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Our World Transcript — 7 October 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" ... The Nobel Prize winners ... zippy new planets discovered ... and a 19th century battle between two titans of technology

McNICHOL: "He didn't call attention to himself. He gave very few press interviews during his life. He left no papers. He didn't write a book. All he did was win."

Westinghouse versus Edison, aspirin as a weapon against cancer, pollution and health, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. scientists captured the Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine this week. And it was an especially good week for the medical school at California's Stanford University, the professional home of two of the five winners.

The chemistry prize went to Roger Kornberg, who was cited for his work in understanding how DNA's genetic blueprints are copied into RNA, the process called transcription. It's the RNA that does the real work of issuing instructions to the body's proteins to build specialized cells for brain, bone and everything else.

Kornberg the chemist works at Stanford Medical School, and he says understanding the chemistry of biology is vital to improvements in medical care.

KORNBERG: "The real hope for medicine, that is to say its advancement and ultimately real success in ameliorating the human condition from the standpoint of human health, is certainly entirely dependent on our continued progress in understanding life chemistry."

Roger Kornberg, incidentally, is the son of Arthur Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1959.

Another Stanford professor, Andrew Fire, shared the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology with Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts for their work on gene silencing.

The two young scientists — both in their 40s — were cited for discovering how to turn off the mechanism by which genetic instructions are transmitted to proteins. Their discovery of RNA interference in 1998 has helped researchers working to identify drugs that might be used against disease. Co-winner Andrew Fire spoke to reporters at Stanford.

FIRE: "So a lot of work has been done in animal models and it seems like this might be promising. But there are many challenges in that, so I wouldn't say we're about to suddenly have a cure for AIDS or high cholesterol or any specific disease because of this. It's really, really encouraging and we're all very happy to have been involved in it, and it's going to be an interesting time to come."

And finally, this year's Nobel prize for physics went to George Smoot of the University of California and NASA scientist John Mather for the unique evidence they found which supports the theory that the universe was born in the so-called "big bang" explosion some 14 billion years ago. They used data from the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE satellite, which was launched in 1989. Instruments on COBE detected and measured the lingering microwave radiation that the big bang theory said should be there.

At a news conference in Washington, Mather discussed the fundamental value of his work.

MATHER: "For our understanding of how we got here, I think this work has been critically important. And for our understanding, eventually, of the laws of nature, the forces of physics, which are still pretty mysterious to me, the cosmic background radiation is probably our only laboratory to study the unification of gravitation with particle physics."

NASA's John Mather.

Each Nobel prize is worth about $1.3 million. They'll be presented at ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, in December.

We'll have a little bit more about Nobel Prizes later in the show.

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have detected 16 likely new planets in the central part of our Milky Way galaxy, as far as 26,000 light-years away. Lead author Kailash Sahu, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, says some of them are like no other planets we know.

SAHU: "These are the farthest planet candidates detected so far around some of the faintest stars. And they include some planets which have extremely short periods. They orbit around their stars in less than one day, the likes of which we have never seen before."

Earth orbits around our Sun in 1 year; some of these newly discovered planets do it in just hours.

These planets - or candidate planets, as astronomers conservatively call them - are too far away to be seen by even the most powerful telescopes, so astronomers detect them indirectly, by observing how the light from their star dims as the planet orbits between us and the star.

The newly discovered planets mostly orbit stars smaller than our sun, in some cases only half as big.

Kailash Sahu and his international team of colleagues published their findings in this week's edition of the journal Nature.

The World Health Organization this week issued new guidelines for air quality, including substantially lower limits for ozone and sulphur dioxide. The new WHO standards are tougher than many national standards and are aimed at reducing disease and death caused by air pollution.

Pollution and health was the topic Tuesday on Talk to America, VOA's international call-in show. Are we winning the battle for clean air and water? Or is it an increasing threat, especially in places where economic development trumps environmental issues?

Talk to America host Doug Bernard got two different views from Joe Schwartz of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency.

BERNARD: Is there anybody listening, do you think — and people listening all over the world in all kinds of settings and environments — is there anyone listening, do you think, that can say, well, I don't have to worry about pollution where I live?"

McGLADE: "No, and I think the distressing thing is that even if you're up in the arctic, one way or another the pollutants from Europe and from other industrialized countrie are actually arriving, either through your diet or through air transport. So I don't think there's anywhere on the planet now that one could genuinely that you wouldn't be exposed to one kind of pollutant or another."

BERNARD: Joel Schwartz, again we began the conversation, I began at least by saying, this is one of those things that I think tends to inspire more fear than it does facts, and I'm wondering for listeners here around the world, saying, gee, wait a minute, wherever I am, I'm probably encountering some kind of pollution. How concerned, by and large, should we be?

