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A couple of years ago, University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack did an online video chat with personal finance writer Helaine Olen. The topic was how regular people get steered into bad investments by financial advisers.

There were high-fives this week from Detroit to Washington, D.C., as carmakers celebrated record auto sales.

Americans bought 17.5 million cars and trucks in 2015. That's a huge turnaround from 2009, and the Obama administration cheered the rebound as vindication of the president's decision to rescue General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy.

"Because of the policy decisions that were made by this administration to place a bet on those workers, America has won, and our economy has been better for it," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

At the end of every year, U.S. meteorologists look back at what the nation's weather was like, and what they saw in 2015 was weird. The year was hot and beset with all manner of extreme weather events that did a lot of expensive damage.

December, in fact, was a fitting end.

Researchers have looked in the stomach of an ancient ice mummy and found the remains of the bacteria that lived in his gut. The results, published in the journal Science, suggest that the community of microbes living on and in humans has existed for millennia.

Robots were popular on the big screen this holiday season. The newly released film Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought us more of C-3PO, R2-D2 — those sweet and capable robots that have enchanted us for decades — and the debut of BB-8.

At this year's big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, known as CES, there were more robots on display than ever. Some even looked like the Star Wars characters.

The most promising by appearance was Pepper. It has humanoid features — eyes, arms, a mouth. Pepper can even be a little self-conscious.

Lumosity, a "brain games" company, has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising suit.

According to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, the brain-fitness company, "preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease."

The claims the company made, it seems, are entirely without basis. As she says: "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

Scientists Spot 'Burping' Black Hole In Nearby Galaxy

Jan 6, 2016

A black hole in a nearby galaxy has let out a couple of belches.

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory say they've spotted two arcs of X-ray emissions near a supermassive black hole, which they believe are fossils "from two enormous blasts when the black hole expelled material outward into the galaxy."

North Korea announced on state television that it tested its first hydrogen bomb. The announcement followed a magnitude 5.1 earthquake that shook near the rogue nation's nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, at 10 a.m. local time.

The hydrogen bomb test was "an act of self defense" against foreign threats, the announcement from the North said. "We've joined the rank of nations with nuclear weapons. We won't use the nuclear weapon as long as there's no invasion of our autonomy."

On the first day of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it was the car companies that got the spotlight.

The convergence of the auto industry and tech world began decades ago. There are millions of lines of code in the average car on the road. A recent study shows that tech (Bluetooth, lane assistance, backup cameras) are the deciding factors in new car purchases.

How Real Is Reality?

Jan 5, 2016

Each day when you wake up, the world is, for the most part, unchanged from the day before.

The sun rises again in the east. Your underwear falls if you drop it. The water in the sink spirals down the drain like always. Just as important, your mattress won't turn into a sports car and you can't jump into the air and fly like Superman.

Reality, in other words, seems pretty stubborn, pretty fixed — and pretty much independent of whatever is going on in your head.

But is it? Is it really all those things?

As technology advances, many industries are being disrupted by increased automation. But when it comes to managing and protecting the water supply, there are many tasks that still require a combination of people and technology.

That's where reservoir caretakers come in. Some cities and counties employ these workers to live in remote locations and watch over the water supply.

The Paris agreement to curb climate change calls for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and the greenhouse gasses they emit, especially carbon dioxide.

For now, they're known by working names, like ununseptium and ununtrium — two of the four new chemical elements whose discovery has been officially verified. The elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 will get permanent names soon, according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

In Spring Hill, Tenn., people often lurk outside the library on their laptops — before it opens and after it closes.

Librarian Jennifer Urban says it's not that they're just mooching the free Wi-Fi. The cost may be one aspect, but this town of about 30,000 people is also growing fast, she says, so fast that Internet providers can't keep up with home construction.

"There are subdivisions here that no one in the subdivision has Internet access, for one reason or another," she says.

Research out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that people see New Year's Day, their birthdays and even the start of a new month or week as "temporal landmarks" — an imaginary line demarcating the old "inferior" self from a new and improved version. That explains why we often fail at resolutions — our new selves are usually not much better than the old ones. But it also suggests how we might stick to our resolutions — use more temporal landmarks to reach our goals.

