garry soon found himself desperate to find work. After a few bouts of homelessness, he discovered a new job and for the past 20 years, he's worked for himself, selling what others throw out: recyclable trash.
We caught up with Gary and his shopping cart at the Temple Street recycling facility.
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.
It's college acceptance season — or perhaps, more accurately, rejection season — at the most elite schools. Harvard and Stanford turned away about 95 percent of applicants this year, a new record for Harvard.
There are lots of reasons top-ranked colleges are turning away more applicants. They're getting more, thanks to more aggressive recruiting. And because some kids are so unsure of what it will take to get accepted, they're applying everywhere.
All of this can be crazy-making and heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says it doesn't have to be. He's out with a new book: "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be."
The fixation on getting into top colleges is nothing new for hyper-talented and extra, extracurricular-engaged high school students. But with 95 percent rejection rates, the competition is all the more intense.
"It's fed by a whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches," Bruni says, adding the demand has deeper roots in parents' fears about the economy. "I think in their anxiety about the country's prosperity and its future, they want to give kids any leg up, anything that might be a leg up, and they see elite schools as one of those things."
One reason that the volume of applications have increased: ease. Most elite colleges and universities use the common app, an electronic form that allows students to apply to send the same information, scores and essays to an array of schools. Schools also market themselves aggressively to see as many applicants as possible.
"They want to get the best students and they want the most diverse student bodies, so that's the good impulse behind it," Bruni says. "But they also just want big, big numbers because we've entered an era here where a low acceptance rate – proof that you've turned away masses of people – is bragging rights among colleges."
For low-income students in particular, research shows that going to a selective school can make a big difference in graduation rates and future earnings.
"It's not fair to say that the brand doesn't buy opportunities," Bruni says of the most elite and selective colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. "But it's not a do-or-die, make-or-break advantage. It's not going to last your whole life."
Listen to the complete interview below to find out which school produces the strongest startup founders, according to venture capitalist and Y Combinator President Sam Altman. (That question comes at 3:21).