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How people have made artificial light over the past 4,000 years reflects the history of economic growth in the world. One economist has explored the cost of light, starting in ancient Babylonian times and ending in the 1990s. He discovered that for most of the past four millennia, light was very expensive. Then, in the past 200 years, scientific advances caused the cost of light to drop precipitously, and economies grew with a speed and intensity unknown before. Listen to hear how light became cheap and how its cost helps show how economic growth happens.
One of the many legacies of the Second World War was the emergence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed as an alliance of western powers, led by the United States, to protect against the spread of communism. Over several decades, NATO has grown to include over 20 countries, bound by a military alliance and ideological common ground. Recently, President Trump has criticized NATO, arguing that the alliance is a drain on American resources. In this story, a historian tells the story of NATO’s history and connects it to recent concerns raised about its cost and its value.
Understanding and tracking time is key to keeping society -- and our lives -- running smoothly. Early civilizations developed calendars with just 300 days in a year. But by 1582, the time it takes for Earth to rotate around the sun was better understood, and Pope Gregory introduced the 365-day Gregorian calendar -- the one used by most of the world today. Listen to hear a scientist explain the math behind adding and subtracting leap days to keep the calendar aligned with the Earth’s movement, and learn how Christianity played a role in the calendar’s creation.
When a Russian paramilitary group, called the Cossacks, first emerged more than 500 years ago, it fought for two goals: expand Russia’s borders and protect its Orthodox Christian values. The Cossacks became recognized around the world for their fierce fighting skills and by their traditional dress, which included black sheepskin hats, long open coats and riding boots. Over the centuries, the Cossacks’ commitment to Russian imperialism and conservative ideology remained constant. The 1991 Soviet collapse resuscitated the Cossacks’ chance to serve as the country’s vigilantes once again. In this audio story, you’ll hear how an attack on a female punk band during the 2014 Sochi Olympics showed the world that the Cossacks aren’t just a page in the history books.
Throughout American history, voting has been a contested right. Thought of as a right of citizenship, voting has, in fact, been restricted to varying degrees since the foundation of the country. Even today, barriers exist that make it difficult even for citizens to vote. In this Civics101 story, an author discusses the contested history of voting in America, how voting has changed over time, and some of the 21st century obstacles that impact the right to vote today.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented all immigration of Chinese laborers. Chinese immigrants were detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay at the turn of the 20th century because of the Exclusion Act. This audio story describes the Chinese poetry carved on the walls of a detention barracks by Angel Island detainees. Their poetry tells a story of humiliation and mistreatment of innocent Chinese people trying to start a new life or join loved ones already in the United States.
In the original Constitution, the founders laid out a process through which a president could be removed from power, known as impeachment. In this audio story, a history professor explains how impeachment works. She also gives a brief history of presidential impeachments, explaining some of the issues in each case. Finally, she addresses the problem with impeachment, namely that it is often used for cynical political purposes, rather than as a mechanism for holding a president accountable for job performance.
Maritime trade in today’s world is still very important as ships bring clothing to department stores and TVs to electronic stores. This public radio story explains how the International Maritime Organization, founded in 1958, oversees world shipping today. The IMO deals with problems the ancient Greeks would have recognized, including piracy.
Household management involves using resources wisely and being thrifty to stay within a budget. The word “economy” comes from the Greek word for household management, oikonomia. This management is difficult when people have too little money to buy what they need, which was the case for many after the stock market crashed in 1929. In an effort to make sense of what was going on, members of the U.S. government began to talk about what they called “the economy,” and they developed methods to quantify the situation and account for economic fluctuations. Listen to the story to learn more about the invention of what we call the economy and some of the means by which we measure its strength.
This story looks at a small island in the Pacific Ocean called Yap to answer a big question: What is money? On Yap, limestone is considered valuable, much like gold and silver in other places. But because limestone is very heavy, people can’t move it easily. As a result, money has become more abstract. People agree to its value, but don’t necessarily have the limestone itself. Listen to learn what money is and to explore how people in our society, too, buy and sell by using something (coins and bills) that represents something valuable, rather than using the valuable thing itself.
A Mughal monument that dates back to 1570 was the first garden tomb complex on the Indian subcontinent and inspired other buildings including the Taj Mahal. There has been an effort to restore the 16th-century monument located in Delhi, India. Listen to learn how the people working on the restoration, and the people who live near the monument, find themselves changed by this work.
Archaeologists have long searched sites across Central America to learn about the ancient civilizations that once thrived there. One of those civilizations is the Olmecs, an early Central American people, whose culture pre-dates the Mayans. In this audio story you will hear about the discovery of a stone block that seems to date back to the Olmecs, over 3,000 years ago. It contains what might be the oldest writing ever found in the Americas. Listen to learn more about the significance of this discovery.
When people think about America’s founding generation, names like Washington and Franklin typically come to mind. But one lesser known, yet important, person was Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush was one of the leading doctors in early America. He was also involved in some of early America’s defining events, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the crossing of the Delaware, as well as being active in the abolition movement and advocacy for the mentally ill. This NPR story examines the life of Dr. Rush and discusses his significance, both in his own time and in American history.
