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Our World Transcript — July 23-24, 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" ... The shuttle stays earthbound as we mark an anniversary in space ... Saving money by giving away medicine ... and protecting the surprising creatures known as bats.

TAYLOR: "When people have had them, they learn their names like a dog, they'll respond, they can be trained - not to go get the paper or anything, of course, but they're actually very smart animals.

Bats! Who knew? Those stories, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


The Space Shuttle "Discovery" remains on the ground, more than a week after its scheduled liftoff was delayed by a problem with a fuel sensor in the spacecraft's huge external tank.

Shuttle flights are scheduled to continue for another five years or so, with missions focused on completing the International Space Station. After than, NASA's "Vision for Space Exploration" calls for humans to return to the Moon and then visit Mars.

Humans last visited the Moon 1972, and it was thirty-six years ago this week that two human beings landed on the Moon for the first time. A few hours later, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface.

ARMSTRONG: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first of 12 astronauts to visit the moon between 1969 and 1972. It was a historic moment and a technological feat. But the scientific legacy of the first moonwalk is a matter of debate. VOA's Barbara Klein reports.

KLEIN: It was a pivotal event in human history when NASA's Apollo Eleven mission delivered two astronauts to the surface of the moon 36 years ago. It was also a unifying one. About 600 million people, one sixth of the world's population, watched the first moon walk on television. Over the next three years, NASA sent ten more astronauts to the moon. And then, manned lunar flight ended. The last moon walk was in December, 1972. But Marcia Smith, a space policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service, says that even today, scientists continue to study the moon.

SMITH: There has been a lot of scientific study of the moon, both with the Apollo missions and with robotic missions conducted by the U-S, and the then-Soviet Union, and now Europe has a probe studying the moon. And there are interesting scientific things to learn there yet. There's a particular focus right now on the lunar poles, the polar regions, where some scientists think that there may be ice deposited over the eons by comets slamming into the moon. So there is still a lot of scientific interest in the moon. But the new vision for space exploration that President Bush has put forward really sees the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

KLEIN: And yet that's very controversial, to send people back to the moon, and I'm wondering why? It's been 36 years since we first had men on the moon, and there have been so many technological advances since. Why isn't it much easier, if you will, to send people to the moon?

SMITH: It's mostly a matter of money. There's a question as to how much should be devoted to space and whether or not this is such a compelling activity for Americans that the American tax dollars should be going into it. There was a lot public support for the Apollo program in the context of the Cold War - the race against the Soviets to accomplish this technological feat before the Soviets did. And that is absent today. Russia is our partner in space. So it is a very different political context and a different context for the American taxpayers who are trying to decide how to spend their money.

KLEIN: It's expensive, but why isn't it necessarily less expensive today, with all the technological advances that we've had?

SMITH: Well, it is sad but true that in all the years since Apollo, the government and the commercial sector have been trying to build rockets that are less expensive than their predecessors. But launching anything into spaced remains very expensive and very risky. It's a difficult technological challenge.

KLEIN: Are we less willing to take the risk of sending human beings into space than we once were?

SMITH: I think most people feel that Americans are more risk-averse today than they were back in the 1960's. People expected space to be risky. They expected things to fail because it was brand new. Whereas now, so many years have passed, and they feel my gosh, we've been launching rockets for so long, surely we can do it right this time, and people get exasperated. But it's still very difficult and it will always be risky.

KLEIN: Thirty-six years ago when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, they left some things behind - experiments and so forth. What is still going on -- on the moon today -- as a result of what they left?

SMITH: Each of the Apollo missions left behind what were called ALSPS, Apollo Lunar Science Packages, that studied moonquakes and looked at solar particles and other sorts of things on the lunar surface. And they also left behind laser retro reflectors so that people on earth could shine a laser beam towards the moon and get a reflection back so that they can measure the distance between the Earth and the moon and study the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates. And those laser retro reflectors are still there and so people can still bounce signals off of them. The ALSP packages I think have been discontinued, but they're still there.

