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Our World — 4 August 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A preview of next week's space shuttle launch ... World Breastfeeding Week ... and math meets psychology to create musical illusions

DEUTSCH: "You can hear a scale that goes up and up and never returns to the beginning, or it can appear to be going down and down all the time and never returning to the beginning."

Those stories, a new clue in the mystery of sudden infant death, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

On Tuesday, the space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to take off on another construction mission to the International Space Station.

Endeavour is the youngest vehicle in the shuttle fleet, and this will be its first flight in five years. It was a replacement for Challenger, the ill-fated spacecraft that exploded in 1986 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board.

One of the Challenger victims was a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe.

Her backup was Barbara Morgan, then a teacher, who joined the astronaut corps in 1998, and she'll be flying this week on Endeavour. At a news conference recently she was asked about the message she'll be bringing to students as an astronaut-educator.

MORGAN: "What I would like them to do is take a good look, again, at themselves and their own curiosities and what they want to know and learn, and I look forward to our students looking with pride at their own teachers and all that they do to help them get ready for the future."

Morgan will be doing some lessons while in orbit, and in addition to their construction duties, the astronauts will keep busy with other things, too. Canadian mission specialist Dave Williams, who is a medical doctor, said one experiment he'll be doing involves testing saliva for the presence of latent viruses, which might help scientists understand how those inactive viruses become active.

WILLIAMS: "Perhaps, then, we can take that knowledge to the clinical environment and for patients who have problems with shingles, be able to detect it early on in the saliva and then treat them prophylactically with medications before they actually get a severe infection. So I think that's a clear demonstration of one of the spinoffs of the space medical research to the clinical environment."

This week shuttle technicians dealt with a leaky valve as they prepared for a launch scheduled for early Tuesday evening, Florida time. Assuming technical issues are resolved, weather is always a concern during the summer, when thunderstorms are common, particularly late in the day.

Some years back a television commercial asserted that "without chemistry, life itself would be impossible." Well, that's obviously true since everything, including you and me, is made of chemicals. The ad campaign, by a chemical company, was a clever attempt to get people to think more positively about chemicals ... and the chemical industry. As essential as plastics and pharmaceuticals and other chemical creations are to modern life, we tend to consider them pollutants. But can chemical products be made in a more environmentally-responsible way? Reporter Reid Frazier visited a chemist who is one of the pioneers in a movement known as 'green chemistry.'

FRAZIER: This room looks and sounds like a chemical lab anywhere in the world. Trays full of vials sit atop machines with blinking lights. Notebooks filled with hand-written numbers sit next to computer screens. But this isn't a typical chemistry lab.

Evan Beach is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He works at the Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, or Green Ox. Beach is analyzing wastewater from a pulp and paper mill:

BEACH: "We try and work with as close to the real pollution as we can. We actually have the paper mill ship the stuff to us."

FRAZIER: Beach is working on a chemical that he hopes will clean up the wastewater before it hits rivers and streams.

The Green Ox lab is run by Terry Collins. His career as a green chemist started as a college student in his native New Zealand. He worked during summers at a plant that made refrigerators. One summer, he discovered that workers using a cleaning agent were all getting sick.

COLLINS: "Just in lunch with them I'd hear about their headaches and their blood noses and I realized, my goodness, they're using an awful lot of these organic solvents, and if there's any benzene there, these are signature benzene intoxication conditions, early stage."

FRAZIER: Collins calculated the workers were getting slowly poisoned by benzene, a chemical that's known to cause cancer. He told company officials about it and they promised to replace it.

COLLINS: "So I went a way, nine months later, I felt an obligation I went back and checked they had made no change, so I went and I got every paper I could and I took it and dropped it on the chief chemist and I can still remember his jaw hitting the floor when I opened the door and gave it to him. And I then tried to get the institute of chemistry to help and they told me not to even bother going to the health department, that they wouldn't help, and they were probably right, and I just felt immensely frustrated by the situation."

FRAZIER: After this experience, Collins decided to focus his research on reducing the harm caused by modern chemicals. He started designing a chemical catalyst in the 1980s. When combined with hydrogen peroxide, the catalyst eats through long chains of harmful chemicals. It could potentially clean up the paper, textile, and plastics industries. It could also curb pollution found in almost every home in America — the water coming out of your tap.

COLLINS: "If you have a glass of water in most American cities you get some Prozac and you get many other things as well that come from the pharmaceutical industry."

FRAZIER: The drugs can be found in trace amounts in tapwater. Their effect on human health is still unknown. But these drugs are being flushed into the environment and they don't break down easily. Once they enter rivers and streams, these chemicals can last for decades. Scientists believe they might be affecting fertility in some animals. Collins and his colleagues believe the catalyst they're developing could break down these drugs once they hit the environment.

Some believe all chemists should take a more holistic look at the compounds they make. Sasha Ryabov is a physical chemist who works in Collins' lab. He worked as a traditional chemist at Moscow State University in his native Russia. Ryabov converted to green chemistry when he came to Green Ox. Since he made the switch, he thinks that all chemists should consider themselves green:

RYABOV: "It's not the future field, as I told you. It's a natural part that cannot be separated. The green chemistry we are thinking should be part of chemistry as a whole."

