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Our World — 23 February 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Invasive species taking hold in a warmer Antarctica ... Science toys make learning fun (or playtime educational) ... and toxics testing without animals ...

ZERHOUNI: "Could you end up with molecular signatures that will be predictive of human toxicology, in ways that you just can't do in animal testing today?"

Testing toxics, Blu-Ray wins the high-def format battle, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth on Wednesday, ending a 13-day mission to the International Space Station.

NASA-TV: "Nose gear touch down. Atlantis rolling out on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center, wrapping up a 5.3 million mile [8.5 million kilometer] mission to expand the global village of space."

The biggest part of this latest shuttle mission was delivery and installation of the European Space Agency's Columbus science lab to the International Space Station. A few hours after landing, astronaut Stan Love talked about being part of the space station's role in science research.

LOVE: "One of the things the station hasn't been able to do yet as much as we had wanted was science. And its a privilege to me to have been part of this wonderful team that's put a dedicated science laboratory up on space station, and put some new instruments on the outside of it to do the work that station was intended for."

Atlantis landed just two days after another shuttle, Endeavour, was moved to the launch pad ahead of a mission set to begin on March 11. The seven-man shuttle crew will be delivering Japanese and Canadian components to the space station.

The high-definition video-disk format war effectively ended this week when Toshiba announced it was pulling the plug on its HD DVD format, leaving the market to Blu-Ray, the competing format developed by Sony.

To help us understand the difference between the two formats and what Toshiba's move will mean for the hi-def video marketplace, I spoke with PC Magazine editor in chief Lance Ulanoff:

ULANOFF: "Most people point to the difference in the amount of storage space. Blu-Ray could [store] 50 gigabytes; HD DVD could do about 30. Beyond that, no significant technical differences. So it really came down to marketing, partnerships and availability."

Q: Partnerships with the film studios, basically?

ULANOFF: "Right."

Q: Well, this sounds an awful lot like the VHS-Beta [home video format] war of, I guess, the 1970s. Is that a good comparison?

ULANOFF: "Yeah. It was widely accepted that Betamax was the superior format. And many people say Blu-Ray is supposedly the superior format and now it's won. I kinda disagree in that there's very little difference between the two formats. But beyond that the analogy is quite good. In much the same way, the industry realized that it doesn't matter which is the superior technology. What matters is, which will people buy."

Q: So was the difference the alignment of the movie studios?

ULANOFF: "That was one part of it. Understand that Sony owns a movie studio, so that gave them a leg up already. But there was also the partnership for distribution. Things really began to fall apart for Toshiba and the HD DVD guys when Warner Bros. walked away at the beginning of January. That was followed by Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Netflix, and others walking away from the HD DVD format. So suddenly, all their major distribution partners said nah, you know, this isn't working for us."

Q: In your post on PCMag.com you're writing about how the Sony video game console, the PS3, was playing a role in this. How does that work?

ULANOFF: "Sony got really beat up last year for the PS3. One, it seemed too big, it was too expensive, it wasn't selling well. And it had this Blu-Ray player in it. You know, what the heck were people going to do with that? Nobody had Blu-Ray discs. Well, now that seems like a stroke of genius because that helped seed the Blu-Ray technology into probably over a million American homes. And that may have made all the difference."

Q: DVD has been a worldwide standard, although you do have the region coding. Is that going to be the same situation with Blu-Ray?

ULANOFF: "Well, it's interesting. It's going to be the standard. However, we're again in a time of transition, because now people can download high-def[inition] movies without a player at all. Now, the quality is not as high. You also don't get all the extras. But the advent of the Internet kind-of is a game changer here. So, Blu-Ray will sell. But the question is, will they sell the same kind of volume they did 10, 15 years ago, or will more people start to look at set-top boxes as the way to get high-def content to their TVs."

And Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine adds that, like compact discs and DVDs, a data version of Blu-Ray is likely to become a standard computer accessory within the next few years, offering many times the storage capacity of today's DVD.

