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Our World — 5 July 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Honoring young inventors with solutions for the developing world ... recalling the genius of R. Buckminster Fuller ... and learning you've been accepted as an astronaut ...

REIGHTLER: "And of course, this is the call you've been waiting most of your life to hear, and now you're so excited, but you can't tell anybody."

NASA at the Folklife Festival ... investigating the benefits of an ingredient in curry ... and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Researchers have known for some time that something in red wine and dark red, blue and purple foods helps to improve health. Reporter Rose Hoban tells us that a new study offers a possible explanation for why people who eat diets high in these foods seem to live longer and have fewer medical problems.

HOBAN: Researcher Raphael de Cabo from the National Institute on Aging in the U.S. says that might be because these foods contain a substance called resveratrol. He wanted to test this idea, so he decided to test resveratrol in mice.

De CABO: "So, we studied a group of about 500 mice. And we did the feeding after they were one year of age, so they would be equivalent to a 35-year-old human, so they were one-third through the normal lifespan. And they were fed continuously until they died. So that was about two years later, so they were on resveratrol about two years."

HOBAN: The mice were also fed different types of diets — high fat, regular diet, and low fat. Some of the mice received resveratrol, and others didn't.

De Cabo found after two years that the resveratrol had a positive impact on their health of the mice who got it. Mice fed resveratrol showed signs of healthier organs and an improved lifespan.

De CABO: "They had less cardiovascular disease, they have less stiffening or parameters that measure vessel stiffening and vessel damage. They have the improvement in the handling of glucose throughout the lifespan. They have better metabolic profiles overall."

HOBAN: It turns out that resveratrol activates proteins present in our cells. De Cabo says these proteins, called SIRT proteins, are involved with regulation of our cells and our DNA.

De CABO: "So they are right at the core of the normal daily activities of the cell."

HOBAN: De Cabo says there's not enough data yet to tell people to go out and take resveratrol supplements to improve their health. But he does says that people get resveratrol naturally, by eating more fruits and vegetables that are bright red and blue and purple, and drinking red wine. All these foods include the resveratrol. De Cabo says doing this research has altered his eating.

De CABO: "Do I include more grapes, and do I keep drinking red wine as I did? Yes. I did have an increased consumption of grapes and red fruits and vegetables."

HOBAN: De Cabo's research is published in the journal Cell Metabolism. I'm Rose Hoban.

There are many other examples of a strong link between certain foods and human health. Turmeric gives its unique flavor and color to curries and Moroccan cuisine. But it has a long history as a medicinal herb, and, as Eric Libby reports, the spice has recently been used to treat obesity and type II diabetes in mice.

LIBBY: Inflammation — that annoying, pink swelling that signals a cut is infected — is more than skin-deep. It is a complicated set of reactions our body uses to protect us. Yet it plays an important role in many diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and types of heart disease.

Chronic inflammation has even been linked to cases of obesity and diabetes, and that caught the attention of Dr. Stuart Weisberg, pediatric resident at Columbia University.

WEISBERG: "These inflammatory cells called macrophages actually accumulate in fat tissue in obese individuals. In some of our mouse models, we noticed that, in the most severely affected animals, over half of the cells in their fat tissue were actually inflammatory macrophages rather than just fat cells."

LIBBY: Weisberg and his colleagues at Columbia University research the treatment of obesity and diabetes. Recently they focused on curcumin, a compound found in turmeric that has biologic effects. Curcumin helps give the spice its bright yellow to orange color. Since curcumin is known to have anti-inflammatory properties, Weisberg tested its effects on mice prone to developing obesity and diabetes.

WEISBERG: "The best example is the leptin-deficient mouse model of obesity and diabetes. Their glucoses came down when they were given curcumin. The drug actually reversed the high glucose level that we saw in the obese mice."

LIBBY: Curcumin made up as much as 5 percent of the rodents' diet. Based on weight that's the equivalent of about 12 grams of curcumin for a human, but Weisberg cautions against simply scaling up.

WEISBERG: "There [are] differences in the way humans metabolize drugs, in the way human intestines absorb drugs, which we just don't have the answer to that question because we need to do trials in humans, which we hope to do actually."

