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Our World — 27 October 2007

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... NASA launches the space shuttle on a space station-construction mission ... finding the links between poverty, development and health ... and a laboratory where they try to answer the really big questions ...

ANISI: "We actually try and study the fundamental components of the universe and see what the basic bits and pieces that go together to make matter are."

Those stories, a chemistry resource on our Website of the Week and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off on Tuesday in what appeared to be a flawless launch, despite concerns among safety officials about the shuttle's vital heat protection system.

We have a GO for main engine start. T minus five, four, three, two, one. Booster ignition and liftoff of Discovery, hoisting Harmony to the Heavens and opening new gateways for international science. Discovery has cleared the tower.

On this 120th shuttle mission, Discovery delivered the newest component of the International Space Station — the seven-meter-long, 14,000 kilogram Harmony module that will provide more working space and attachment points for future European and Japanese laboratory sections. Installation of that module and other construction work make this mission the most challenging in almost a decade of space station construction.

The shuttle docked with the space station on Thursday. One of the toughest jobs will be to relocate a large piece of the space station, called the P6 truss, from one end of the station to another. Astronaut Doug Wheelock said it's unlike anything shuttle astronauts have ever done before, and they're ready for all contingencies.

WHEELOCK: "We are very well prepared. A lot of people, a lot of smart rocket scientists around the Johnson Space Center, have spent a lot of time figuring out what could go wrong, and what we might do to address those things. So we have a very long list of procedures that we could run if things don't go exactly as planned."

Before the flight a NASA safety panel expressed concern about three pieces of the shuttle's wings that help protect the spacecraft against the heat of reentry. A damaged wing led to the destruction of the shuttle Columbia, which burned up on its return to Earth in 2003. But NASA managers decided the risk to Discovery was minimal and decided to go ahead with the launch.

While docked at the space station, astronauts now routinely inspect the shuttle for any damage to the tiles and other parts of the heat protection system, and they are equipped to do repairs if they identify any problems.

At a pre-flight press conference, mission commander Pamela Melroy expressed confidence that if there was any damage, it could be repaired.

MELROY: "The possibility always exists that something is going to come along. I mean, we're NASA, that's what... we practice...for everything that we can possibly think of. But I have a lot of confidence in our [external fuel] tank, in the recent activity that was done on it, and we have a lot of confidence in the orbiter, and I'm hopeful that everything will go well. So we feel comfortable that if anything does come up, we'll be ready to look at it."

Melroy is one of two women in the seven-member crew, which also includes Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth a week from Tuesday.

More than 200 medical and scientific journals joined forces this week to publish some 750 articles on the theme of poverty and human development, and their implications for health.

The journals taking part in this extraordinary, coordinated effort represent 37 countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe, and span the range from major journals like the British Nature to specialty publications like the Islamic University Journal.

Several of the papers were presented at a special event Monday at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, or NIH, just outside Washington.

At that session, Dr. Sarah Saleem of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, reported on her study on the effectiveness of a widely-used disinfectant called chlorhexidine to reduce infections in childbirth. Saleem explained that hospital births, or even the presence of a skilled attendant, are uncommon in her country.

SALEEM: "In Pakistan, more than 80 percent of deliveries occur at home and are attended by unskilled, traditional birth attendants. Only 13 percent of deliveries are conducted by skilled attendants. And most of the adverse maternal and neo-natal outcomes in Pakistan and other developing countries are infectious in origin."

Training birth attendants has been shown in studies to reduce infant mortality rates. In this case, introducing chlorhexidine wipes required educating both birth attendants and the pregnant women, and overcoming numerous cultural and religious obstacles. The study was published in the journal "Obstetrics & Gynecology" and focused on whether use of the wipes would be accepted, not on how effective they would be. Still, the study did seem to show that the cheap and easy-to-use wipes reduced infections among both infants and mothers.

Inexpensive, low-tech solutions dominated in a survey published in another participating journal, PLoS Medicine. Editor Gavin Yamey, surveyed 30 experts to ask them what would do the most to improve the health of the world's poorest people.

YAMEY: "They're interventions that in many ways have been around for a long time: basic childhood vaccinations, promoting breastfeeding, training community health workers, providing clean water, sanitation, bednets. So these interventions are entirely affordable and collectively the international community easily has the financial resources to provide a comprehensive package of all of these interventions."

Some of the suggestions weren't even obvious health strategies at all — better education, especially for women and girls, and improving road networks to provide better access for medicines and treatments.

The link between poverty and health is a two-way street. Poor people are more likely to get sick and die early. And sick people, unable to work, are more likely to be poor. Dr. Roger Glass is a senior official of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

GLASS: "Health is a prime determinant of poverty and of human development. If we could redress the major disparities in human health both at home and abroad through research on new treatments and through implementation of knowledge already gained, we can begin to assure a long and healthy life for all."

To underscore the challenge, Glass said that an estimated 10 million children die each year from diarrheal diseases and other conditions that can be prevented with inexpensive vaccines. Another half-million women die each year in childbirth. Investing in health, he said, not only saves lives, but it helps fight poverty and advances human development.

