Accessibility links

Our World — 31 March 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," Climate change and rising sea levels ... a science museum highlights infectious disease ... and the challenges faced by women in science.

DEAN: "Encourage them. Give them positive reinforcement to say, 'Yes, you can do it. You can move ahead.' There is no conflict at all between being a women and being a scientist."

Those stories, a new kind of beat on your iPod, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Two months after an authoritative United Nations report on climate change projected rising sea levels and more intense storms, a new study has identified the regions and people at greatest risk in global warming. As VOA's David McAlary reports, more areas are potentially vulnerable than commonly thought.

McALARY: Census figures and satellite imagery tell a story of swelling populations along coastal regions that are expected to flood and experience more violent cyclones because of climate change.

Using the data, the International Institute for Environment and Development in London has released a study showing that exposed low lying coastal zones 10 meters or less above sea level contain 10 percent of all humanity — 634 million people — although they make up just two percent of the world's land area.

BALK: "Coastal areas are disproportionately urban and coastal areas are disproportionately dense."

McALARY: Demographer Deborah Balk of the City University of New York is a co-author of the study.

BALK: "The urban areas in those coastal systems are both larger and more of the system is dedicated to urban areas than we would find in dry lands or in forests, for example.

McALARY: Balk says the 16 island nations are not the only places threatened by predicted sea-level rise. The study shows that nearly two-thirds of all cities with more than five million people are at least partly in the 10 meter coastal zone, including Shanghai, China; Mumbai (Bombay), India; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Cotonou, Benin. In fact, 75 percent of people in the zone are Asians because of the nature of the continent's geography and its large population, but parts of every inhabited continent are affected.

Balk says the population in this coastal zone will continue to increase, especially in Asia.

BALK: "Most of the growth we will see in Asia is not going to be in rural areas, but will be in urban areas. So that will further exacerbate this issue because the cities are already located in these low elevation coastal zones."

McALARY: The study appears in the April issue of the journal "Environment and Urbanization" and is unique in the way it defines coastal zones. Its focus on regions 10 meters or less above sea level contrasts with previous research that looked at areas within certain distances from the coast. The authors say their standard is a more accurate way to measure who is most at risk from rising oceans and stronger cyclones.

The study says easing climate change is the best means to deal with the problem, but adds there is not enough time for that to be the only solution. Migration away from the lowest elevation coastal zones is part of their answer. They recognize how costly, difficult, and disruptive this would be, but point out that small population shifts to higher ground can be important.

They also recommend coastal management that avoids policies, like China's, which favor coastal development to encourage exports.

BALK: "This is a call to policymakers to be more active in thinking about settlement incentives or local planning to protect certain systems."

David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Carbon dioxide is a leading greenhouse gas. It's a product of burning fossil fuels, whether gasoline or diesel in a car or truck, or coal burned in power plant, or a wood fire used for cooking.

Instead of drilling or digging, an alternative approach is to use living plants as a source of energy.

Ethanol is one example that's already in widespread use in certain areas. It's typically produced from sugar cane or corn. But the process is inefficient and expensive, and using edible crops provides fuel at the expense of the food supply.

Chris Somerville of Stanford University has been studing plant cells with an eye toward more use of biomass as a fuel source.

SOMERVILLE: "It turns out there are a number of plants that are capable of capturing and storing up to two percent of incident solar energy on an annualized basis. So from a theoretical basis there's no doubt that we could meet all our energy needs in the long run through that approach."

As Somerville suggests, using fuel made from crops grown in sunlight is an indirect way of harnessing solar energy. Biofuels are appealing for lots of reasons, from energy independence to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Other plant material might be used, including the inedible parts of food crops, but Steven Chu of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California says unlocking their energy potential has been difficult, particularly as a replacement fuel for motor vehicles.

CHU: "And so the object is, how do you convert that biomass efficiently into some transportation fuel. So the challenge is, actually, how to grow, improve the plants for energy, and the bigger challenge — actually, the most immediate need — is how do you efficiently turn that into biofuels in a less energy-intensive way and a very muich more efficient way."

