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Our World — 15 November 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Some thoughts on science in the Obama administration ...the first pictures of planets around distant stars ... and more progress in finding out what lives in all the world's oceans ...

HICKOX: "By using new technologies, we're able to find more species and more diversity, more abundance, and learn more about the distribution of these animal forms around the world."

Those stories, using Google to search ... for influenza, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


Previewing science in the Obama administration

It's more than nine weeks before Barack Obama takes office as America's next president, but his transition team is already working to lay the groundwork for the new administration.

Although the faltering economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clearly top priorities, the new administration's crowded agenda includes a fair number of science-related items, from health care, climate change, and energy to education and space exploration.

You can expect some of President-Elect Obama's programs to be introduced as legislation when the new Congress convenes in January. But there are some things a president can do by himself, through a proclamation called an executive order.

For example, the head of the transition team, John Podesta, indicated this week that they are "looking at" possibly repealing the major restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that were imposed by President Bush through an executive order.

A lot of people who watch science policy are weighing in on what the Obama administration might do in that and other areas of health and science.

Al Teich of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ticked off a number of positions Obama staked out during the campaign.

TEICH: "Doubling the automobile fuel efficiency standards by 2025; an investment of $150 billion over the next 10 years in renewable energy [research and development]. He's advocated reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. And then he talks also about supporting 'STEM' education - science, technology, engineering, and math education - and a balanced space program."

Speaking at a recent forum on the nation's science agenda under the Obama Administration, Teich said that Obama has also pledged to double research funding over the next decade for the National Institutes of Health and for programs in the physical sciences.

He also noted that the president-elect has promised to upgrade the position of presidential science advisor, and he has come down on the side of scientific integrity. In a letter to the National Academy of Sciences, the president-elect noted that an "increasing number of policy decisions must be guided by what he called "expert scientific evidence" and not "distorted by ideological biases."

As we said, the economy is perhaps the biggest issue right now, but possibly science could benefit from a government economic stimulus.

The Bush administration has focused on aiding banks and other major corporations. But an official at one major research university suggested that the Obama administration might consider an investment in science as its brand of economic stimulus.

Michael Waring of the University of Michigan said the money could be invested through government science agencies.

WARING: "Because they understand that we need to keep building that infrastructure, science infrastructure to not only get the technologies, but also the people. We need to have those people that come out of that. That's why the benefits of research are not just what we learn, but also creating the scientists of the future who will do the work. And that's really important."

In some respects, science is closely tied to national security. The Science and Technology Policy Institute is a government-run research and development center. The institute's Richard Van Atta says the United States is entering a period where, for the first time in a very, very long time, the United States will not be able to rely on its technological superiority as a basis for national security.

VAN ATTA: "And the reason for that, first of all, is the globalization and commercialization of science and technology, its dispersion around the world, and the dispersion of the technological talent and capabilities that have to be addressed."

Where science and technology meet national security and international competitiveness is one area where the Obama campaign fell short, according to public policy professor Christopher Hill, of George Mason University.

He noted that the campaign had a large group of prominent scientists advising it on research issues, and also had a strong group focused mainly on information technology.

HILL: "What's missing on both sides is competitiveness, military technology, performance of aerospace industries, manufacturing - all those other dimension of the technology policy agenda. So there's a 'whole open' space, unoccupied by any evident individuals - there may be people working on it, but I haven't seen evidence of it."

We'll have more news on the new administration's approach to science, technology, and health issues in the months ahead.


Cholesterol drug helps people with low cholesterol in study

According to a new study, apparently healthy people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs can significantly reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke. VOA's Jessica Berman reports on a study using a widely-prescribed medicine sold under the brand name Crestor.

BERMAN: The 18,000 men and women in the so-called Jupiter study had normal cholesterol levels, something that would not ordinarily have flagged them as being at high risk for heart disease.

But they all had elevated blood levels of C-reactive proteins - markers of blood vessel inflammation that can indicate atherosclerosis, or blocked arteries.

In the study, which was sponsored by the maker of the cholesterol-lowering drug rosuvastatin, half of the apparently healthy participants were given the medication while the other half received a placebo.