The Great Wall of China stretches thousands of miles. But there were many walls before The Great Wall. This story focuses on the wall built centuries before the Great Wall by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Listen to hear why the Qi wall was originally built, how it was constructed, and who was recruited to do the construction work.
Over the course of American history, the Executive Branch and, in particular, the presidency, has grown in scope and influence. As the U.S. has become more heavily involved in foreign affairs over the past century, presidents have benefitted from daily briefings that inform them of potential global trouble spots and the pros and cons of intervention in various locations. This audio story is about the beginning and growth in importance of the presidential daily briefing. Specifically, the story tells how global crises have shaped its importance as part of the president’s responsibilities.
The luxury goods company Hermes makes and sells a high-end purse it calls the Birkin Bag. The Birkin costs $10,000—often more—and it is nearly impossible to find one to buy. Because very few bags are available, the Birkin has become a status symbol, something only very few people can buy. Its scarcity raises its value, which could explain why a purse can cost so much money. Listen to find out why a retail company, that by definition wants to sell things, makes it so difficult to buy their product.
This public radio story describes the Julian calendar, developed during the rule of Julius Caesar in Rome in the first century BCE, and how this calendar failed to keep accurate time for the Catholic Church centuries later. You will hear how Pope Gregory called on modern science to create an accurate calendar in the 1500s, and that became the calendar we use today.
For some, John Brown is a venerated historical figure. For others, he is divisive. His famous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859, meant to induce a slave rebellion, could be seen as both a righteous act in support of slave liberation and as an act of domestic terrorism. No matter how one views Brown, it is indisputable that his raid was a major turning point as the nation drew closer to civil war. In this story, a journalist discusses Brown, going into great detail into the story of his raid and its historical legacy.
When economists track the performance of the U.S. economy, they pay attention to factors like economic growth, inflation, and unemployment. One economic model, the Phillips Curve, suggests that when unemployment is low, inflation increases, and vice-versa. But is that always true? Listen to learn about the relationship between unemployment and inflation, and about how economists’ interventions can actually change it.
Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution in England, and then America, and the whole world. But the new manufacturing came at a high price: coal pollution. This public radio story takes you to the place where the Industrial Revolution began, and explains how coal, iron, and steam created a new world. Coalbrookdale was one of the busiest coalfields in Europe, but today it seems quiet and clean. Is it really? The world is still powered by fossil fuel, which pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—we’ve just changed the way we burn the coal.
During Jim Crow, systemic racism cut into virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life. This included an act as seemingly simple as shopping. For African-Americans, shopping in a store meant being badly treated including being ignored by sales people. The Sears Catalog, which had photographs of hundreds of products and gave people the ability to order them by mail, was revolutionary for black Americans because it allowed them to have the same shopping experience as white Americans. This audio story deals with the ways in which the idea of shopping by catalog leveled the economic playing field during Jim Crow.
In 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was shot and killed. The assassination started World War I and changed the course of the 20th century. This story takes you to the street corner in Sarajevo where it all began and discusses the aristocracy at the time and how lax security led to the assassination. Listen to learn more about the motivations of the assassins and the series of events that led to the start of World War I.
In 1765, the British imposed a tax on the American colonists called the Stamp Act. It charged a tax on all newspapers and documents. The colonists opposed this tax and it was repealed in 1766. The Stamp Act led to the tax on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party and ultimately the American Revolution. Listen to learn more about the Stamp Act and how effective these protest were in opposing British taxes.
The United States Constitution is the basis of our laws and structures our government. It contains the founding principles of our nation. Since its creation in 1787, Americans have debated its full meaning, and worked to apply it to new situations that the Founders could never have imagined—certain that this 18th-century document is ready to tell us what to do in the 21st century. Any group trying to make change calls on the Constitution for backup. Listen to learn how the Tea Party is using the Constitution to back its political goals and challenge the Bill of Rights.
Since the founding of the United States, there has been a debate about the issue of church and state and how much faith should influence law and political debate. The first amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nonetheless, there are people who advocate for more government support for religious institutions and preference for one faith over another. Listen to this conversation about the current tax-exempt status of churches, evidence of how our founders dealt with the issue, and President Trump’s executive order on religious liberty.
A compromise is a way to settle a dispute by meeting each other halfway. Sometimes, a compromise may be acceptable in the moment, but there can be hidden costs. The head of Emory University caused a significant disruption by citing the Three-Fifths Compromise of the U.S. Constitution “as a positive example of political compromise.” But according to a history professor at the institution, this was “the Constitution’s fatal flaw.” This constitutional amendment impacted the future of slavery in the United States. Listen to hear one Emory professor’s perspective on the controversy and how the country’s history of slavery continues to affect us today.
Many people in Dakar, Senegal, choose the least expensive way to dispose of the raw sewage that collects in their septic systems. The result is that sewage contaminates their neighborhoods and makes people sick. The healthier option is more expensive, and it stays expensive because sewage collection companies have agreed not to compete with each other. They set a price that makes the cost too high for most people to pay. Listen to learn about how an economist implemented a new program to bring down prices and clean up the local environment.
