Accessibility links

Our World Transcript — September 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" ... a new plan to send astronauts back to the moon ... rebuilding New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina ... and the puzzling consequences of surgery for some cancer patients ...

RETSKY: "We concluded that surgery, somehow or another, can initiate growth of dormant breast cancer in some cases....

Those stories, a collection of constitutions on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The U.S. space agency NASA this week unveiled preliminary designs for spacecraft that could return astronauts to the moon, possibly as soon as 2018. Some elements of the spacecraft resemble parts of the Apollo lunar program of the 1960s and '70s, while other pieces are derived from the space shuttle. NASA estimates the price tag at a breathtaking $104 billion.

NASA chief Michael Griffin says the new spacecraft will bring four astronauts at a time to the lunar surface — twice as many as in the Apollo program — and will allow them to land in more places and stay longer. That's consistent, he says, with the long-term U.S. space agenda.

GRIFFIN: "It allows us but does not require us to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, while preparing for Mars and beyond. The architecture can make significant use of lunar resources. At first, in all likelihood, oxygen obtained by soil roasting. If the availability of either water ice or hydrogen in other forms at the lunar poles is ultimately confirmed, then we will be able to extract hydrogen from the moon and would have the constituents of the most important propellant combination for at least the next several decades right there on the moon."

The new spacecraft will replace the aging Space Shuttle, which was designed to transport both humans and cargo. The new design separates the two functions. Humans will ride into space in a cone-shaped capsule atop one rocket. For cargo — as much as 25 tons at a time, including the lunar lander component — NASA proposes a separate, larger spacecraft. The lander and the Apollo-like crew module would dock in earth orbit and travel to the moon together.

Both launch vehicles adapt the solid rocket boosters and the main engines of the Space Shuttle, but in a way that NASA says will be 10 times safer than the Shuttle.

Although the cost of returning to the moon sounds, well, out of this world, the NASA chief says it's only a little more than half as much as the Apollo moon program cost, when adjusted for inflation. And he notes that it will replace the Shuttle but not affect other NASA programs.

GRIFFIN: "In our forward planning, we do not take one thin dime, out of the science program in order to execute this architecture. Now that said, as we develop and carry out these plans, it affords in my view huge opportunities for science. And I hope and believe the global space science community will want to take advantage of the opportunities that these plans offer."

It's an open question whether Congress would support such a long-term program. Two days after NASA announced the program, some lawmakers called for scrapping it to pay for hurricane relief.

In an editorial comment, The New York Times noted that while NASA said it was open to international cooperation, the plan "pays only the barest lip service" to possible partnerships. Several countries already have lunar programs of some sort.

In the space enthusiast community, the reaction was generally lukewarm. The Space Access Society, for example, dismissed the NASA plan as "Apollo 2.0" — essentially saying the plan wasn't radical enough.

One big change from Apollo is that future astronauts are expected to get some of their resources from the Moon itself. Senior writer Leonard David of Space News newspaper and calls it —

DAVID: "...'Living off the land' technology. How do you survive once you're there and use the materials around you? So there is buried in that architecture a sustaining type of technology need that NASA's trying to hone."

Some NASA watchers like Leonard David suggest maybe it's time to put the space budget on the moon program, instead of the aging and troubled space shuttle.

DAVID: "One wonders whether we ought to ground that thing now, before it hurts anybody else, take the $4-5 billion that it takes to run ... the thing for a year, the shuttle program, and then bankroll that into other parts of this vision.

NASA said this week that the next space shuttle flight will be delayed at least another two months, until May, because of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, where some of the shuttle components are processed. The space shuttle last flew in July, after a two and a half year hiatus. That mission ended safely despite problems with pieces of foam falling off the external fuel tank, a problem which doomed the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and which engineers had thought they fixed.

The U.S. gulf coast is enduring a brutal hurricane season. Hurricane Rita comes just three weeks after the storm named Katrina battered the U.S. states of Mississippi and Louisiana, punching holes in the levees protecting New Orleans, and inundating most of the city.

Many neighborhoods in New Orleans still remain under water, and on Our World we've been looking at environmental and engineering aspects of the story. Today, a slightly different angle.

Many Americans know New Orleans as a cosmopolitan, good-time city ... a center for jazz, home of great food. But television pictures of those displaced by the flood showed in dramatic relief a city most tourists never saw — with many poor, black residents living in rundown neighborhoods.

With few exceptions, officials have vowed that New Orleans will be rebuilt. But resuscitating a city after a disaster is enormously complicated.

Few people know that better than Lawrence Vale, a professor of urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the co-editor of a book on rebuilding cities after disaster strikes.

He told my colleague Barbara Klein that reviving New Orleans will require both innovative approaches and an attention to history.

