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Our World Transcript — February 12-13, 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:" science and the environment take a hit in the President's new budget ... a new approach to controlling Dengue fever ... and a revolutionary plan to seed the world's schools with cheap laptop computers ...

Negroponte (:09) "Our intention is to make this part of a fundamental educational change, where we're asking the country to adopt the policy of one laptop per child."

Hundred dollar laptops, plus a Black History Month Website of the Week. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The $2.5 trillion federal budget unveiled this week by the Bush Administration proposes cuts in federal spending on a wide range of domestic and international programs. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble tells us, the budget plan has disappointed many in the science, health and environmental communities.

SKIRBLE: The U.S. science community is expressing disappointment with the new budget proposal. Kei Koizumi directs the research and development policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the country's leading private scientific organizations. Mr. Koizumi says R&D funding in the proposed budget remains flat or will decrease.

KOIZUMI: "We are seeing cuts to environmental R&D programs, to agricultural research programs. On the defense side we are seeing proposed cuts in defense funding of basic and applied research. And, even in the area of space, NASA's ambitions to go to the Moon and Mars don't leave enough money to fund environmental research or biological research.

SKIRBLE: NASA's reordered priorities will also kill the Hubble Space telescope, although lawmakers continue to support a mission to repair it. Elsewhere in the federal science budget the National Institutes of Health receive a slight increase. Critics complain the raise does not keep pace with inflation and will require cuts to many services and programs. The environment appears to be the biggest loser in the 2006 budget.

WARREN: "If you look at total domestic federal spending - that's excluding money for defense, for the war in Iraq, for homeland security - those programs are only nicked by a relatively small one percent reduction. Environmental programs, which are in that pot, however, were slated for a 10 percent reduction."

SKIRBLE: That's Wesley Warren, deputy director for advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental group. Mr. Warren says funding for the Environmental Protection Agency would decline by 6 percent over all, with state and local water programs cut by one-third.

WARREN: "This loss in funding would directly translate into projects that are on the drawing board that would have to be scrapped or postponed that would make sure that sewage is not dumped into our rivers or waterways."

SKIRBLE: Wesley Warren says clean air programs are also threatened.

WARREN: "We should be making a greater commitment in this country to clean energy technologies like solar or biomass and energy efficiency. And yet they have all been put back on the chopping block."

SKIRBLE: Belt tightening is proposed, too, for the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. The budget calls for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for gas exploration and oil drilling. Revenues would be reinvested in conservation research.

TEXT: Angela Logomasini is an environmental policy expert for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a research group that promotes limited government and market-based solutions to environmental problems. Ms. Logomasini argues that throwing federal money at problems doesn't always yield solutions.

ANGELA LOGOMASINI: "The amount of good that EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] can do per dollar is probably lower than allowing those dollars to be in the marketplace. I would argue that more limited government -- more state and local approaches -- will probably be more efficient and also healthier."

SKIRBLE: Federal funding is slated to rise, however, for certain environmental programs – those with ties to the war on terror – reflecting the Bush Administration's homeland security agenda. Additional funds are proposed for water contamination monitoring, water decontamination research, and the safe building program. More money is earmarked to reduce toxic mercury emissions, to curb pollution from diesel engines and to promote hydrogen fuel technology.

Environmentalists applaud these efforts, but fear Congress, faced with shrinking funds, will give into the Administration's wishes. Debate on budget choices will continue over the next several months. Congress must approve the funding plan by October 1.

CHIMES: U.S. and Japanese technology companies this week unveiled a new computer chip that developers say packs 10 times the power of the current generation of chips from industry leader Intel Corporation.

The technology companies -- Sony, Toshiba and IBM -- say the new chip, named "Cell," will make possible ultra-realistic computer games or the ability to run multiple operating systems on the same piece of silicon.

Analyst Andrew Orlowski, writing online in The Register, says Cell "promises to be the most important microprocessor of the decade." But other analysts recalled similar revolutionary claims made in the past for other computer products that never quite met expectations.

An experimental method to control dengue fever has virtually eliminated that growing tropical infection from many villages in Vietnam where it's been tested. The approach is basically quite simple: a tiny, prehistoric-looking creature called mesocyclops eats the mosquito larvae that would eventually transmit the virus. But, as VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington, the technique has limits.

McALARY: Dengue hemorrhagic fever, a potentially deadly illness, is the world's most common insect-delivered infection. A mosquito that breeds in water containers transmits it.

The World Health Organization says dengue fever's prevalence has grown dramatically in recent decades because of the increased air travel, high population growth, overcrowding in cities, and the deterioration of public health services, including mosquito control.

KAY: "We're talking about a situation that has escalated now to global pandemic terms...."

McALARY: Professor Brian Kay of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia says the dengue virus is now common in more than 100 countries of the tropics and sub-tropics, posing a risk to two-fifths of the world's population.

