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Straight ahead "Our World," A new test for Alzheimer's ... the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope considered ... and the Quantum Diaries ...
DALET: TEASE - Harris (:10)
"My personal role is to point out to the general public that physicists don't look like whatever it is you think they look like. We're not all people who focus all the time on our work."
Our Website of the Week, plus farming with corn, cows, and a power plant? I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
As we age, our bodies change, and so do our brains. Many older people suffer memory loss and a decline in other cognitive functions. At one time, this was labeled senility and was considered a normal part of aging. Today, doctors recognize the condition as dementia, most often caused by Alzheimer's Disease. The Alzheimer's Association, a research and advocacy group, estimates that half of everyone over age 85 have the disease.
Both doctors and researches have been frustrated because there is no sure-fire way of diagnosing Alzheimer's until the brain is examined after death. But that may be changing. Scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago this week reported a new way of detecting in spinal fluid a toxic protein called ADDL (pron. addle), which is associated with Alzheimer's disease. Dr. William Klein and his colleagues described their findings in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences"
KLEIN (:10) "We've discovered that there's a toxin that builds up in the brain of Alzheimer's patients that attacks their synapses, targets those synapses, disrupts them, blocks memory mechanisms.
The new test requires taking a sample of a patient's cerebral-spinal fluid, called CSF, and running it through some very sophisticated diagnostic technology.
KLEIN (:13) "We increased the sensitivity a million fold. And with this new technology we now show that the ADDLs are present in CSF and on top of that, greatly elevated in the CSF of Alzheimer's patients."
Taking a sample of a patient's spinal fluid is not a trivial exercise. Which is why Dr. David Katz of Yale University's School of Medicine said the new test will likely be used initially in research, rather than in treatment.
KATZ (:21) "The clearest implication of this right now is that this should be used as a research tool. ... The next step after this study is to study this and see, can we use this assay [to] monitor progress and identify better treatments. There will be better treatments for Alzheimer's. They can be given earlier. And as a result, some day we'll be able to prevent the memory impairment from occurring."
Despite its limitations, Dr. David Katz labeled this an "important breakthrough." He spoke on NBC-TV's "Today" show.
The symptoms of dementia, whether caused by Alzheimer's or some other condition, include a loss of memory and other brain functions. There are also behavioral symptoms that can make life miserable for caregivers and family members. They include aggression, hallucinations, wandering and agitation.
Doctors often prescribe medicines to alleviate these symptoms, but a new study suggests that not only do these drugs do little if any good, their side effects cold make matters worse.
SINK (:04) "Surprisingly, what we found was that most drugs in use are not very effective.
Dr. KayCee Sink conducted the study. She's an assistant professor and gerontologist - or specialist in aging - at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. She says one class of drugs, known as atypical anti-psychotics, may be of some use --
SINK (:06) "But even these drugs are only modestly effective and have side effects that must be balanced with any potential benefit."
Side effects include an increased risk of stroke. Dr. Sink says many doctors prescribe drugs for dementia patients to make it easier for family members or other caregivers to deal with them. But she says there are other approaches that don't involve medicine.
SINK (:16) "We should really be starting as first-line treatment with non-pharmacologic approaches, and specifically, focusing on educating caregivers about the behaviors and things that they can do, short of giving drugs, to try to calm a patient down or keep them from wandering."
In addition, other studies have indicated that approaches like pet therapy and music therapy may help ease these dementia symptoms.
The debate over the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope continued in the U.S. Congress this week. At a hearing, lawmakers heard experts disagree on how best to prolong the orbiting observatory's life ... or whether to save it at all. In the meantime, as VOA's David McAlary reports, the telescope is deteriorating and time is running out.
McALARY: Without repair, the Hubble telescope is expected to fail by the end of 2007. Its backup steering gyroscopes are not working and its batteries are weakening. But the space agency, NASA, canceled a maintenance visit by shuttle astronauts planned for last year after the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster. It says it will not jeopardize crew members' lives with a mission whose goal is other than completing international space station assembly.