I don't know about you, but when I don't get enough sleep, the next day I'm not just tired, I'm also a little cranky and irritable.

Well, there's now some new research to shed light on why that's so: there are strong neurological links between sleep and emotions. Our health reporter, Rose Hoban, has details.

HOBAN: University of California researcher Matthew Walker asked a group of people to stay up for 35 hours at a stretch. Then he put his subjects in a brain-scanning machine while showing them photographs. The first photos were neutral — such as a leaf or a picture of a basket. But as the parade of images continued, the pictures become more disturbing — photographs of a shark attack, or severed limbs.

WALKER: "What we found was that the deep emotional centers of the brain, regions called the amygdala were actually up to 60 percent more reactive to those emotionally negative pictures in those who hadn't had a good night of sleep compared to those who had. And that really is a profound amplified emotional brain reaction to these negative pictures."

HOBAN: Walker says scientists know that the amygdala is the part of the brain involved in emotional processing. He says this level of amygdala activity in the tired subjects is similar to activity recorded in the amygdalas of people who have some psychiatric disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

WALKER: "It's actually very difficult to find a psychiatric disorder with emotional or mood symptoms that doesn't have impairments of sleep. And we've been struggling with the battle between the chicken and the egg question. Is it the psychiatric condition that's causing the sleep impairment, or is it the sleep impairment that's causing the psychiatric condition?"

HOBAN: And Walker says it's possible to induce psychosis in a healthy person who's been denied sleep. He speculates that one function of sleep is to restore the emotional circuits of the brain.

WALKER: "We may need to pay more attention to sleep in the future in terms of our emotional and mental health, and I also don't think it's a coincidence that many anti-depressant medications, for example, actually seem to alter sleep and try and rebalance sleep."

HOBAN: Walker says the next challenge is to determine what kind of sleep and how much is most important for maintaining emotional health. His research is published in the journal Current Biology. I'm Rose Hoban

One of the world's most honored scientists has retired after being quoted making controversial remarks on race and intelligence.

James Watson, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, had been head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state for almost four decades.

A press release from the lab didn't specify the reason for his retirement or refer to the controversy. Watson is 79 years old.

A British newspaper two weeks ago quoted him as saying that he was "gloomy about the prospect of Africa," adding that "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really."

Watson later apologized, saying there was no scientific basis for believing that "Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior."

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

This week, we feature an online version of one of the most useful tools for understanding chemistry and the chemical elements that make up the world around us.

The Periodic Table of the Elements has been around in one form or another since the mid-19th century. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev is generally credited with creating the first version. But it's been modified over the years, first on paper and now online in various versions, including the one hosted at Los Alamos National Laboratory,

JOHN: "The table itself is arranged in increasing number of atomic number. It's also arranged according to just general chemical properties. For instance all the Noble gases are on the right-hand side of the Periodic Table. So it's a very useful tool for chemists. It's essentially a chessboard and the rulebook for chess all in one for chemists."

Like any Periodic Table this one has the chemical symbol, atomic weight, and atomic number for each of the 100-plus known elements. But there's more: Los Alamos chemist Kevin John says their online Periodic Table offers in-depth information about each element, as well.

JOHN: "If you click on a given element, it has the history related to its discovery, various properties, uses and costs of the element. And in addition it also has some handling information, if the element itself is toxic. So I think there's a lot of embedded information in the webpage that one wouldn't be able to get on a hard copy."

Although this version was designed for students up through high school age, Kevin John says he refers to the Periodic Table daily in his work creating medical isotopes.

JOHN: "You know, I can't remember every single weight of every element and as part of my job I need to consult that from time to time in a laboratory environment. I still use it every day."

For added value, Los Alamos National Laboratory has also included articles on how to use the periodic table, how elements get their names, and more.

The Periodic Table of the Elements, online at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Tom Lehrer — "The Elements"

Professor (and satirist) Tom Lehrer on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

For as long as human beings have been able to ask the questions, we have pondered the fundamental mysteries: "How did the universe come into being?" and "what keeps it going?" While most of us can't spend too much time finding the answers, those questions are everyday challenges for the nuclear physicists at the world's particle accelerator laboratories, where conditions similar to the newborn universe are created and studied around the clock. VOA's Adam Phillips reports from one lab in Ithaca, New York.

PHILLIPS: The vast warren of concrete corridors and offices at Cornell University's Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory seems at first like any drab industrial workspace. But in fact, the more than 150 researchers working here are up to something extraordinary: they're studying the behavior of almost infinitely small sub-atomic particles to better understand the origins of our infinitely large universe. Peter Anisi is a graduate student in particle physics at the Wilson Lab.

ANISI: "We actually try and study the fundamental components of the universe and see what the basic bits and pieces that go together to make matter are. Particle physics becomes more and more important as you go back toward the Big Bang, the start of the universe. At the beginning of the universe you have a condition with extremely high energies and extremely high temperatures, and it's been cooling down since then. So we try to reproduce the conditions of the start of the universe were and that would have come together to create what we see now.

Q: How do you do that?

ANISI: "By seeing how things behave at very high energies."

