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Our World Transcript — 3 June 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" ... so-so grades for U.S. schools on their science education report card ... World No Tobacco Day ... and bird migration and avian flu:

LUBROTH: "It's through pountry and poultry trade, not so much the wild birds. They will introduce it, but we are responsible for spread."

Those stories, a financial challenge to improving health care, the Earth from space on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


Scientists studying material drilled from underneath the Arctic Ocean say the layers of sediment show that - tens of millions of years ago - the region was nearly tropical.

Researchers from the United States and Europe studied a 450 meter-deep column of material recovered by a fleet of three icebreakers. The sediment was laid down as far back as more than 55 million years ago.

Kathryn Moran of the University of Rhode Island says the deeper the sediment, the further back in the past it represents.

MORAN: "It turns out that sediments in the deep parts of the world's oceans get deposited at very slow rates - about a centimeter to two per thousand years. So that means a pile of sediment can represent a very long record, basically like a textbook going back in time, flipping the pages back in time."

And Dutch researcher Appy Sluijs from Utrecht University says that within each layer, it's possible to determine the temperature at the time the sediment was deposited. For example, at one layer they began to observe evidence of microorganisms found only in warm water.

SLUIJS: "So on the basis of fossil algae we could say there is actually tropical algae swimming in the Arctic Ocean 55 million years ago. And the other method we used is an organic 'paleothermometer,' you could say, and it's based on fossil molecules made by archae, and basically on the ratio of various of these molecules there's a way to actually quantify temperatures, so that way we can actually say it was 24 degrees."

Writing in the journal "Nature" and interviewed on a Nature podcast, the researchers say the evidence is that the climate warmed up abruptly in the arctic, along with the rest of the planet, about 55 million years ago. Those findings — from actual physical evidence in the Arctic — are at odds with earlier computer simulations, so the scientists now suggest that the warming was the result of a rapid increase in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, rather than slow geological processes. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing now, too, and most experts attribute it to vehicles, factories and other human activities. But so far scientists don't have a complete explanation for what might have caused a surge in greenhouse gases tens of millions of years ago.

On June 5th, 1981, a weekly bulletin of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control described a mysterious condition starting to appear among gay men in Los Angeles. It's now considered the first mention in a scientific publication of the disease we now know as AIDS.

Twenty-five years later, HIV/AIDS is a global plague. In wealthy countries with good health care systems, it is for most patients a manageable, chronic condition. In areas without the resources, though, it is too often a death sentence. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 38 million people are infected with HIV, with about 2.8 million AIDS deaths last year. In both cases, about two-thirds of those affected are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Leading U.S. AIDS researcher Anthony Fauci told reporters Wednesday that the infection can be stopped.

FAUCI: "We have good drugs. We know how to prevent this infection. We don't have a vaccine for sure. But you can prevent HIV by getting a good preventive measure, education and behavioral modification, distribution of condoms, safe sex, enlightening people, getting people to be monogamous, getting people to be abstinent where appropriate and where it's feasible, and when it's not, to practice safe sex."

Dr. Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases outside Washington, said rich nations have an obligation to help needier countries battle the AIDS epidemic. At the same time, though, he stressed that developing countries have to do what they can.

FAUCI: "The leaders of developing nations must not stand in the way of the progress in HIV by being closed-minded, or not removing the stigma, or not appreciating the seriousness of the problem, or not even investing important resources in helping their countrymen."

Fauci also acknowledged that HIV is a challenging enemy that has so far eluded years of effort to develop a vaccine.

The World Health Organization is warning of the rising use of harmful non-cigarette tobacco products among young people, especially girls. This year's World No Tobacco Day, which fell on Wednesday, focused on the deceptive marketing of other tobacco products as being a safer, healthier alternative to cigarettes. Lisa Schlein has more from Geneva.

SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization says all tobacco products are addictive, harmful and can cause death, regardless of how they are packaged and presented to the public. As an example, it cites water pipes, also known as shishas, narghiles or hubble-bubbles.

The Coordinator of WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, Douglas Bettcher, says water pipes are seen to be sexy and are marketed as being safer products.

BETTCHER: "The idea that somehow the bubbling smoke through water is going to reduce the toxins is completely false. I mean, you put a chunk of coal at the top of a water pipe, which in itself has a number of different carcinogens and toxic products. Added to these types of products, they are adding fruit flavors to water pipes, selling oral tobacco products as alternatives to smoking."

SCHLEIN: Dr . Bettcher says the tobacco industry is promoting certain smokeless tobacco products as alternatives to smoking in planes and other areas where smoking is not allowed.

He says other products being marketed include new types of flavored, natural or organic and roll-your-own cigarettes. He says these often are advertised with names and packaging that might mislead consumers into believing they are less dangerous than conventional cigarettes.