VALE: The question for me is not whether there'll be a New Orleans, but which New Orleans there'll be, and more precisely, whose New Orleans will there be. You can't have simply the image of a city brought back. We can't just be investing in rebuilding buildings. We have to be taking full account of the kinds of relationships there are between a tourist arriving in the French Quarter and the person who washes the dishes who lives in some other neighborhood that may have experienced much greater devastation.

KLEIN: You helped edit the book, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. Is there a kind of formula, a process, for breathing life back into a city?

VALE: The things that we were really interested in our book were to ask really what is meant by recovery? Who recovers? And one of the things that rebuilding does is to give us physical objects on the land that can serve as almost a symbolic replacement. Some kind of confidence building, that well, yes, something is moving in the right direction, even if the very deep personal losses can never be recovered.

KLEIN: Can you give me an example of what that might be in New Orleans?

VALE: For the outside world, it will be the restoration of things like Mardi Gras and the kinds of associations with that place that the world of tourism and the like will have. For some people, it will be many other much more personal landmarks - a local church or some other kind of orienting device that can be restored.

KLEIN: We are already seeing some restaurants reopening, even some musicians coming back. We're seeing little glimmers of activity. And I'm wondering if those little glimmers tell you anything about the prospects for New Orleans coming back. It doesn't address the infrastructure issues, which are enormous, but does it tell you anything?

VALE: It does. I often think of this photograph that I saw in Hiroshima of a classroom in 1946 being held outdoors in the midst of the ruins. And the images I've seen of people selling flowers on the streets of devastated Warsaw. You see these little bits of humanity, these strivings for normalcy, that start to accumulate. And that is, in fact, what we invest in when we rebuilt communities, network by network.

KLEIN: It sounds as though it's too early to tell exactly what the New Orleans of the future is going to look like, but that based on history, there will be a new New Orleans.

VALE: That's right, I think it's almost inevitable. I've been very concerned by some comments that seem to regard this as an opportunity for exodus of the least advantaged. That implies that the city can be recovered for a different group of people when it is reconstructed. And yet the very close family ties in a city like this, been severed by the distribution of so many people to such distances, is a lot of what the heart and soul of the place is. And if it isn't brought back to some semblance of the kinds of people who were living there, and the kinds of cultural base that the city had, it will be a different place and a greater loss than we can imagine.

KLEIN: Lawrence Vale is optimistic about the prospects for New Orleans' restoration. He says throughout the past two-hundred years, every major city that's been devastated, either by a natural or man-made disaster, has been rebuilt. And because New Orleans has been so important to America's culture and economy, Americans will be paying attention to what becomes of it. I'm Barbara Klein.

Time again for Our World's Website of the Week. Throughout the world, national constitutions set out the framework of government. Finding a copy of your own constitution is simple enough, but what about the founding legal document of some other country?

JONES: "The Constitution Finder is a place to go on the World Wide Web to find the texts of the world's constitutions."

The Constitution Finder at contains links to about 450 documents from around the world. It's the work of J.P. Jones, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who teaches comparative constitutional law, among other things. And the collection grew out of his research into the constitutions of other countries.

JONES: "You can't really appreciate both the strengths and the weaknesses of your own law until you understand what the alternatives are. It's very hard to imagine alternatives, so it's very valuable to be able to turn to real-life alternatives."

Most of the constitutions are presented in English or English translation, and not always in the original language. Prof. Jones says that's for several reason. One, most were collected by his English-speaking students.

JONES: "Number two, English texts were of the most use in my classes for my students, who were doing comparative constitutional law work. And number three, I think we're the largest population of students of the law in the world, in the English-speaking countries, so as a matter of market efficiency, I've reached the most possible people with English."

In many instances, a constitution is available in English, but not its original language. One reason for that, he said, is that sometimes it's difficult to verify the authenticity of the original version if he doesn't know the language..

When possible, Prof. Jones has included historic documents — such as the 1861 constitution of the breakaway Confederate States of America, and he says he hopes to include more of those, while expanding the collection of current constitutions.

JONES: "I would like to see the website offer as many versions of a constitution in different languages as are possible. And I believe that history really matters, and therefore I want to see what the old constitutions have said, as a way of understanding what the present constitution says."

Before the advent of the World Wide Web, J.P. Jones said getting access to other countries' constitutions was often difficult. Today, it's much easier. All you need do is point your browser to the Constitution Finder at confinder. richmond. edu, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "I'm Walkin'" by New Orleans musical legend Fats Domino

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Languages change over time. Some languages disappear. Others split off to become new languages. Scholars of linguistics track these changes, which shed light on migration patterns, cultural development and other aspects of human society.

The traditional method of studying language involves looking for "cognates" -- similar words with similar meaning in different languages. But because vocabulary changes over time, examining words is only useful to track changes back about eight to ten thousand years.

