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Our World Transcript - December 23, 2005


This transcript of our radio program provided as a service to our listeners and readers.

Straight ahead on "Our World," an update on the first Census of Marine Life, previewing the launch of a U.S. robotic mission to the distant planet Pluto, and the trend toward free wireless access to the Internet in public places.

ZONSZEIN: “We don't have a signal at our house, and we don't really have the money to pay for DSL and everything else every month, so it's convenient. It's nice, because we need to use the Internet.”

Surfing the Internet at the coffee shop. That and the hottest gadgets in consumer electronics this year. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists from around the globe are taking stock of the world’s oceans. The Census of Marine Life is a 10-year, $1 billion effort to identify and catalog the underwater world. The Census – which began in 2000 – is at its midway point.

The online inventory now has 8.4 million records covering 40,000 marine species of the 200,000 described in scientific literature so far. Ron O’Dor - senior scientist for the Census of Marine Life – expects those numbers to climb:

RON O’DOR: “We estimate that by the time the Census is completed by 2010, we will have collected at least a million new species.”

While the database includes everything from microscopic plankton to large whales, 90 percent of the samples come from the first 100 meters of the ocean’s depth. The rest, says David Welch – who heads a field-tracking program in North America, is largely unknown.

DAVID WELCH: “The average depth of the ocean is 4,000 meters, though less than one-tenth of one percent (of species) come from 3,000 meters or less. Most of the depth of the ocean hasn’t been sampled. And, the deep ocean is actually the largest ecological zone in the world and probably has the biggest biomass as well.”

Census discoveries in 2005 included a bright pink octopus in the Arctic, tiny carnivorous sponges in the Southern Ocean, and the first known hydrothermal vents south of the equator in the Atlantic.

The Census also reported 78 new species of fish and a biologically dead zone at the epicenter of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami.

Technology has accelerated the pace of discovery. Researchers working on the continental shelf from Washington State to Alaska have surgically implanted 27-hundred fish with almond-size tags. Project leader David Welch says electronic devices on the ocean floor scan each fish as it passes by.

DAVID WELCH: “We can reconstruct which fish went where and therefore which fish stock – which are populations of a particular type of fish – which went in direction A, direction B and how many fish survived to reach each of these lines.”

The data reveals the movement and survival of each tagged fish as it migrates within the ecosystem -- important details for fisheries management and protection of endangered species.

The current array stretches across more than 1550 kilometers in North America and includes 135 listening stations. The team expects to have 2,000 in place by 2010. David Welch says the goal is to replicate the network across continental shelves worldwide.

DAVID WELCH: “We actually had expression of interest from all seven continents including Antarctica in starting to put in these systems.”

Satellites follow another 2,000 animals including species of shark, birds, turtles, seals and sea lions electronically tagged in 2005. And, adapted from the human genome project is a tool used to catalog new ocean species. Senior scientist Ron O’Dor says DNA barcodes can rapidly and accurately identify species.

RON O’DOR: “It doesn’t give these species a name. But at least it gives an identifier that we can use for the record, and people in the future can deal with the descriptions. What we think is that a lot of this process can be automated. If we get a new specimen from -for example – deep sea vents that no one has ever seen before, we can take a small piece of that and get a sequence for it. That sequence can be written out on a chart, and that becomes the reference number or barcode for that specimen.”

The Census already has barcodes for 800 fish species with another one thousand to be added by mid-2006. That library could rapidly expand as single cell and microbial species – which make up 90 percent of the biomass of the ocean – are barcoded. Evidence of that were the 400 new species of microscopic worms and crustaceans that live between the grains of sediment at the bottom of the sea discovered at a single site off the coast of Africa in 2005.

Ron O’Dor says expanding our knowledge of the ocean frontier has been an international effort – with more than 1700 experts from 73 countries involved in the project.

We leave the ocean and head to outer space to explore another scientific frontier. In mid-January, the United States plans to launch the first spacecraft to the distant planet Pluto. Don’t expect to hear much news about Pluto anytime soon because the journey will take at least nine years, maybe longer. But as VOA's David McAlary reports, astronomers believe the results will be well worth the wait for what Pluto and its moon Charon can tell us about the origins of the solar system.