KLEIN: In addition to leftover experiments, Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service says stages of the lunar modules and other vehicles have been left on the moon. Some call it litter and say it should all be cleaned up. Others argue the leftovers should be protected as historic sites, markers of the evolution of human space exploration. The question of moon trash hasn't been resolved. But President Bush has made it clear he wants the United States to send humans back to the moon, as the first step to Mars, by 2020. NASA is expected to present a plan in the next few weeks.

In the United States, most health insurance is a private matter. The biggest exceptions are two massive government programs: Medicaid, for the poor, and Medicare, for older Americans.

Medicare covers doctors' visits and hospital care, but generally does not cover prescription medicines. Starting next year, part of drug costs will be covered, but patients will still have to pay something.

Research published this week indicates that the government would actually save money if certain patients got medicine for free, because the drug would prevent expensive conditions from developing later on.

A study at the University of Michigan involved a computer model of diabetes patients who should be taking a class of medicines known as ACE inhibitors. Public health specialist Allison Rosen led the research team.

ROSEN: "Some drugs, specifically ACE inhibitors in this case for people with diabetes, have such enormous clinical benefit that patients should not face financial hurdles to those drugs, because paying for them up front saves lives and saves money downstream."

ACE inhibitors can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and slow the progression of kidney disease. They are not particularly expensive, compared with some other drugs, but without insurance coverage they can cost a couple of hundred dollars a year. The cost of treating one heart attack or serious stroke could pay for many, many years of this preventive medication. And although this study concerned diabetes and one class of drugs, Dr. Rosen says her study could justify the government or private health insurers paying for other medicines as well.

ROSEN: "Absolutely, and if not picking up the entire tab, at least lowering the co-pays or the barriers that patients face. It would be nice if, instead of having the same co-pay for all medications for all patients, if patients that would get the most clinical benefit and have the most medical necessity faced lower co-pays. Incentives for patients to use the things that would be most beneficial."

If this study indicates that free medicine may save money for the government and private health insurers, Dr. Rosen says that's not the real benefit.

ROSEN: "It's about saving lives. We have a number of classes of medications for types of patients that are extremely effective, and they're just markedly underused in the United States. Anything that can get patients to take these drugs that will help prevent heart attack, strokes and other bad outcomes, are really critically important."

Dr. Alison Rosen of the University of Michigan. The study by her and her colleagues was published this week in the "Annals of Internal Medicine."

It's Website of the Week time, when we showcase interesting online destinations we think are worth a visit.

Our choice this week is really aimed at American users, but it's one you might find of interest, and I think it illustrates the power of the World Wide Web.

Watching America - dot - com publishes news stories about the United States from online publications worldwide.

KOERNER: "When we put up content, we put up a correctly edited and translated version, and we also put a link to the original in the original language, so that people who speak the original language can check our translation."

Robin Koerner is the British-born publisher of Watching America - dot - com. Speaking from New York, he said articles are selected by a human editor, then translated from the original language using online services, with the final product vetted by an actual human editor.

KOERNER: "We use three or four different translation services, and we check each one against the other, and then we check such facts as statistics and quotations against English sources where available. So we actually know that we get 99 or 100 percent accuracy, and we know that because we check the output of this process with native speakers of these languages periodically."

With limited resources, the site doesn't pretend to be comprehensive -- they post an average of only about eight stories a day -- but they try to feature a broad range of stories and sources.

This week, articles included a North Korean rebuttal to critics of its human rights policy and a Russian take on the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Many of the articles on Watching America seem critical of the United States, or at least of U.S. government policies. But Mr. Koerner says they are trying to present an accurate reflection of the way the United States is viewed in the world's media.

KOERNER: "We want to show fairly the kind of things that are being talked about, and we also want to show fairly the spectrum of opinion that's out there in the world. Now sometimes that means that on some days we don't post any, let's say, pro-administration content. That is not because we have an agenda. That's just because we haven't been able to find anything."

