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Our World — 24 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," educating students and the public about climate change ... illuminating the dangers of light pollution ... and saving endangered languages -- and a website that might help ...

WELCHER: "This could be used for the development of language teaching or language learning materials as well, and it just could provide a tremendous amount of information to reconstruct the language."

Those stories, maintaining your surgical chops by video gaming, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Last week at this time I was in San Francisco, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS, as its known, is the world's largest general science society. This year's theme was "science and technology for sustainable well-being."

Although the annual AAAS meeting covers a lot of ground, climate change was a common theme. The meeting came two weeks after the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that most global warming is "very likely" the result of human activity.

AAAS president John Holdren, himself an environmental scientist, stressed the importance of education in facing the challenges of climate change, as did Susan Solomon, who presented the U.N. climate change report earlier this month.

SOLOMON: "Yeah, I think it's extremely important to educate young people. It's also something that they're very interested in because, of course, it's something they can blame their parents for, and it's a fair question then to ask what kind of world they're going to live in and what they're being handed by their parents. So, certainly, education of young people is a high priority in my book."

In some places, it's easy to teach about climate change. In Shishmaref, a remote island community in western Alaska, students can see the effects of global warming first-hand.

BARR: "Hello, my name is Jamie Barr, and I live in Shishmaref. Living in the village, the ice is very important to us for hunting bearded seals and walrus. During the spring breakup, my uncles, brothers and other men travel on the ice, and now the ice is getting thinner, making it difficult for them to hunt. So our subsistence way of life is threatened. This is going to change our way of life that we've been living for over 3,000 years."

But for most kids, climate change is something they read about in textbooks. The trouble is, many schools are burdened by textbooks that may not reflect the latest scientific consensus. Textbooks often take several years to develop, and students will use them for several years after the books are purchased. Also, despite the scientific consensus, climate change remains a controversial topic in some quarters. The president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, John Whitsett, says publishers tend to avoid controversy.

WHITSETT: "With global warming, greenhouse effect, global climate change — all of these items are not dealt with to a great extent in most of the mainline textbooks, and it's in part because of the political pressures that have been put on in the past that in some cases don't make them very saleable in some parts of the country."

In some classrooms, teachers are using an interactive exercise called Stabilization Wedges, developed at Princeton University. The wedges are a visual stand-in for steps taken to avoid the continued increase in the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. One wedge might represent more fuel-efficient cars; another might represent nuclear energy. Using wind or solar power might be another choice, and each choice has its tradeoffs. Roberta Hotinski led some 500 scientists, educators, and others — everyone with a wireless voting device — through the exercise. In the first round, more than two-thirds agreed on their first choice

HOTINSKI: "So, increased efficiency, by a lot. Usually it comes up in the games. It's a popular, popular strategy. So now we've got one wedge of increased efficiency. Now that could mean really intense efforts in, say, doubling the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles or less intense efforts across transport, buildings, and efficiency."

In six more rounds of voting, the group chose a second round of energy efficiency, plus wind and solar energy, driving less, using natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity, ending deforestation and applying farming practices that cut carbon emissions from cropland.

There are really no right or wrong answers about how to reduce carbon emissions. The Stabilization Wedges game is about getting people to think about the challenge, as this audience member noted in the follow-up question-and-answer session.

WOMAN: "OK, first of all I want to thank you for the game. I think it really helped me to see what I'm personally willing to give up. And then also how we as a community, what we're willing to do as a community, not just as individuals."

Corporations, too, are getting on the climate change bandwagon. Many companies have been slow to respond, but as the scientific consensus becomes clear, corporate attitudes appear to be changing. VOA's Adam Phillips reports on a new plan to counter global warming, unveiled on Tuesday by a group of top scientists and business leaders.

PHILLIPS: At a New York news conference, a consortium of scientists and corporate leaders calling itself the Global Roundtable on Climate Change announced a landmark agreement on a plan of action for significantly curbing most greenhouse gas emissions over the next half-century. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute research center at Columbia University, led the Roundtable effort.