LIBBY: Currently, researchers are testing curcumin in clinical trials as a treatment for pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, and Alzheimer's disease. One issue they encounter is ensuring enough curcumin is absorbed by the patients without causing any unwanted side effects. Curcumin may also function differently when mixed with other drugs or even the other compounds found in turmeric. While further study is needed, Weisberg's research hints that curry may have more to offer us than just flavor. This is Eric Libby in Washington.

Weisberg presented his soon-to-be-published research at a scientific meeting in San Francisco.

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

In honor of our Independence Day holiday here in the United States — which we celebrated on Friday — our Website this week features the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was America's third president, a diplomat, gentleman farmer, and architect.

His home in Virginia, known as Monticello, is a treasured national landmark.

Jefferson was also a scientist and inventor, so he would no doubt be fascinated by a virtual visit to

Start with the Monticello Explorer; it's an in-depth, interactive 3-D tour. Perhaps you'll notice an interesting piece of furniture.

WOLLERTON: "You click on it, you find out that it was created by one of Jefferson's slaves named John Hemmings. And you can click over to find out a little more about John Hemmings, or you can click over to learn more about the place where some of the furniture that John Hemmings made was believed to have been crafted, that is the joinery at Monticello, during Jefferson's day."

Chad Wollerton is webmaster at Among the site's other features is a Classroom section designed for students and teachers. That's where you'll find information about Thomas Jefferson's role as author of the Declaration of Independence.

WOLLERTON: "There we actually give a bit more about Jefferson's role in the authorship of the Declaration of Independence and its adoption than we have previously, and are able now to present a bit more about what really makes Jefferson interesting to people — his political career."

Monticello was a working plantation, and it's now a window into the world of a prosperous farm, two centuries ago. In a way, Woolerton suggests, an online visit can be more in-depth than visiting in person.

WOLLERTON: "You get a larger view of the plantation and kind of get a sense of how widespread it was, the kinds of activities that were going on, and how heavily Jefferson had it built up using his slave labor."

Like many wealthy men of his time, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, despite the ideas of equality that he wrote into the Declaration of Independence. One place to learn more about this and other aspects of life at Monticello is on the Thomas Jefferson Wiki, which is written by scholars and other experts.

The world of American founding father Thomas Jefferson online at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: "Shenandoah" (from the soundtrack of the Ken Burns film, "Lewis and Clark")

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Buckminster Fuller may be most famous for inventing the geodesic dome. But Fuller's scientific and artistic insights are part of today's cutting edge research in chemistry, nanotechnology, and "green" architecture and design, a quarter-century after he died. VOA's Adam Phillips takes a look at the mind inside the man.

PHILLIPS: Visitors to the Whitney Museum of Art's "Starting with the Universe" exhibition may be a bit overwhelmed by the elegance, strangeness and sheer diversity of R. Buckminster Fuller's designs. Exhibits include a drawing for an energy-saving dome to cover Manhattan, a distortion-free world map based on triangles, and a prototype of his Dymaxion Car, a fuel-efficient three-wheeled vehicle that could carry 11 people at speeds up to 180 kilometers per hour.

PHILLIPS: Fuller himself did not view his many disciplines as truly distinct. Rather, he saw all the arts and sciences as different lenses through which to view the same beautifully simple universe. According to media artist and Buckminster Fuller Institute board member David McConville, what Fuller wanted was "the big picture."

McCONVILLE: "Because, if you are not looking in the most comprehensive way at your problems, you are not going to come up with comprehensive solutions."

PHILLIPS: As early as the 1920s, he began to design ways to "do more with less." His futuristic Dymaxion House, for example, was designed to be energy efficient, cheap and recyclable. Kurt Przybilla , an Imax film producer who has invented toys based on Fuller's designs. says these qualities were part of Fuller's efforts at what he called "ephemeralization" — what we would call "sustainability" today.

PRZYBILLA: "'Whole systems thinking' and 'whole systems theory' grew out of a lot of the work that he did. So now, in science, everyone is starting to think of global warming and starting to think of the planet as a whole. Whereas at the time he was talking about this, he was one of the very few people that ever mentioned it."