One of the uncertainties surrounding global warming is how species will adapt to a changing climate. It may be possible to grow some crops where it's now too cold, for example. And animals may migrate when their present habitat becomes inhospitable. In Antarctica, scientists say rising temperatures are allowing new species of predators to invade Antarctic waters. From Boston, Curt Nickisch reports the damage to the pristine ecosystem could be irreversible.

NICKISCH: Climate change and its effect on Antarctica have been in the headlines a lot lately: glaciers melting… ice shelves crumbling. But a warmer Antarctic ecosystem could also mean a dramatic change in the kinds of species that populate the region. It's hard for organisms to survive in extremely chilly environments. So scientists consider the ones that do currently thrive in the Antarctic waters marvels of evolution. But now those marvels may be doomed, says Sven Thatje of the University of Southampton in England.

THATJE: "The champions of cold adaptation came at the cost of not being very flexible with higher temperatures. The temperature itself will be the final kiss."

NICKISCH: Thatje was among several experts who spoke about the biological implications of climate change in Antarctica this month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.

What worries Thatje and other researchers is how greenhouse gases are warming polar waters. Over the last fifty years, surface temperatures off the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by one degree Celsius, making it one of the Earth's fastest-warming oceans. That may not seem like a big change to us, but it is to many species. Cheryl Wilga is a researcher at the University of Rhode Island. She says there are physiological reasons why predators such as sharks cannot live in extremely cold waters.

WILGA: "Energy and power come at a high cost at low temperatures."

NICKISCH: And it takes energy to break the shells of many of the species in the Antarctic waters. But when it's just a couple of degrees warmer, predators don't have to be nearly as strong. Also, in temperatures close to freezing, shell-crushing crabs in particular die from magnesium poisoning. But Wilga says when it's slightly warmer, they do just fine.

WILGA: "King crabs are currently massing in the deep water off the coast of Antarctica, where it's slightly warmer, about four degrees. And as surface waters continue to warm, they will move up into the shallow waters around Antarctica."

NICKISCH: That, she guesses, will take a few decades, and then sharks may not be that far behind. Researchers don't think sharks will swim to Antarctica, but they're afraid that ships can transport baby sharks in the ballast water they carry, and basically import sharks to the region.

Sharks and crabs would devastate the ecosystems at the bottom of the world, says Richard Aronson. He does research at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.

ARONSON: "There are going to be winners and losers of the Antarctic fauna as these predators invade. Brittlestars are going to be hammered — they're just going to be clobbered by invading predators. But the brachiopods or the lampshells, they'll do fine regardless."

NICKISCH: If that happens, Aronson says the result would be what he considers a major loss in biodiversity.

ARONSON: "It's like saying what would we care if we took Michelangelo's David and threw it the dumpster? This is about the way we want this planet to look for future generations."

NICKISCH: Aronson is calling for a stop to global warming to keep the predators at bay.

There may also be practical implications to keeping Antarctic life the way it is. Currently, US scientists are looking at one polar sea organism because it may produce a therapeutic drug that could help fight skin cancer in humans. Researcher Sven Thatje says protecting the Antarctic environment is a worthy cause.

THATJE: "If we lose biodiversity without knowing what's actually out there, it's not only a threat to ourselves, but the world would be a much duller place, and I would not like to live in such a world."

NICKISCH: But unless things change, that world could be a reality. The Antarctic sea life, which has thrived for millions of years in harsh conditions, may be under ... thin ice. For Our World, I'm Curt Nickisch, in Boston.

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

February is Black History Month in the United States, and we're going to dip into the Website of the Week archives to revisit an extraordinary online exhibit that looks at African-American life as a series of mass migrations from the slave trade to the journeys from the rural South to northern cities to present-day immigration from Africa. It's a project of the New York Public Library called "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," at inmotionaame.org.

"For far too long, the history of the African-American experience has been written as a history of our victimization, what others have done to us. With the migration theme you begin to see what people of African descent have done for themselves."

Howard Dodson heads the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library unit behind this online exhibit.

DODSON: "We've been able, over the course of the three years of the project, to put together some 25,000 pages of material, 16,000 of them text [and] 8,000 of them images, to tell this really remarkable story in a very in-depth way."

