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Our World Transcript — 15 July 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" ... It's not science fiction: a man controls a computer by just thinking ... exercise for longer life ... and TV's original science guy:

SCHIAVELLI: "He didn't miss the science that was behind the fun. You know, you can do things and say, gee whiz, wow. But the real question is why."

He's talking about Mr. Wizard. Those stories, dinosaur lifespans, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists have implanted a tiny electronic device in the brain of a paralyzed man, allowing him to control a computer and other devices just by thinking.

DONOGHUE: "The patient is able to just think about moving, and the cursor will move pretty much in the motion that the hand would take if you were to imagine, say, moving left or right."

John Donaghue of Brown University in Rhode Island and his colleagues reported the accomplishment this week in the journal Nature.

The device picks up electrical signals in the brain, which can then be interpreted by a computer. The first person to receive the implant, Matthew Nagle, is a 26-year-old who is paralyzed below the shoulders. In an published interview he said it only took him a few days to learn how to direct his thoughts so he could play a simple video game or open up an email message. The motions don't translate very smoothly, though, and Dr. Donahue says more work is needed in the processing of the signal picked up from the brain.

DONOGHUE: "And so far we haven't seen a major change in their control. And what that means is that at least we haven't found out how to exploit the brain's pasticity, so we need to change the computer to make the control signal better, and we're doing that and actually having some good success."

In a commentary published in Nature, Canadian neuroscientist Stephen Scott called this latest research a shift "from science fiction towards reality."

Stephen Ryu, who has been doing related research in monkeys, stresses that there is still much more work to be done in the field.

RYU: "There's research both in looking at the durability of the interfaces to the brain, such as the electrodes that are actually implanted. And then the other thing is actually, once you've extracted a signal ... how can you optimally take advantage of these signals to restore function. I think it's only a matter of time before we really start to see true promise from these things."

The researchers were interviewed for a Nature podcast.

People with spinal cord injuries or other forms of paralysis are living longer than ever, thanks to better medical care. Some researchers have been investigating the use of stem cells to restore function. In the end, that approach or an entirely different treatment may be more successful. In the meantime, the use of an electronic interface offers another approach.

Scientists studying birds in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador say they are observing evolutionary changes in beak size in as little as two decades.

The story begins in 1977, when a drought killed off most of the finches on tiny Daphne Major island. Birds with smaller beaks were more likely to die. The birds eat seeds, and when food is scarce — such as during this drought — they start relying on less-desireable, larger and tougher seeds. Birds with small beaks can't crack those seeds open. Large-beaked birds have a clear advantage in the quest for food.

A few years later, in 1982, the situation changes with the arrival of a new species of finch ... a competitor for food resources on the island. The visiting finches are larger and favor seeds that are also eaten by the large-beaked members of the original finch species.

The two species coexisted for two decades. Then, in 2002, there was another drought. But this time, says Princeton University researcher Peter Grant, the advantage was with the small-beaked birds, who didn't compete with the larger species that had arrived 20 years earlier.

GRANT: "When there is a severe drought on a small island, natural selection occurs; there is an evolutionary change in the next generation; and we were able to show that a popuation underwent a very strong, a remarkably strong shift towards small-beaked birds."

So over the intervening two decades, the advantage had switched within the finch species originally living on the island — from the large-beaked birds, who competed with the new arrivals, to the ones with smaller beaks.

GRANT: "They are adept at finding, cracking open and dealing with seeds; and they are better at that than the large-beaked members. And finally; the small-beaked members are smaller in body size as well, so their total food requirements at the end of the day are less than large-beaked birds."

Writing in the journal Science this week, Prof. Grant says that in succeeding generations, the mean beak size of the finches tended to the advantageous smaller size, which Grant says suggests an evolutionary, genetic change.

GRANT: "If there is no genetic variation, if the trait is not heritable, then there would not be the underlying genetic material for there to be an evolutionary change. But we know in our study there are strong genetic influences on beak size in the finches. So when natural selection happens within the parental generation, there follows an evolutionary response in the succeeding, offspring generation."

The birds, appropriately, were among the finches described by Charles Darwin when he visited the Galapagos in the 1830s. More than 170 years later, the Galapagos Islands continue to serve as a laboratory to study the evolutionary process.

U.S. regulators this week gave the green light to a new way for AIDS patients to take their medicine. As we hear from VOA's Faith Lapidus, it should make it easier for them to stick to a treatment schedule, but the new drug is no bargain.

LAPIDUS: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new AIDS pill that contains a 'cocktail' of the three most-prescribed HIV medicines on the market. Atripla is the result of a partnership between Bristol-Myers Squibb and Gilead Sciences. Dr. Laura Bessen, vice president of Global Medical Affairs for Bristol-Myers Squibb, says getting the two companies together was easier than formulating the combination pill.

BESSEN: "Every drug has its own chemical properties and considerations, so it's not as easy as just putting them together. You have to make sure that when patients take them that they'll have the same exposure to the medications as if they took the same pills individually."

LAPIDUS: HIV patients must follow a strict and complicated drug regimen, which often includes taking dozens of pills a day. Dr. Bessen says Atripla will make it easier for HIV patients to maintain their treatment schedule.

BESSEN: "It's been found that the number of pills you need to take a day, how often you need to take the pills, whether you take them with food or without food, leads to whether patients are actually going to be compliant or take their medicine, and if people are going to be compliant and take their medicine, they'll have more effective treatment. So going from handfuls of pills, where we were 10 years ago, to only one pill once a day is a significant advantage and improvement."

LAPIDUS: Another advantage, according to public health experts, is slowing the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the virus. However, the combination pill will cost about the same as the three separate pills — more than $1,000 for a 30-day supply.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new twice-daily, triple-drug combination pill that will be distributed in 15 nations as part of President Bush's $15 billion AIDS relief program. The FDA says Atripla will also be available for the program.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, it's a website devoted to inventors and their inventions, and hosted by one of America's top universities.

MAKOFSKE: "The Lemelson-MIT Program website serves to fulfill its mission by providing information resources for inventors and also by educating the public about inventors and their lives."

Melissa Makofske is the manager of the Lemelson-MIT program website, celebrating innovation at web.mit.edu/invent.

One way it celebrates innovation is through its Inventor of the Week feature, which includes an archive of famous and not-so-famous names. Automotive airbag inventor Allen Breed, air conditioning inventor Willis Carrier, and crossword puzzle inventor Arthur Wynne share billing with Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. Each inventor gets a biographical essay about his or her life and invention.

Makofske says the Inventor of the Week is part of an educational segment of the site called Invention Dimension.

MAKOFSKE: "We hope to serve educators who want to learn about inventors and teach their students about inventors. We also hope to provide information for students that, again, are interesting in learning about the process, as well as inventors who need advice on patenting, perhaps, or marketing."

There are also games for kids and resources for inventors themselves.

History books are full of stories about great inventors of the past. Melissa Makofske says it's about time today's innovators got credit, too.

MAKOFSKE: "[In] past years, inventors at one point were kind of at the forefront of society. And I think that today we could do a better job about learning about them and their role and their contributions to society."

You can also read about the big-money prizes now available to encourage today's inventors at the Lemelson-MIT program website at web.mit.edu/invent, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Bach's "Two Part Invention in F major" performed by Wendy Carlos

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

New medical research shows that elderly people can prolong their lives without vigorous exercise. The study of people in their seventies and early eighties shows that consistent performance of usual daily activities such as stair climbing is associated with a much lower risk of death. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: Seventy-five year old Naomi Glass Is retired, but that does not mean she is inactive.

GLASS: "I never have a day where I have to think about how I am going to fill it. It is always filled with something or other."