SACHS: "I found the most important facet of this roundtable is that, from the first day, the worldwide business community said 'we're ready to act!"

PHILLIPS: Indeed, the statement has been endorsed by some of the world's biggest corporations and energy organizations, including the World Petroleum Council, Allianz, DuPont, General Electric, Volvo, and Air France.

Together, these entities are now urging governments to set clear target levels for greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. They are also urging other steps to take effect when the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012.

But corporate executives say it is more than altruism or public relations considerations behind their new climate-change initiative. It's also good business, as well.

ORLANDO: "A corporation, like any other entity, needs to be sustainable for the long term and this is a long-term challenge that I think we face as a society."

PHILLIPS: Anthony Orlando is CEO of the Covanta Holding Corporation, a multi-billion dollar company that makes electricity out of garbage waste.

ORLANDO: "Today renewable energy from geothermal, solar, wind, biomass and waste — excluding hydro — represents about two percent of all of the energy in this country. If we were to take all of the waste in this country, which is 250 million tons every year that is buried in landfills, and we were instead to use that in plants like ours, it would double the amount of non-hydro renewable power in the country. I mean, that's a huge opportunity!"

PHILLIPS: Traditional coal-burning power plants are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. But Steven Corneli of NRG, one of America's largest power producers, says his firm is exploring a technology that takes the carbon dioxide out of coal before it's burned up at the power plant, without harming profitability.

CORNELI: "And the way that is done is to heat the coal up in a controlled atmosphere, which degrades it into combustible gases. And then the carbon dioxide can be chemically taken out of the gas stream to be captured. And the combustible portion of the gas is then run through a regular power generator and turned into electricity."

PHILLIPS: All major governments of the world will have to agree to the Roundtable's recommendations in order for its guidelines to be effective — especially large developing nations such as India and China. Both countries have been reluctant to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in their booming economies and have cast the United States, the largest producer of those emissions, as the sole actor responsible for the cleanup effort. Economist Jeffrey Sachs says that that strategy must change.

SACHS: "And the fact of the matter is that while the rich world, including the United States, does a disproportionate amount of the emissions, the developing world as a whole will soon overtake the developed countries in terms of the sheer tonnage of carbon dioxide being put into the air. There is no solution to this problem except the rich world and the developing world getting together to agree on a strategy."

PHILLIPS: No one underestimates the political and diplomatic hurdles involved in creating a comprehensive post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. But Jeffrey Sachs is confident that, given the stakes involved, all nations will ultimately get on board. For Our World, I'm Adam Phillips in New York.

Getting back to the American Association for the Advancement of Science ... One of the attractions of the annual AAAS meeting is that it gathers top people in all walks of science. The seminars and presentations span a breathtaking range of interests, from the future of nuclear energy to more sustainable fishery management to the mind-altering qualities of chocolate ... and those were just some of the offerings at 8:30 on Sunday morning.

One of the meetings that caught my interest was a symposium on revitalizing endangered languages. Did you know there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth? Experts say about half of them are endangered, meaning only a small and declining number of often elderly people speak the language. It's estimated that more languages became extinct in the 20th century than at any other time in history.

For scientists, the loss of a language represents a very real loss of knowledge, such as knowledge about plants that could be turned into life-saving medicines. Many plant and animal species around the world remain unknown to Western science.

David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania said saving endangered languages could help scientists harness human knowledge that might otherwise be lost.

HARRISON: "Vast domains of knowledge about meteorology, mathematics, weather cycles, plant and animal behavior, how to domesticate plants and animals, how to control genetic stocks exists, it is out there, it is fragile, it is very rapidly eroding."

When a language goes, so does culture. The Miami are a native people that once thrived in the American Midwest. Three centuries ago their Myaamia language was widely spoken. But the language began to die out and had become essentially extinct by the 1960s as the Miami people became more assimilated in mainstream America. The language had been well documented, though, and Daryl Baldwin and his Myaamia Project have been working to revitalize both the language and the culture it represents.

