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Our World Transcript — June 25-26, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A new kind of spacecraft fails to go into orbit ... teaching science in our schools ... and remembering a man who helped make the modern world ...

FRED ALLEN: "He's really a towering figure. Few people have changed so much about our lives since really Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers."

Jack Kilby and the invention of the microchip, a listener question answered, and more. ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Efforts to launch a satellite to test the concept of using photons to propel a spacecraft apparently failed this week.

The small Cosmos 1 satellite was launched from a Russian submarine Tuesday, but all indications are that it failed to reach its intended orbit. There may have been a problem with the launch vehicle — a modified old Soviet-era missile.

The spacecraft was designed to reach an orbit some 800 kilometers above earth, then unfurl its flower-like sail, designed to catch photons streaming from the sun, much like a sailing ship catches the wind. It's an untested concept, but advocates of solar sails think it represents a promising technology that could power future trips to other planets, as explained on this video from the website of the Planetary Society, a co-sponsor of the mission.

NYE: "No one's ever built a spacecraft like this, and this is the future. Instead of using big, heavy chemical rockets that run out of fuel pretty quickly, you can put a sail in space and get photons to push it along for weeks and months, maybe years."

That's Bill Nye, TV science personality and vice president of the Planetary Society.

Organizers of the mission spent all of 4 million dollars on the project. Ann Druyan, who is CEO of another co-sponsor, Cosmos Studios, said that even if it does not achieve its objective, the mission is not a failure.

DRUYAN: "Whatever we discover from this mission, if it's not a success, we'll still learn from it. You know, the way to the stars is hard."

The U.S. space agency NASA has its own solar sail projects on the drawing board, but they won't be launched for another five years or so, and I think its fair to assume they'll cost a lot more money.

Jack Kilby died on Monday. You may not recognize the name, but you should. Mr. Kilby invented a key bit of technology that is at the heart of an astonishing array of devices that define modern life — the electronic microprocessor, or microchip.

ALLEN: "He's really a towering figure. Few people have changed so much about our lives since really Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers."

Fred Allen of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which inducted Jack Kilby in 1982.

For its first decades, electronics depended on the fragile, short-lived vacuum tube. In 1947, the solid state era began with the invention of the transistor. They were smaller and more robust, but transistors still had to be wired together in circuits.

BERLIN: "What Kilby, and later Noyce, came up with was a way to pull the hand wiring out altogether and build a much smaller, faster, more reliable electronic device."

Leslie Berlin is the author of a new biography called "The Man Behind the Microchip," about the co-inventor of the device, Robert Noyce.

Jack Kilby built his first prototype integrated circuit in 1958, and today they're in wristwatches and appliances and cars, but the first buyer was the military, which needed lightweight, robust electronic components, especially for missiles.

BERLIN: "The federal government was willing to pay enormous amounts of money to reduce the weight of their missiles. So even a very small reduction in weight was worth a lot of money to the government."

If you never heard of Jack Kilby before now, you're not alone. Fred Allen says that, in part, that's because of the inventor's modest personality.

ALLEN: "Kilby of course was a very private, quiet man who just wanted to invent. And I think he could have been more famous if he wanted to, and he just wasn't interested in it.

For his invention, Jack Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2000, an honor rarely conferred on an engineer.

Time again to dip in to the Our World mailbag to answer a listener letter. Our question this week comes from Tapan Chakraburti in Uttar Pradesh state in India.

He ask why he gets electrical interference when listening to medium wave broadcasts.

For the answer we didn't have to go very far to find an expert. Kim Elliott now works for our Office of Research, but for many years he hosted the popular "Communications World" program here on VOA. Welcome, Kim.

[body of conversation not transcribed]

OK, thanks to VOA communications guru Kim Elliott for answering the question sent in by Tapan Chakraburti. We'll be sending him a little VOA gift as our way of saying thank you for contributing his question. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, send it in. If we use it on the air, we'll send you a VOA gift, too. Our email address is ourworld@voanews.com, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

Time once again for our Website of the Week, and this week it's a chance to explore the wonders of the ocean from the comfort of your computer thanks to California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, at montereybayaquarium.org.

One great feature of this site is a series of webcams, giving you real-time video feeds of some of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium.

CROSS: "So we showcase our live exhibits through live webcams, so that anyone in the world can enjoy the beauty of the ocean habitat without being near the ocean or having the opportunity to come to the aquarium."

