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Our World — 30 December 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 this special edition of "Our World," a look back at 2006 ... Pluto takes a fall ... 25 years of AIDS ... and challenges in international broadcasting ...

ELLIOTT: "A shortwave radio can always pull in signals from far away places, whereas [with] international television you have to have a cooperating satellite system or a cable system that's carrying the channel."

VOA's Kim Elliott, plus TV science guy Mr. Wizard, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

It's been an interesting year for space exploration. Unmanned craft visiting Mars continued to send back amazingly detailed pictures of the Red Planet. The U.S. announced long-range plans for a permanent base on the Moon. But maybe the biggest space story of the year was the un-discovery of our ninth planet.

In August, the International Astronomical Union, the IAU, stripped Pluto of its status as it agreed on a new definition of a planet.

The IAU vote overturned a committee recommendation that would have left Pluto as a planet. MIT Prof. Richard Binzel, a member of the committee, said expanding knowledge of the far reaches of the solar system made the existing roster of planets inconsistent.

BINZEL: "A new definition was necessary because astronomers are discovering many, many Pluto-like objects out in the outer Solar System, and we simply needed to know what to call them."

Binzel's committee recommended embracing these Pluto-like objects, sometimes called Plutons, as full-fledged planets. That would have included the asteroid Ceres, Pluto's own moon, Charon, and a recently-discovered object that was informally known as Xena, and is now officially called Eris which was hailed at the time as a 10th planet.

But the full IAU membership opted for a narrower definition of a planet, excluding Pluto and those other objects. Astronomer Mike Brown, who discovered Eris, admitted the new classification makes sense.

BROWN: "If you started from scratch, and you looked at the Solar System, if you were flying in from Outer Space, you would very quickly realize that there are eight really large objects in the Solar System, and you would put those into one category and use one word to describe them, whatever your word would be. All of the other objects in the Solar System are much smaller. So it's very clear that from any point of view, the eight planets now are these special objects."

The new definition of a planet is an object that orbits the Sun, is big enough that its gravity has pulled it into a spherical shape, and has swept its orbit clear of other objects.

That last part is what doomed Pluto, which orbits among numerous other bodies known as Trans-Neptunian Objects.

Also, a planet can not be a satellite of another body.

The new planet definition effectively divides Solar System objects into three groups: planets, of which there are now eight; dwarf planets, a group that now includes Pluto; and small Solar System bodies - asteroids and the like.

The terminology is, perhaps, a bit confusing. Dwarf planets, which sound like a subcategory of planets, are actually a completely separate category.

The new planet definition applies only to our Solar System, and doesn't deal with the 200 or so objects known to orbit around distant stars. More of these extra-solar planets, or bodies, or whatever they are, are being discovered all the time.

The AIDS epidemic turned 25 this year. In June 1981, doctors in Los Angeles reported the unusual cases of five otherwise-healthy young homosexual men with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. It was the first mention in the scientific literature of the disease we now know as AIDS.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been on the front lines of the battle against HIV/AIDS ever since the beginning. He now heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

In a visit to VOA in July he recalled reading the first reports and went on to recap the status of the AIDS epidemic.

FAUCI: "I was sitting in my office at the NIH up in Bethesda [MD], and from that moment I can tell you historically, although I had a very, very troubled feeling when I saw that, because I knew this was something that was not a fluke, this was something very unusual, I didn't know what it was.

"And then the next month, when it came out an additional 45 or more patients that came out in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from [Los Angeles], San Francisco and New York City - not only of pneumocystis [pneumonia] but also of Kaposi's Sarcoma, I knew we were in some serious trouble. I did not in my wildest dreams, imagine how serious a problem this would be.

"It was mistakenly felt, as you know, to be localized and confined to what was considered to be middle-class white gay men in the big cities of the United States, and we could not have been more incorrect in that assessment then, because it already was a global issue, but only because of the health care delivery system in the United States and western world was it recognized here first.

"So if we fast-forward 25 years, what we have now is more than 65 million cases of HIV/AIDS, 25 million of which have died. There are now 38.3 million people living with HIV. As for the latest UNAIDS reports, we have about 2.8 million deaths, close to 3 million deaths per year, and about 4.1 million new infections. So the pandemic is by no means under control."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a VOA briefing in July.