The 13 migrations highlighted in this online exhibit include journeys by runaway slaves, emigration to Africa and elsewhere, and the so-called Great Migration from southern farms to northern factories, brought to life by a vast amount of documents, maps and photos.

DODSON: "Scholarly articles, manuscript items, chapters of books — whole books at times — that allows a person who wants to know more about that particular migration to go into it in greater depth."

The African-American Migration Experience website also includes online lesson plans to help teachers use the material. For an in-depth look at African-American history that goes beyond just a few famous names or events, surf on over to inmotionaame.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Duke Ellington — "Take the 'A' Train" (the theme song of VOA jazz programs hosted for many years by the legendary Willis Conover)

With a tip of the Voice of America hat to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, this is VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

A wide range of consumer and industrial products are currently tested for safety using animals of one sort or another. It's time-consuming and expensive for manufacturers, and many people find the use of animals morally unacceptable.

Now, U.S. government scientists are collaborating on a new approach to testing the toxicity of chemicals ranging from pesticides to household cleaners. As Rosanne Skirble reports, they plan to use new high-speed tests to get more reliable data faster and more cheaply.

SKIRBLE: The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are partners in the plan. NIH director Elias Zerhouni says scientists will apply technology developed by the two agencies to identify chemicals that might be harmful to humans.

ZERHOUNI: "The dream is this: Could you, in a battery of tests, end up with very specific molecular signatures that will be predictive of human toxicology, in ways that you just can't do in animal testing today?"

SKIRBLE: Scientists now rely heavily on animal tests to generate chemical toxicity data. That process is expensive, time consuming and not always the best predictor of effects on humans, says Francis Collins, director of the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute.

COLLINS: "There are differences between species. We are not rats, and we are not even other primates. After all, ultimately what you are looking for is, does this compound does damage to cells."

SKIRBLE: The high-speed, automated screening looks at the effects of chemical compounds on single human cells rather than on an entire laboratory animal. Researchers expect the new toxicology testing method will expand the number of chemicals tested and reduce the time, money and use of animals. NIH director Elias Zerhouni says it will also generate data more relevant to humans.

ZERHOUNI: "The natural idea that I think is being proposed here is to move the 20th century paradigm of testing one compound at a time in many animals to going to the 21st century paradigm, to test 5,000-10,000 compounds against 5-, 10-, 20,000 conditions in cells that are very specific to human toxicology."

SKIRBLE: Since the EPA started the National Toxicology Program 30 years ago, it has tested 2,500 chemicals. Using the new automated strategy could get the same job done in a single afternoon.

John Butcher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program, explains that to check the reliability of this approach, scientists will first do a comparative analysis of data previously tested on animals.

BUTCHER: "... because we have such a rich dataset of information on those chemicals. And we can compare the output from these cell-based assays, in terms of whether these chemicals cause cancer, reproductive and developmental effects, neurological effects, immunotoxic effects, and various other kinds of toxicity."

SKIRBLE: Butcher says the anticipated shift away from animal testing could take many years. Writing in Science magazine, he says the agencies expect broader participation from public and private partners in the scientific community as the cell-based testing methods are refined and accepted. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

"Use it or lose it" is sometimes applied to physical fitness, but many experts say it also applies to mental fitness. Challenging your brain can keep it working at peak performance.

For some time now, experts have advised working challenging puzzles as one way to stimulate the brain. But as we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, a new study suggests that intellectually-challenging conversation can also work.

HOBAN: Social psychologist Oscar Ybarra from the University of Michigan says there's a consistent relationship: the more social interaction people have, the better they perform cognitively. He wondered if people are smart because they socialize or whether they socialize more because they're smart. To try to find out, he took a group of people, divided them into pairs, and had them debate an issue.

YBARRA: "We actually controlled the amount of time people had to interact with somebody else, for 10 minutes. And we compared that condition to a control where they watched a video clip of, for 10 minutes, but they didn't interact with each other …"

HOBAN: In a third group, Ybarra had people do 10 minutes of brainteasers, crossword puzzles and other mental exercises usually recommended for staying mentally sharp.

Then he tested the subjects' cognition by giving them memory tests, and tests that challenged them to remember items quickly.

