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Our World — 10 November 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The space shuttle ends one of its toughest missions yet ... a few extra kilos may help you avoid disease ... and how geographic information systems make a difference ...

PHOENIX: "You start to be able to do some analysis and say, OK, where are the people who are at the most risk? How do we get relief supplies to them?"

Computers plus maps equals GIS ... Our nursing shortage may affect your health care, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

On Wednesday, the Space Shuttle Discovery slipped out of orbit and returned home as Commander Pam Melroy brought the spacecraft to a picture-perfect landing under the blue Florida sky.

NASA: "Discovery's rolling out on runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center, wrapping up a 6.25 million mile [10 million km.] mission. Discovery completing its 34th mission to space and the 23rd shuttle flight to the International Space Station.

Discovery's 15-day mission focused on space station construction, and it was by all accounts one of the most challenging in the history of the shuttle program.

The shuttle delivered the European-made Harmony module to the space station, and relocated a structural element called the P-6 truss. That much was planned. But what NASA hadn't planned on was that a solar panel attached to that truss would tear as it was being unfurled.

Engineers on the ground cobbled together a repair plan using wire cutters, pliers and some homemade tools. Astronaut Scott Parazynski worked at the end of an extended robot arm, risking electric shock in the process as he, in effect, sewed together the torn pieces of the solar panel.

The next shuttle flight, named STS-122, is scheduled to launch on December 6. Shuttle Atlantis will bring a seven-member crew to the space station for more construction work, including delivery of the European Space Agency's Columbus Laboratory.

More space news, now, but a bit farther out in the universe. Actually a lot farther: 41 light years away.

Astronomers on Tuesday announced the discovery of another planet orbiting a distant star, making it the most crowded planetary system outside our own.

More than 260 planets have been identified beyond our solar system. The most recently discovered exoplanet, as they're called, orbits a star in the constellation Cancer.

One of the authors of a new paper announcing the discovery, Geoff Marcy of the University of California, says astronomers had already identified four planets orbiting this star.

MARCY: "We've been observing a Sun-like star called 55 Cancri, it's star 55 in the constellation Cancer, for 19 years, and we watch the wobble of this star as it's yanked on by the planets orbiting it. And we're just now announcing the discovery of the fifth planet, the first planetary system with five full planets orbiting a Sun-like star."

It's smaller than our eight-planet solar system — so far, anyway.

Astronomers estimate the newly-found planet is about 45 times more massive than Earth and has a year of 160 Earth days. Lead author Debra Fischer says the planet may resemble Saturn in some ways.

FISCHER: "This planet we think is likely to have a fairly substantial atmosphere. It's very massive. It might not be the sort of place that, at least life as we know it, would find to be a comfortable environment. However, this planet, in fact, orbits in what we call the habitable zone."

The habitable zone of a solar system has a temperature range that might support life, if not on the planet itself, then possibly on a moon, if the planet has any moons; they don't know that yet.

Exoplanets are generally discovered indirectly by detecting changes in the light coming from a star as its orbit is affected by nearby planets. It's another instance of the doppler effect, as when a train whistle changes in pitch as it passes by you. Astronomers use the same principle but in a different set of frequencies. Sometimes it can take years to sort out these doppler observations.

Debra Fischer, of San Francisco State University, says the growing sophistication of the technique increases the chances of finding planets more like our own.

FISCHER: "So what we're doing right now with our observational technique, the Doppler technique, is taking really the very first steps to finding Earth-like planets. We're going to find, you know, we'll basically give NASA the addresses, the names and addresses, of the most likely candidates for Earth-like planets."

Debra Fischer and her colleagues will publish their findings in an upcoming edition of Astrophysical Journal.

A new study concludes that being 5-10 kilos overweight may not be as harmful to health as is commonly believed, and may actually confer some benefits when it comes to certain cancers and heart disease. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: It has been widely assumed that people who are above their ideal weight are at increased risk of death from heart disease and cancer.

But researchers from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, found Americans who are overweight are less likely to die of heart disease and cancers - including those commonly associated with excess weight, such as breast, kidney, pancreatic and colon cancer.

The study's lead author, Katherine Flegal, is a senior scientist at the CDC.

FLEGAL: "What we found is that overweight was associated with a significantly reduced number of deaths from those causes."

BERMAN: The study analyzed statistics about 2.4 million U.S. adults gathered between 1971 and 2004. But the findings potentially apply to the 1.6 billion people worldwide who the World Health Organization says are overweight in proportion to their height.

Surprisingly, researchers also found that being overweight may be protective from other causes of death not commonly associated excess weight, such as tuberculosis and Alzheimer's disease.

But the study finds overweight people do have a higher chance of dying from diabetes and kidney disease.

And it found obese people, those more than 15 kilos above their ideal weight, have a higher risk of death from a variety of illnesses, including some cancers and heart disease. The World Health Organization says about 400 million individuals around the globe are grossly overweight

Dr. Flegal says their overall chance of dying of cancer at first does not appear to be increased.