McALARY: Between her housework and her busy schedule volunteering with various organizations, Naomi is often in motion. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says she may be prolonging her life. It shows that the more active an elderly person is, the longer he or she may live.

MANINI: "The thing about this study is, we measured usual daily activity and not traditional exercise."

McALARY: This is Dr. Todd Manini at the National Institute on Aging near Washington. He and colleagues collaborated with researchers at several other institutions across the United States to look at about 300 adults aged 70–82 who lived independently. They wanted to see if their typical daily energy use was related to longer life.

Dr. Manini says the researchers gauged energy expenditure by measuring how much carbon dioxide the study participants expelled.

MANINI: "The first thing you need to know is that anytime we use energy, it is released from the body as carbon dioxide."

McALARY: Manini's team gave the elderly men and women special water to drink. This made it possible to measure carbon dioxide in their urine.

MANINI: "We found that over an eight-year period, that older adults in the low activity group had three times greater risk of death when compared to older adults in the high-activity group."

McALARY: People in the high-activity group tended to climb two more flights of stairs a day than those in the low-activity group. They were also more likely to work for pay versus volunteering or not working at all. Manini sums it up this way.

MANINI: "The message here is that for older adults, any movement is better than no movement, and that this can come from usual daily activities."

McALARY: An editorial accompanying the study notes that higher levels of activity do appear to protect health. But the writers, exercise physiologists Steven Blair of the Cooper Institute in Texas and William Haskell of Stanford University in California, say the Manini study's unique measurement of carbon dioxide expenditure does not document the intensity of the elderly people's activity.

They argue that the study's conclusions must be verified by more research. Blair and Cooper say if they are, they could have a major implications for exercise recommendations. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington

We've got a good idea of how long people live. Now, scientists at Florida State University have done the first study of longevity for a group of dinosaurs including the star villain from Jurrasic Park.

ERICKSON: "Well, they were bipedal reptiles with very fearsome teeth. They had very small arms. Tyrannasaurus Rex weighed over six tons. Tyrannasaurs were probably the top predators in the cretaceous period of North America. They were definitely bad boys."

Gregory Erickson and his colleagues studied bones of 30 tyrannasaurus rex and dozens of others from related species to see how old they were when they died. The age at death is determined by counting bone rings much like one can do to with a tree trunk.

ERICKSON: "And we find that early in life, when these animals are growing rapidly, that the distance between the rings is very wide, and the distance diminishes as they get older."

Erickson says they assumed about 60 percent of the dinosaurs died in the first year of life, based on mortality of related modern species — crocodiles and birds. Among those who survived infancy, Erickson says the tyrannasuars had a life history similar to many other animals.

ERICKSON: "By the time they reached two years of age and lengths of about two meters, their attrition stabilized, all the way up to midlife, somewhere around 14-15-16 years, somewhere around there. At which point, mortality rates increased once more, and this probably corresponds to the onset of sexual maturity in these animals. And after sexual maturity, these animals showed mortality rates ranging about 25 percent per year, so they probably didn't have very long reproductive lifespans.

As a result, most of those who survived to sexual maturity would be dead before their 20th birthday. Gregory Erickson says the causes would likely have included aggression and fighting for territory, and other factors.

Erickson and his colleagues studied four different species of tyrannasaurs, and the consistent results suggest it's a general pattern in dinosaur life histories. And much the same life history can be seen today in the modern descendants of dinosaurs — birds, especially birds with long lifespans.

ERICKSON: "We also see the same pattern that we see in tyrannasaurs in animals such as elephants and other large mammals. So this is not an uncommon pattern in the modern realm."

Gregory Erickson of Florida State University. His study appears this week in the journal Science.


MUSIC: "Watch Mr. Wizard" theme

ANNOUNCER: "Watch Mr. Wizard. That's what all the kids in the neighborhood call him, because he shows them the magic and mystery of science in everyday living."

For 15 years in the 1950s and '60s, "Watch Mr. Wizard" was the best-known science show on American television.