KAY: "...50 million cases a year and probably 15- to 20-thousand people dying of dengue hemorrhagic fever [annually] and the situation getting much worse."

McALARY: But experiments by Mr. Kay and Vu Sinh Nam of Vietnam's Ministry of Health show it is possible to block dengue transmission by a novel control method.

As outlined in the journal Lancet, they populated large water cisterns inhabited by mosquito larvae with one centimeter-long shelled marine animals that eat them. Mr. Kay says the mosquito has been eradicated in most Vietnamese villages where the technique was tested, with no cases of dengue fever reported since 2002.

KAY: "We never expected we'd get such good results. Forty-two out of 46 communes are now totally free of the dengue mosquito and, of course, totally free of dengue. This is just unheard of in a place like Vietnam."

McALARY: In Thailand, researchers reported in December that the tiny shelled predator, a marine creature with the monstrous name Mesocyclops, killed between 98 and 100 percent of the juvenile dengue mosquitoes in laboratory water containers. When combined with a pesticide, Mesocyclops kept the numbers of larvae lower for more weeks than when used alone.

But there are limits to this predator technique. Simon Hales of the Wellington School of Medicine in New Zealand says, to be efficient, it relies on treating only big water containers inhabited by a large number of mosquito larvae. He notes that it also depends on a public health effort backed by active participation of a public to monitor the containers, which might be easier in the countryside than in cities.

HALES: "It's not clear that the strategy will actually be effective in some of the places where dengue is the most serious problem. We're talking about very large cities with very poor services, probably not a very coherent community structure, and where a lot of the mosquito breeding is occurring in very small, discarded containers. In the Vietnam study, they got around this problem by simply removing all of the small containers. Now that obviously requires a very coordinated and dedicated community response."

McALARY: Brian Kay agrees that the dengue control method he studied in Vietnam works best in areas where piped water is unavailable and where the public is mobilized to fight the problem.

KAY: But we definitely believe that other strategies are needed. I'm part of a large team at the moment that is investigating the possibility of using bacteria capable of shortening the lifespan of mosquitos and we hope to superimpose this second innovative method on top of the existing one."

McALARY: Simon Hales in Wellington, New Zealand says that with a dengue fever vaccine still at least a decade away, such low technology approaches are necessary for developing countries. But in the long run, he says, the best solution to such infections is alleviating poverty.

MUSIC: Jimmy Smith Dot Com Blues

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

The December 26th earthquake and tsunami in the eastern Indian Ocean killed more than 200,000 people in the region, and left countless others homeless or destitute. Even before that tragic event, experts had been urging better warning systems and preparation, particularly in places, like parts of North America, where residents might be surprised to learn they are at risk.

Experts gathered in Washington this week by Smithsonian Magazine told reporters that both the U.S. East and West coasts and the Caribbean are vulnerable to tsunamis.

In the Pacific Ocean off the coastal U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, and Canada's British Columbia province -- an area sometimes called Cascadia -- geological faults triggered a tsunami in 1700 that was recorded as far away as Japan. In North America, inhabitants of that area left no written records, so scientists like University of Washington professor Jody Bourgeois have to read evidence left in sedimentary deposits.

BOURGEOIS (:09) "The numbers of course tell us that these events happen on an average of every 500 years, with recurrence intervals ranging from 100 to about 1000 years."

Although Cascadia may face the most imminent tsunami threat, North America's east coast is also vulnerable. Earthquakes in the Eastern Atlantic could send tsunamis across the ocean to hit the U.S. east coast and Caribbean islands, just the way the December 26th tsunami sped across the Indian Ocean.

Tsunamis can't be prevented, but if they can be detected and the population warned, lives can be saved. And the number of lives at risk is increasing, says Professor George Maul of the Florida Institute of Technology.

MAUL (:14) "We estimate that in the 100 kilometers within the coastline, globally there'll be 600 million more people living by 2025. This is a larger population at risk, and of course associated with that is the increase in infrastructure and ships and so forth.

Even if there is a warning, many people might not be able to reach high ground, and there might not be any high ground nearby. Timothy Walsh of the Washington state Department of Natural Resources says one answer is something called "vertical evacuation" -- buildings tall and strong enough to survive a tsunami.

WALSH (:14) "It would have deep-pile foundations, break-away shear walls as the model being considered, and that would permit the building to be used, for instance, as a school during the day, but be available for evacuation after an event such as this."

A destructive tsunami can come any time and, as we saw in December, even in places where it is not expected. Scientists and officials are working to better understand tsunamis so they give threatened areas better warning and so people at risk can be educated on how to respond.

Time again for Our World's Website of the Week. February is Black History Month in the United States, and the New York Public Library has just launched an extraordinary new online exhibit that looks at African-American life as a series of movements. It's called "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," and you can find it at

The first of these migrations, starting more than five centuries ago, was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The slave trade was, of course forced. But in most cases, the black migrations were voluntary, as African Americans took to the road (or the rails or the seas) to seek a better life.