WHO estimates tobacco causes five million deaths a year, half of them in developing countries. If current smoking trends continue, by 2020, it says seven out of 10 tobacco-related deaths will be in the developing world.

Katherine Hammond, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says these products are being aggressively marketed to specific groups, especially women and young people.

HAMMOND: "In societies where smoking is not acceptable among women and only two- or three-percent of women smoke, among young girls, sometimes as much as 63-percent are smoking water pipes with these new flavoring additives and this sense of acceptability of this different product. And, this is one of the concerns, is this marketing to make them acceptable to young people and to women, young girls, along with the idea that they might be safe."

SCHLEIN: Dr. Hammond says this is a practice that is largely found in countries in the Middle East.

The World Health Organization says regulation is urgently needed to control this growing list of tobacco products. It says tobacco is deadly in any form or disguise and the industry must be legally obliged to disclose all the ingredients contained in their products. Lisa Schlein for VOA News, Geneva.

Time again for our Website of the Week, the segment where we highlight interesting and useful online destinations. Today, it's a place to learn about Earth with information gathered from space.

HERRING: "NASA's Earth Observatory is a web-based magazine, written and designed and illustrated to help the public learn about the causes and effects of climate change and environmental change."

David Herring is a program manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where Earth Observatory is produced. Now, you're probably thinking, NASA is the agency that launches astronauts into space and sends robotic probes to distant planets. But —

HERRING: "A vital part of NASA's mission is to understand and protect our home planet. And integral to that mission is to share the new knowledge that we gain with the public and to help them understand the way that our Earth's climate system works."

So at earthobservatory.nasa.gov you can see the latest satellite data — for example, a map showing north Atlantic surface temperatures — or read about forest ecology and the people who study it.

HERRING: "And so what we try to do is to focus on the people who do science and tell their story and allow the reader to understand what motivated them, what were they trying to do, how did they go about gathering their data, what was their thought process, and so forth. So that as you're learning the information, as you're reading their story and you're relating to that person, you're also learning the science as you go."

One terrific interactive feature is in a section called "data and images," where you can choose from a menu of data, such as atmospheric ozone or kind of vegetation, plus a time period, and build a movie that visually shows changes over time.

HERRING: "And it quickly grabs the imagery and assembles a movie and ships that to you in a QuickTime format right there in your web browser. You could look at rainfall and plant growth patterns, cloud formations and radiant energy fluxes. We have about 20 different datasets now in the Data and Images section, and we've got more coming."

David Herring says they're working on enhancing that feature to provide more detail in the pictures, plus daily and weekly data, not just monthly. All that and more at earthobservatory.nasa.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Jimmy Sturr (with Arlo Guthrie): "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie

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

As avian, or bird flu has spread out of East Asia, a lot of people have naturally wondered what role bird migration has in the spread of the H5N1 virus that causes the disease. It seems logical, but this week, officials at a U.N.-sponsored scientific meeting in Rome downplayed the role of migrating birds in the spread of the virus. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

Juan Lubroth heads the infectious disease group for the Food and Agriculture Organization. He says human activity presents a far greater risk.

LUBROTH: "Commercialization, the way we produce our animals, the way we market, the way we do not have the proper hygiene or inspection. It's through pountry and poultry trade, not so much the wild birds. They [wild birds] will introduce it, but we [humans] are responsible for spread."

SKIRBLE: Strategies like monitoring poultry flocks and vaccinating the birds can help target the virus at its source and slow down its spread, according to Christiane Bruschke with the World Organization for Animal Health.

BRUSCHKE: "We need to increase sanitary measures. We need to increase bio-security. We still need to kill infected animals, but certainly [poultry] vaccination can be a good tool in different circumstances."

SKIRBLE: Since 2003, when it was first identified in Vietnam, the deadly virus has moved from Asia to countries in Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Near East, and is responsible for the deaths of more than 200 million birds.

The virus has infected 224 people in 10 countries, largely through contact with infected poultry.

FAO veterinary officer Joseph Domenech says outbreaks in Africa are the most worrisome because of the region's chronic inability to respond in a timely manner.

DOMENECH: "It takes time to react, to respond. It took two months in Nigeria, for example, and by that time the virus is spreading all over the country. So, the situation is completely related to the difficulty of the veterinary services and animal health surveillance systems to cope with the situation and to respond immediately. That's why there is a need for a huge investment to support these systems."

SKIRBLE: The FAO estimates it will need approximately $308 million over the next three years to control the virus. So far the organization has received just $71 million in funding.

In some cases, fighting disease is a matter of discovering new treatments. But in many cases, the challenge is simply paying for it.

The World Bank says in a new report that there is a crisis is health financing.

World Bank official Jean-Louis Sarbib says the challenge comes as more money than ever is being spent on health care, including record amounts of development aid.