While some scientists are thinking of using chemistry to free the energy potential of plants, other are looking to nature for guidance.

Mel Simon of the California Institute of Technology says termites have evolved to turn wood and similar material into fuel for their own use. In fact, Simon says the termite gut looks like an industrial process for breaking down wood fibers..

SIMON: "They've got grinders at the front end. Then you go into another pre-gut, which operates at pH 10.5 or pH 11, so almost certainly it's processing the material. Then you go into the mid-gut, and there there's, I don't know how many, I think 400-500 different subspecies of bacteria...."

Biology, rather than chemistry, might be a more effective way of producing biofuels.

Simon also suggested an analogy between the emerging biofuels industry and the development of the plastics industry, which has seen a steady evolution of better products at lower costs.

SIMON: "And just last year, a new polyethelyene plant was built. And what happens is, over time, as the process begins, the costs are driven down by both engineering contributions, basic science contributions, and all of these kinds of discoveries."

Biofuels may be in their infancy, but Chris Somerville of Stanford noted that harnessing biofuels is an indirect way of tapping the vast resources delivered to Earth each day in the form of solar energy.

SOMERVILLE: "The reason is that we receive each year about 10,000 times as much energy from the Sun as all human energy needs. Therefore, you know, if we can just capture 1/10,000th of that, that would meet all human energy needs."

The scientists discussed the potential of biofuels at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

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

This time, it's an entertaining and informative and always-changing site with suggestions for making your life — especially the technology-related part of your life — more efficient.

PASH: "Lifehacker.com is a weblog that posts a lot of tips and tricks, software downloads, a lot of different recommendations of websites designed to save you time and boost your productivity."

Adam Pash is Senior Editor at Lifehacker.com.

I couldn't pin him down to the best or most typical of the Lifehacker recommendations. It's a varied lot. Some recent tips highlight the latest software from Google, the popular Internet search engine, suggest ways to save energy when using your electronic appliances, and explain how to get airline flight information on your mobile phone.

But not all of it is tech-related. Lifehacker.com recently ran tips about how to stop hiccups with sugar and how to fold cardboard to make furniture.

PASH: "Not every one is going to be for every person who reads the site. But the point is, we try to reach the broadest audience we possibly can with the best tips that we can."

And not just the editors' best tips — the site attracts plenty of user suggestions, too.

Now, there's a paradox here. The goal of Lifehacker is to help you save time and boost your productivity. But the site is so lively and entertaining, that you run the risk of (dare I say) wasting more time here than you might actually save. So to cut through the clutter there's a search function and items are tagged with categories like cell phone or community, and you can subscribe to RSS feeds for only the information you're interested in.

PASH: "We do our best to make sure that everything is quality for the broadest audience possible for Lifehacker, but at the same time we offer our readers a lot of different ways to slice and dice the material so they only get what they want."

Daily hints for better living at Lifehacker.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Michelle Willson — "I Know How To Do It"

My productivity tip? Keep listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The Koshland Science Museum here in Washington, D.C., is turning the focus on infectious diseases — the microbes that cause them and the challenges they present — with a new exhibit marked by high-tech, interactive displays and backed by a serious science pedigree.

SHUGART: "We really draw a lot upon research scientists. So for our exhibits we start with a committee of scientists, and we bring them together with museum designers, and they work together to come up with the ideas."

Dr. Erika Shugart is curator of the new exhibit, and she stresses the rigorous fact-checking, which you would expect at a museum that's run by the National Academy of Sciences. But she also says they respond to popular interest.

SHUGART: "And we did poll our visitors, and infectious disease was one of those issues that people were interested about. They hear about bird flu and salmonella and e-coli in the news, and they're curious and they want to know more. And then we also pick areas of ongoing scientific research. We really want there to be cutting edge, interesting research that we can pull upon for the exhibits."