DODSON (:14) "For far too long, the history of the African American experience has been written as a history of our victimization, what others have done to us. With the migration theme you begin to see what people of African descent have done for themselves"

Howard Dodson heads the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library unit behind this new online exhibit.

DODSON (:16) "We've been able, over the course of the three years of the project, to put together some 25,000 pages of material 16,000 of them text [and] 8,000 of them images to tell this really remarkable story in a very in-depth way."

The 13 migrations highlighted in this online exhibit include journeys by runaway slaves, emigration to Africa and elsewhere, and the so-called Great Migration from southern farms to northern factories. And what really makes this special is the vast amount of material like original documents, maps and photos, which really bring the story home.

DODSON (:12) "Scholarly articles, manuscript items, chapters of books whole books at times that allows a person who wants to know more about that particular migration to go into it in greater depth."

The African American Migration Experience website just went live this month, and with online lesson plans, much of it will certainly find its place in school curriculums. For an in-depth look at African American history that goes beyond just a few famous names or events, surf on over to, and click on "African American Migration Experience," or get the link from our site,

Computers have become commonplace in schools in wealthier countries, but they are still in short supply in classrooms in the developing world. Nicholas Negroponte wants to change that. Twenty-five years ago he founded the groundbreaking Media Lab at MIT — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, with support from some leading technology companies, Professor Negroponte thinks he can slash the cost of a laptop computer by 80 percent or more. He announced his plan at the end of January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I spoke with him after he returned to the U.S.

NEGROPONTE (2:51) "There are two reasons that a laptop is costly. The first is that the display really does cost a great deal. So, the first thing is to get that display down to below $30, in fact, below $25. And we achieve that at the moment by doing something very simple, and that is we project the image using a tiny little display and rear-project it onto a screen, which is the top of the laptop when you open it up, it turns into a rear-projected screen. The second piece in the laptop that's very expensive is what I'll call the obesity. It has lots of things in it that you could strip out. You could put a laptop on a diet and make a Linux-based machine that was much thinner and more svelt."

CHIMES: So with a Linux operating system, you're not paying Microsoft. With the kind of display you describe, you're saving a lot of money on that display. But it's still going to be recognizable as a computer? It's going to have a keyboard? It's going to have a hard drive? It's going to have software?

NEGROPONTE: We're not sure if it'll have a hard drive, only because we may be able to do it all in solid-state memory. We think we can get so much solid state memory into this that you won't need a hard drive. If you do, we will certainly include one if we need it.

CHIMES: Is this a product that would be out there in the market competing with what we would call a conventional personal computer laptop or a desktop or is this going to be something that is going to be exclusively sold and manufactured for certain marketplaces.

NEGROPONTE: "It's the latter. We would be making these available to ministries of education throughout the world to distribute as part of primary and secondary school education the same way textbooks are. And the economics of it work quite well because and I'll use China as my example in China today they spend $17 per student per year on textbooks. So if this laptop has all of those textbooks in it, which is trivial, then you could, just on the cost-saving of textbooks. In five years you amortize the laptop. So, even though the goal isn't to make an electronic textbook, you can use it as a trojan horse to get a laptop into the education system. We imagine this being provided in quantities of one million units or more to ministries of education around the world."

CHIMES: But if the computer's being used as a textbook replacement, it will have other uses?

NEGROPONTE: "Totally. It will be a general-purpose laptop doing everything that a laptop does. Our intention is not to go to the retail market, but to make this part of a fundamental educational change, country-by-country, where we're asking the country to adopt the policy of one laptop per child.

CHIMES: Later, we talked about the role of computers in schools. In most schools today where computers are used, students go to a computer lab to learn, well, about computers. Nicholas Negroponte sees a larger role for his $100 classroom laptop computer.

NEGROPONTE (1:31) "We see it much more as a pencil, something that a child will use for every single subject. And it is the child's window into the world. It's not just the textbooks obviously, because these are connected. We are selling connected machines, connected to the Internet."

CHIMES: So, where do we stand on this project? See if you can summarize this for me as far as actually getting a product like this manufactured and getting it into schools in developing countries.

NEGROPONTE: "The hope is to get what are called alpha units, which is a limited number of test units, by the end of the calendar year. By the middle of 2006 we should have beta units in quantities somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 units that we could test in various countries. We'd pick countries that are very different. We'd pick an Asian country, a Muslim country, an African country, and Latin Amer We'd find places to just sort of give them a real beating in schools, testing them as much as one can with the idea that, by the end of 2006, we would be running at a scale of somewhere between 100 and 300 million units per year. Just to put those numbers in perspective: today the worldwide production of laptops totally, all the manufacturers combined is 50 million units. And so, when we talk about 100 million units, we're already talking about double the world production in just one low-cost unit.

Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. He insists that life for poor children in poor countries will be dramatically changed once inexpensive computers become a common part of their lives, and he is intent on making that happen.

MINIDISC: Closing 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 is all one word. Or write us at -

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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.