Pluto is the last major planet in our solar system to be discovered and the last to be visited in four decades of space exploration. The reason for the lag is not simply because it is more than six-and-one-half billion kilometers away, 50 times farther from the Sun than Earth.

The director of solar system research at the U.S. space agency NASA, Andrew Dantzler, says only in the past decade have scientists realized that this icy dwarf, smaller than the moon, might harbor important secrets about our solar system.

ANDREW DANTZLER: "Pluto is a treasure trove of scientific discoveries just waiting to be uncovered. It is different from the inner rocky planets. It is different from the outer gaseous planets. As such, it holds many clues as to how the solar system was formed."

We once thought Pluto orbited in distant solitude. But as recently as this year, astronomers have increased their count of its moons to three. The planet is also part of a wide swath of perhaps half a million small icy worlds circling the sun beyond Neptune called the Kuiper [KY-per] Belt, the first of which was detected in 1992.

The principal investigator for the mission to fly past Pluto, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, says this belt is the largest structure in the solar system and has opened astronomers' eyes to the diversity of planets.

ALAN STERN: "Pluto looked like a misfit because it was the only one we saw, and just as a Chihuahua is still a dog, these ice dwarfs are still planetary bodies. So the Pluto-like objects are more typical in our solar system than the nearby planets we first knew, and the opportunity is to go now and have a chance to study this most common type of planetary body in the solar system."

Because of Pluto's extreme distance, NASA is employing a lot of power to reduce travel time. It will use its biggest rocket, the Atlas Five, to get the spacecraft to a speed approaching 50-thousand kilometers per hour within a few minutes, allowing it to pass the moon in only nine hours.

If the launch is not delayed, Jupiter will be in the right position for the probe to swing by for a gravity assist to increase its speed by 50-percent. If the launch occurs later in January, Alan Stern says the journey could take up to five years longer because Jupiter will be in the wrong place.

ALAN STERN: "We are going farther to reach our target and we are traveling faster than any spacecraft ever has. This is a little bit about rewriting the textbooks about the outer planets."

The spacecraft itself, called New Horizons, is a small probe, the size of a piano, jammed with seven instruments to study Pluto's atmosphere and geology and transmit the data back. After it passes Pluto, it is to continue into the Kuiper Belt to investigate one or two other bodies.

Its fuel is plutonium pellets, used mostly for aiming and course corrections. Its electronic components use less power than two 100-watt light bulbs. For most of its long journey, it will be hibernating, sending back only an occasional beacon to relay data on its status.

The man in charge of the payload is William Gibson, also of the Southwest Research Institute.

WILLIAM GIBSON: "The New Horizons payload, in summary, is the most compact, low power, high performance payload yet to fly on a U.S. planetary mission for a first reconnaissance fly-by."

In the years before the spacecraft's arrival at Pluto, the mission team will study the planet with the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if it has more moons and possible dust rings they must navigate around. If they are lucky enough to liftoff early in the 35-day launch window to permit a fly by of Jupiter, they will test its navigation and scientific instruments to conduct further inspection of that gas giant planet.”

Now, back to earth with this health news about an innovative surgical technique that helps preserve the fertility of cancer patients. It is the story of 31-year old Carrie Lintner, who was concerned that radiation treatments to fight her second battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma would hinder her chances to get pregnant.

CARRIE LINTNER: “Immediately I started to wonder, if I have to undergo radiation, what about a family? How am I going to have kids? That was definitely always one of my hopes is to have kids.”

In an effort to preserve her fertility, Ms. Lintner’s ovaries were relocated behind her uterus to shield them from the radiation treatments, a process called ovarian transposition.

Surgeon Arnold Advincula of the University of Michigan used laparoscopic robotic surgery that is more precise and easier on the patient and the surgeon than conventional procedures.

ARNOLD ADVINCULA: “The major advantages are the fact that one, you’re utilizing three-dimensional visualization when you’re operating, which is a huge advantage to the surgeon. Number two; it’s the fact that your instruments now move like the wrist on your hand. They have multiple degrees of freedom in terms of their movement, so it allows you to be able to perform complex tasks without much difficulty.”

