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Our World — 13 October 2007


Straight ahead on "Our World" ... This year's Nobel Peace Prize highlights the challenge of climate change ... women in science ... and the consumer appeal of antibacterial soaps ...

SANSONI: "They are used safely and effectively by millions of people every day. Consumers should continue to use these products with confidence."

But some scientists aren't so sure. Those stories, our Website of the Week and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

A group of scientists associated with the United Nations, and an American politician turned unlikely movie star are the winners of this year's Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the climate change issue.

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 is to be shared in two equal parts between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore, Jr., for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change."

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore brought huge public attention to global warming with his Academy Award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of some 2,000 scientists, has issued a series of reports showing an emerging consensus that human activity is warming the planet, and recommending ways to address the problem.

The Nobel citation noted that climate change may "induce large-scale migration and competition for the earth's resources," which could result in "increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."

Earlier this week, the winners of the three Nobel Prizes in the sciences were announced.

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to three scientists "for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells." By modifying mouse genes, they paved the way for genetic research that has provided a window on basic biology and helped find cures for disease. In fact, as the Karolinska Institute's press release said, "gene targeting has now been used by so many research groups and in so many contexts that it is impossible to make a brief summary of the results."

Sir Martin Evans of Britain, and two Americans — British-born Oliver Smithies and Italian-born Mario Capecchi — share the prize.

Dr. Capecchi spoke with reporters at the University of Utah, where his lab is located, and described the award-winning research.

CAPECCHI: "What the lab has accomplished is the ability to change a gene in a living mammal. We can alter any gene in the mouse. And where its use comes in is that many, many diseases are caused by genes. And so this allows us, then, to model any particular disease in a mouse, use it (that mouse) as a vehicle to study the pathology, and then finally be able to then turn around and use that same vehicle, once you understand the disease, to develop new therapies."

Dr. Lorris Betz, the executive dean of the University of Utah medical school, said the discovery has given researchers the ability to understand the role of genes in human development.

BETZ: "That astounding breakthrough opened the door for scientists worldwide to create animal models for studying hundreds of disease that debilitate and kill millions of people."

In addition to his extraordinary scientific work, Capecchi has a backstory worthy of Hollywood. As a child in Italy during World War II, he was separated from his mother, an anti-fascist poet who was shipped off to a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. He lived for a while with a peasant family, but ended up on the streets. He survived, and when the war ended his mother spent a year searching for him before she found him in a hospital near Bologna. Their reunion came on his ninth birthday.

This year's Nobel Prize in physics went to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grünberg of Germany, whose work has made a tremendous contribution to modern computer technology. They discovered a property they called giant magnetoresistance, which allows hard drives to cram more and more data into every square centimeter of disk.

And Gerhard Ertl of Germany was named winner of the chemistry prize for his work on understanding how chemical reactions take place on solid surfaces. It's an area of chemistry that stretches from the catalytic converters that clean up car exhausts to fuel cells that power spacecraft.

There were no women among the winners of this year's Nobel science prizes. Although many women have risen to the top ranks in science and engineering, many disciplines — especially in the physical sciences — have remained solidly-male bastions.

The question is, is it because of sex discrimination, or preference, or innate ability? Many scientists don't see any significant gender differences that would explain the disparity. Among them is Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University. In her lab she tests very young children for skills that represent the kinds of thinking needed for careers in science. She finds that, in general, boys and girls do about the same.

SPELKE: "I think what we see is evidence that boys and girls are equally endowed with the core cognitive abilities at the root of science and mathematics and in light of those findings, we shouldn't be surprised by the statistics that show that today, girls and boys perform equally well in math and science subjects, both in high school and in college."

A report last year from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences supports Spelke's conclusion. It found that women were well-represented as students in many fields of science and engineering but were less likely to advance to senior faculty jobs at top universities. The report concluded that "women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering."

But not all scientists agree. Richard Haier of the University of California (Irvine Medical School) has been doing brain scans of men and women as they perform different tasks, and in his work he found functional differences in the way the brain works.

HAIER: "The harder the brain was working here in the men, the better they did on math. There was no such relationship in the women. The women were just as good [at] math; how they did it, according to this study, remains a mystery. We know almost nothing about whether sex differences in cognition — even where there are some, and in most places there aren't — but even where there are some, we know almost nothing about the brain."

The scientists spoke at a seminar organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank generally described as conservative. Also attending was British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University. He described a study in which boys and girls were given a variety of toys to play with. They were free to choose whatever toy they wanted. The boys tended to prefer Legos plastic construction blocks and toy vehicles; the girls liked dolls, and indeed created whole stories around them. These were young children, but perhaps they had been socially conditioned to choose what they thought were gender-appropriate toys. So Baron-Cohen said an experiment was done using vervet monkeys, with similar results:

BARON-COHEN: "The male monkeys spend more time pushing along these toy cars, and the female monkeys spend more time examining and interacting with these dolls, which just hints at the possibility that even though culture is important, it may be that biology is also an important factor to include."