The infectious diseases exhibit includes conventional static displays with informational text and videos on large-format screens, such as this one about the challenge of developing an AIDS vaccine.

VIDEO: "HIV is unique among infectious diseases because of its genetic diversity, its destruction of immune system cells, and its ability to remain latent inside cells for years before being activated to create new viruses that spread throughout the body."

But perhaps even more interesting are the interactive presentations, where museum visitors can try different ways to prevent an epidemic and see how effective they are.

For example, a member of the exhibit's scientific steering committee, Diane Griffin of Johns Hopkins University, stands at an interactive console and explains how different approaches can be combined to curtail the spread of malaria in Namawala, Tanzania.

GRIFFIN: "You can choose one or more of these interventions, so we've just chosen bed nets, and you punch another button, and it'll show you how malaria will spread in a situation where there are only bed nets that are used."

The results, which appear house-by-house on an animated video display, follow a sophisticated mathematical model of how different approaches work in controlling the disease. In this case, it takes me some trial and error to learn that it's only when drugs and spraying are used, in addition to bed nets, that this malaria outbreak can be controlled.

Over at another interactive display, visitors can see how different vaccination programs can affect the progression of influenza, again using computer models that project the course of an epidemic, this time in Chicago. It turns out that by vaccinating less than two-thirds of the population, the epidemic is virtually halted.

Bryan Grenfell of Penn State University — another scientist on the steering committee — says it's an illustration of herd immunity: the idea that if you are surrounded by vaccinated people, you are less likely to become infected, even if you are not yourself vaccinated. The display has two graphs. The one on the right shows that almost a million people would become infected if no one got vaccinated.

GRENFELL: "If you keep an eye on the left-hand graph now, it actually plateaus —"
CHIMES: "Yeah, 76 people, only."
GRENFELL: "And that's because there's enough direct and indirect protection here to mean that the infection isn't going to spread in the population. So that's achieved herd immunity in the population. And this is just talking about infections at the moment, but it's an illustration of the indirect plus the direct effects of vaccination."

There's much more — for example, how bacteria develop resistance to drugs. And if you can't get to Washington, there's an online version of the exhibit at the museum's website, Koshland-science.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

Fighting infectious disease requires a mix of cutting-edge science, like anti-AIDS medicines, and low-tech equipment, like bed nets to curb the spread of malaria.

We may be in an era of high-tech medicine, but if you had to name one tool doctors use most often, it might well be the humble stethoscope.

Though it's been around for almost two centuries now, using the stethoscope to listen to the sounds of the body, particularly the heart and lungs, is still one of the most important skills a new doctor learns.

But Dr. Michael Barrett of Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia has some issues with the way stethoscope skills are taught — for example, to identify different types of heart murmurs.

BARRETT: "The traditional way is to give a lecture and then to play about 15 or 20 beats of each murmur as a sample and then say, oh you'll learn this next year. And the fact of the matter is they don't learn it next year. That's the problem."

Barrett says that brief exposure is not enough. In studies using medical students, Barrett found out that they had to hear the distinctive sound of each kind of murmur hundreds of times for it to be, shall we say, burned into the brain.

BARRETT: "I actually began with a group of students, where I played it, first 100 times, and I tested them. And then 200 and 300. When I got to 500 they all got it."

To get that repetition, Barret recorded lessons for portable audio players more often used for listening to music on the go.

BARRETT: "This murmur is high-pitched and blowing in character. Listen to a patient with mitral regurgitation. I will start with three normal beats and then add the murmur."

That's part of the stethoscope lesson doctors listened to on their iPods. In a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Colege of Cardiology, Dr. Barrett found that internists — doctors who are not heart specialists — doubled their accuracy in identifying the correct type of heart murmur after only a single, 90-minute listening session.

Although he used portable MP3 players to reinforce the audio signature of the various heart murmurs, Barrett says it's the repetition that matters, not the source.

