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Our World — 13 January 2007


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," a new source for stem cells ... music and the brain ... and bringing science out into the community ...

LOVINGER: "We had an audience ranging from kids about seven years old to people who were 90 years old. They all asked questions, it was very enthusiastic. And it was wonderful."

Café Scientifique, a consumer electronics roundup, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists this past week announced discovery of a new kind of human stem cell.

Many people have been keeping a close eye on stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are unique because they are at an early stage of development and may become bone cells, brain cells or anything in between. The hope is that one day this flexibility may be harnessed to cure disease. However, ethical issues have been raised, particularly in the United States, because harvesting the cells normally requires the destruction of a human embryo.

Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research have argued that researchers should instead use adult stem cells, which are not surrounded by the same ethical issues, but which also seem less likely to be useful for a wide range of therapies.

This week's edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology introduces a third type of stem cell: stem cells found in a pregnant woman's amniotic fluid, the briny liquid that fills the womb and surrounds the developing fetus. Researcher Anthony Atala at Wake Forest University in North Carolina says the new cells are almost as versatile as embryonic stem cells.

ATALA: "Human embryonic stem cells are pluripotent in that they are able to differentiate into all three germ layers. And after several years we were able to find that indeed these cells were also able to do the same."

During seven years of research, Atala and his colleagues found that they could coax the amniotic stem cells to develop into a wide variety of specialized cells.

ATALA: "We were able to differentiate these cells into multiple different cell types, including muscle, nerves, blood vessels, bone, [and] fat."

Some other stem cell researchers say the amniotic stem cells may not be as useful as embryonic stem cells in treating disease. Dr. Anthony Atala says it's too soon to say just what the limits might be. In any event, he cautions that his research is still years away from use to treat human patients.

New archeological research indicates that Russians were among the earliest Europeans, if not the very earliest. The latest evidence shows modern humans lived along the Don River about 45,000 years ago. VOA's David McAlary tells us that the discovery changes ideas about how humans reached Europe after they left their place of origin, Africa.

McALARY: Scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Colorado have unearthed unmistakable signs of Stone Age human occupation 400 kilometers south of Moscow. They report in the journal Science that they found human teeth, stone and bone tools, shell ornaments and carved mammoth ivory in a soil layer scientifically dated at 42,000-45,000 years ago.

Although the oldest evidence of modern humans comes from Australia about 50,000 years ago, the Don River discovery is roughly the same age, or even earlier than similar ones in south central and western Europe.

HOFFECKER: "For Europe, this is as early as it gets."

McALARY: That was University of Colorado scientist John Hoffecker.

HOFFECKER: "It is a surprise, particularly because they are coming from tropical climates, ultimately, or certainly from lower latitudes, from much warmer places, and anatomically, they were not well suited for northern environments."

McALARY: Although this archeological dig did not turn up bones, Hoffecker says excavations from later settlements at this site show that inhabitants were built like typical early modern humans of the tropics — tall and slender, with long arms and legs.

The Don River finding suggests that the northward human trek from Africa may have taken place along more than one route. A scientist not involved in the study, Texas A&M University anthropologist Ted Goebel, says it calls for updating the conventional notion that the path took them through the Middle East and Turkey across the Bosporus Strait.

GOEBEL: "We may have to be rethinking that, and considering that the peopling routes were much more complex. A route via the Caucasus Mountains, or a route from Central Asia even east of the Caspian Mountains and across the southern Urals may be possible as well."

McALARY: Goebel says there is probably a missing record of modern humans along a migration path through southwestern Asia. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

On Tuesday, Apple introduced its new mobile phone handset, called the iPhone.

At a trade show in San Francisco, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs demonstrated the new phone, which, unlike most other handsets, is dominated by a large touchscreen instead of a lot of buttons:

JOBS: "[applause] Now, how are we going to communicate [with] this. We don't want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We're going to use a stylus. No. [laughter] No, who wants a stylus? We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with. We're born with 10 of them. We're going to use our fingers."

The die-hard Apple fans in the audience also liked the built-in MP3 player and Internet connectivity. But critics point out that Apple cut an exclusive deal with one cell phone provider, Cingular, which could limit sales. Also, they expressed concern about the robustness of the phone's large screen.

Apple's iPhone will be available to U.S. customers in June, starting at $500.

This year in Las Vegas, the famed Consumer Electronics Show celebrated its 40th anniversary with its largest convention ever. Brian Bahouth toured the event and gives us this round-up of the latest and greatest in electronics.

BAHOUTH: The Consumer Electronics Association annual trade show began in 1967. That first modest event had 110 exhibitors and some 18,000 attendees. Forty years later this year's show boasts nearly 3,000 exhibitors and more than 140,000 attendees. The show's size reflects the growth of what is now a $900 billion-a-year industry.

MORREL: "We provide digital map data and dynamic content for GPS systems."

BAHOUTH: That's Joy Morrel of the Tele Atlas corporation. Tele Atlas provides and assembles all the map information that has become ubiquitous on the Internet. When you get a map from Mapquest or Google, you're viewing Tele Atlas data. Morrel says the challenge for her company is to keep the maps current.

MORREL: "We compile our data from literally tens of thousands of resources. We have relationships throughout the industry that we work with local government or we can work with a real estate company putting up a new development. We even use Google alert so that when we find out if a street is changing that we make sure that we're marking those changes in our database every day."

BAHOUTH: Mike Gorman of Mio Navigation Products uses Tele Atlas maps in a prototype personal navigation system named the Digiwalker. Here he describes how the palm sized device works …

GORMAN: "What you would do is look for a point of interest or specific address you might want to navigate to. You'd go ahead and key that in. And once you've done that it would route you."

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: "In 150 feet [45 meters] turn sharp right."

BAHOUTH: And if you find yourself in an unfamiliar city and hungry for a certain type of food, once again digital map data and a device called the Dash Express offers a navigation solution with a twist. We asked Trisha Arana of Dash Navigation how we could find a Dim Sum restaurant in a foreign city.

ARANA: "We have the ability to go out on the internet and do a search on Yahoo local, and you can actually type the word 'dim sum' on the on screen keyboard and have Dim Sum restaurants in our area of choice come up and appear, and we can choose which restaurant we want to go to, and then we can navigate directly to that restaurant."

BAHOUTH: Also featured in this year's show were the latest in high-resolution LCD televisions. Last year, the largest such television was the 165-centimeter Sharp, but this year — wow — the biggest LCD is nearly 275 centimeters across with vivid graphics. Jim Wilson of Sharp Electronics explains.

WILSON: "Basically what you are seeing is the world's largest LCD panel that's in pre-stage production as we speak."

BAHOUTH: Sony, long a world leader in personal electronics offered an e-book reader called aptly enough, the Sony Reader. It looks like a nice, leather bound book, maybe two and a half centimeters thick. Inside, a page sized display shows eminently readable characters of a book downloaded from the Internet. Sony's Matthew Crocker gives details.

CROCKER: "It's just like a book. It uses a technology called e ink or electronic ink, so instead of a standard LCD display that would flicker, this page is static. It is the way it is, there's no changing it. It's very easy on the eyes. It's like looking at a piece of paper."

BAHOUTH: The type is amazingly stable, and doesn't look like characters on a screen but rather, words printed on paper. The device uses energy only when a page is turned and the user can turn nearly 8,000 pages per battery charge. But the Sony Reader is just one item in an ocean of gee-whiz technology, from robots to virtual gaming environments that may — or may not — end up in consumers' shopping carts next year. For Our World, I'm Brian Bahouth in Reno, Nevada.

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

The National Archives is the U.S. government's recordkeeper. From census forms to presidential letters and the nation's founding documents, the Archives has amassed an unparalleled collection of American originals.

To help visitors better understand American history and culture through its collection, the Archives has exhibits here in Washington, around the country, and online at archives.gov.

DOZIER: "One that we're very, very proud of that just launched is the Eyewitness exhibit. There's documents, there's some multimedia, there's lots and lots of pictures that you can look at and also print out."

That's Archives web manager Michelle Dozier. The Eyewitness exhibit includes, for example, a letter from an American soldier in World War II describing his first sight of a Nazi concentration camp.

Archives.gov also features a document of the day, teacher's guides, an online exhibit on the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, and virtual copies of the founding documents of the American nation.

DOZIER: "We also have electronic versions of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. And one of the very nice features is, you can go online, under the 'Charters of Freedom,' and you can sign the Declaration of Independence and print out a version of it with your signature on the bottom."

Archives.gov is a nice window into the National Archives, but be forewarned: only a fraction of the Archives' holdings is online. Dozier says it's expensive to digitize old records, and she says the Archives has a lot of old records — some 600,000 cubic meters of documents.

DOZIER: "And that's about 4 billion pieces of paper. We also do multimedia collections. We have, for example, about 300,000 reels of motion picture film. We just don't have the resources to make them available online."

The National Archives is working on having at least descriptions of all its holdings online. You can explore America's past and present through the original sources at archives.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld

MUSIC: Dutch Jazz Orchestra - "Remember" by Billy Strayhorn

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

Music in one form or another has had a role in virtually every human civilization, and one reason for that, scientists are discovering, is the way the brain is wired. It's the subject of a recent book, This Is Your Brain on Music by music producer-turned-brain researcher, Daniel Levitin. Levitin was on VOA's "Talk to America" show this week, and my colleague Susan Logue reports on why and how Levitin says music has such a powerful hold on us.

MUSIC: Santana - "Veracruz"

LOGUE: For 15 years Daniel Levitin worked as a sound engineer and record producer with major rock music acts like Carlos Santana, Steely Dan, Chris Isaak and Blue Oyster Cult. Today, armed with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, he heads the Levitin Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal:

LEVITIN: "I had always been asking questions about why is it that Carlos Santana is able to play a solo that moves me so much when I'm sitting in the studio and then, somehow, that gets translated to records and millions of people have the same experience. How does that happen? I just decided to go to school to find some of the answers."

LOGUE: His book, This Is Your Brain on Music, provides answers to some of those thought-provoking questions — questions like, why is it when we hear music we often want to get up and dance, or at least tap our toes?

LEVITIN: "For reasons that aren't entirely understood yet, music is wired to the motor areas of the brain. There is a part of your brain called the motor cortex that sits at the top of your head. It's this part of the brain that helps you move your fingers and toes and your body. And when music hits our eardrums, part of the signal flows up toward the motor cortex and creates a connection."

MUSIC: The Who - "We Won't Get Fooled Again"

LEVITIN: "We do know that people use music as mood regulation in the same way that they might use drugs. People all over the world, we know, use music to help motivate them to finish an exercise workout, this kind of thing. So that Who song might be something a person would play to get out of bed in the morning. And you might put Billie Holiday on at the end of the day to calm down."

MUSIC: Billie Holiday - "Body and Soul"

LOGUE: On the other hand, if you grew up in certain parts of India, you might prefer to listen to ragas to de-stress in the evening. Levitin says people's taste in music begins to develop as early as infancy.

LEVITIN: "So if you hear American or European music based on Western scales as an infant, that's the music you are going to like as opposed to, say, Pakistani music or Chinese opera."

LOGUE: As for the impact music can have on the development of other areas of the brain — the so-called "Mozart Effect" — Daniel Levitin says that yes, there is a relationship between learning in general and exposure to music at a young age:

LEVITIN: "Listening to music from a young age, and more so, playing music, learning an instrument, helps people to pay attention better to everything in their intellectual environment. The kind of focused attention that is required to make sense of music either as a listener or a performer turns out to carry over to other cognitive domains."

LOGUE: Levitin says just why the human brain is wired for music is still unclear.

LEVITIN: "One of the arguments is that we developed speech because communication filled an evolutionary function, and music sort of fell out of that as a by-product. I actually believe that music preceded speech and was an early form of emotional communication."

LOGUE: In other words, Daniel Levitin believes, music was, like speech, an evolutionary adaptation, not just an accident. Either way, it is clear that music has continued to have a powerful hold on us. I'm Susan Logue.

Scientists have long worried that they don't do a good enough job of communicating with the public the purpose and value of scientific research. But there's a new approach that's helping to bridge this communications gap, and build public enthusiasm for science.


It's Tuesday evening at The Front Page, a neighborhood bar and restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from Washington. Office workers gather to unwind. The local news is on the TV over the bar. But walk to the back into the open atrium of the office building where the restaurant is located. Nearly 200 people are gathered for this month's Café Scientifique, a program where scientists meet the public in an informal setting. These gatherings began in Europe in the 1990s, as Mary Hanson explained in her introduction to the evening's program.

HANSON: "It started, actually — this whole concept, that is — as Café Philosophique in France, of course, and then jumped across to the U.K., where it grew into Café Scientifique. And from the U.K. across the ocean to the U.S., and now there are at least 30 cafés in the U.S. sort of like this. And I am thrilled to see so many people here, which I think is a record-breaking crowd."

Hanson works in the public affairs office at the National Science Foundation, which sponsors this Café Scientifique. Others are sponsored by universities, bookstores or coffee shops.

Hanson started this Café Scientifique last year along with Sarah Goforth, now a producer at Discovery Communications. I asked her what makes a great Café Scientifique event.

GOFORTH: "I would say somebody who loves what they do and can speak about science in a way that doesn't alienate the audience with a lot of lingo and a lot of insider terminology and the kind of scary things that make people afraid to take organic chemistry when they get to college. That, and also an informal setting, like a bar or a cafe, where people don't think they're in this big lecture hall and they're embarrassed to ask a question. And that's really it. It's pretty simple."

On Tuesday the speaker was Douglas Ubelaker, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. He has worked on ancient skeletons excavated in Ecuador, and has also worked with law enforcement agencies on more recent, criminal mysteries. Although there were other scientists in the audience, the idea is to communicate with people like Windy Cooler-Stith, a non-scientist.

COOLER-STITH: "No, no professional interest. I just really enjoy science and my son Mac, he's 11, he really enjoys science, and I think these cafes are really valuable to our educational experience."
MAC: "I'm hoping to learn mostly about most of the bone structure and what makes them up, and what's the main purpose and, well, mainly just what are they basically made out of."

Doug Ubelaker spoke for a while, but most of the time he fielded a large variety of questions from the folks in the audience

QUESTION 1: "Doug, how much of your work is objective and how much subjective?"
QUESTION 2: "What do you think of [TV] shows like CIS and Bones?"
QUESTION 3: "Do you find you get more personal and professional satisfaction digging up things more modern, like say when the FBI comes to you about cases, or answering questions about mankind's past?"
QUESTION 4: "With the surge of interest in forensic science among the young that you're describing, what is the job market for them like?"
QUESTION 5: "Have you heard of the iceman that was found in the Alps?"

UBELAKER: "Well I like the challenge of presenting a complex science to people that may not have the foundation to understand that complex science. And I think that's a challenge, but it's an important challenge. It allows me as a scientist to connect and to focus on the fundamental issues that are behind some of the more complex applications that we deal with."

This local Café Scientifique has been meeting for less than a year. Last time the scientist was Andy Lovinger, who spoke about plastics in December and came back to sit in the audience this time.

LOVINGER: "Oh, this is so exciting. When I presented last month we had an audience ranging from kids about seven years old to people who were 90 years old. They all asked questions. The questions actually lasted twice as long as the talk. And it was wonderful. Everybody who is here is here because they want to be here. They're interested in science, and there was very good give-and-take."

Café Scientifique organizers worry that as their programs become more popular, they will lose the intimacy and two-way communications of smaller gatherings. But this evening's large turnout does suggest that many in the community want to learn more about science, directly from the scientists themselves.

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 edited 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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