BALDWIN: "For communities that have been socially disrupted, the language provides an avenue by which they can mend and heal, because embodied in that language is a great deal of information about how we relate to each other and how we relate to our landscape. And so language revitalization has been incredibly enriching. And so the process, in and of itself, forces us as a community to begin to rebuild the damaged threads in the last 150 years of our history."

Revitalizing an endangered language is never easy. In Hawaii, the U.S. state that was an independent monarchy until 1893, the culture is strong, but the language has faced severe challenges, such as a law that prohibited teaching it in schools until two decades ago. William Wilson of the University of Hawaii says it is important to expose young Hawaiians to the language, and the subject now is taught to school children.

WILSON: "So that's increasing the numbers of speakers. In 1986, when we started, there were less than 50 children in all of Hawaii that could speak Hawaiian fluently. Now we have about 2,000 in our school system. More importantly, there are actually families that speak Hawaiian at home. And so we've started infant-toddler programs, where those children can come together before they go to preschool."

Over on the U.S. mainland, California has a great heritage of language diversity, with as many as a hundred native languages having been spoken there. Leanne Hinton of the University of California says one-on-one intensive programs can also help sustain threatened languages.

HINTON: "One of them is the master-apprentice language learning program, which pairs the last speakers of native languages with younger members of the tribe who want to learn it. And we teach them the fundamentals of language immersion, and they are supposed to spend 10 or 20 hours a week just living their lives together in the language and without recourse to English."

Despite efforts like these, indigenous and other minority languages will continue to be threatened, and many likely will die off. But aggressive programs can help ensure the survival of other languages, along with the knowledge and culture they embody.

Languages, endangered and robust, are the focus of our Website of the Week, our regular look at interesting and innovative online destinations.

The Rosetta Project is a growing collection of information on almost 2,400 languages so far, and it aims to be a comprehensive resource for linguists, students of language, and the general public:

WELCHER: "www.RosettaProject.org is a repository of the languages of the world: dictionaries; grammars, which are descriptions of different aspects of a language, like its sound system, how its sentences are formed; and also texts, so stories and conversations that are in the languages themselves."

At the AAAS meeting in San Francisco, Rosetta Project director Laura Welcher explained how the site works, using "Hindi" as a search term.

WELCHER: "It brings up the Hindi language page. You can find out the countries where it's spoken. You can find alternate names for it. It says it belongs to the Hindustani family of languages. You have a graphic showing you the region of the world in which the language is spoken."

They include countries from Belize to Zambia, where the Hindi-speaking diaspora has settled.

The Rosetta Project also collects documentation about languages — a Swahili grammar, for example, or an explanation of the Burmese alphabet. And recently, they have begun adding multimedia, such as this video of Tsu Justina, speaking the Naki language of Cameroon, explaining how she makes corn beer.

TSU JUSTINA (in Naki)

Laura Welcher says the multimedia files are an important addition to the Rosetta Project website.

WELCHER: "So this is an incredible artifact of this language, and this could be used for the development of language teaching or language learning materials as well, and it just could provide a tremendous amount of information to reconstruct the language."

There's much more to the Rosetta Project, including online discussion forums, at RosettaProject.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld

MUSIC: "In Any Language" - Arthur Lipner

You're listening to the English version of VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Okay, put away your X-Box and listen up while I tell you about gamer-turned-surgeon James Rosser. For many years, he wondered if his computer gaming improved his hand-eye coordination in the operating room. So he decided to test his idea. Health reporter Rose Hoban tells us what he learned.

HOBAN: Rosser is a surgeon at New York's Beth Israel Hospital. In fact, he's a laparoscopic surgeon, using special instruments inserted into small incisions in the body. Unlike traditional operations, where the doctor can see the surgical site directly, Rosser guides his instruments based on images he sees on video monitors that display pictures sent from inside the body over a fiber optic link.