And on days like that, Mr. Koerner says, they do look extra hard for less-negative content.

In addition to stories from the print media, they have also recently started adding broadcast reports at WatchingAmerica -- all one word -- WatchingAmerica.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL (John Campbell, Rufus Reid, Will Calhoun)

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


They are the stuff of legend, the furry, flying, sometimes-feared bat. Active only at night, some bats eat fruit, others eat insects — and yes, some like to drink blood. As scientists study these fascinating creatures, new technology is boosting a global effort to build a library of bat calls and decipher their language. From South Dakota, Charles Michael Ray explains it might help researchers protect an often-misunderstood creature.

AUDIO: HOWLING

RAY: On this warm spring evening in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the coyotes howl at the full moon as it rises through the pines. Other nocturnal creatures start to stir.

AUDIO: OUTDOOR AMBI Scientists walking, talking

RAY: A group of research scientists waits outside the mouth of a limestone sinkhole called Earskin Cave. It's a popular daytime roosting site for a few species of bats. As the sky grows darker, they fly out of the cave's large opening… straight into huge nets the researchers have strung up around the entrance.

AUDIO: BAT CHIRPING

RAY: Nestled between his thumb and forefinger, biologist Joel Tigner holds a small tan-colored bat that he's just untangled from the net… and she isn't very happy….

AUDIO: BAT CHIRPING

RAY: This little bat, known as the Northern Myotis, has a rough resemblance to a tiny bulldog with wings. Under her snub nose, she reveals a row of sharp teeth made for snatching up bugs.

TAYLOR: "They're really intelligent animals."

RAY: Dan Taylor, with Bat Conservation International, is helping retrieve bats from the net.

TAYLOR: "When people have them for rehabilitation or caring for them, they learn their names like a dog, they'll respond, they can be trained — not to go get the paper or anything, of course, but they're actually very smart animals."

RAY: Besides being smart, they also have a huge appetite. Studies show that a small bat can eat up to 1-thousand mosquito-sized insects every hour — but relatively little else is known about these nocturnal creatures. According to Joe Szewczak, a leading bat researcher, that's because they are so hard to study…

SZEWCZAK: "They make these sounds we can't hear - they operate in the night where we can't see and they're up in the air where we don't go. Historically we know very little about them because they're so difficult to study. And any means that we have to improve our ways of keeping track of them has been a bonus to us."

RAY: Professor Szewczak has developed a new, improved way to keep track of bats: a computer program and sonar sensor, aptly named Sonobat. With a small hand-held detector and a laptop computer, high frequency bat echo-location sounds can be recorded and analyzed to help identify the individual species.

AUDIO: BAT CHIRPING

RAY: In this recording, a bat identified as an Eastern Pipestrel flies by the sensors. The frequency of the call has been dropped to a level humans can hear, and Professor Szewzak says if you listen carefully you can hear the actual sonar echo, the part of the call the bat uses to effectively 'see' in the dark.

AUDIO: BAT CHIRPING SLOWLY

RAY: But this recording has been slowed down 10 times.

SZEWCZAK: Now I'll play that in real time so you can hear the real period between the calls.

RAY: Wow! So they're actually going that fast..!

SZEWCZAK: Yeah… so of course we can't hear the sounds in real time but these clicks are a representation of those. You can at least hear the cadence or how many times per second these sounds are coming out.

RAY: Researchers are working to record entire repertoires of various bat species. Here, for example, Joe Szewczak has a recording of an Eastern Pipestrel using its sonar to zero in on flying insect.

AUDIO: Chirps, slow then faster

RAY: So it started calling more frequently. Is it sort of honing in on the insect?