PHILLIPS: Essentially, the Synchrotron particle accelerator is a powerful array of electro-magnets arranged in an underground ring a little less than one kilometer in circumference. The ring accelerates a beam of electrons — negatively charged atomic particles — to velocities approaching the speed of light. The electrons are then steered into a head-on collision with a beam of positively charged particles called positrons — also traveling at nearly the speed of light — but in the opposite direction. When the two beams collide they create entirely new particles.

ANISI: "By taking these lighter things and giving them energy, one can make that energy materialize as something else that we haven't seen before. In fact they are particles that haven't been seen in the universe naturally since a second after the Big Bang."

PHILLIPS: Much of the daily work at the lab involves gazing at computer screens hoping to see these new particles as they are being created inside the collider. Professor Emeritus Karl Berkelman, a former director of the lab, has been on his shift for hours. And most of the patterns he's seen today have been random cosmic rays from space. But suddenly…

BERKELMAN: "There's one! Probably, I would guess, the production of a particle/anti-particle pair."

PHILLIPS: Current lab director Maurie Tigner says that the Big Bang created equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. Anti-matter is a sort of "mirror image" of matter but with an opposite electrical charge. When matter and anti-matter meet, Tigner explains, they should annihilate each other.

TIGNER: "Now of course it's very important that one, either the matter or the anti matter disappear, because otherwise we wouldn't be here today. And the curious thing is: what happened to all the anti-matter? People are spending lots of brain power trying to figure that out."

PHILLIPS: While particle physics often asks very abstract questions, accelerator technology has already led to some quite practical benefits. Michael Ehrlichman, a graduate student at the Wilson Lab, points out that small-scale particle accelerators are in use every day to treat cancer.

EHRLICHMAN: "You can generate a very narrow beam of high energy protons, and these can be very precisely aimed. So if you have a tumor on the retina of your eye or on your spinal cord or a sensitive part of your brain, these beams can be converged very precisely on the tumor and destroy the tumor and not destroy the eye or the brain or the spinal cord."

PHILLIPS: Another branch at the Wilson lab harvests the ultra-high energy x-rays produced by electrons in the accelerator to further life sciences research. These beams can reveal the structures of a virus, or peer inside a living cell to see how its proteins and enzymes work — in real time. That's knowledge that can speed the development of new medicines.

High energy X-rays can also penetrate the surface of paintings to reveal other paintings that sometimes lie beneath.

A new mega-collider is scheduled to come on line next year in Geneva Switzerland. Because it will be seven thousand times more powerful than the one at the Wilson Laboratory, Cornell University plans to close down its own particle accelerator next March, and concentrate more fully on its x-ray research. There are more than enough deep mysteries left for it to tackle in that exciting arena. At Cornell University's Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory in Ithaca New York, I'm Adam Phillips reporting for Our World.

Finally today ... you've probably heard predictions about climate change. If we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, temperatures will go up by two degrees ... or three ... or four, sea levels will rise 10 centimeters ... or 40 ... or 70. Although the broad outline of global warming has won wide acceptance in the scientific community, it's a lot harder to project exactly how warm it will get, or what the consequences will be.

That's true in part because a warmer planet will behave differently from the world we now inhabit. For example, warming temperatures could melt permafrost in Siberia, releasing trapped methane — a greenhouse gas even more powerful than CO2 — which would in turn lead to more permafrost melting and more methane release.

That's an example of a feedback loop, and researcher Gerard Roe at the University of Washington in Seattle says it's one of the factors that make projecting climate change so difficult.

ROE: "They are incredibly difficult to quantify, yes. And they are very, very complicated systems with a great deal of uncertainty attached to them. And one of the things that we probably have to accept in a conversation about climate change is this inevitable envelope of uncertainty."

Roe is the author of a paper published this week in the journal Science. In it he and his co-author show that climate change and uncertainty are inextricably linked together.

Forecasting the weather a week from now and forecasting climate decades or even centuries in the future are vastly different undertakings, but Gerard Roe says both are limited by what can be known.

ROE: "In some ways we should anticipate that every complicated science question that we ask is eventually going to run into some kind of barrier of knowability. And our work is an argument about what that barrier is now for the different climate systems."

In his paper Roe uses mathematics to show that the uncertainty that is inherent in predicting climate change also includes the small possibility that the warming will be much worse than generally predicted.

If it is not possible to accurately predict the future when it comes to global warming, the response to the threat of climate change should reflect that. In an accompanying article, Miles Allen and David Frame of the University of Oxford say it's not very useful to focus on fine-tuning a global warming prediction before taking action.

ROE: "If it transpires in 50 years' time that the system is more sensitive than we think is likely, well we better use that information to adjust the emissions of greenhouse gases and it will be a mistake, is their argument, to declare a fixed target of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. And we can do better that that if, as we go forward, we amend our behavior, adjust our behavior, according to what we find out."

Gerard Roe of the University of Washington says that if the climate change conversation begins to accept the uncertainty instead of aiming for a more perfect prediction, the debate will be healthier, and the decisions made in response to the scientific evidence will be better informed.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at 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 or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.