Accessibility links

Our World Transcript — 22 April 2006


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" ... Will your doctor come to work in the pandemic? ... looking down at the clouds ... And the slippery question of one universe, or many ...

KAKU: "If this picture is correct, then our universe is a 'soap bubble' of some sort existing with other soap bubbles. And our multiverse is like a bubble bath"

Got that? Those stories, Earth Day on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The medical story dominating U.S. news reports this week was an unusual outbreak in the midwest of the mumps, a viral disease which has sickened more than a thousand people — mainly high school and university students.

Mumps used to be a common childhood disease, but since the 1960s, mass vaccination has made it uncommon. Most people recover in a week or so, but occasionally it can cause meningitis, sterility in men, and miscarriages in women.

Meanwhile, international public health officials continue to monitor the spread of avian, or bird flu. Scientists are alert for the possibility of a mutation in the H5N1 virus, which could allow it to spread easily among humans, possibly leading to a devastating flu pandemic.

Economists are already warning about the financial impact of a pandemic, with millions sick or dead, and many more afraid to leave home to work or shop.

But you have to wonder — If truck drivers and teachers won't report to work, will health workers be any more likely to show up?

Dan Barnett at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health wondered about that, too, so he surveyed public health workers, asking if they would come to work in the face of a flu pandemic. What they found was sobering.

BARNETT: "Forty-six-point-two percent of the workers surveyed stated they are unlikely to report to duty during an influenza pandemic. And so basically that's almost half of the public health workforce."

Barnett and his colleagues based their findings on a survey of about 300 people at public health agencies in mostly rural counties in the state of Maryland. No large cities were included, but he says these counties are typical in that most U.S. public health agencies serve fewer than a half-million people. And they're consistent with the results of a larger survey done last year in New York City.

The stated willingness to come to work during a pandemic seemed to depend on the kind of job the person has. The clinical staff — doctors and nurses — were more likely to say they would work than those in support jobs.

BARNETT: "And this is critical because, while many people often think that public health response will be led by clinicians, clerical and technical support staff — people who answer telephones, for example, in health departments, are really the glue that will keep the public health infrastructure running during a pandemic. And also, these are the first people who the public may interface with when they call in with a question about pandemic-related health effects. And so that first point of contact is absolutely critical in pandemic influenza response."

Public health workers are charged with educating the public on disease threats and how to minimize the danger. Dan Barnett of Johns Hopkins says his survey points out the need to educate the public health workers themselves.

BARNETT: "One of the key take-home messages of our study is that we need to consider public health responders as an audience that needs to receive risk communication, not just deliver it. These are individuals with families, just like anyone else. And these findings really highlight the importance of looking at attitudes toward response, not just knowledge and skills."

Barnett's paper was published this week in the journal "BMC Public Health."

Preparation will be key to responding to a flu pandemic. Health experts say the medical records of household pets could serve as an early warning system for diseases such as avian flu. Rebecca Williams has our report.

WILLIAMS: The health records of thousands of dogs and cats throughout the country are tracked by the National Companion Animal Surveillance Program.

Larry Glickman helped design the system. He's an epidemiologist at Purdue University. He says it was originally designed to track anthrax or plague outbreaks in pets. Glickman says now, the system could be used to monitor pets for avian flu symptoms.

GLICKMAN: "What we're concerned with is that a pet animal like a cat will come in contact with a bird that is sick or even died of avian influenza, then the cat will pick up that virus, will become infected, and the very same day it may jump in bed and sleep with people and transmit that virus to people."

WILLIAMS: Glickman says the system can pinpoint areas where quarantines are needed, to slow the spread of disease in both pets and people. For the GLRC, I'm Rebecca Williams.

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is a production of Michigan Radio with support from the Joyce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A very different kind of public health story, now. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August, many of the city's half-million residents fled. Now, seven months later, less than half the city's population has returned. Recent polls indicate a majority of displaced residents want to come back, but they are worried by the city's uncertain future. And as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, one of their concerns is the public health risks in the mold and muck the flooding left behind.