Instead, NASA has backed an unmanned Hubble servicing mission using untested robotic technologies now being developed. But some experts say astronauts would be more reliable. Others argue for replacing Hubble with a new platform designed to do the same thing, and still others say Hubble's mission is outdated by a new generation of orbiting telescopes being planned.
The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives science committee, Sherwood Boehlert, says it's going to be a tough call.
BOEHLERT: "On the one hand, everyone acknowledges that the Hubble has been a sparkling jewel in the crown of American science, but on the other there is disagreement about how and whether to save it. We have to make hard choices about whether a Hubble mission is worth it now, when moving ahead is likely to have an adverse impact on other programs in astronomy."
McALARY: NASA has sent four shuttle crews to maintain and upgrade the Hubble since 1993. A National Academy of Sciences panel studied the issue at the request of Congress and says this is still the best way because it would use proven methods and allow immediate human intervention if a problem arises. Panelist Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, counters NASA's concern that a shuttle visit is too risky.
BOLDEN: "There is no human safety concern more from a Hubble Space Telescope mission than there is from an individual international space station mission."
McALARY: But an official of the company developing a mechanical arm for a robotic mission to Hubble bridles at the academy panel's assertion that unmanned repair technology is less reliable than people. Paul Cooper of M.D. Robotics says tests show the technology works.
COOPER: "We relentlessly took a real robot operating on real mock-up hardware and we have now executed every single task that's necessary to do the servicing and upgrade operations. In short, we can do this and we think it's the right thing to do."
McALARY: A third option being promoted is a replacement of the Hubble with some of the new instruments intended for it. Those who favor it say it would not have to be rushed into orbit before a Hubble failure and that its more capable technology could quickly make up for any scientific losses incurred in the time between such a failure and the launch of the new platform.
But Princeton University astrophysicist Joseph Taylor says the loss of Hubble would not set back astronomical research. Mr. Taylor co-chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that decided future research priorities in astronomy.
TAYLOR: "We concluded that answers to many of the astrophysical questions most ripe for scientific progress in this decade are likely to be found at spectral wavelengths outside the Hubble telescope's capabilities. It is very difficult for me to say that knowledge of the premature loss of the Hubble would have significantly altered our priority list."
McALARY: Still, there are those in Congress who think the telescope should be rescued. Science Committee Chairman Boehlert, who is one of them, says he is concerned about news reports that NASA has cut funds for a repair mission from its 2006 budget to be released Monday.
BOEHLERT: "I would dearly love to save the telescope. It has outperformed everyone's fondest hopes and has become a kind of mascot for science, maybe even for our planet. One can't help but root for it."
McALARY: If nothing is done to save Hubble's scientific capabilities, NASA says it will still dispatch a robotic mission to deorbit it safely by 2013 at the latest. (SIGNED)
MUSIC: Dan Hicks — Strike It While It's Hot (featuring Bette Midler)
On "Our World" we report each week on the latest scientific research. But before a paper is published in a scientific or medical journal, researchers will spend months or even years doing the hard work of science. Our Website of the Week, QuantumDiaries.org pulls aside the curtain to give us a look behind the scenes as scientists describe their ongoing work in their own words.
WALD (:22) "We've invited 30-some physicists to create online journals to discuss what's important to them. They talk about their research in physics. And they also write about stuff that's personal to them, their families [and] friends. And people are free to express their political opinions or their opinions about their own labs or their collaborations or the people they work with."
Chelsea Wald is managing editor of the Quantum Diaries website. Although other physicists are among the first readers of these online journals, she hopes this new site will also expose non-scientists to the workings of science.
WALD (:07) "We're also interested in reaching the general public. We'd love to have everyone come and check it out."
In one recent post, for example, German physicist Jochen Weller talks about astronomy at the South Pole. In another, Debbie Harris wrote about making neutrinos and then, a few paragraphs later, about making brownies with her children.
HARRIS (:17) "My personal role is to point out to the general public that physicists don't look like whatever it is you think they look like. We're not all people who focus all the time on our work. Some of us like to spend time with our kids as much as we love doing this physics that we're trying to do."