Elizabeth Spelke, the Harvard researcher, acknowledges there are differences between males and females. But she says that shouldn't distract from the impact of cultural factors.

SPELKE: "One thing that I don't think anybody can disagree on is that there are biological differences between men and women. But we also know that cultural expectations and norms have an enormous influence on those choices. What people think of as possible lives for themselves is very influenced by what they see as appropriate, what they see as possible and open to them, and these are very open to change."

As we mentioned earlier, the National Academy of Sciences last year published a study on discrimination against women in the sciences, in particular in senior positions at top research universities. Donna Shalala, a former cabinet secretary under President Clinton and now president of Miami University, led the panel that prepared the report.

SHALALA: "I think it's not a lack of talent. There are unintentional biases, and some of them are held by women as well. It's very difficult for you to have a family and spend the kind of time in a laboratory that you need to spend. We have timelines on getting to tenure that may have nothing to do with the quality of your work. The most fundamental point is that we can't afford to underuse half of our human talent in our country."

Some areas of science — mechanical engineering, for example — remain overwhelmingly male. Women have done much better in medicine and the life sciences. And in one particular field, some three-quarters of students studying veterinary medicine are now women.

The Rugby World Cup is wrapping up this weekend in France. We don't normally do sports here on Our World. But we make an exception this time to hear about Grant Trewartha, who has been studying rugby players and found that effective kicking involves the arms as well as the legs. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: In research published in the journal Sports Biomechanics, Trewartha and colleagues at the University of Bath [in England] analyzed the role of the upper body in the kick.

TREWARTHA: "We found that systematic motions of the arms and quite liberal actions helped kickers in terms of the length of the kick and also the accuracy of the kick."

SKIRBLE: The scientists videotaped skilled players and then reconstructed three-dimensional images of their movements. The same motions have been observed in star kickers like England's Johnny Wilkinson. The arm opposite the kicking leg is thrown vigorously across the chest as the player's foot impacts the ball. Trewartha says this action not only gives velocity to the kick, but gets the whole body involved.

TREWARTHA: "It also controls the rotations of the body to make sure that the rest of the body — the trunk, the hips and the shoulders — are all facing the target and therefore increasing the chance of success."

SKIRBLE: Trewartha says the analysis can help players and coaches on any level.

TREWARTHA: "The next time that you go to kick a ball [think] about what you are doing with your whole body, rather than just where your kicking foot is going, because there's lots of mass up in the upper body and it certainly has an influence on the end result. So anything that you do with your arms or trunk will have an influence on where the ball ends up going."

SKIRBLE: But Trewartha admits that there's more than the mechanics of an arm swing in the secret to a good kick.

TREWARTHA: "It's about putting it all together and getting your timing right."

SKIRBLE: I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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

Most of the world's great museums have websites, but today we feature a museum website that doesn't have a museum, not yet anyway. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture won't open for another decade or so, but they have just launched their website at nmaahc.si.edu. Museum director Lonnie Bunch explains why the site is up before the museum's been built.

BUNCH: "It allows us to demonstrate that African American history and culture is too important to wait 10 more years until the building [opens]. It allows us to build new audiences. But more than anything else, it allows us to engage a community of people who not only can reap the benefit of the work we do but can shape the work we do."

The site starts out with online exhibits, including portraits of prominent African Americans and their stories, and also includes oral histories that you can listen to and a section called Memory Book, where visitors to the site can actually contribute their own experiences to the museum's collection. Lonnie Bunch says that's important so ordinary African Americans realize that their stories are important.

That history isn't just the great man or great woman but it's the stories of how we lived our lives, how our families got from one place to another. People then take the story — they may hear a story about segregation — and that suddenly stimulates them to think about their own family, and it really sort of allows us to help people think about what are important historical moments in their lives."

To find your way around the site, there are the traditional navigation devices — plus some newer tools. For example, many elements of the site have descriptive labels called tags.

BUNCH: "What we found is that many younger audiences really like that. And it allows people to also define themselves. So they, when they tell their stories, they create their own tags. And then, by going on the website, they're able to see — oh! — stories about swimming or athletics. I want to know more about that."

There's a lot to learn about the African American experience at our Website of the Week, the National Museum of African American History and Culture at nmaahc.si.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Billy Taylor Trio — "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"

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

Next Tuesday is World Food Day. The annual observance, on the anniversary of the founding in 1945 of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, serves to raise public awareness of global hunger and poverty. The theme for this year's World Food Day is "The Right to Food."

FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf says that means everyone has the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed.

DIOUF: "Ensuring that every human being has an adequate and stable supply of food is more than a moral imperative. It is the realization of a basic human right. And the world has the means to realize that right."

For many of the world's most vulnerable people, food is about more than staving off hunger. Good nutrition is critical for staying healthy, or getting better if you are sick.