BARRETT: "Exactly. Any good audio source. The iPod is popular because you can carry it with you, which means you can learn anywhere you want. You can learn while you're working out, while you're commuting. You don't have to sit in a classroom. You don't even have to have a patient present to learn."

Heart specialists are presumably already pretty well skilled at using stethoscopes, but Dr. Michael Barrett says this kind of training could be very helpful to general practitioners as well as nurses and medical technicians.

Finally today, the National Science Foundation has released its bi-annual report on the progress that women and other under-represented groups are making in science and engineering. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the study finds that while women have made some gains in the classroom and the workplace over the last two years, they still have a way to go to reach parity with men in higher-level professional positions.

SKIRBLE: Donna Dean was the first in her family to go to college. Inspired by a high school science teacher, she studied chemistry. Since getting a PhD in the field in 1974, Dean has held many jobs. She taught at Princeton University, worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was the senior science advisor for the National Institutes of Health, the center for U.S. health research. She is now a science policy advisor at a private firm that promotes the interests of research and education.

Dean is also president of the Association for Women in Science, an advocacy group she first joined as a college student. She says the educational landscape for women in science has changed dramatically since her college days.

DEAN: "You certainly see more women who are obtaining science degrees. In fact in the early 2001–2002 timeframe women in the U.S. got more than 50 percent of the science and engineering bachelor's degrees. Thirty years ago women in this country were not nearly 50 percent of the bachelor's degrees. In some fields it would have been less than one percent."

SKIRBLE: Women are far better represented in some fields than others, according to Joan Burelli, senior analyst with the National Science Foundation and author of the new report.

BURELLI: "They are heavily in psychology, also quite a bit in social sciences and also quite a bit in the biological sciences. And they are getting closer to half in fields like chemistry, earth sciences, but they are not in engineering, physics and computer science."

SKIRBLE: Burelli says women remain grossly under-represented in the computer science classroom even though jobs in computer science are expected to grow more than 40 percent by 2014.

BURELLI: "In 2004 women earned the same number of bachelors degrees in computer science that they did in 1985 and their share of computer science bachelor's degrees dropped from 37–25 percent."

SKIRBLE: Even with slight gains in other fields like engineering, Donna Dean says degrees in science often don't translate into jobs for women.

DEAN: "It's not unusual in many institutions if you look at engineering, computer science, chemistry and physics to find that women faculty may be the only women in their department."

SKIRBLE: Social pressures and federal laws have eliminated much of the sexual harassment and discrimination women in science once faced, but hurdles remain, from childcare to self-esteem.

DEAN: "Women are far more likely to be self-supporting themselves as they are moving through graduate school and their post doctoral work than men. While they may receive less encouragement in their math and science career, they also have a lower degree of self confidence."

SKIRBLE: Dean says the United States must cultivate the scientific and technical talents of all of its citizens. She calls for increased government funding for higher education, and mentors for women who want to gain assess to it.

DEAN: "Encourage them. Give them positive reinforcement to say, 'Yes, you can do it. You can move ahead. This is an important thing you should do. If you love science, find your pathway to continue. There is no conflict at all between being a women and being a scientist."

SKIRBLE: That's the advice Dean gave 34-year old Andrea Stith, who earned a doctorate in physics a few years ago and now works for a non-profit medical research group. Stith says Dean has been an important advocate and sounding board.

STITH: "You know, back me up when maybe I don't have full confidence in myself, but just knowing that I have someone that I can rely on to ask questions for when I am ready to make my next step and I am not quite sure that it [the next step] might not be the best thing to do knowing that I have somewhere to turn [for advice].

SKIRBLE: Stith is positive about her future. She hopes her job, as grants manager of educational programs in science will lead her to design and implement such programs on the federal level.

Her mentor Donna Dean says Stith is on the right track. But, she says, women like her need more help getting high level positions in academia, government and the private sector so that the workforce more closely mirrors the demographics of the country.

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments. 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. Felicia Butler 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.

XS
SM
MD
LG