Last year, snowpack across the Sierra Nevada was just 5 percent of average. Up and down the West Coast in fact, the 2014-2015 season was marked by late openings, early closings and some resorts not opening at all.

This year's strong start will be good news for farms and cities down the mountain later, but it's especially promising right now for people like Andy Wirth, the resort's CEO.

He took over in 2011, a record snowfall year, only to be followed by three dry years and then last year, the driest in 1,200 years.

What's the universe made of?

It's a question that's been bothering scientists and philosophers for millennia, and has become even more vexing in recent decades, as physicists have become convinced that most of the universe is made of something we can't see or touch or measure.

At least not yet.

This was a record-breaking year for rooftop solar power. It's booming across the country. But as more homeowners make their own power, electric utilities are making less money, and that's shaking up their business model.

Utilities in two states — California and Georgia — are handling the growth of solar in dramatically different ways.

Matt Brown recently got solar panels on his Oakland, Calif., home, but it's dark out right now — his panels aren't working. So Brown's appliances are running on electricity he's buying from his utility, Pacific Gas & Electric.

VIDEO: Meet The Bots That Beat The Obstacles

Dec 30, 2015

In 1957, humans launched a satellite into orbit, Sputnik-1.

The same mission also created our first piece of space junk: the rocket body that took Sputnik into space.

By the year 2000, there were hundreds of satellites in orbit — and thousands of pieces of space junk, including leftover rockets and pieces of debris.

You have probably been hearing a lot about virtual reality in the past couple of years; this coming year you finally may get to try it. Several major consumer headsets are hitting the market, allowing users to experience everything from travel, games, news and shopping.

But it's not clear whether that will be enough to entice consumers to spend a few hundred bucks on a VR headset.

Brian Blau thinks it will be enough. The analyst at Gartner, a tech market-research firm, has watched dozens of people don a virtual reality headset for the first time.

Right before the holidays, Congress approved tax credits for clean energy. It was just a tiny part of a $1.8 trillion spending bill, but solar and wind power companies say it's a Christmas present that will catapult their industry forward. Analysts are predicting a big boost in wind and solar projects over the next few years.

Every once in a while a technology comes along that completely alters the way scientists do their work.

It's hard to imagine astronomy without a telescope or high energy physics without an accelerator.

From here on in, it's going to be impossible to imagine biology without CRISPR-Cas9.

A novel immunotherapy drug is credited for successfully treating former President Jimmy Carter's advanced melanoma. Instead of killing cancer cells, these drugs boost the patient's immune system, which does the job instead.

Immunotherapy is cutting-edge cancer treatment, but the idea dates back more than 100 years, to a young surgeon who was willing to think outside the box.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

3 Big Moments From Space In 2015

Dec 26, 2015

It's been an exciting year for developments in space. NPR Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel shares three highlights with host Linda Wertheimer.

Do you remember cutting paper snowflakes in school? Artist Rogan Brown has elevated that simple seasonal art form and taken it to science class.

These large-scale paper sculptures may evoke snow, but actually trade on the forms of bacteria and other organisms. The patterns may feel familiar, but also a bit alien. You're not looking at a replica of a microbe, but an interpretation of one. And that distinction, Brown says, is important.

It was early 1954 when computer scientists, for the first time, publicly revealed a machine that could translate between human languages. It became known as the Georgetown-IBM experiment: an "electronic brain" that translated sentences from Russian into English.

The scientists believed a universal translator, once developed, would not only give Americans a security edge over the Soviets but also promote world peace by eliminating language barriers.

Editor's Note: This post accompanies a story that you can hear on the NPR One app by following this link.

The words you use betray who you are.

Linguists and psychologists have long been studying this phenomenon. A few decades ago they had a hunch that the number of active verbs in your sentences or which adjectives you use (lovely, sweet, angry) reflect personality traits.

It's the solstice again, which is an astronomer's favorite time of year. That's because it's one of the few occasions where we have anything semi-practical to say to anyone.

"Hey, Adam, you're an astronomer. What's this whole solstice thing about?"

Well, I'm glad you asked.

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