FRAZIER: While academics like Collins are forging new grounds in their field, some big companies have started to follow suit by using more environmentally-friendly products. One hitch is that the federal government provides little funding for research in the field. A bill before congress could boost funding for green chemistry. Regardless of funding, Collins says all chemists must do their part to address some of the problems their discipline has helped create:

COLLINS: "If you're a chemist, and you have this information, it's a burden to carry. But we have to deal with it, we have no choice; we have to look after the children of future generations."

For the sake of those future generations, Collins hopes more chemists see the value of taking the long view when they're in the laboratory. For the Environment Report, this is Reid Frazier.

The Environment Report is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their email address is feedback@environmentreport.org.

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

One of the great advantages of the World Wide Web is that resources which once occupied whole libraries are now available at the click of a mouse. Take the dictionary. Or in the case of this week's Website of the Week, shelf after virtual shelf of dictionaries.

LOVE: "It's a free online dictionary, which gives you definitions, thesaurus, spelling, pronunciation of words, etymology, and so forth. And then we have a whole language portal, which has thousands of links to other dictionaries including over 200 languages and hundreds of different vocational dictionaries and things like that."

Howard Love is CEO of the parent company of YourDictionary.com. It starts out with one of the most authoritative guides to American English, the American Heritage Dictionary, including spoken pronunciation guidance.

"Spoken pronunciation guidance."

Like that. But it's a also a gateway to regular dictionaries in over 200 languages that provide definitions on the one hand and also translation between, say, Kurdish and Swedish. I like some of the specialty references, like the Russian modern art glossary and the list of Arabic oilfield related terms. Love says there is added value in having all these varied word references in one place.

LOVE: "It allows people to easily browse and compare. So for example, we've got, I don't know, ten links to Danish grammar. Our users like it because they can kind of compare and contrast. And they may be dictionaries that are not easily found through typical search engines."

Beyond the dictionaries, there are other word-related features including puzzles, information on endangered languages, and
more —

LOVE: "For example, the 100 most often misspelled words in the English language. In fact, often people misspell the word "misspell." You know, I think that's a real gem and there's another one and that's the 100 most often mispronounced words."

Those and many other great features all about words and languages at YourDictionary.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Hot Lips Page — "Now You're Talking My Language"

We speak your language here at VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Doctors estimate that one out of every 1,000 babies around the world dies of a condition called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It is a parent's worst nightmare: the baby goes to sleep and never wakes up. While the cause is still unknown, some doctors have found a common symptom among one group of babies who died of SIDS. VOA's Melinda Smith has details.

SMITH: Sudden infant death usually occurs in the first six months of life. Doctors say most of the babies are found sleeping on their stomach or side. One study in 2006 found abnormalities in the brain that influenced breathing, temperature and ability to wake up.

Researchers recently looked at medical records of 31 babies in the U.S. state of Rhode Island who had died of SIDS. Matching them against data of other similarly healthy babies, they discovered that the crib death infants all had consistently lower hearing in their right ear.

Dr. Daniel Rubens of Children's Hospital in Seattle, Washington, is one of the study's authors.

RUBENS: "I had a hunch. And then you look in the inner ear and you know, yes, look! There's something here."

SMITH: All of the babies in the study had had a simple, inexpensive hearing test routinely done on newborns. It measures the signal-to-noise ratio of the inner ear with three frequencies. Each of the affected babies scored four points lower on the test.

Researchers believe the inner ear has microscopic hairs that send messages to the brain. The doctors also theorize that the hair cells tell the brain how much carbon dioxide is in the blood. If the cells are damaged, breathing could be interrupted.

The study may eventually lead to further research about the functions of a baby's inner ear. Dr. Gerald Laughlin of New York's Weill Cornell Medical College is not involved in the study. He is more cautious about the findings.

LAUGHLIN: "It's way too early for parents to be focusing on these subtle differences. There have been lots of suggested markers for SIDS that have not panned out when subjected to closer studies at a later date."

SMITH: The researchers say the work opens up a whole 'new line of inquiry into SIDS research.' The research was published in the journal Early Human Development. Melinda Smith, VOA News.

This is World Breastfeeding Week, and the United Nations Wednesday said breastfeeding newborns immediately after birth could save lives.

A new study in Ghana indicates that up to 22 percent of neonatal deaths (deaths in the first month of life) could be prevented if breastfeeding begins within one hour of birth.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where infant mortality is higher than anywhere else, breastfeeding has doubled since 1990, according to UNICEF, but still only 30 percent of infants are getting breast milk. Starting breastfeeding early is critical because, as UNICEF director Ann Veneman points out, more than one-third of child deaths occur during the first month of life.

And nutrition expert Randa Saadeh of the World Health Organization says breast milk is best for babies.

SAADEH: "This is all that the child needs. It's like the first immunization., the first shot you give the baby. It has all the immunological factors that could save and protect the neonate, the newborn, from infectious disease — mainly diarrheal disease and acute respiratory infections."