SZEWCZAK: Yeah, yeah, as it gets information about what's there from its calls. And so as it's approaching something, it needs to up its repetition rate to get more information back. So picture trying to catch a ball by making a flashlight go on and off, and if the ball's coming toward you, you would have to flash it many more times to keep track of the trajectory of the ball.

RAY: Researchers are not only using this technology to listen to bats snag dinner -- they are also collecting calls from around the world, as bats search for mates and shelter, as well as food. This global database will allow scientists to quickly identify various species as they fly overhead. That will help researchers track bat populations without having to net them… and the creatures won't suffer the stress of being caught.

AUDIO: BAT CHIRPING

RAY: The Northern Myotis in Joel Tigner's hand is about to be released. Her sonar signal will be analyzed in flight, and added to that library of bat calls. With new tools like these sonar recording devices, researchers say they are deciphering the dialects of various species, giving them a better understanding of bat behavior, which in the long run will help protect these animals, so they can help keep insect populations in check. For Our World, I'm Charles Michael Ray in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Around the world, coral reefs are in trouble... victims of disease, invasive species and coastal development. A report issued last year found that more than two-thirds of the world's coral reefs are on the verge of collapse… or already destroyed. The coral reefs in Hawaii are still pristine, which is why -- after a large tanker ran aground there earlier this year -- a major effort was launched to repair the damage done by the ship and its anchor to the delicate coral reef growing in the offshore waters. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports from Hawaii on the unusual repair job.

SKIRBLE: The 170-meter long Cape Flattery was carrying a load of powdered cement when the Hong-Kong registered vessel struck the reef off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. While some cement spilled and hardened during the emergency off-loading, much of the damage to the reef came from the ship's anchor and tugboat cables.

John Naughton, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says emergency repair work began at once:

NAUGHTON: "We were astounded by all this coral that had been toppled, and we suddenly realized that we have got to stabilize as much of this as possible because the individual corals heads would die because they would be moved around. The second thing is that they (corals) act as large bowling balls on the bottom and in the first storm (they would) go careening into the coral and do a lot more damage."

SKIRBLE: Mr. Naughton and his colleagues came up with the idea to cement the damaged corals back in place. Divers adapted a technique normally used in shallower water. One hurdle was to get the pre-mixed compound to a depth of 20 meters before it hardened.

NAUGHTON: "We have had to devise ways with these 5-gallon [19 liter] buckets to cap them, but you had to let water in, but you didn't get pressure gradient differentials, and when you are working in shallow water, you don't have to worry about SCUBA, decompression - a whole lot of different things that you have to worry about (in deeper water)."

SKIRBLE: Nearly every day for two months, divers worked like underwater bricklayers transplanting and reattaching broken coral.

NAUGHTON: "Now some of the coral was sheered off. So the base of the coral was still there. Those corals we feel will come back as long as they are stabilized and not moving around. The tissue will grow over the damaged ends where they were sheered off. So we left those alone. But we gathered up the big branches that were gathered up in some cases and those we stuck around into clusters and those seem to be fine too. So it was very encouraging."

SKIRBLE: "So the coral doesn't die when it is broken."

JOHN NAUGHTON: "No, corals are just a sheath of living tissue - living cells or polyps - around the older coral skeleton. As they grow there is of course dead material inside, but that is what forms the reef. As long as you can get them quickly enough and they are not rolling around on the bottom because that is what kills the coral polyps that are on the outside - the abrasion against the bottom. That is why stabilization is so important. This way we were able to stabilize and we were able to do the actual restoration work. We are very pleased with what we are seeing. Plus the bottom, the cement pads themselves are totally non-toxic and we see natural colonization of algae and new coral settling on it. It sort of replicates the normal limestone bottom."

SKIRBLE: The repairs appear to have saved the reef in the short term. NOAA plans to continue monitoring conditions over time. A failure of the reef to hold up would result in a critical loss of biodiversity and shore protection a situation facing coral reefs around the world. I'm Rosanne Skirble.


MUSIC: Our World theme

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 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 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.

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