SKIRBLE: It's the neighborhoods. More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on this Gulf Coast city, New Orleans is still a remarkably desolate place. There are a few exceptions downtown, where many buildings on higher ground were untouched by the floodwaters that engulfed the city when its levees broke. Everywhere else, for kilometer after kilometer, flood-damaged homes have been turned inside out with furniture, insulation, rolled-up carpets and clothing stacked in piles out on the streets. Everything is stained with the muddy residues of the flood.

Within 48 hours after the storm, environmental chemist Wilma Subra was in the field taking samples and assessing the public health situation. She came to the Agriculture Street Landfill — a residential community built atop a former toxic waste dump and garbage landfill — when the waters receded.

SUBRA: "You could see locations [here] where there was [what is called] a 'toxic tea.' The water in the landfill was leaching out on the streets. It was covering the streets. It had an orange sheen to it. It had an oily sheen. It had high levels of a lot of the toxic heavy metals all in this water that was leaching out of the landfill. In the other areas that were somewhat drier, you had the sediment sludge, which was the contaminated water bottoms, which had been transported onto the land."

SKIRBLE: Subra says the salt water driven ashore by Katrina has killed shrubs and bushes and turned some front lawns brown. Samples of the grayish sediment Subra collected for the Natural Resources Defense Council showed levels of arsenic and lead three times higher than Louisiana state standards.

SUBRA: "And the health impacts we are seeing are skin rashes, infections of the skin that don't respond to normal antibiotic treatment. And then the respiratory [problems] — a lot of people have caught a 'Katrina cough.' You have asthma attacks.You have bronchitis."

SKIRBLE: Wearing blue protective rubber gloves, Subra rubs the surface residue between her fingers. She says the sediment is easy to collect and remove — and it is urgent that the work be done.

SUBRA: "People who come back even to look [and] see are made sick for the short term. People who come back a number of times to look [and] see are made even sicker."

SKIRBLE: A short distance away, Ollie Robinson, a stout black woman in her forties, points up at the jagged orange line running across the second story of her house that looks like an angry bathtub ring. It shows where the floodwaters stopped.

ROBINSON: "It's like coming back to something that has been bombed. No one is here. And to see how everything had been stirred around — especially around here — all the furniture had been moved around and twisted around, a deep freezer blocking the door. You can't open your doors. It stinks. You got rats. It's just a mess. And we are trying to just start over."

SKIRBLE: Robinson has water, but no electricity. She can't live here yet. But she has gutted the first floor down to the wall studs and treated for mold. She follows health advisories and wears protective gear when work is being done. Other than a spider bite, she says she has not had any health problems.

ROBINSON: "But my brother-in-law did. My brother did. And I have a friend. He can't hardly walk a block. He can't breathe good."

SKIRBLE: Seven months after Katrina, neighborhoods like Robinson's remain abandoned and littered with debris.

Even in a more upscale, tree-lined community of brick homes in another part of the city that was also inundated after Katrina, sediment still coats the sidewalks and streets.

Sam Coleman, who supervises the removal of hazardous substances for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

COLEMAN: "We've picked up close to 11-12 million pounds [5.5 million kg.] of household hazardous waste. Several hundred thousand household appliances have been picked up and recycled."

SKIRBLE: The EPA and other federal and state agencies have taken over one thousand soil samples. Air and water sampling is on-going. Coleman says contrary to the reports of some environmental groups, the results give a green light to residents wanting to return.

COLEMAN: "The environment in New Orleans in particular and in the Gulf Coast in general is basically the same or, in some areas, better than it was pre-storm. We have data that shows that the air quality actually improved slightly, probably due to the lack of vehicles and some of the industrial facilities not operating at full capacity."

SKIRBLE: Toxicologist Tom Harris with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality shares that view. He disputes recent reports from the Natural Resources Defense Council that find unsafe levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals in the soil samples.

HARRIS: "Where we disagree is interpretation of the soil and sediment data. What we are seeing is soil and sediment concentrations that were virtually no different than what was there before Katrina. In over 99 percent of the sample locations that we've collected data we are seeing we are seeing levels that are protective to long-term exposure to children. Is it safe for people to come back long-term, to bring their children back? That is what we are still evaluating. The overwhelming answer is that it is safe."