FLEGAL: "But then we divided cancer into sub-groups, including a group of cancers that are considered to be obesity-related, like colon cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, and some others. And in that case we actually found that about 11 percent of deaths from those cancers were associated with obesity."

BERMAN: Dr. Flegal says people should not interpret the findings — that extra kilos may be protective against cancer and heart disease — as license to maintain an unhealthy lifestyle.

FLEGAL: "I would like to emphasize that our study does not change the basic public health recommendations. You should eat right, get some activity, and do not smoke. Nothing about our study changes those recommendations."

BERMAN: Yet to be determined is why people who are above their ideal weight appear not to be at increased risk of dying of cancer and heart disease. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

That study was published in this week's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA.

Nurses are a critical if sometimes under-appreciated part of the health care system. Over the years their role has expanded, and nurses are now better trained and provide more advanced care than ever before. Nursing schools in many wealthier countries can't keep up with the demand, and the need for more nurses in American hospitals, for example, has led to shortages elsewhere. Our health reporter, Rose Hoban, explains.

HOBAN: The United States has had a shortage of nurses for the past decade. Other developed countries are also experiencing shortages of qualified nurses — among them Canada, Britain and Ireland.

Amanda Nickerson is a nurse researcher who works as a consultant in the United States.

NICKERSON: "In the U.S. we're facing a shortage — a minimum shortage — of 800,000 nurses by 2020. And some reports say a million, some say over a million. So there is definitely a growing need in the U S."

HOBAN: So the U.S. and other nations have turned outwards for new supplies of nurses. Several hundred thousand foreign nurses now work in the U.S., and an untold number of foreign nurses work in other countries. This, in turn, has exacerbated a nursing shortage in the developing countries, where many of the nurses come from.

Nickerson says often, nurses who emigrate are the ones with the most experience and competence. But she says there are good reasons — called push factors and pull factors — why nurses from lower-income countries might want to work in a place like the U.S. Pull factors include better salaries and working conditions in the U.S. and U.K., as well as career advancement opportunities.

NICKERSON: "Push factors are related to poverty. Not having electricity, running water, safe work environments. Then you have the resurgence of a lot of infectious diseases. And the most infectious all, HIV/AIDS, that you see a lot in Sub-Saharan African countries, is impacting not just the general population, but the nursing workforce."

HOBAN: Nickerson recently returned from a meeting about the problem at the World Health Organization in Geneva. She says international health leaders are only now coming to grips with the magnitude of the problem. WHO leaders have passed resolutions calling for the scaling up of the nurse workforce.

NICKERSON: "Both resolutions called for a presence of nursing and midwifery in the United Nations at WHO, which believe it or not, there is not a strong presence of nursing and midwifery at the WHO. And you wouldn't believe there's such a lack of support, invisibility of nursing. It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of what these organizations are trying to do is increase the visibility and the support for nursing at an international level and then move into national levels."

HOBAN: Nickerson presented her paper on the nursing shortage at this week's annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, where other speakers spoke about the need to train new health workers. But Nickerson and the others say they can't see the world having enough nurses to go around for a long time. I'm Rose Hoban.

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

It's still about a year until the presidential election in the United States, but the campaign has been going on for months. As candidates run advertisements and make other public statements, it's hard to evaluate the truth of what they're saying. Our Website of the Week can help.

At FactCheck.org, an independent team of journalists and researchers dissect statements made by politicians and try to separate fact from fiction.

JACKSON: "We think of ourselves as kind of a consumer advocate for citizens and voters, and we try to give a sort of neutral assessment of the accuracy of factual claims made in political campaigns and in politics generally."

Veteran journalist Brooks Jackson is the director of FactCheck.org. He said they try to review all the advertising run by presidential candidates, plus statements made in debates and other forums, and then research the claims that are testable. For example, one candidate compared the survival rate of cancer patients in the United States with those in Britain.

JACKSON: "We can check the most reliable information available there. We'll check the experts. We'll check, in this case, an official statistical agency in Britain that keeps track of this sort of stuff. And when we find those that are suspect or false or someway misleading, then we write an article."

In this case, the FactCheck.org researchers concluded that the candidate had gotten his numbers wrong, undercutting the point he was trying to make.

FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It is non-partisan; the two most recent posts were critical of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Rudolph Giuliani.

The focus is on presidential politics, but FactCheck.org looks for untruths in other corners of public discourse, too, and not just on the federal level.

JACKSON: "In many states here, people actually elect judges to the supreme court of the state. I think 22 of our 50 states elect their supreme court justices. And we're seeing lots of advertising in some cases false and misleading advertising, believe it or not — run by candidates who want to be judges. You'd think if anybody, they would have a respect for accuracy in fact, but it's not always the case."

An independent look at what politicians and interest groups claim to be true at FactCheck.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Brian Capps — "True Liar"

We welcome your fact-checking here at VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

A U.S. government report warns growing more corn for ethanol production carries some risks for clean water. Reporter Chuck Quirmbach has details.