Too many patients in developing countries still don't have access to the the best medical treatments for HIV/AIDS. Today's anti-retroviral drugs can't cure the disease, but they can make it a chronic, manageable condition.

Researchers are investigating an innovative approach to treatment with gene therapy. The idea is to switch on or off specific genetic instructions that can neutralize the virus.

In November, University of Pennsylvania scientists reported very preliminary results of gene therapy that reduced HIV infection in some patients. Much more research and testing is needed, however, to see if gene therapy is a viable approach to HIV/AIDS.

Gene therapy is an exciting area of research in other fields, too.

For example, John Nemunaitis of the Mary Crowley Medical Research Center in Texas, is exploring the use of gene therapy for treating cancer. As we reported in June, he demonstrated the success of the approach in dramatic sets of before-and-after images of lung cancer patients.

NEMUNAITIS: "What I'm showing you here is the stage of the cancer and the stage after treatment - complete response, complete disappearance of all their cancer

WEST: "I'm Connie West. I believe those were my lungs that you saw just a moment ago. (laughter) I had my gene therapy in the Fall of 2000. So as you can see, it's been six years. I'm in perfect health. I've just had a checkup with Dr. Nemunaitis recently. Without the gene therapy I guess I wouldn't be here talking to you today, and I can't say enough things about it. Thank you. (applause)"

The corrective gene can be introduced into the body in a couple of different ways. Researchers are investigating ultra-tiny nano-particles, but the president of the American Society of Gene Therapy, Mark Kay, says so far the preferred method is generally through a deactivated virus.

KAY: "And the reason that this has caught so much attention is the fact that viruses have evolved over millions of years to be very effective vehicles at transferring genetic information into cells. So we as gene therapists take out the disease-causing genes of the virus and put in our theraputic genes to allow them to be delivered into our [patients'] cells."

Dr. Kay says that one day he expects doctors to be using gene therapy as a routine treatment for disease. Still, many obstacles remain, including the fact that changes in genes could be passed on to future generations. For their part, researchers say studies are hampered because they are testing gene therapies on only the very sickest patients, those who have exhausted all other treatments.

A regular feature here on Our World is the Website of the Week, in which we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

We don't have time to review all the ones we featured in 2006, but I did want to revisit a few of our favorites.

At the Spitzer Space Telescope website, as Michelle Thaller explained, you can see spectacular and beautiful photos taken by this orbiting observatory.

THALLER: "We've taken pictures of stars that are just forming, baby stars that are still inside big clouds of dust that were invisible to us before, but we can actually see their heat coming out of the dust cloud. Amazing stuff!"

We also featured LibraryThing.com, where users can catalogue their personal library of books and find others who share similar tastes.

SPALDING: "Looking at someone's collection that's like yours is much more rewarding than just looking at a list of suggested books from someone you don't know or you don't have any reason to believe that they know anything. But if you read a review of someone who likes and has 50 of your books, then you know that there's a common ground of taste there."

Tim Spalding of LibraryThing, which is both a literary AND a social networking website that has, last time we checked, about 120,000 members.

One more website that we especially liked was the Speech Accent Archive, an online catalogue of how people from around the world pronounce English. It has audio samples of English as pronounced by native speakers of some 200 languages.

MONTAGE: "Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags...."

Audio samples there from Peru, Morocco, Kenya and Australia. The site is popular with students, academicians, speech therapists ... even actors.

Just a few examples to highight the diversity of the web. We have links to these and more than 130 other featured Websites of the Week on our website, which is voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC - "Thanks for the Memory" - Herb Alpert

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

It's been an interesting year in international broadcasting, and our guru of audience research, Dr. Kim Elliott, is here to recap some of the highlights. Kim, you and I are radio guys, but even we have to acknowledge that more and more international broadcasting means satellite TV. Just in the last two months of this year we've seen two new stations with all-news formats. France 24 launched in early December, just a few weeks after viewers around the world heard this on their TVs.

MUSIC: Al Jazeera TV theme

The news theme from Al Jazeera English. But Al Jazeera has had problems entering the U.S. market. Kim, what's happening there?

ELLIOTT: Well, they are not on any cable systems yet in the United States, and that's what's really important because most people get their multi-channel television in the U.S. through a local cable system.