After World War II, the United States became a global leader. Former President Harry Truman gets much of the credit for that. His “Truman Doctrine” was the basis for U.S. foreign policy after WWII, promoting strength abroad, which protected the U.S. and its allies and promoted international partnerships. President Donald Trump’s doctrine of “America First” threatens to reverse this by reshaping America’s role in the world, potentially antagonizing allies and, some fear, making America less secure. This audio story looks at the history behind the Truman Doctrine and how events today could permanently shift America’s role in the world.
American slavery destroyed generations of human lives, and citizens in all parts of the country were complicit. The horrors of the slave system and the damage it did are at the heart of the current debate over whether descendants of enslaved people should receive reparations, or compensation for past wrongs. Listen to hear an historian make the case for reparations, detailing the brutalities of slavery and explaining how Americans at the time rationalized a cruel national institution.
Thomas Paine was a British essayist and political philosopher in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution. His writings and the pamphlets he published were very popular among American colonists and politicians alike. He took on such ideas as America as universal concept, the supreme importance of liberty, and the proper role of a just government. His essay, “Common Sense,” written less than two years after Paine’s arrival from England, was the single most influential document leading to the Declaration of Independence. This audio story takes a brief look back at this influential writer and contains several passages from “Common Sense.” Listen to learn more about Thomas Paine’s life and ideas, and about how his writings helped inspire a revolution.
The tradition of town meeting day has faded away in most states. This audio story describes a town meeting in Starksboro, Vermont, and a longstanding tradition of town meetings in New England beginning in the 1600s. While it can be difficult to give 100 people all the time they want to debate issues and air their opinions, let alone come to an agreement on them, town meeting remains a vitally important institution that its members value. Listen to this story as it looks at what makes it work.
In 2010, a copper and gold mine in northern Chile caved in. Thirty-three men were trapped 2,300 feet underground and were rescued 69 days later. Fortunately, this group established rules and structure and the confinement did not become a "Lord of the Flies" situation. The miners had little food or privacy, but kept each others' morale up. How do humans respond to isolation and a lack of structure? Listen to hear about the psychological risks and advantages of these scenarios.
India and Pakistan have been in conflict since the British drew a line across India in 1947 that created two opposing nations. Pakistan’s military focuses on preparing for a conflict with India, and its government teaches its citizens to fear India. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over the disputed region Kashmir that lies between them like a no-mans-land. Listen to learn about the legacy of the 1947 partition.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume were two of the most prominent philosophers of the late 18th century. Despite being in many ways opposed to one another in terms of ideas, they briefly became friends--and then almost immediately afterwards, bitter enemies. Listen to learn about the relationship between these two great thinkers, and how it turned out to be more human than you’d expect.
North and South Korea have been separate nations for over 70 years. The North has never accepted this division and is on a mission to either force South Korea back into a united communist Korea or destroy it. Explore this modern hostility by looking back to the historic source of Korea’s division and analyzing the impact it has had on the life of people on both sides.
When two planes flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 most Americans were shocked, but some in the security community had seen this coming and argued for more aggressive action against al-Qaida. While al-Qaida operatives were training and planning the attack against the United States, the US public was distracted by domestic politics and scandals. From presidential misconduct and perjury in the case of Monica Lewinsky, an aide to President Clinton who had a relationship with him, to the contentious recount and end of the 2000 Presidential Election. Americans were focused inward. Listen to learn about what led up to that historic day.
War time chaos often puts cultural heritage at risk with looting and pillaging of historic artifacts. This radio story tells of an unusual partnership between two groups: the military and archaeologists. They are working together to educate soldiers in order to help protect cultural heritage and artifacts in war zones in Iraq, and other nearby countries. It’s a modern-day story of protecting artifacts in war zones and is tied to the many ancient artifacts that have been lost over the centuries.
In several recent presidential elections, the popular vote—the national totals of all voters in an election—and the Electoral College vote, which is the political process that actually chooses the president, have been inconsistent. This story explores the origins of Electoral College, explains who can be part of it, and describes how they go about becoming official electors. Listen to learn more about this complicated process and its potential problems, as well as why we still use it today.
Venice, Italy stood for a thousand years as a gateway between the Islamic world and the West. During this time the city-state was determined to maintain trade with Muslims. Even after defeating the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Venice continued to trade with the Ottomans. It kept commercial links with the Islamic world, often blurring the lines between the arts and cultures of east and west. A museum exhibit in Venice is highlighted in this story, and describes the history of that relationship. Listen to learn more about the mutual influences that Venice and the Islamic world had on one another, and what those influences might teach us today.
Some World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas were denied disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has said it doesn’t have enough evidence to grant the benefits. Veterans of Vietnam were exposed to a different toxic chemical, Agent Orange. This story explores how the Agent Orange Act was lobbied for and enacted, requiring the VA to provide disability benefits to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. Listen to learn about how legislation similar to the Agent Orange Act could help to provide compensation for World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas.