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Our World — 3 February 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 dire global warming report ... a setback for the space telescope ... and a visit to a frontier outpost in physics research ...

SCHULZ: "What Alice is trying to do is to recreate the environment in which the universe was and to study what was the nature of matter at this early time of our universe.

The Large Hadron Collider, our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to the 7th anniversary edition of VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Top climate scientists have warned that global warming is here, it's caused by human activity, and the impact — including rising sea levels — could persist for centuries. That's the consensus announced by an authoritative UN group including scientists from 113 countries. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report on Friday.

BRYANT: More intense storms; rising sea levels and higher temperatures; people being forced to flee their homes because of changing weather patterns — the findings presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, amounted to the toughest wake-up call aired to date by 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists.

U.N. Environment Program head Achim Steiner told reporters in Paris Friday that the world cannot afford to ignore it.

STEINER: "It shifts from doubting to having to act — even if the last element of certainty is not yet there. I think anyone who would continue to risk inaction on the basis of evidence presented here will one day in the history books be considered irresponsible."

BRYANT: Humans need to act, Steiner and other experts say, because human activity is the principle cause of rising temperatures and their effects in recent decades. The report says our use of fossil fuels like oil and gas, our agricultural activities, and the other ways we exploit our planet have all produced heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The panel's new report predicts that temperatures will continue to rise between 1.8 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius in this century alone.

More worrying, those temperature rises will continue over the new few centuries -— even if we take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Senior US government scientist Susan Solomon co-chaired the panel that prepared the report.

SOLOMON: "The key conclusion is that warming of the climate system is now unequivocal. Unequivocal. And that's evident in observations in air and ocean temperatures, melting of snow and ice, rising global mean sea level."

BRYANT: The report updates a previous report, released in 2001 And the scientists noted this survey is based on numerous studies that have taken place since then, and a more solid scientific consensus on global warming. Six years ago, the IPPC said only that global warming was "very likely" caused by human activity. This time, the group says it's 90 percent confident that man is responsible for rises in global temperatures.

The study tried to predict what we can expect in the coming decades. Sea levels may rise between 18 and centimeters by the end of the century. We have already seen more intense storms and hurricanes — and the report says we'll very likely see more of these dramatic weather patterns in future years.

How will this affect humans? Well, says the UN's Steiner, that all depends on where you live.

STEINER: "If you're an African child born in 2007, it's likely that by the time you're 50 years old you may in fact be faced with new diseases, you may be faced with new droughts. You may even have to leave the areas you live in because some projections show that Africa may have 30 percent of its coastal infrastructure affected by the end of this century as a result of sea level rise."

BRYANT: And if you're born in South Asia, water may flood your home, and you may become an environmental refugee.

But much of the report is cautious and scientific. It is a consensus document, drafted and edited by hundreds of scientists. Some environmentalists feared the process might water down its conclusions.

But IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri says the broad consensus is what gives the findings their credibility.

PACHAURI: "This is the strength of the IPCC process — it's essentially the scientists, the experts who are the ones who assess and provide the knowledge. And since we accept everything by consensus, the implication is that whatever is finally accepted and approved has the stamp of acceptance."

BRYANT: The report has already sparked calls for action. French President Jacques Chirac called Friday for an environmental and political revolution to save the planet.

Washington was more cautious. White House official Sharon Hays called it a significant report that will be valuable to policy makers.

Eduard Toulouse, a climate change expert at World Wildlife Fund France, agrees the panel's findings give countries like the United States, which has yet to sign the Kyoto global warming protocol, no more excuses for inaction.

TOULOUSE: "It is not possible to argue anymore and to wait, because the scientists tell us we have to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases if we want to avoid dramatic climate change."

BRYANT: Toulouse also says the European Union must push for cutting greenhouse gases emissions by 30 percent by 2020. The 27-member bloc is currently debating new steps to take.

Individuals can also make a difference, the UN's Steiner says, cutting their own emissions to levels way below those set by the Kyoto Protocol. There's no excuse, he says, for the public to sit back and do nothing. For Our World, I’m Lisa Bryant in Paris.

The aging Hubble Space Telescope suffered another setback this week when its most frequently used instrument broke down.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys was near the end of its projected five-year life span when an electrical failure disabled most of its functions.

Hubble has several other instruments that continue to work just fine, and observing time will be re-allocated accordingly.

To learn more about the problem and the impact on the telescope's astronomy program, I spoke with astrophysicist Mario Livio at Hubble's home base, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

LIVIO: "The Advanced Camera for Surveys is really the main, current camera on the telescope. Most of the recent spectacular images that you see from the Hubble Space Telescope come from the Advanced Camera for Surveys."

Q: So, what went wrong with it?

LIVIO: "Well, last summer, one side, the electronics side of that sort of went dead, and we had to move to the second side. And at this point a fuse went off on the other side, and so the camera now is essentially dead, with the exception of one channel; the Solar Blind Channel we hope we will be able to continue to work, but the two other channels currently appear to be gone."

Q: So does the loss of the capabilities, or most of the capabilities of the Advanced Camera for Surveys mean that the time that would have been allotted to that instrument is going to be allotted to the other instruments that are working?

LIVIO: "Yeah, that is correct. In addition, we have asked all observers to look at the proposals that wanted to use the Advanced Camera for Surveys and to examine whether the same science can perhaps be achieved with the other instruments."

Q: So is the result that we get science that's not as good as we would have gotten, or just different science?

LIVIO: "When we say to convert to other cameras, what we normally mean by that is that the same science essentially can be achieved, but maybe it requires, for example, more observing time. But the hope is that the same science, or essentially the same science can be achieved. These will probably be the programs that will be selected. There is some science that simply cannot be achieved with the current instruments, and that will have to wait 'til the next servicing mission for Hubble."

Q: Well, that servicing mission is now scheduled for September, I believe, of 2008 —

LIVIO: "Correct"

Q: — if it doesn't get delayed. But a replacement or a repair on the Advanced Camera for Surveys to remedy this was not originally scheduled. Is there hope that it can be fitted in? Apparently it's quite a full program that the astronauts already have.

LIVIO: "Right, so it's not clear, do we want to repair the Advanced Camera for Surveys because one of the new instruments that will be installed in September 2008 is the Wide Field Camera 3, which in many respects exceeds, actually, the capabilities of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. There are some capabilities in which the Advanced Camera for Surveys is still superior to that, and this is why we would be looking into the possibility of repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys. But as you said, the astronauts already have a very full schedule, so it will have to be either that something else is not done, or if possible, you know, if you add one more day in principle it's do-able; in practice, you know, this will be examined very carefully whether we want to do that or not."

Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute. We spoke this week about the impact of technical problems on the Hubble Space Telescope.

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

This time it's a goldmine for people interested in learning more about their family history.

ANDERSON: "What we are dedicated to is providing resources and records for people interested in finding out about their heritage, finding some kind of family history information, genealogical records, recording that, preserving that — all the things related to family history."

Steve Anderson is marketing manager for FamilySearch.org, a website run by an arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the LDS church, better known as the Mormons. The church got into genealogy for reasons related to their faith. But that's not to say the material on the website is only of interest to Mormons.

ANDERSON: "Oh, no, no. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of people who come to the website are not Mormons. The vast majority come there because maybe they're looking at census records or maybe they're looking for information on how to research in Poland or in China or in Mexico and want to know what records are available and how to use them."

The LDS church has gathered on microfilm the world's largest collection of birth and death records, and other source documents for people researching their family trees. In the past, you had to go to one of the Mormon Family History Centers to actually view the records. But Steve Anderson says the church has embarked on an ambitious program to make all 15 billion documents available online.

ANDERSON: "And so we actually began that process last year, the digitization. We've actually invented some new technology, and we now believe we will be able to have them all digitized, indexed and on-line beginning this year and completing somewhere in the six or seven year range."

In addition to searching for information about your family tree, the website has a first-rate genealogy program you can download for free. You can also share your research with others, perhaps finding a distant relation who shows up on someone else's family tree, which could introduce you to a whole new group of relatives you never knew you had.

It's a great example of how the Internet can help distribute knowledge and help bring people together. Check it out at FamilySearch.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC — Sister Sledge: "We Are Family"

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

A new study indicates that women living in areas with lots of air pollution face an increased risk of dying of heart disease. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, it's one more reason why clean air is important.

HOBAN: Medical researchers know that people exposed to high levels of air pollution can have increased risk for asthma and other respiratory problems. But they're slowly finding that people living in areas with lots of air pollution also end up with problems of the heart and cardiovascular system. Now data from a large U.S. study of women confirms a strong relationship between air pollution and an increased risk of dying from cardiac disease and stroke.

Dr. Joel Kaufman, an epidemiologist from the University of Washington in Seattle looked at data collected from over 65,000 women living in cities across the United States. The researchers linked the health data with pollution measured near the women's homes, specifically microscopic particles of soot and dust.

KAUFMAN: "It happens anywhere really in an urban area where you have a lot of vehicular traffic, you begin to get a buildup of these fine particles, it also happens in regions of the country where there are coal powered electric plants. Any kind of fossil fuel combustion emits this kind of soot into the air."

HOBAN: The locations Kaufman examined had average levels of these particulate ranging from 4–25 micrograms per cubic meter.

KAUFMAN: "We found that women who lived in areas with higher levels of air pollution had a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In fact for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in fine particulate matter, there was a 76 percent increase in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease after you adjust for all the other things, like blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, educational attainment and so forth."

HOBAN: Kaufman says they expected to find increased risk, but the magnitude of the findings was a surprise.

KAUFMAN: "This level of risk was substantially higher than we had expected. And we did a lot of work to make the effect go away, we did lots of additional analysis to see if there was some quirk in the data or something that was making some falsely elevated hazard estimates occur and, no matter what we did, the effect really persisted and we think that these are the right results."

HOBAN: Kaufman says the results suggest that public policy measures to improve air quality also could have substantial implications for human health. He says that reducing air pollution could also have the effect of reducing deaths from cardiovascular disease. The research appears in the New England Journal of Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.

The world's largest, most powerful particle accelerator - or atom-smasher, if you prefer - will begin operations later this year at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists believe the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, as it's called, will help them answer questions about the origin of the universe. The collider is 27 kilometers in circumference, straddling the French-Swiss border near Geneva, buried as deep as 150 meters underground. Lisa Schlein visited the site and filed this report.

JENNI: "So let me first introduce myself. I'm Peter Jenni. I'm the, what we call the spokesperson of the experiment, which means the project leader. There are four experiments being installed now at this collider. Two major ones called Atlas and CMS. We are visiting the Atlas experiment."

SCHLEIN: A group of visitors, wearing fire-engine-red helmets, takes an elevator deep underground. From there, the group follows Peter Jenni up creaky stairs to dizzying heights. Engineers and technicians are installing a massive detector, about the height of a six-story building. Jenni explains how it works.

JENNI: "You see this tube coming out. That is the connection to the tunnel. The beam pipe which goes through this hole in the middle of this device which you see there, and then the particles will collide in the center of this detector of this cylinder, barrel cylinder, which is 26 meters long."

SCHLEIN: When it is completed, the LHC will accelerate two beams of protons in opposite directions around a circular track. Jenni says the protons will move at nearly the speed of light.

JENNI: "40 million times a second two bunches cross. So it's boom, boom, boom, boom — 40 million times a second."

SCHLEIN: The beams that are injected into the LHC will travel through a vacuum guided by super-conducting magnets operating at extremely cold temperatures near absolute zero. Each beam will consist of nearly 3,000 bunches, with each bunch containing as many as 100 billion particles. When head-on collisions occur, they will produce a shower of new particles. But the most interesting new particles will be very rare events.

There are four major experiments. The two biggest ones, Atlas and CMS, are general-purpose experiments. The others, Alice and LHCb, are smaller and more specialized. But all, in different ways, will seek to reveal nature's secrets.

Through the collisions, scientists aim to recreate the conditions that existed at the time of the Big Bang, when the universe was born. French physicist Yves Schutz works at the Alice Experiment. He says everything happened in the Big Bang.

SCHULZ: "The universe and whatever is in the universe has been created in the Big Bang. So there are several approaches. One is to find what were all these particles which do not exist today anymore, but which existed at the origin and which contributed to the creation of the universe. What Alice is trying to do is to recreate the environment in which the universe was and to study what was the nature of matter at this early time of our universe."

SCHLEIN: CERN has been working on the $8 billion LHC for about two decades. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers from some 60 countries are involved in the project. Equipment is being built in many European countries, as well as places such as Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States, which has contributed half a billion dollars to the project. Even political rivals China and Taiwan, and India and Pakistan, find scientific common ground collaborating with each other on the Large Hadron Collider.

Physicists believe the LHC will uncover a long-sought new [subatomic] particle called the Higgs boson. Spokesman for the CMS experiment, Jim Virdee, says it could hold the answer to why sub-atomic particles have weight or mass.

VIRDEE: "Our goal is that we have to build a unified theory of physics. What does that mean? That means there is a single theory, which explains all physical phenomena that we observe in our universe, all of them. Gravity you are very familiar with. Electromagnetism you are very familiar with. The conjecture is in the early universe, at the point of the Big Bang, there was no difference. You could not tell the difference between gravity and electromagnetism. They behave quite differently at our end, in our every day world and they have very different behavior. But in the early universe, they probably acted - we couldn't tell the difference."

SCHLEIN: The LHC is set to start operations in November. But physics results are not expected before the machine gets up to speed in early summer of 2008.

The LHC is expected to produce frontier physics for about 10 years. But scientists already are discussing the next generation of accelerator to be built. The scientific community generally agrees the LHC's successor will be a giant linear electron-positron collider, about 30 kilometers in length. Competition among CERN, the United States and Japan to win the rights to build the machine is intense. Lisa Schlein for VOA News, Geneva.

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 begin our eighth year on ... Our World.

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