Now, an international team of researchers in the Netherlands has published details of a new technique that promises to be a powerful new tool in the study of the evolution of language -- comparing the structure of a language, not just the words. To test the concept, Michael Dunn and colleagues compared the Austronesian group of Pacific island languages with a smaller group called Papuan languages.

DUNN: "Almost all of them have grammatical gender, like in lots of European languages, where all nouns are either 'he' or 'she.' Almost all these languages have the feature of their sound systems that they don't have a distinction between 'R' and 'L,' whereas all the Austronesian languages in that area do have a distinction between 'R' and 'L.' There are other things, like the Papuan languages are mostly languages with a verb-final sentence order, so the verb comes at the very last point in the sentence, whereas all the Austronesian lanugages have the verb in the middle of the sentence.

Michael Dunn and his team built a database of some 125 structural features like those from languages in each group. Then, the researchers used a sophisticated computer algorithm to see how the languages in each group are related to each other.

The idea was to produce a linguistic family tree that best explained the structural similarities and differences.

The results for the Austronesian languages were consistent with results from using the traditional method of analyzing word similarities, which gave them confidence they were on the right track.

For the Papuan languages, there was no established linguistic family tree using the comparative method, so they checked their results by looking at how the languages were distributed across the various Pacific islands.

DUNN: Geography correlates quite strongly with the structure that we hypothesized, which is nice evidence that what we've got is actually the true family relationships, because languages do tend to be most closely related to the ones physically closest to them."

One advantage of this new system of structural comparison is that it is theoretically capable of discerning language connections more than 10 thousand years ago.

I asked Michael Dunn how a linguistic researcher gets information about the grammar structure of relatively obscure languages like the ones in his study. The answer lies both in the library and the resources of his own research team.

DUNN: "In some cases there are grammar books of these languages, even though the languages are spoken by very few people in very isolated parts of the world. Most of the members of the project are coming to this from the field of discriptive linguistics. So we have a lot of first-hand experience going to these places, and writing grammatical description. And we also have good contacts with other people who do this kind of thing."

Michael Dunn of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. His paper was published this week in the journal Science.

Researchers in the United States and Italy say surgery to treat breast cancer in women in their 40s can actually prompt the growth of other, dormant breast cancer cells in the patient's body.

The scientists studied records of more than 17-hundred women who had had breast cancer surgery, but no follow-up treatment after the operation.

RETSKY: "We concluded that surgery, somehow or another, can initiate growth of dormant breast cancer in some cases. We have proposed that approximately half of all relapses in breast cancer are accelerated, somehow or another, by surgery."

Michael Retsky of Harvard Medical School and Boston's Children's Hospital led the research team that published its findings in the International Journal of Surgery.

He says there are a couple of possible explanations. Studies with animals suggest that tumors produce a substance called "angiostatin," which surpressed the development of new blood vessels, which would support the growth of the other tumors.

RETSKY: "Another possible mechanism is that the surgical wounding itself causes a flood of growth factors, allowing the host to respond to this wound, and among these growth factors are some that induce tumor growth."

Dr. Retsky says his work stems from the so-called mammography paradox. Unlike older women, women in their 40s who get mammograms and thus get treatment for any cancer discovered actually are statistically more likely to die than women who don't get mammography at all.

Nevertheless, authorities such as the American Cancer Society recommend mammograms for women over age 40, and Dr. Retsky says he and his colleagues are not suggesting any change. But his research could lead to a better understanding of how the resurgence of once-dormant tumors after surgery and possibly a way to supress their growth.

Finally this week, astronomers using space and land-based telescopes have observed the oldest and farthest explosion ever seen in space.

The explosion was a burst of gamma rays, likely signalling the death of a very massive star as it collapses into a black hole.

This gamma ray burst was detected by a satellite called Swift -- a joint US-British-Italian project, which was launched just last year.

After the event was spotted by instruments on the satellite, ground-based telescopes swung into action to capture the explosion. Among them was astronomer Daniel Reichart of the University of North Carolina, who calculated that the explosion occurred almost 13 billion years ago, a short time — in cosmological terms — after the universe came into being.

REICHART: "This cosmic explosion occurred 900 million years after the Big Bang. And that may sound like a lot, but the universe is 13.7 billion years old, which means that this star exploded when the universe was six to seven percent of its current age."

Another astronomer, Donald Lamb of the University of Chicago, says observations of this gamma ray burst should provide new keys to unlocking the secrets of the early universe.

LAMB: "This is what we've all been waiting and hoping for. These bursts mark the moment of the first formation of stars, [and they are] are tracers of the star formation history of the universe. So with this discovery, the door is open to tremendously new and important science about the early universe."

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Ask us a science question … tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.