YBARRA: "And what we found in that experiment, which I think is very cool, is that social interaction people performed as well on measures of memory, and measures of how quickly they can process patterns of information, they performed as well as people in the brain teaser condition."

HOBAN: And both of those groups performed better than the control group — the people who simply watched television.

Ybarra says it seems that interacting does have some cognitive benefits. But he says that people have to do it … with feeling.

YBARRA: "I think being around others will be stimulating, but to really reap benefits, cognitive benefits, I think people need to be more engaged and actually trying to understand the other's perspective, where they are coming from and so forth."

HOBAN: Ybarra did these tests with people of all ages — from college students to seniors as old as their nineties — and he says social interaction helped people stay sharper throughout their entire lives.

His research is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. I'm Rose Hoban.

Nearly 1500 toy manufacturers from around the world came to New York City this week for the International Toy Fair, one of the industry's premier annual showcases. As we hear from VOA's Adam Phillips, the event featured the hottest new science- and technology-based playthings.

PHILLIPS: From action figures to board games to musical toys, the sheer number of toy categories at this year's International Toy Fair would satisfy almost anyone's inner child. But it's the unprecedented variety of science and discovery products here that excites Robin Raskin, a columnist at the website, Yahoo Tech:

RASKIN: "It's become cool to become geeky, I think in general. There are toys that let you forecast the weather. There are a lot of spy toys that [let] you do all sort of things [such as] fingerprinting. There are night vision goggles. There are things that let you understand parallax photography because there is a camera that takes 360-degree panoramas."

PHILLIPS: And Raskin says there's a new electronic toy that puts a high-tech spin on an old favorite, dinosaurs :

RASKIN: "Dinosaurs are always hot! But this year, the 'tech' part of it is that they are programmable robots. And it's a basic programming language that you use to tell your dinosaur to go here or go there go fetch your water. There is a dinosaur from Hasbro [Inc.] called 'Kota' that is an extraordinary piece of animatronics. This is like going to Disneyworld and seeing that talking (President) Lincoln (robot), but in your bedroom!"

PHILLIPS: It's the future that's "now" at the Corgi booth, where crowds are watching the world's first radio-controlled, hydrogen-powered toy car zoom around a track. Mark Bawtrey represents Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, which developed the toy.

BAWTREY: "We are using normal tap water, to be able to split H20 into its common elements, and you use the hydrogen to put it into the car, and you use the same technology that is being used with the larger cars — the GMs, the Fords, and the Toyotas and the Hondas out there to be able to create, through a passive fuel cell, the electricity to power the product. It's actually a 150-year-old technology, but it's only really now that people are getting involved in understanding it in order to use it as green technology of the future. So you are looking at having fun and learning at the same time."

PHILLIPS: Kids love to learn by doing. ÜberStix is a construction toy that uses eight types of interlocking pieces to build almost anything the imagination can devise. ÜberStix inventor Dane Scarborough puts the final touch on a skyscraper model over two meters tall. Scarborough says his product teaches kids architectural principles while also building confidence and self-esteem.

SCARBOROUGH: "The first time a kid builds a structure that is taller than himself, his perspective changes and other things seem possible. It's marvelous."

PHILLIPS: Many models call for recycled materials to be used with the ÜberStix. Scarborough says this sends a "green" message to kids, while making it easier for children in low-income house to build big with very little.

SCARBOROUGH: "This kit, for example, the scavenger series, when you open up this up, you can't build this kit out of the box without completing this list of recycled items: two cups, a shopping bag, a water bottle."

PHILLIPS: Some manufacturers make the planet itself the focus with toys that deal with ecology. For example, a Toyops product called Eco Dome, creates a microcosm of the Earth's water cycle and demonstrates the greenhouse effect that leads to global warming.

Other scientific toys include digital microscope cameras. Chemistry sets that cater to kids' natural fascination with the gooey and the slimy remain popular.

In all, it's a wonderful time for kids to learn how the world works while they play. At the 105th International Toy Fair in New York, I'm Adam Phillips reporting for Our World.

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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

Rob Sivak 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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