QUIRMBACH: A lot more corn is going toward making ethanol, but a study by the National Research Council says in areas with limited water supplies, adding acres of corn, or launching water-using ethanol production plants is a major concern. The report also says increased use of fertilizers and pesticides on corn fields could trigger more water pollution.

Study committee chairman Jerald Schnoor urges more research to help extract energy from lower-impact perennial crops such as grasses:

SCHNOOR: "There needs to be a technology breakthrough so that enzymes and organisms can break down the cellulose, the hemi-cellulose and lignin from plants like switchgrass, woody biomass plants like poplar and willow."

QUIRMBACH: Schnoor says more research dollars could come from reducing federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol. For the Environment Report, I'm Chuck Quirmbach.

The Environment Report is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. More information at environmentreport.org.

Geographic information systems, or GIS, play an increasingly important role in making sense of the world around us.

GIS software combines maps with a database of information about things that have a geographic location, and usually displays them on a map as "layers." Imagine a paper map of Asia, and on top of that a clear plastic sheet with geologic fault lines, and on top of that another plastic sheet showing where buildings and roads and bridges are located. You can visually see where an earthquake might cause damage.

Put all that information in a computer and you get a versatile and powerful tool for what geographers call 'spatial awareness.'

This coming Wednesday is GIS Day, so that seemed a good opportunity to check in with Michael Phoenix, who does international education programs for ESRI, a leading GIS software company, to give us some idea about how GIS technology works.

PHOENIX: "Take for example the tsunami we had some years ago. We had databases that included, say the coast of Indonesia, the areas that were hit, and in those databases would be all the roads, all the towns, the coastline. Elevation data is behind that. So immediately, when you have something like that [disaster] you can bring up a map and you can ask it, OK the water came in at this level, what areas are flooded? And it would use the elevation to determine where the flooding was and the flooding wasn't. It would use the layers with houses to determine how many people might have been flooded out.

"Then you send people out to gather more field information, using things like a GPS [global positioning system device]. So somebody could go down the road and find that this bridge is broken, locate that bridge with a GPS, send that back to the database, and the database would start to show you things like population where access was limited because of roads being closed or something like that. You start to be able to do some analysis and say, OK, where are the people who are at the most risk? How do we get relief supplies to them?"

Q: It seems that one of the advantages of GIS, though, is that you're taking information — and in these databases it's essentially information that you could print out in tabular form or something — but it gains its power and strength from the ability to look at it visually, laid over the area that you're looking at.

PHOENIX: "People are really good at analyzing things with their eyes. If you look at a map, you see patterns really fast. If you look at that same information in a spreadsheet it would be very difficult to see those patterns. And people, like emergency response people, politicians, and many others, have a short attention span, and you put a map in front of them, they can understand it right away and get the information that they need and then use that to move on and make decisions."

Q: My impression is that GIS started with big corporations and government agencies, and mostly in the wealthy, developed countries, and that it's become, on several different levels, democratized, spread out more around the world and with applications and uses that even hobbyists and casual users can use. Am I right about that?

PHOENIX: "Yes. In the early days collecting the data was the big part of it. It was very expensive. It took a lot of time. But now we live in a very data-rich environment. So datasets that were expensive 10, 20 years ago like all the streets in Europe [or] a street map of China was pretty rare, pretty expensive, so that only big players could get access to that. Many of these things are entering into the public domain, which makes it accessible for almost anybody who's got a computer. And at the same time, the Internet has come along, allowing us to access a lot of that data without ever actually having to have the data on our computer."

Q: You must be exposed to a lot of different applications, uses of GIS. Is there one that stands out as being just way out there, offbeat, odd, amazingly creative. Something just really interesting?

PHOENIX: "One that struck me that I was really impressed with was a project with the University of Virginia that they were doing with Tibet and Bhutan and Mongolia. What they were doing was going to Buddhist monasteries and they were scanning Buddhist scriptures and entering into the database the location and the time of the creation of that scripture. And what they did with that, they can start doing an analysis of the spread of Buddhist ideas in the Himalayan world. And I thought that was a really creative use of GIS in a direction that a lot of people wouldn't have normally thought."

Q: When you look at consumer products like Google Earth, and you can just unselect the boundary layer, and you're looking at the globe now without national borders, does GIS in some way bring the world closer together?

PHOENIX: "I think it does. I think it gives us a lot of information that we didn't have before. It makes us much more spatially aware. One of the things that we're working here on is trying to increase spatial literacy, which is an understanding of how people use the spatial dimension of the world around us. All problems exist within a spatial context. And that things like Google Earth help tremendously in helping people understand.

I don't know if you've looked at Google Earth and looked at Africa. You'll see an orange boundary and that is around an area called Darfur, where there's a lot of problems going on at the time. Well, what Google has done is worked with some of the NGOs, the non-governmental organizations that are working in Darfur to put information about the attacks, the burned villages, etc., in a public place to help public awareness.

I think that this type of application, where we are trying to bring the world together by letting people get a feel for the complexity and the scope of a problem like Darfur are just tremendous and just amazing."

Michael Phoenix is an international education specialist at GIS software company ESRI. He spoke with us from his office in California.

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.

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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