ROSSER: "Video games require you to look at a video screen, and also laparoscopic surgery requires you to look at a video screen in order for you to accomplish all your tasks, and I think that is the common ground that they share.

HOBAN: Rosser surveyed 33 surgeons about their video game playing habits.

ROSSER: "We found out that people who had played at least 3 hours a week in the past, they were faster and they also committed fewer errors than the people who did not have any video game experience. And the people who were currently playing video games were also better than the ones not currently playing."

HOBAN: Rosser says video games could become a training tool to help laparoscopic surgeons become faster, more precise and more efficient. He says the data showed a strong correlation between video game skills and surgical efficiency:

ROSSER: "More so than age, gender, being left handed, right handed, number of cases previously performed and that was shocking to me."

HOBAN: Rosser says that in the United States, the average teenager plays 12–15 hours of video games a week. But surgical skills improved after only 3 hours a week of play. So Rosser says parents of teenagers can probably to tell them to cut back on the video games without worrying that they're stifling a future medical career. The study appears in Archives of Surgery. I'm Rose Hoban.

Finally today ... As populations and cities grow, our once pristine view of the stars is being whitewashed by urban glow. Astronomers are sounding the alarm, but biologists say light pollution also hurts wildlife development and possibly human health, too. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: Several years ago, U.S. and Italian scientists using satellite images created an atlas of metropolitan light emissions worldwide. Astronomer Malcolm Smith of the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in Chile says the images suggest billions of dollars worth of lost energy is flowing upward.

But Smith sees light pollution as a cultural issue as well as economic.

SMITH: "Culturally, mankind's association with the universe has stimulated his development of his cultures. There is a long history involving navigation, art, poetry — all kinds of things involving our connection with the universe we live in. That is being lost bit by bit."

McALARY: The brightening of the night also worries biologists, who say artificial lighting disrupts bird migration and the development and behavior of several other animals. At a recent Washington meeting of experts from several fields to discuss the night, evolutionary biologist Bryant Buchanan of Utica College in New York State cited studies showing that fewer frogs and salamanders metamorphose when the night sky is lighter, and pond snails do not grow as large as normal.

BUCHANAN: "Because all life on this planet has evolved under conditions with distinct day and night cycles. The metabolisms of organisms have evolved in response to those distinct day and night light cycles and are regulated by a number of hormones that are affected by light."

McALARY: Chief among them, says Buchanan, is melatonin, a hormone stimulated by darkness to play a key role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and cell division. Scientists say reduced melatonin production is a likely factor in the significantly higher cancer rates in night workers, and they propose that modern night lighting contributes to the larger incidence of some cancers in the industrial world.

There have been inroads against ever growing urban illumination. The International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona — a group that claims 3,600 members in 70 countries — says efforts to curb excess light are underway from the Australian Outback to Britain's Sherwood Forest. Laws have also been enacted in Chile, thanks to persuasive astronomers who staff the three big observatories there.

International Dark Skies Association co-founder, U.S. amateur astronomer Tim Hunter, says controls in Tucson near the Kitt Peak National Observatory have been effective.

HUNTER: "The amount of light that hangs over the city that affects Kitt Peak has not really increased over the last number of years, even though the city has grown."

McALARY: Hunter's partner in the dark skies group, astronomer David Crawford, says the organization is working with industry to improve lighting. He cites technological advances such as light-emitting diodes. They run cool and save energy, but can also be night-friendly because they project light only where directed.

Crawford says local governments and utilities have also begun to incorporate dimming controls in highway lighting.

CRAWFORD: "Don't overlight, because if you overlight, you are actually ruining the eye's adaptation and wasting a lot of energy. So use the right amount of light. So you need different levels in the center of New York City or a Washington street than you do out in the country, where you may not need it at all."

Crawford's motto is Preserve the Night. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

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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