Robotic surgery gives women with cancer an option to preserve their fertility despite receiving radiation treatments. Ms. Lintner – who now has a healthy baby girl - says the procedure changed her life.

CARRIE LINTNER: “She is an absolute joy. She is the light of my life, and I feel complete. She was meant to be.”

Baby Maia celebrates her first birthday in February.

Theeee Coffee Chamber is a tiny café, tucked between two warehouses on a side street in New York City. When you first walk in, you're hit with the familiar smells of milk and chocolate and coffee. And the mellow music that plays softly in the background is pretty typical for a coffee house in this city. But one thing here is a little bit different. Pretty much everyone in Theeee Coffee Chamber on this sunny afternoon is sitting in front of a laptop computer, using the Internet.

ZONSZEIN: I was just sending out some invoices for work I did last week.

Yonatan Zonszein lives down the block from Theee Coffee Chamber, and comes here a few times each week. He likes the coffee - but he can get that anywhere. He says he comes here because of the free wireless Internet access.

ZONSZEIN: "We don't have a signal at our house, and we don't really have the money to pay for DSL [digital subscriber line] and everything else every month, so it's convenient. It's nice, because we need to use the Internet."

Theeee Coffee Chamber's owner is Tom Eisenberg. He says his café has had free wi-fi service since it opened a year ago. Mr. Eisenberg says it doesn't cost him that much to offer this service to his customers - and it does draw people in.

EISENBERG: :It's definitely worked well. We have this Russian computer guru who set it up for us, and it was his suggestion more than anybody's. And it's worked well."

Wi-Fi service is now available at about 32,000 public locations across the United States. Most places charge a nominal fee before they'll let you surf the web. But the number of free hot spots like Theeee Coffee Chamber is growing faster than the number of places that charge.

A few national chain restaurants, such as Schlotsky's Deli and Panera Bread café, offer free wi-fi service to their customers. And several Internet sites help people looking for free wi-fi find a place near them. One such site is jiwire.com, where David Blumenfeld is vice president for marketing. He says public wireless access was practically unheard of just five years ago.

BLUMENFELD: "Wi-fi is really a phenomenon that's come on the scene in the last two years. It was pushed largely by Intel and Centrino -- a push they were making with the chips that were coming out in a lot of laptops. But we've really just seen public hotspots, places where people can access the Internet in a public fashion, just come up in the last two years."

Right now, several cities in the United States are competing with one another to become the first to offer public wi-fi access to anyone on the street or in a park. Officials in Tempe, Arizona, say they should have their network up and running by February. Philadelphia started mounting antennas on streetlights and utility poles earlier this year. San Francisco, Cleveland, and Atlanta have each put together plans to offer public wireless Internet service. And officials in New Orleans recently announced they'd start building a free, public wi-fi network even before the city's hurricane-damaged levee system has been repaired. David Blumenfeld says that's because municipal wi-fi really isn't about offering the service to citizens and bridging the so-called digital divide. It's about emergency preparedness.

BLUMENFELD: "Communications is key, right? And with emergency services and things that people rely on for basic infrastructure in a city, it's going to be highly beneficial. I think you've heard different sales pitches from cities, as far as the fact that free wi-fi will help low-income people. Low-income families. And while that may be true, I think the one missing piece there is it's great to have free of low-cost Internet access, but do those people have the devices to connect in the first place?"

The idea of free municipal wi-fi hasn't proven to be very popular with existing Internet service providers. Large telephone companies have convinced a few states to pass laws preventing local governments from launching their own Internet networks. And just hours after officials in New Orleans announced their plans, the regional telephone company BellSouth rescinded its offer to let the city use one of the company's buildings as a new police headquarters. BellSouth officials insist the decision had nothing to do with New Orleans' plans to offer free municipal wi-fi.

2005 has been a big year for innovation and entertainment in the world of consumer electronics, one of the biggest sectors of the retail economy. VOAs Adam Phillips is in New York, and filed this report on what’s hot in the world of gizmos.