The Quantum Diaries website is a year-long project that coincides with the World Year of Physics, marking the centennial of the publication of landmark papers by Albert Einstein. The participants include physicists from 10 countries, writing in almost as many languages. And the communication is not just one-way. Each entry has a comments box where any visitor can continue the dialogue.
For a real-life look behind the scenes at physicists in action, surf on over to QuantumDiaries.org. Or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
The Quantum Diaries is an example of a phenomenon that's sweeping the Internet. Those diaries are really blogs - web logs - some of an estimated six million online now, with more being added every day. Blogs often include clever headlines and graphics, links to interesting websites, and a place for readers to react. VOA's Ted Landphair tells us more.
LANDPHAIR: Blogs by humorists, famous reporters, and people who fancy themselves as political pundits are read enthusiastically by a worldwide community of Web surfers. And John Dvorak, who writes about blogs for PC Magazine and is a blogger himself, says ordinary citizens, looking for creative outlets, are taking readily available software and producing weblogs about everything from family travels to model-train collections. They are, in effect, quickly and inexpensively publishing their own online magazines.
DVORAK :23 "Go to Google or one of the other online search engines and type in 'model railroading blog.' Use the word itself. You will get a listing of people who are writing about model railroading. When you go to a couple of them, they tend to point out other blogs about the same topic. It's almost like a world in and of itself, which I why, I think, a lot of people don't know about blogs. It's almost its own universe."
LANDPHAIR: Because Internet expression is uncensored, John Dvorak is careful to note, some weblog content is hateful, profane -- even pornographic.
DVORAK: But at the same time, there's so much good stuff in the blogging world -- to an extreme -- that it's well worth exploring.
LANDPHAIR: Blogging began in the 1980s in California's Silicon Valley, as early Internet wizards shared technical information.
Bloggers made headlines during the early stages of the war in Iraq, when journalists and U-S service personnel shared their experiences on-line. And it wasn't just Americans. A blogger who took the name Salam Pax -- in the words that are Arabic and Latin for peace -- described himself as a twenty-nine-year-old Iraqi, living in Baghdad's suburbs.
ANCR AS SALAM PAX :09 "The radio plays war songs from the '80s nonstop. We know them all by heart. Songs saying things like 'We will be with you till the day we die, Saddam.'" (FADE).
LANDPHAIR: Media-watchers and bloggers wondered whether Salam Pax was a real person or a sneaky tool of Iraqi disinformation. A reporter at the online magazine Slate confirmed Salam was in fact his translator when the reporter worked in Iraq.
These days, blogs routinely point out mistakes by mainstream media. It was bloggers who exposed controversial remarks about race relations by U-S Senator Trent Lott, and sloppy research in a CBS Television report about President Bush's service in the Air National Guard in the 1970s.
Mickey Kaus, who writes a political blog for Slate, says some political blogs get thousands and thousands of hits -- or virtual visits -- each day.
KAUS :10 "Bloggers link to each other. They talk to each other in something that at least approximates a conversation. They bring people together and also bring the truth out fairly quickly."
LANDPHAIR: Wrong, wrote Rebecca Blood recently on her weblog, Rebecca's Pocket. As we quote her here, Ms. Blood insists a weblog is not a conversation.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER READING BLOOD'S WORDS "Publishing a weblog is more like speaking in front of a room full of people -- some of them trusted, some of them strangers -- and having every word you say recorded and catalogued for future random retrieval."
LANDPHAIR: Blogger Glenn Reynolds teaches Internet law at the University of Tennessee. Even though some people have called blogging the new journalism, Mr. Reynolds notes that bloggers have no editors. That speeds the flow of information, but it also opens bloggers to charges of carelessness and bias.
REYNOLDS :22 "I've had editors who made my stuff better, and I've had editors who've made my stuff worse, so the absence of editors is a 'mixed bag.' Blogs are all about taking your own thoughts and bouncing them off other people, and bouncing other people's thoughts off you. I suppose there's a sense in which everybody who says things in the public sphere is doing so out of vanity."