Proper nutrition is a key part of the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Here in Washington, Congress this week took a look at how the PEPFAR program is working. PEPFAR is the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, a five-year, $15 billion program that President Bush announced in 2003.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives Africa Subcommittee focused on the role that proper nutrition can play in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Subcommittee chairman Donald Payne [Democrat, New Jersey] explained how hunger makes people especially vulnerable, citing statistics from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.

PAYNE: "According to the FAO, since 1985 AIDS has killed seven million agricultural workers in 25 of the countries most heavily affected by HIV and AIDS. Hungry people are more likely to engage in risky behavior in order to get food. Second, malnutrition weakens immunity to infection of all sorts, including HIV."

PEPFAR focuses on prevention and medical treatment for HIV/AIDS, with only limited support for nutrition programs. Many organizations working in the most affected countries say food security is an important part of prevention, and good nutrition is a key part of effective treatment.

One group working in Ethiopia is Project Concern International. Country director Walleligne Beriye urged the Congressional panel to expand PEPFAR to include more help with nutrition as a way of battling HIV and AIDS. He described what happened to the four children of parents who had died of AIDS. The eldest boy, he said, simply disappeared.

BERIYE: "The second child was a girl, and she took to prostitution to feed her younger siblings. After a degrading life on the streets, she became infected with HIV, and eventually died. The two youngest children, a boy and girl, have now also been lost to the streets. We don't know where they are, or what has become of them. What I have also seen in my country is that people who are HIV positive need food. Because of the way the disease ravages the body, an HIV positive adult may need 30 percent more food."

And infected children, he said, may need twice as much food as uninfected children to maintain their strength.

Finally today ... Here in the United States, and maybe in your country, too, many of soaps you see in the store promote their antibacterial qualities. Kills germs. Sounds good. But do those antibacterial soaps really help prevent the spread of disease? And could the products have any unwelcome side-effects? Reporter Rebecca Williams has the results of the latest study on the utility of antibacterial soaps.

WILLIAMS: Antibacterial soaps have been around since the late 1940s. But the market research firm Euromonitor International says in recent years, germ-phobia has given manufacturers a reason to ramp up the antibacterial products in their lines.

There are some studies that estimate that about 70 percent of liquid soaps on store shelves have antibacterial ingredients in them. Ingredients such as a chemical called triclosan.

Allison Aiello teaches epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Aiello is lead author of a paper in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. She examined more than two dozen studies on antibacterial soaps containing triclosan. She says triclosan kills bacteria by going after the bacterium's cell wall:

AIELLO: "The cell wall cannot be kept intact anymore; it's not able to survive."

WILLIAMS: But Aiello says there's a growing body of evidence that even though antibacterial soap kills bacteria... it's no better than regular soap at preventing illness. Regular soap doesn't kill bacteria, but Aiello says it works just as well at getting that harmful bacteria off your hands:

AIELLO: "Regular soap, it has a surfactant in it and what it does is it allows bacteria to be dislodged from hands and then the motion you're using under water helps dislodge it and make it go down the drain, basically."

WILLIAMS: Aiello says it's important to note that the soap studies were done with basically healthy people. She says more research needs to be done to find out if antibacterial soaps could be more effective for elderly people or people with compromised immune systems.

But Aiello says generally, for healthy people, antibacterial soaps are no better than plain soaps at keeping you healthy. And she says there could be risks to antibacterial products.

AIELLO: "In the laboratory setting, it's clear that there are mechanisms that can lead to antibiotic resistance when bacteria are exposed to triclosan."

WILLIAMS: Aiello says they haven't seen this play out for antibacterial soaps in the real world yet. But she says researchers need to keep an eye on it because antibiotic resistance might take some time to develop.

The soap industry dismisses the idea that antibacterial soaps might have something to do with antibiotic resistance.

Brian Sansoni is with the Soap and Detergent Association:

SANSONI: "The last thing we want to see is people discouraged from using beneficial products. Antibacterial soaps have proven benefits, they're used safely and effectively by millions of people every day. Consumers should continue to use these products with confidence."

WILLIAMS: The Food and Drug Administration has the final word on antibacterial soaps. But they're still trying to figure out what to say about them. The FDA has been trying to come up with rules for the products for more than 30 years. Right now there are no formal rules about the levels of antibacterial chemicals in soaps. And there aren't any rules about how the products can be marketed or labeled.

There's one thing both the soap industry and doctors agree on — Americans don't lather up often enough with any kind of soap. A new study found one out of every three men walk out of the bathroom without washing their hands. Women did better than the guys, but still, about one of every ten women didn't wash their hands either.

For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.

Experts say that to reduce the risk of getting sick or spreading germs, be sure to wash up every time you use the toilet, use soap and warm water, and wash for at least 20 seconds.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

And that is our show for this week.

Our story on antibacterial soaps comes from the Environment Report, a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. More information at EnvironmentReport.org.

Our program was edited by Rob Sivak. 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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