Q: What do these two newcomers represent in terms of international broadcasting.

ELLIOTT: Well, I think it represents the fact that 24 hour news channels are getting to be the mainstay of international broadcasting, and many organizations and countries want to have a 24-hour news channel to be a presence in international broadcasting. Just as having a shortwave transmitter was the way to do it back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Q: I was going to ask, does this replace shortwave radio? That, historically, has been the centerpiece of international broadcasting, and the format seems to have been in decline for several years now. Did the downward spiral continue in 2006?

ELLIOTT: Well, in some ways it does replace shortwave in that now people are turning on their television sets, either connected directly to a satellite dish or to a cable system, to get news from other countries. However, it doesn't completely replace shortwave in that a shortwave radio can always pull in signals from far away places, whereas [with] international television you have to have a cooperating satellite system and a legal dish, or a cable system that's carrying the channel.

Q: There are, in a sense, choke points between the broadcaster and the receiver.

ELLIOTT: The gatekeepers.

Q: I got my first chance this year to listen to over-the-air digital shortwave. The DRM system does deliver some impressive quality for the listener. But the program offerings are, at this point, pretty meager. Is digital shortwave broadcasting going anywhere?

ELLIOTT: The important thing about Digital Radio Mondiale, or DRM, the new digital mode for shortwave, is that the first consumer-level receivers are coming on the marketplace early in 2007, and we'll see. Now the thing about DRM, however, is it doesn't seem to perform very well under long distances. And some countries have to transmit that far to get to their target country. So it remains to be seen if DRM will actually work.

Q: You know, if shortwave is in sort-of this declining period and DRM hasn't quite taken off, that suggests that rebroadcasting is the answer, this sort-fo middle ground. Where do we stand in terms of rebroadcasting at this end of 2006?

ELLIOTT: Well, very popular among international broadcasters. Try to get an FM transmitter inside your target country, especially in the capital city, or to get onto an FM station inside the target country. But we have learned this year, as we've known before, that it's a precarious business, this rebroadcasting. For instance, Azerbaijan has taken off a station that would rebroadcast VOA and RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and BBC broadcasts. But on the other hand, it's awarded FM licenses to BBC and VOA. So it kind of goes back and forth and you're neve entirely sure if you're going to be able to keep your license or your transmitter inside a target country.

Q: So do you care to take out your crystal ball and look ahead to 2007 and speculate on what sort of issues we might be discussing when we have this conversation next year?

ELLIOTT: I think in 2007 we will see how the international TV channels shake out. There are many of them. In addition to Al Jazeera English and France 24 you've got Russia Today. Sky News, EuroNews, Australian Network of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Channel News Asia, Fox News, DW Deutsche Welle TV. For radio, well we'll probably see a little more reduction in shortwave. But in a few places, countries are still buying shortwave transmitters for domestic broadcasting, like Malaysia. And in a few instances, some countries are going back onto shortwave, such as Slovakia. And then we have to look at the new digital media: not just digital shortwave but the Internet, and see how these have an increased role in international broadcasting.

Q: For the listener, though, it sounds an unsettled period, it's a period of transition where we're always looking at a new technology that's just around the corner.

ELLIOTT: Yes, I think some of these changes will be permanent, but the big question is which medium gets through under adverse conditions. Which of the media available for international broadcasting is the most difficult to block, and that's the key question.

Q: That sounds like an endorsement for shortwave.

ELLIOTT: It is an endorsement for shortwave because shortwave, because of its ability to transmit over long distances rather than short distances remains the least interdictable of the media available to international broadcasting.

Q: Kim Elliott, thanks very much for coming in.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

And finally ... this year we paid a birthday visit to an iconic figure who hosted science programs for decades on American TV, and helped untold numbers of young viewers develop an interest in science. Here's our story from July about TV's Mr. Wizard.

MUSIC: 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: "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."

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: "Our World" theme

This is our last show for 2006. We end the year with best wishes to each and every one of you for a Happy New Year and a great 2007 ahead from editor Rob Sivak, technical director Eva Nenicka and all of us here at VOA and Our World.

As usual, we welcome your comments.Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World

Voice of America

Washington, DC 20237 USA.

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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