PHILLIPS: Fuller's elegant works were much beloved by artists and still are. But, says Harvard architecture professor and Whitney co-curator Michael Hayes, that wasn't Fuller's main intention.

HAYES: "Fuller insisted that he didn't strive for beauty, but he knew when he had come to the solution, if it was the right solution, it would be beautiful. And I think this comes from his belief that nature has an overriding single system. And if he could just find the key to that system, find the kind of fundamental units of that system, then that would be beautiful because nature is beautiful."

PHILLIPS: For Fuller, that fundamental unit was the triangle, which he said was the strongest and most stable shape in nature. For him, the tetrahedron — a four-sided pyramid with each face an equilateral triangle — was nature's main building block, and so, of course, it would be his. By stacking and interlocking tetrahedrons precisely, Fuller created the geodesic domes for which he is most famous. Again, Kurt Przybilla.

PRZYBILLA: "The more triangles, the more spherical [the structure] and also the stronger [it is]. So the larger it gets, the stronger it gets. But on an atomic level, nature is using spherical forms to make structures."

PHILLIPS: Those structures were discovered on the atomic level by three chemists: Robert Curl and Richard Smalley at Rice University in Texas, and Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex in England. Kroto says that the precise structure of the C60 carbon molecule eluded them until he and Smalley recalled Fuller's geodesic dome.

KROTO: "Both Rick Smalley and I had both been to Expo in 1967 and we came to the conclusion that in fact the C60 molecule, which is a molecule with 60 carbon atoms arranged on the surface of a sphere, in the same sort of topological geodesic configuration as the Expo 1967 dome was. And I named the molecule after him: 'C60 buckminsterfullerene — and that ended up as the name."

PHILLIPS: That discovery created a new branch of chemistry, which helped give birth to nanoscience and nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on an atomic scale.

But finally, what interested Buckminster Fuller most was not the molecular or even the cosmic levels of scale. It was our human potential, as played out here, on our fragile planet, which he called "Spaceship Earth." Evidence of that can be seen at the current Whitney exhibition, and in other exhibits which showcase the achievements of this extraordinary thinker. I'm Adam Phillips in New York.

For the last two weeks here in Washington the Smithsonian Institution has been staging its annual Folklife Festival.

Each year they select several themes, usually chosen from among U.S. states or the family of nations. So this year the three themes include the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan, featuring the sacred music of its Buddhist temples, and Texas, with its great varieties of food and wine, and some terrific music, including Grammy award-winning Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia.

Alongside all this culture is, improbably, the U.S. space agency NASA — an organization that doesn't immediately seem to fit into a "folklife" festival.

But festival organizers figured that NASA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has made a lasting contributing to our American culture, and arguably even our the global culture of exploration.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

Mention NASA, and you probably think of astronauts.

So of course, the Folklife Festival has astronauts, including Ken Reightler, who described getting the phone call telling him he had been accepted as an astronaut. NASA would later make an official announcement ...

REIGHTLER: "But until they do that, they ask that you don't tell anybody. And of course, this is the call you've been waiting most of your life to hear, and in many cases you've tried more than once and you've been disappointed and you finally made it, and now you're so excited, but you can't tell anybody."

The astronauts are the public face of NASA, but for every astronaut who goes into space there is a virtual army of engineers, technicians, and other specialists who get the job done. So let's meet some members of the NASA community.

ORTEGA: "My name's Sam Ortega. I actually do ballistics and motor performance for solid rocket motors. You know, the purpose of the space station is there for us to do all of our science, all of our research. Space station is there as a stepping block for doing any of that technology development, to go on, to go to the moon, to go to Mars, and to go beyond."

MOHR: "I'm David Mohr, JPL employee. And I work on the Cassini mission to Saturn. And there's a lot of people that would do this work, even if they weren't getting paid for. I'm one of them. Anyway, I think it's a celebration of the people that do this work."