SKIRBLE: Robin Barrett, a single mother with one child, hears that message and sees nothing wrong with starting over in her hurricane-ravaged home.

BARRETT: "All the initial reports said that there wasn't really a problem of toxins coming into our neighborhood. If something comes up I will have to deal with it at that time. Right now I am coming back home. The things that I need to do as far as the inside of my house is concerned have been done. That all I can do is take it one day at a time."

SKIRBLE: But as she looks around the gutted homes and debris piles that stretch down the street, she wonders how many others will follow her lead. In New Orleans, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day, and Our World's Website of the Week is going green this week with an online source for all things Earth Day.

RATLIFF: "Earthday.net is the website for Earth Day Network, which was founded by Gaylord Nelson and Dennis Hayes, and the purpose of it is to educate and to get the word out to people about what Earth Day Network is doing and more importantly, what people can do for Earth Day in their own communities."

Adam Ratliff is a spokesman for EarthDay.net, which serves as a clearinghouse for environmental events not just on Earth Day, but also throughout the year. Many are big national activities; others are small neighborhood cleanups. The searchable database includes events from all-over, from Argentina to Ukraine, Nigeria to Indonesia, and a wide range of activities.

RATLIFF: "Everything, from tree-plantings to political rallies to public events in parks. Anything can be an Earth Day event. People should check it out."

And to help you plan your Earth Day activities, there are a number of different language versions of the site — Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian and others. Earthday.net includes a variety of other features, including aids to planning your own Earth Day event — which may be a bit late for this year, but Earth Day 2007 will be here before you know it. And Adam Ratliff says there's a special section for educators.

RATLIFF: "We have the teachers' corner, which can be found on our website, and that can give you all sorts of resources about how to use Earth Day in the classroom."

Also on the site is the Ecological Footprint Quiz, a thought-provoking interactive feature that asks you a dozen or so questions and then calculates how much of an impact your lifestyle is having on the environment. You may be surprised at what you find. All that and more at our Website of the Week, EarthDay.net, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Big Yellow Taxi" written by Joni Mitchell, performed by Counting Crows

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

By the time you hear this, the U.S. space agency NASA may have already launched a pair of science satellites designed to improve our knowledge of clouds and to better understand their effect on climate.

ANDERSON: "We look at these two investigations as critical elements to improve our ability to not only understand the weather, but predict climate and human impacts in the future."

That's Don Anderson, program scientist for the two satellites, named CloudSat and Calipso. They were scheduled to lift off from California Friday morning, both of them on board a single rocket. But the launch was postponed because of a communications problem with a monitoring link in France. NASA rescheduled the launch for Saturday afternoon UTC.

The two satellites are complementary. David Winker, principal investigator for Calipso, says that satellite will use lidar, which is similar to radar except it uses laser beams instead of radio waves.

WINKER: "The lidar can observe thin clouds located in the atmosphere. It can profile through the tops of deep clouds. And then CloudSat will profile through the thick clouds that block the lidar beam, so between the two satellites for the first time we'll have a picture of the vertical distribution of all the clouds in the atmosphere. And this is really a big step forward. Up until now we've basically been looking just at the tops of the clouds."

Winker's counterpart on the Cloudsat mission, Graeme Stephens, says scientists don't understand as much about clouds and cloud formation as they would like to. And he says the payoff from increased knowledge isn't just theoretical.

STEPHENS: "We think it's going to have a weather forecast impact. You know, weather forecasts are of great value to society in many ways, and not the least of course is the effect of clouds in the aviation industry, for example. So there are very practical applications of the CloudSat data and we're already tapped into the major weather forecast centers."

CloudSat and Calipso will fly in a tight formation with several other Earth-observing satellites that are — or will be — monitoring atmospheric chemistry, precipitation, carbon dioxide levels and other important elements of the earth's complex climate system.

One of the hottest — and most mind-bending —questions in modern physics is whether the universe we inhabit is the only one, or if there are an infinite number of alternative universes in higher dimensions beyond those we know, or perhaps can know. VOA's Adam Phillips reports on what some of the world's physics "superstars" have to say on the "universe versus multiverse" debate.