Jane Cross is the manager of MontereyBayAquarium.org Those webcams feature sharks and tuna, sea turtles and sea otters, and penguins and shore birds. There are also videos that let you see thing that even aquarium visitors don't see, such as feeding an octopus.

CROSS: "We also have behind-the-scenes videos of the food being prepared for feeding to the different animals, which is quite an ordeal, from krill shakes to turtle tacos. And it provides kind of an engagement that the real visit wouldn't be able to do."

And just to clarify — those are tacos FOR turtles, not tacos made from turtles.

Another section is called Seafood Watch, which offers consumer guidance on issues such as overfishing and habitat damage.

CROSS: "We try to provide the tools that the audience or our visitors would need to make choices that can help the oceans, such as what kind of seafood to eat, or conservation practices that they can do in a home that can help the ocean environment."

Jane Cross says her website gets about 700,000 unique visitors a month — about 30 percent from outside the U.S. — and she credits those live webcams with attracting many of them. You can join them at MontereyBayAquarium.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Too Many Fish in the Sea" (Mitch Ryder)

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine Our World. ... I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

HENDREN: The Kansas Board of Education is currently re-evaluating the way science is taught in the state's public schools. Evolution, which represents just a small portion of the science curriculum, is dominating the discussion. The controversy has its roots in last year's elections when conservatives took control of the school board. The new conservative majority does not believe Darwinian evolution should be taught in a vacuum. Board President Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, says he doesn't believe that life on Earth evolved from a common origin.

ABRAMS: "I don't believe that we came…have a common origin that we came from an amoeba to bacteria to some crawling thing that ended up as you and I standing here. I don't believe that."

HENDREN: And neither does Dr. William Harris, a Christian and co-founder of an organization known as the Intelligent Design Network. He says science has yet to validate Darwin's theory by demonstrating, for example, how life could come from non-life.

HARRIS: "Are we going to teach Darwin honestly? Are we going to be upfront with the strengths and the weaknesses?"

HENDREN: Dr. Harris, a physician and researcher in Kansas City, says he believes that living things are best explained by an intelligent force — a creator — rather than by an undirected process. He uses for an illustration the giant sculpted faces of four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore.

HARRIS: "Anybody can detect design just by looking at it. You drive by faces carved on a mountain in South Dakota, you know that it wasn't wind and rain and water that did that. You don't need to know the name of the guy who did it or when he did it or why or how to know it was designed. You can recognize design when you see it. It's got fingerprints."

MacDONALD: "Science doesn't go about proving anything. What we do…it's just like a lawyer in a courtroom. We try to come up with an interpretation that speaks to the weight of the evidence."

HENDREN: David MacDonald is a professor of biological sciences at Wichita State University in Kansas who challenges the notion of an intelligent designer. He says that a preponderance of evidence supports the Theory of Evolution, based in part by the similarities shared by living things that may look very different.

MacDONALD: "All living things encode information in DNA. They have similar metabolic pathways; many aspects of their physiology are also similar. So here you have two things which appear to be in conflict — apparent differences — but actually an abiding amount of similarity. Evolution helps us to understand that. Evolution says, the reason why you're seeing this is that all these living things, however different they might appear at first glance, are derived from a common progenitor. Now it's not just an idea to help us accommodate those, in fact there's a great deal of evidence to support that."

HENDREN: Beyond the question of scientific evidence is what critics see as the unstated religious basis of "intelligent design." Pedro Irigonegaray, a Kansas attorney who defended evolution before the state school board, says teaching intelligent design in a public school would violate the U.S. Constitution by bringing religion into the classroom.

IRIGONEGARAY: "Intelligent Design is not a theory, it's not even a hypothesis. It's a religious belief and if Intelligent Design had serious scientific merit they should bring it to the attention of the scientific community, not in front of a board of education whose mind is already made up and who's willing to do what ever it takes to open the doors to their theistic views to be introduced into our science curriculum."

HENDREN: The State Board of Education seems poised to de-emphasize evolution in the curriculum, but board president Steve Abrams denies that they plan to replace it entirely.

ABRAMS: "Evolution will continue to be there, there's no doubt about it. What I am suggesting is that there are other scientists - not the majority but certainly a strong minority - who say that's not true. And they have different understandings about that. And they have testing about it and have data to support their point of view. And what I'm saying is that students need to critically analyze that."

HENDREN: The Board is expected to make its final decision in August. For Our World, I'm Sam Hendren in Wichita, Kansas.