KEENAN: "My name is Dan Keenan. I'm a thermal protection system engineer. It's the system on the outside of the shuttle that keeps it from burning up on re-entry. In NASA, little ideas can grow and be bounced around between individuals, and they can get support, and over time they can be strong enough to live and thrive move out into the public as spinoffs in technologies that can be pushed out to improve society and lives and benefit in ways we can't even think of now."

Dan Keenan had some shuttle tiles for visitors to handle — they are mostly air and amazingly light weight. His father worked on the Apollo program, so space is part of his family's culture.

KEENAN: "When I look at the moon I think to myself, his legacy and the legacy of all those who committed their time and lives to put man on the Moon and safely return them, it's really a blessing, for real."

Some of the rocket science on display at this year's Folklife Festival, on the National Mall in Washington.

Space exploration relies on inventive minds, so it's good to know that the spirit of invention is alive and well among today's young people. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology honored some of America's youngest inventors recently at an event they call EurekaFest. And as reporter Maura Farrelly discovered, young inventors are thinking globally when they identify the needs that can be satisfied with science.

FARRELLY: Each year, as many as six billion coconuts are harvested for the global market, making the fruit of the coconut palm a very important part of the economy in countries like India or the Philippines. But harvesting coconuts in the traditional way — by climbing up the branchless trunk - can be dangerous. So a California high school student thinks she's found a better way.

ING: So, our invention is a robotic coconut tree-climbing device. We picked this, because in developing countries, the way they harvest them is actually pretty primitive. They just climb up with their hands and feet, but it's very dangerous

FARRELLY: Fullerton, California, teenager Amanda Ing's coconut harvester is one of sixteen inventions, all created by high school students, which were on display at this year's "EurekaFest." The event is hosted by the Lemelson-MIT program, which has been giving out so-called "InvenTeam" grants to American high schools since 2002. The coconut harvester is still a work in progress. It's a hexagon-shaped platform that can roll easily up and down just about any coconut tree, regardless of how bent or knobby the tree may be, but it can't really do anything once it gets to the top, because the students are still working on a robotic arm that they hope will pick the coconuts. But that's OK, says Josh Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT program. He says what's important is that the students have identified a solvable problem.

SCHULER: "It's hard to identify a problem, because they're not always evident unless you experience them first-hand or know someone who has experienced them first-hand. If you get high school students, or youth, to go outside, look around for problems, talk to people — that can do a lot of good."

FARRELLY: Schuler says increasingly, the students applying for InvenTeam grants are looking beyond their own communities for inspiration. This year's inventions did include a robotic floor mop, designed to help out school custodians. But students were also moved by recent earthquakes in Peru and Kashmir to invent a weight-stabilizing compact stretcher that can help rescue workers transport victims without causing further injuries. And at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, students like Rob Muellerleile picked up on the popularity of motorcycles in cities across India and China to come up with their invention.

MUELLERLEILE: "It's an electric motorcycle for urban commuters, designed to be safer than a regular motorcycle, because it has a fully enclosed frame, and it has a seatbelt and sidebars, so there's no chance of getting thrown from the motorcycle. It can recharge fully from dead in about three hours."

FARRELLY: It can travel more than 60 kilometers on a charge, at a top speed of almost 100 kilometers per hour. With the cost of gasoline going up, the electric motorcycle generated a lot of interest among the Americans who visited this year's EurekaFest. But that's not what was most exciting to Martin Fisher, winner of this year's Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. Fisher received the $100,000 prize at EurekaFest for the work he's doing in Africa. An engineer by training, he's invented a variety of human-powered irrigation pumps that are generating tremendous profits for farmers and entrepreneurs in Kenya and Tanzania. And it's that kind of global mindset that Mr. Fisher saw in many of this year's "InvenTeam" students.

FISHER: "Certainly when I was at school, there was almost nobody really thinking about these problems. And so it's great to see young people who are now thinking, what can we actually do to help solve the big problems in the world."

FARRELLY: All of the inventions on display at EurekaFest were prototypes. But all of the students are hopeful that some day, people around the world will be using their inventions. I'm Maura Farrelly in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch — maybe you have a science question for us — email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the show. 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.