For those who enjoy electronic toys and gadgets, the Best Buy chain store in downtown Manhattan can be almost overwhelming. “No problem!” says Steven Levy, the technology editor at Newsweek Magazine.

LEVY: “I write about all the world of technology – the people, the products, and the way it changes our lives!”

One of the biggest sellers this holiday season has been the new versions of the digital music players called “iPods.” Apple Computer came out with three new models in 2005. One, which was released in January, was called the “iPod Shuffle.” It played 250 songs at random, and was only as large as a stick of gum. This summer, Apple unveiled a business-card sized player called a “Nano…”

LEVY: “… A month after that, they released a video ‘iPod’ which is the same form as the original ‘iPod,’ it’s got a little bigger screen, not even the size of a post-it note, but maybe two inches across, you can watch videos on. You can go to the iTunes store, pay two dollars for a music video, or you can move your own home movies to it, or you can download a television show like ‘Lost’ or ‘Desperate Housewives.’ It’s not too bad. One day when I was getting my tires changed on my car, I watched an episode of ‘Lost’ and found it pretty good.”

According to Best Buy business manager Tracy Malone, mobile phones – or cell phones as they are called in the United States - have been big sellers again this year, especially the new Motorola “Razr.”

MALONE: “It’s thin, the screen is great. It’s got a camera built into it. It’s a really slick, sexy phone.”

A sexy phone? I ask Steven Levy why a mobile phone isn’t just a functional matter. Why are fashion and display important?

LEVY: "Fashion is a big part of electronics. And these things are small enough that they can almost be considered clothes – wearables. It’s almost like an art object. And to interact with that, and to do something as personal as talking to your friends and keeping in touch with the world – that’s where consumer electronics is going. It’s pleasure. It’s sensual. And the Razr really satisfies those urges.”

Computer gaming technology has been improving at a dizzying rate over the past several years. Nintendo’s ‘Playstations One’ and ‘Two’ were among the first runaway hits, followed by Microsoft’s “X Box” brand, which featured enhanced computing and graphics power. One could also compete with other X-Box users online. This year, says Steven Levy, the hot item is Microsoft’s “X Box 360.”

LEVY: “… Which is going to deliver high definition television imagery in video games, almost throwing you into virtual reality as you play it. And they routinely go online. You’ll be able to play people from all over the world.

There are a couple of racing games – ‘Need for Speed’ and ‘Gotham Racing’ – which look amazing. You are going through the streets of a town at a hundred miles per hour through Lower Manhattan or London. It looks amazing.

The ‘King Kong’ game is pretty good too. It’s based on the movie. There is a guy that looks like [actor] Jack Black. There is a woman who sort of looks like Naomi Watts – [but you] can’t have everything. And you control these characters. And when the great beast appears, you control the beast! So you can switch roles and actually start crushing cars and swatting at airplanes while you are on the Empire State Building, and, of course, because it’s in high definition, it looks fantastic.”

So-called “connectivity,” which enables people to hook up disparate electronic components in new ways, is a big theme this year. Mr. Levy is especially excited about the so-called “Sling Box”, which connects a home digital video recorder, a DVD player or a cable television device to one’s computer. You can then access the television images remotely -- from the next room or from another computer halfway around the world.

LEVY: You go on the Web and type in your password for your Sling Box and you can watch what is in your living room from your computer. You check into your hotel, you’re in Singapore, and you can say ‘what did I tape last night? Let me watch it right here on my Sling Box.’ Or ‘Gee, it’s time for the football game back in New York City or Indianapolis where my Sling box is!’

PHILLIPS: That kind of technology even a few years ago would have been considered very futuristic. SL: I’ve been following the consumer electronics and computer worlds for decades and to see these toys come out, the fulfillment of all this is a lot of fun!

Steven Levy, a technology editor at Newsweek magazine, adds that 2005 has also seen exciting new developments in home computers, digital cameras, high definition television, video equipment and other gadgets. I’m overwhelmed! This is Adam Phillips at Best Buy in New York City.

And, that’s our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I’m Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on “Our World.”

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