This week, TV's Mr. Wizard, Don Herbert, turned 89 years old. The original series of live, black-and-white, half-hour shows ran almost 700 episodes, giving young viewers and their parents a kaleidoscopic introduction to scientific principles

"Watch Mr. Wizard" wasn't the first science program on the air. Early television was full of educational talks and lectures. But speaking from his home in California, Don Herbert said his show was different.

HERBERT: "First of all, it was aimed at a 12-year-old child. And the child was on the air with me. In fact, was a very important element of the show. I tried doing sort of Mr. Wizard by myself and was very unhappy with it. And adding the child to react and ask questions made all the difference in the world."

In one 1964 episode, for example, Mr. Wizard used a pan full of popcorn with a hole punched in the lid to help explain to young Alan Howard the concept of probability.

HERBERT: "I want you to predict how many kernels of popcorn will come out the hole."
ALAN: "Well how can I do that?"
HERBERT: "Well, I don't know. You're going to have- You think any will come out at all?
ALAN: "Some might, but I can't really tell. They're all different. You can't really trace which way one popcorn's going to go."
HERBERT: "No, but that's a very serious scientific problem. And you and I are going to attempt, before you leave today, to predict the unpredictable."

Don Herbert had some science background before doing Mr. Wizard. He attended a state teachers college in Wisconsin and was qualified to teach science, but his main interest was in drama, and he acted on stage and in children's radio shows. During World War II he was a bomber pilot.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Wizard was how scientific principles were illustrated with ordinary household objects — a phonograph or light bulb were preferred to expensive props or sophisticated laboratory equipment. In one show, he used cut-out sections of paper plates to illustrate an optical illusion.

HERBERT (1962): "When I put this down here, you said that this one was longest."
RITA: "But it is, you can see even see it."
HERBERT: "And when I put it up here, you say that one's the longest."
RITA: "Maybe they're probably tricks."
HERBERT: "They certainly are, because these are exactly the same size. Look. But before I explain why this happens—"
RITA: "They're equal!"
HERBERT: "—I want to show you how you can make one of these at home. It's very simple. ..."
HERBERT (2006): "Using everyday equipment made it something that children should not be afraid of. If you used scientific equipment that's strange to the child, it's not going to help him or her understand. So we used everyday equipment. And especially because we used everyday equipment in new and unusual ways, which helped."

As far as he knows, none of Mr. Wizard's young assistants went on to careers in science — Rita McLaughlin, who we just heard, became a soap opera actress. But Mr. Wizard inspired legions of fans. There were thousands of Mr. Wizard clubs around the country, where kids could do some of the same experiments themselves that they had seen on televison. And untold numbers of young viewers went on to careers in science - or in my case, science journalism. Among the real scientists who used to watch Mr. Wizard: Mel Schiavelli, organic chemist, and now president of Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania. He remembers that Mr. Wizard wasn't just about having fun with cool experiments.

SCHIAVELLI: "He didn't miss the science that was behind the fun. You know, you can do things and say, gee whiz, wow. But the real question is why. And he always managed to convey in really simple terms, what the science was behind that. And I think, you know, he had that uncanny knack of being able to do that."

"Watch Mr. Wizard" was full of solid scientific principles, but Don Herbert told me that they never lost sight of the importance what it would take to keep the young audience interested.

HERBERT: "As a matter of fact, our primary objective in putting the show together was not to explain scientific principles but rather was to have fun, that we would have fun exploring some stuff in science."

Mr. Wizard stayed on television in various formats for another couple of decades, and Don Herbert won numerous awards for his show, which now lives on DVD and at his website, MrWizardStudios.com, where you can watch excerpts of the show.

MUSIC: "Watch Mr. Wizard" theme
ANNOUNCER: "Watch Mr Wizard is presented each week at this time by the Public Affairs Dept. of NBC News in cooperation with the New York University."

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.

Rob Sivak edited the show. 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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