SCHWARTZ: "Well, I think it's true, as you say, that there's a lot more smoke than tere is fire in reality. I think there's a lot more alarmist rhetoric out there about air pollution. Of course there's the pollutants in the air in Western cities, but Western cities today in wealthy countries of the world we breathe less air pollution probably than any human beings in history. Back in the 1800s, early 1900s, people were still heating their homes with coal and cooking their food with coal. And people in the developing world today still suffer a large amount of indoor air pollution. By going to electricity and [centralized] power plants, we've drastically reduced the amount of pollution we experience in our homes. In terms of outdoor air pollution, air pollution in wealthy countries today is only a tiny fraction of levels of even 30 or 40 years ago and certainly much, much lower than during the heyday of the industrial revolution, and I think that given the low levels of air pollution we experience today, that it's low enough that it's actually not a significant risk to health."

Joel Schwartz of the American Enterprise Institute and, before that, Jacqueline McGlade of the European Environment Agency. You can hear the full conversation on the Talk to America website at voanews.com slash talk. You can listen to Talk to America and pose your questions to the experts every Monday through Friday at 1400 UTC.

Aspirin — one of the world's oldest and most widely used pain relievers — may also be a useful weapon in the fight against cancer, according to a new study that focused on the role of blood vessels that sustain cancerous tumors. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: Lead researcher Helen Arthur with the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University in England says she and her colleague explored a biological process called angiogenesis that stimulates blood vessels to grow.

ARTHUR: "It's important, for example, in a healing wound. If you cut yourself, you need new vessels to grow to help to repair the tissue."

SKIRBLE: Arthur and her research team found that aspirin can block the formation of blood vessels that feed tumor growth. In test-tube studies researchers analyzed the effects of various doses of aspirin on cells that line the inside of human blood vessels.

ARTHUR: "And we found at a very low dose of aspirin, similar to the kinds of doses that are used therapeutically, it had a strong inhibitory effect on the way cells forms tubes [vessels] in the angiogenesis assay."

SKIRBLE: Arthur cautions patients not to take aspirin to prevent or cure cancer. She says aspirin in large doses over an extended period of time is toxic and can lead to severe stomach bleeding and death.

ARTHUR: "Because the stomach is exposed to very high concentrations of aspirin, we need to develop safe delivery methods for getting aspirin in."

SKIRBLE: Arthur says doing so could lead to the production of new cancer fighting drugs. The aspirin study was reported in the October issue of the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

U.S. researchers have developed a vaccine that offers protection against a common plant allergen in the United States known as ragweed. Scientists say the development has the potential to guard against any number of allergic or inflammatory diseases. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: Ragweed, which causes hay fever, is the number one cause of allergic symptoms during the autumn season in the United States.

Hay fever produces sneezing, an itchy, runny nose and watery eyes.

The allergic sufferer, according to expert Peter Creticos, produces too much of an antibody called I.g.E. This triggers an excessive immune response to otherwise harmless substances such as pollen.

CRETICOS: "The question is, Can you turn off that I.g.E.-mediated allergic process? With traditional immuno-therapy, you can, indeed, accomplish that. But it takes years and years."

BERMAN: That would be an average of four to five years of weekly injections to become fully immune to the ravages of ragweed pollen.

But Creticos, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and colleagues have conducted trials of an experimental vaccine that achieves the same level of protection in just six injections.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team led by Creticos reports the vaccine virtually eliminated ragweed symptoms in 14 severely affected individuals between the ages of 23 and 60.

The vaccine was developed by Dynavax Technologies of Berkeley, California, which funded the clinical trials.

Co-author David Broide of the University of California in San Diego says the vaccine will not be available for at least another two years.

In time, researchers hope to use the DNA technology to create vaccines against grass pollen, cat dander and dust, as well as more serious diseases such as hepatitis. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations. As promised, we're back with the Nobel Prizes and an encore presentation of their official online home, NobelPrize.org

LEVINOVITZ: "The mission is to inform about the Nobel Prizes and to increase the public understanding for science, literature and peace work. And also, we would like to interest young people for the discoveries and works awarded a Nobel Prize."

Agneta Wallin Levinovitz is the executive editor of NobelPrize.org. It features details about the Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace.

LEVINOVITZ: "We have a biography for almost every Nobel Prize winner. And when they come to Stockholm or Oslo — that's the Peace Prize — they have to give a lecture. So you have the lecture and you have a biography. And since 1999, we also have interviews with the new laureates, and actually we have also interviewed old laureates, so we have now more than 100 interviews with the different Nobel laureates."

In addition to the text, many of the interviews and lectures are online in streaming video format, such as this conversation with 1998 chemistry laureate Walter Kohn.

KOHN: "... The fact that you received the Nobel Prize suddenly means that, broadly speaking, people take you more seriously, and that means...."