PHILLIPS: Once upon a time, people were certain that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that everything revolved around it. Later, astronomers proved that wasn't the case — that the earth revolves around the Sun, which is just another star in the Milky Way galaxy, which, it later turned out, is not unique either; the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. But at least there is just one universe, right? Well, maybe not.

LINDE: "Previously we thought that the whole universe is like one expanding balloon. Absolutely fantastically large. But then we learned that this balloon creates new balloons, these balloons create new balloons. And this process goes on forever…."

PHILLIPS: Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde is an originator of the so-called inflationary or "multiverse" theory. This postulates the existence of many universes, each with its own set of physical laws.

It's a theory with many critics. At a recent debate in New York, Linde said that colleagues who dismiss the inflationary cosmology out of hand remind him of his childhood in the Soviet Union, when both East and West were certain they had the one true ideology.

LINDE: "In physics, there is also an ideology. We want to find one unique rule which rules the whole universe, the best rule, the only possible rule — and that's the goal of physics. But the goal of physics may be more democratic. It may allow [a] universe of this type and [a] universe of that type. And until you prove this wrong, until you prove it is absolutely necessary for the entire universe to follow just one rule prescribed to us, the multiverse theory will be alive."

PHILLIPS: Michio Kaku, a leading theoretical physicist and the author of Parallel Worlds, has no problems accepting the theory. In fact, Kaku is a co-founder of String Theory physics which is consistent with the inflationary, multiverse model. To explain his theory to the lay public, Kaku often likens the universe to a musical string, with subatomic particles as its "notes."

KAKU: "What is physics? Physics would be the harmonies you could write on these vibrating strings. Then what is chemistry? Chemistry is the melodies you can play on these strings. What is the universe? The universe is the symphony of strings. Then what is the mind of God? The mind of God that Einstein spent 30 years of his life trying to read would be cosmic music resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. Now, if this picture is correct, then our universe is a 'soap bubble' of some sort existing with other soap bubbles. And our multiverse is like a bubble bath with universes popping into existence, budding, sprouting, colliding with other universes."

KRAUSS: "I was just thinking as Michio [Kaku] was speaking, 'if there are an infinite number of universes I can't imagine one in which I'd agree with what you said.'

PHILLIPS: Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, an astronomy professor at Case Western Reserve University, is a skeptic.

KRAUSS: "We don't want to be alone. We want there to be life elsewhere. It would be nice if our universe weren't the only one. In fact, it would be nice if there were universes that were better than ours! Every time we open a new window on the universe, we're likely to be surprised. But to say with any kind of supposed certainty that we know that space and time at some scale is full of bubbles, or that we'll ever access negative energy? That's science fiction in the extreme!"

PHILLIPS: But much of what is called science fiction one day becomes science fact the next. Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist at Harvard University, and the author of Warped Passages: Unraveling the Secrets of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions. She agrees that it may be impossible to directly observe other universes or higher dimensions from within this universe or dimension.

RANDALL: "… But the only way to know if there are other things to observe is if we think about them in the first place.

PHILLIPS: Randall points out that there are practical questions that might be answered by those inquiries — such as why gravity seems to be so weak compared to electromagnetism, and other fundamental nuclear forces.

RANDALL: "It could be that gravity is in fact as strong as other forces but it's somewhere else in a higher dimensional universe; it's not where we are. And it is interesting to think about these things. But it is most interesting to think about how we can access them. Do they have any influence on our world? Is there any possibility of testing these ideas?"

PHILLIPS: There may be, when the world's most powerful particle accelerator is switched on next year in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, as the atom-smasher is known, may reveal new information about the forces that hold together this universe… and maybe others. For Our World, this is Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

<http://www.google.com/u/amnh?q=multiverse> (American Museum of Natural History web page about multiverses and inflationary cosmos theory)

<http://www.phys.cwru.edu/~krauss/> (Lawrence Krauss homepage)

<http://www.mkaku.org/> (Michio Kaku homepage)

<http://physics.harvard.edu/people/facpages/randall.html> (Lisa Randall homepage)

<http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/> (Andrei Linde homepage)

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. Drop us a line, let us know what you think. We're always happy to hear from you. If you've got a science question, and we answer it on the air we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. The email is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use our postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

The show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. 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.

XS
SM
MD
LG