LANDPHAIR: Blogs have gained such acceptance that many newspapers, magazines and broadcast and cable networks now assign staffers to produce them on company websites. And the next generation of blogging has arrived. All across the Internet, people are posting mini-documentaries called video blogs. (signed)
MUSIC: Commander Cody — Don't Let Go
A five-day international water conference in the Netherlands this week recommended adopting policies to balance water use between agriculture and ecosystems. Delegates generally agreed to manage water in a way that better reflects its value, while ensuring adequate access to water, especially for the poor.
Meanwhile, an unusual farm and factory combination is getting millions of dollars in government subsidies to produce a gasoline additive from corn. A by-product of that process will provide cattle feed, and waste from those animals will be used to fuel a power plant on site. It sounds great. But as we hear from Tamara Keith of The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, some people following the Ohio project have their doubts.
The project is called Harrison Ethanol. It will include an ethanol factory, using millions of bushels of corn to produce the gasoline additive. At the same location, thousands of dairy and beef cattle will live in fully enclosed barns. And then there's the small power plant, which will be fueled by manure produced by the cattle. Wendel Dreve is the project's director.
"I think the nicest way of describing our project is it's a vertically-integrated, agriculturally-based industrial development."
Dreve began working on the project nearly four years ago. He's retired from the oil and gas industry and built a home in eastern Ohio farm country. His neighbors approached him about starting up a corn-powered ethanol factory - something that has not existed in Ohio in a decade.
"I told them that I didn't think we could build a ethanol plant in Ohio because there are no state subsidies, so we had to figure out a way to raise the revenue streams internally and the only way we could figure out to do that was to employ animals."
The 12,000 cattle housed on site, will eat the main byproduct of ethanol production, a corn mush called distillers grains. The cattle will generate money too, from sales of milk and meat. But the cattle will create manure... lots of manure. Dreve has a solution for that, too: a power-generating anaerobic digester.
"It eliminates nearly all of the odor. It processes all of the wastes from the entire facility. And at the other end, you get water and methane and carbon dioxide and some solids."
The methane will run power generators, creating "green energy," which can be sold at a premium. The carbon dioxide from the manure will be sold to make carbonated sodas. Dreve says his digester will be much better for the environment than open-air manure lagoons, the cheaper method most commonly used by farmers.
But not everyone agrees. Bill Weida is an economist and director of the Grace Factory Farm Project which opposes large concentrated animal farms. Weida says most anaerobic digesters are paid for with some kind of government assistance. Harrison Ethanol is no exception. The project received a 500-thousand-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help pay for the digester.
"No one in their right mind who is looking for an economic investment would build a digester. The only reason you'd build one is if you had some sort of a government subsidy that would help pay for it."
Harrison Ethanol also is receiving seventy-million dollars in financing assistance from the state of Ohio. Add to that federal ethanol subsidies and federal subsidies for corn production, and Harrison Ethanol is getting plenty of help from taxpayers.
Ken Cook is executive director of the Environmental Working Group. He says ethanol might reduce air pollution and reliance on foreign oil, but it is not economically viable without those huge taxpayer subsidies.
"The worry is that what we're really doing is bailing out failed agriculture policy with heavily subsidized energy policy. We're going into the corn industry with another set of subsidies to basically turn corn, that would have been exported at a loss, into corn that is used to make fuel at a loss to taxpayers."
That's not how state officials see it. Bill Teets is a spokesman for the Department of Development which has been working to bring several ethanol plants to Ohio.
"We think that this is a great project because you help farmers, you create manufacturing, you have something that helps benefit the environment and it seems to be a good type of project that we can really benefit from."
And if everything goes as planned, Wendel Dreve will build 2 more ethanol and cattle operations in Ohio. He's already secured tax dollars from state and federal sources for those plants.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I'm Tamara Keith.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium - at GLRC.org - is a production of Michigan Radio with support from the DTE Energy Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.
CHIMES: That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you -- IF we use your question on the program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -
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Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.