The Nobel Prizes are a great honor, and are taken very seriously. So you might be surprised to find quite a few games on the website, which editor Levinovitz explains.

LEVINOVITZ: "We think that by making games on the Nobel Prize discoveries, that we could interest young people for science. So we tried to do something that they think is fun, and they forget that they're actually learning while playing. We think it's very important to interest young people for science, and also literature and peace work, so we do games in all our areas, but mostly in science."

Learn more about Nobel Prizes from this year or any year back to 1901 at NobelPrize.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

The first DVDs were released in Japan 10 years ago this November. The video disks and their players became one of the great success stories in the global home entertainment industry. There were originally two competing DVD technologies, but manufacturers and studios agreed on a single standard in an effort to avoid an unpleasant repeat of the first video format war, between the VHS and Betamax videotape cassette systems. Now, a new battle is brewing over the next generation of DVDs, with two rival standards for high definition home video.

There's nothing new about these wars over technology standards. In fact, one of the most far-reaching standards battles took place more than a century ago, a showdown over the cutting edge technology of the 19th century: electricity. A new book by Tom McNichol titled AC/DC describes the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over how electricity would be distributed to homes, offices and factories. Edison, the inventor, remains a household name. Westinghouse the man is little remembered, even though his name survives as a brand of consumer electronics and other products. We began our conversation with an explanation of the difference beween alternating current or AC, which Westinghouse promoted, and Edison's choice of DC, or direct current.


McNICHOL: Well, to kind of put it simply, AC is the stuff that comes out of your wall socket. It's the stuff that you plug into. DC typically comes out of a battery. Your car runs on DC. So we're talking both about electricity, but these are two different forms of delivering the same essential product.

Q: So, so they each have advantages and disadvantages?

McNICHOL: They really do, especially in the way they are transmitted. AC, because of some of the technical details of the way it's generated, can actually be sent much further distances. And that, in this story, ended up being one of the key differences and one of the key deciding factors about why we basically run on AC now. Because you can generate AC pretty much anywhere in the world close to a source of power - hydroelectric power, say - and then send that to where you need to consume it.

Q: This is portrayed in your book as a battle of two individuals, a real battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. Who were these guys, and why did they end up on opposite sides?

McNICHOL: Well, they were both late 19th century pioneers in the electrical trade. Everyone's familiar with Thomas Edison, famous inventor of the lightbulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera. A lot of people don't know about George Westinghouse, and he's also a very interesting character. Westinghouse actually ended up backing the form [of electricity] that ended up winning. He backed the AC form. Edison backed direct current because many of his early inventions ran on direct current. It was something he was familiar with. It was something he trusted. And he was skeptical of a new technology which, in some ways, was very out of character for Edison. Even when it became apparent that alternating current, not direct current, would be the way that many places would send power, he found it very hard to make that transition.

Q: There's one other character in your book I want to talk about, and that's Nikola Tesla. Tesla was an ethnic Serbian, came to America. What's his role in the story?

McNICHOL: Tesla's really an interesting character, a brilliant man - perhaps the only one in this story that could match Thomas Edison for just sheer genius, but he was also a very troubled man. He had what we would now diagnose as a series of obsessive-compulsive disorders. He was obsessed with cleanliness. He would go into restaurants and if a fly alighted on a table, he would immediately go to another table. So Tesla's a very interesting, strange and mercurial character, and yet a very brilliant man as well. And he was an early advocate of alternating current, along with George Westinghouse, and in fact ended up developing one of the key components of the AC system, the AC motor. And without that Tesla motor, Westinghouse would have had a hard time pushing the AC system as far as he did.

Q: Well, fast-forward to today and Westinghouse as a man is pretty much forgotten. Why is that?

McNICHOL: You're right. In some ways it's because he was a quiet winner. He didn't call attention to himself. He gave very few press interviews during his life. He left no papers. He didn't write a book. All he did was win.

Q: And in this battle over AC and DC, Edison was the loser, and yet he's the household name - partly because he did invent a lot of other things, but on electricity there is a bit of a vindication because batteries, the DC electricity that most of us know, are becoming more and more ubiquitous.

McNICHOL: That's true. I mean in some ways Edison wasn't so much wrong as 150 years ahead of his time. In the last, say, decade or so, we've seen a real resurgence of direct current, of DC power. Think of all of the portable devices now that we have that run on batteries. So in a way, Edison had it right, I think, but just not for his time.

In his book, Tom McNichol describes how down and dirty the fight over an electric standard became. When New York state began to look for a more humane alternative to hanging for its condemned prisoners, the Edison interests promoted electrocution ... with AC current, so the public would associate the lethal electricity of the death chamber with the electric current being promoted by his commercial rival, George Westinghouse. AC/DC by Tom McNichol is just out in bookstores. It's published by Wiley.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the program. Eva Nenicka is the 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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