Many HIV-positive mothers fear transmitting the AIDS virus to their newborn if they breastfeed, but UNICEF experts say bottle feeding may be riskier to the baby's health, mostly because of the use of contaminated water.

While experts say breast milk is the perfect food for babies everywhere, it's especially important in areas where access to clean water and sanitation is limited. The WHO estimates the lives of 1.3 million children under age five could be saved each year if they were breast-fed only for the first six months.

The Dutch artist M.C. Escher was famous for his optical illusions. In his lithograph called "Ascending and Descending," people seem to climb up and up a set of stairs, but they keep returning to the same level where they started. He uses tricks of perspective to create a convincing optical illusion. But what about a musical illusion? Could someone design a musical scale that always seems to be going up in pitch but also goes all the way around to the beginning? As VOA's Adriana Salerno reports, someone could, and did.

SALERNO: Diana Deutsch conducts research on the perception and memory of sounds. Some of this has inspired her to develop musical illusions, tricking people's ears in the same way artist M.C. Escher tricked people's eyes.

Deutsch, a psychologist from the University of California in San Diego says that musical pitch can be thought of as linear, going from low to high, like the keys of a piano:

DEUTSCH: "On the other hand pitch also has a circular component which is acknowledged in note names so as you go up a keyboard you go C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E and so on then you get to A, A sharp, B then you get to C again and continue C sharp, D, D sharp, E and so on, so you go round and round a circle at the same time."

SALERNO: And every time the notes start repeating again, like from one C to the next, we have gone up an octave in pitch.

Building upon research by Roger Shepard and Jean-Claude Risset, Deutsch found a way to build a "staircase" of musical tones that seems to both go up without end, and just like in Escher's illusion, they appear to never go up to another octave. By changing the harmonics of each tone, Deutsch had in effect, turned a linear musical scale into a circle.

DEUTSCH: "A musical tone that is produced by a natural instrument is actually a combination of a lot of different tones, which are called harmonics or overtones, and you can number them in order of frequency so you can number them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. So if you take the odd-numbered harmonics, so numbers 1, 3, and 5, and reduce them in loudness so that you end up with harmonics 2, 4, and 6, you end up perceiving the same note but an octave higher, and that forms the basis of this illusion."

SALERNO: Deutsch started with the G sharp that one would find in the middle of a piano keyboard, and as she descended note-by-note, she would lower the volume of the odd-numbered harmonics, until she got to A, which now sounded like it was an octave higher — just above the G sharp she started with — like in the example we heard before. Here it is again:

After modifying the volume of the odd-numbered harmonics, Deutsch had a set of twelve tones. She played all the possible pairs of tones to her students and asked them to write down, for each pair, whether they were going up or down in pitch. They sounded like this.

The student listeners confirmed that changing the harmonics effectively created the musical illusion of a never-ending scale, even though it circled around to its starting point at the end of every octave.

DEUTSCH: "So when these tones are played just going up, note by note, you can hear what sounds like a scale that goes up and up and up and never returns to the beginning. or it can appear to be going down and down and down all the time and never returning to the beginning."

SALERNO: The scales appear to always be going up or down, and we can tell, if we play the first tones and the last tones, that we really never left the octave:

Deutsch also developed two gliding scales, where the notes go up or down smoothly.

These seemed to have a psychological impact on listeners:

DEUTSCH: "People have been saying that listening to the ascending glide makes them feel sort of uplifted."

SALERNO: A descending scale had a different effect:

DEUTSCH: "I've played this to groups of students and I've found, after they've been listening to this descending pattern that they seem to be kind of nodding and they have their eyes closed and you can tell that they're feeling themselves sort of going down and down and down as though into a bottomless pit."

SALERNO: Deutsch says she would like to explore these effects on people's moods more closely.

Diana Deutsch says that coming up with illusions is fascinating and fun, but she also believes that her research helps scientists understand how the brain processes musical pitch. Her new results were presented for the first time August 1st at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, in Montreal.

The psychologist says she wants to continue exploring how the human mind understands music and perhaps, in the process, find new and fun ways to keep tricking our ears. I'm Adriana Salerno.

Finally, today, professors at the University of Texas have devoted some serious research effort to the question of why people have sex.

Really.

They're not the first. One previous academic study found seven reasons for having sex. But in Texas they do things in a big way, and Dr. David Buss and his colleagues came up with 237 different reasons, and then they asked a group of mostly university students to rank them.

The top three for both men and women: "I was attracted to the person," "I wanted to experience the physical pleasure," and "it feels good."

Some of the others we like: "it was a special occasion" and "I wanted to increase the emotional bond" with my partner, and my favorite, "the person had beautiful eyes."

Some of most unsavory were, fortunately, also some of the most uncommon — having sex for money or drugs, to get a job or a raise or a promotion, or even to hurt someone.

A few of them even mentioned something about having sex to have a baby. I wonder where they got that idea.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments or your science questions. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus 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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