And while we're on the topic of science curricula, we turn now to another in our occasional series on science education in the United States. Today we take a look at how some of the youngest Americans are getting their first exposure to science in the classroom, in the nation's elementary schools. A three-year-old federal education law [No Child Left Behind] will soon require standardized science tests for students as young as nine. And VOA's Andrew Baroch reports on how school systems are planning to meet the challenge.

BAROCH: Nearly two million elementary school teachers include a lesson in science as a part of their weekday curriculum. But according to the National Science Teachers Association, the nation's largest science teachers group, not enough time is spent on science at the elementary — or kindergarten through sixth grade — level. Gerry Wheeler is the executive director of the organization:

WHEELER: "The elementary teacher is a unique person in the sense that — it's usually a 'she' but a 'she' or 'he' — has many different subjects to teach. And one of the problems we have in the United States is a matter of time and of using time appropriately. There's a lot of things jammed into the long experience of an elementary [school] child."

BAROCH: Mr. Wheeler also admits that many elementary school teachers feel uncomfortable with science.

WHEELER: "That's not part of their training. They haven't had very many science courses. Some elementary teachers have just had a one introductory course as a college student and very few courses in high school. So there's a general — reluctance might be the right word; there's a general reluctance, or there's a general lack of confidence of the elementary teacher in her ability to understand and therefore teach science."

BAROCH: But that's not the case everywhere. Mr. Wheeler describes the state of elementary science education as diverse, meaning: in some areas of the country it's good; in some it's not. It often depends on how much the local and state governments pay teachers and how much funding schools get each year to keep science materials — like computers and microscopes — plentiful and up to date.

One school where science teaching is well-supported is Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. How would a fourth-grader there describe science? Ten-year old Baljii has two words:

BALJII: "Exciting and fun."

BAROCH: Barrett Elementary has been nationally recognized for its exceptional science curriculum because of teachers like Susan Golden:

GOLDEN: "Hibernation and migration is part of my curriculum."

BAROCH: Ms. Golden, who teaches kindergarten, shows the children how tadpoles grow into frogs and chicks come out of eggs.

GOLDEN: "We actually take one of our wood frogs, put it in the freezer, and freeze it to show the children it doesn't hurt the frog one bit. In its hibernation mode in the winter, it just hides under leaves, but it actually freezes. And once it 'defrosts,' it's right back to life as normal."

BAROCH: In fourth grade at Barrett, the 15 students recently put seeds in plastic bags and hung them on the classroom window. Every morning, they opened the bags to observe any changes. Fourth grade teacher Spencer Reisinger quizzes them:

REISINGER: "What type of seeds did you use, Davis?"

DAVIS: "We used corn seeds, pinto bean seeds, mustard seeds, sunflower seeds. My pinto bean was opening but didn't grow any roots. My corn was a half of a centimeter root. And the sunflower was three centimeters first, then five centimeters. We had two mustard seeds and had to measure both of them."

BAROCH: Teacher Spenser Reisinger says the faculty is dynamic and the curriculum a joy to teach because funding from local and state governments has been generous — which may not be the case in another state.

REISINGER: "If you look in the back of my classroom, I have tubs of materials that are designed to go along with the [science] curriculum — whether it's planting different type of seeds and seeing when their roots sprout to building a parallel [electronic] circuit or a series circuit. I can't say that's true for all teachers across the United States, who teach science, but it is true in Arlington County, and it is true in Virginia. And you would hope that all science teachers were as well supported as we are in our quest to come up with creative and interesting activities for our students."

BAROCH: Barrett's science teachers run into problems, too, though. Mr. Reisinger says many of the students — about 80 percent — come from low-income, immigrant, mostly Hispanic and Asian families.

REISINGER: "Before I can start talking about electricity [for example], first I make sure everybody is familiar with it. Of course, they've all watch TV. We name everything we can that runs on electricity. And it's amazing the list that we come up with. And we also think about what our lives would be like without electricity. From there, though, I really have to get specific and start using some unique ways to approach words like 'electrons.' I have one student who [laughs] still always refers to the electrons as the 'electronics.' He says, 'Oh, Mr. Reisinger, the electronics are moving.' So, you know, he's got the gist."

BAROCH: This time of year, Barrett students in several grades are reviewing the year's work before taking standardized tests, which are mandated in many parts of the country. The tests will be required everywhere in the U.S. starting in two years as part of a federal education reform law to improve science teaching nationwide. Schools that score poorly will receive more funding for more teachers, better teacher training, and other resources, so that schools like Barrett will become less of an exception and more of an example of good things to come. I'm Andrew Baroch.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. Got a science question? If we answer it on the show we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. 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.

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