SARBIB: "There is more money going to health - $10 billion in 2003 - than we've ever seen before. There is concern, and this concern is translating into a willingness to provide more resources. The less-good news is that those resources have yet to translate into the sorts of results that we'd all like to see. And last year, three million people died of HIV/AIDS. That tuberculosis, which is curable, kills 5,000 people every day. And malnutrition is still present in more than half of all under-five [year old] children in developing countries."

According to the World Bank's 310-page report, high-income countries spend 100 times more per person on health compared with low-income countries, even though 90 percent of the world's disease burden affects the poorest of the poor. And because there is so little public health spending in developing countries, an illness can be financially catastrophic to a family.

Still, says co-author George Schieber, the potential does exist to make a significant difference in the health of the world's poor —

SCHEIBER: "But good intentions, promises, and even the money which is forthcoming are not enough. It's clear that the donor community, as well as the countries themselves, have to get their acts together. The donor community needs to better harmonize its efforts. And countries themselves are going to have to take the leadership here and [are] going to have to make better use of the new funds that are coming into them through improved governance, better macroeconomic and public sector management. And I think management is the key to all of this. These are not easy problems. And they're not going to be solved by simple solutions."

The World Bank report has a number of suggestions, including wider availability of risk-pooling - in other words, insurance. And the report stresses that "economic growth is the most important factor in the move toward universal coverage."

This is the time of year when about three million American teenagers go through that treasured rite of passage: high school graduation. Some of them aspire to careers in science, technology or health care. But these days even poets, plumbers and pottery makers require an understanding of science, if only to make sense of debates about issues like climate change or to evaluate the latest news stories about medical advances.

So the U.S. Department of Education periodically tests a sample of school kids to see how they're doing. The other day they released the results of the science part of what is formally called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Mark Schneider, the official who presented the findings to reporters, said the results were mixed.

SCHNEIDER: "To begin with, we see that fourth grade scores were higher in 2005 than in the past two assessments. Eighth graders, on the other hand, did not show a change, while 12th graders had lower scores in 2005 than in 1996."

Among fourth-graders, the gap narrowed between white and black students. In contrast, the gap between white and black students grew wider among 12th graders.

Catholic school educator Sister Mary Frances Taymans, a National Assessment board member, says it's not just factual knowledge that is being tested.

TAYMANS: "The science assessment framework also requires students to understand science concepts, to apply them, to use their skills in reasoning through a scientific investigation. It is in these additional steps, I feel, that too many of our students fall short of that scientific literacy that they need."

One person who has inspired a lot of young people with his infectious interest in science is Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He is not just a real scientist and inventor, but also an author, comedian, and for many years host of a science show on American television. Bill Nye was a guest this week on VOA's international call-in show, Talk to America. As a student at Cornell University, one of Nye's teachers was the famous astronomer and science personality, Carl Sagan. Host Rick Pantaleo asked Nye what he remembered about the late professor Sagan.

NYE: "Well, his voice was pretty great. (laughs)

PANTALEO: Very compelling.

NYE: "Well, it really was. I mean, you just hung on his every word. And his passion. He loved what he was talking about. He loved it. And as he said many times, when you're in love you want to tell the world. He was in love with astronomy and he wanted you to love it, and he wanted to show you why he had fallen in love with it and how it could change things. He was inspirational because of his passion for the subject.

PANTALEO: "OK, we got another email, actually an SMS text message, from Leo in Kuwait, and Leo asks, if the universe is expanding since the Big Bang, where is it heading to?"

NYE: "That's a great question, Leo. Leo, you have hit the nail on the cosmic head. This is exactly what people wonder about all the time. The fundamental idea, which is very hard. I can state it. I will state this, but it's very hard to kind of imagine. It's not that the universe is filling some void and it's expanding into some vacuum or something. It IS the void. It is the vacuum. There's no such thing as outside of the void or ... is there? Is there a universe existing within our universe? Are there universes that are alternatives to our universe that somehow exist in the same mathematical framework. It is, for me, beyond what I can imagine ..."

PANTALEO: "Right.

NYE: "... but it is fascinating. It's riveting."

PANTALEO: "And it's amazing, when you've heard of research being done regarding the universe, regarding the Big Bang, etc., they're projecting a shape of the universe. I'm quite curious how they can get these ... figures on how the universe is shaped when it's really, you know, next to impossible to figure out what the universe is."

NYE: "Well, except, as we say, you are trusting the numbers."

PANTALEO: "OK."

NYE: "People do mathematics associated with the physics of stars, astrophysics, and they reach conclusions about the nature of gravity, nature of electromagnetic radiation, and the nature of whatever it was that had all of this energy occupying an unimaginably small volume, and now it occupies all the space that we can see. And when you do this math, you are led to these jaw-dropping, counter-intuitive models of the nature of the universe. Really, it's wild."

Bill Nye, the Science Guy. If you missed him on Wednesday's Talk to America show, you can listen to the whole show online at voanews.com.


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you want to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use our postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus edits the show this week. 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.

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