The statin drug had such dramatic effect, the Jupiter study was ended early, according to lead author Paul Ridker of the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

RIDKER: "The fundamental finding was a nearly 50 percent reduction in heart attacks, 48 percent reduction in strokes, 48 percent reduction in bypass surgery or the need for angioplasty, And we even saw a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality. That's extraordinary because these are effects that are actually larger than what we anticipate when we put patients on statin therapy because they have high cholesterol."

BERMAN: Dr. Ridker reported the findings of the study at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in New Orleans.

But some experts have concerns about the message people might take away from the study.

SMITH: "It may be very headline catching to say, 'New test suggests everyone should be on statins,' but that's not what this study showed."

BERMAN: Sid Smith is past president of the AHA and a professor of cardiology at the University of North Carolina. He says that while the results of the study are impressive, guidelines need to be worked out for the use of statin medications.

SMITH: "It's an excellent study and I think now we need to figure out how we fit this in with a group of other new tests that are available and come up with guideline strategies that will keep more people alive without having heart attacks and strokes."

BERMAN: The males in the Jupiter study were 50 years of age and older and the women were 60 and older.

But Dr. Ridker envisions extending the use of statins to younger, seemingly healthy individuals to protect them against heart disease in the future.

RIDKER: "The idea that we might want to use statins in patients who are outside our guidelines is what this is about. And this study is a great confirmation of that."

BERMAN: The results of the study on the use the C-reactive protein test and statins was also published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.


A couple of cautionary notes. First, the study was paid for by the company the makes the drug, AstraZeneca. Also, it's not clear whether much cheaper, generic statin drugs would have the same dramatic effect on people who don't have notably high cholesterol.


Google uses search queries to track influenza outbreaks

One of the Web's most popular destinations is, of course, the search engine Google. But it might surprise you to learn that Google this week took a very interesting step into the world of public health, by harnessing the search queries that Google users type into their computers. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, it seems obvious when you think about it, but people who are coming down with the influenza, for example, might use Google to find out more about their symptoms.

HOBAN: Every day, millions of people around the world go to the search engine Google to look for information. When they're sick, they frequently look for information about their illnesses.

Now Google says those searches can help predict when flu epidemics are occurring, maybe even sooner than public health officials find out using traditional data-gathering.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the CDC, keeps track of how many people have the flu every year.

GINSBERG: "They run a surveillance system which talks to doctors across the country every week and asks them what percentage of their patients that they have seen have symptoms of the flu, and they combine all this data and they are able to survey the flu this way."

HOBAN: Google software engineer Jeremy Ginsberg says they noticed that during flu season, searches about the flu and its symptoms increased sharply. So he compared five years of Google's data with five years of the CDC's.

GINSBERG: "We compared this week by week, region by region, and we found that there are some themes which occur whenever the flu season is popular, and we can effectively, by counting and measuring how relatively popular these themes are, we can make accurate estimates of how much flu there is in every state across the U.S."

HOBAN: Not only did the Google data match that of the CDC, but it tracked flu trends in a more timely manner.

GINSBERG: "It takes about a week or two for all of the doctor reports to trickle in. And so by the time they are collected, another week or two has passed. So because we make our data available so quickly, we were able to detect the start of flu season one to two weeks before the CDC's own data."

HOBAN: Using this concept, Ginsberg and his co-workers created an application called Google Flu Trends. At Google.org/flutrends, Americans can see whether many people in their communities are searching for information about the flu, and whether influenza has come to town.

Ginsberg says Google plans to gather more data for a year or two, and then expand the application to help predict flu trends in other countries too.

I'm Rose Hoban.


Monitoring sea life diversity on our Website of the Week


Scientists from 83 countries working on the Census of Marine Life this week unveiled a host of new findings about life in the waters of our ocean planet.

The 2,000 or so researchers who've been working on the project for the past eight years have now catalogued more than 120,000 species from octopi to bugs on the sea floor to reefs made of bacteria.

You can learn more about the astonishing diversity of life in our oceans at our Website of the Week, the Census of Marine Life, at coml.org. It features detailed scientific information for specialists, but also gorgeous images, videos, and information written for the rest of us. Census outreach team leader Sara Hickox recommends one part of the education section.

HICKOX: "The Marine Life Discoveries is a place where people can find out an overview of some of the new species we've found, like the Yeti crab, which was a very hairy looking little crab that was found at hydrothermal vents. What is happening at hydrothermal vents and sea mounts? What are these deep water oyster banks that no one ever really knew were there?"

The Census of Marine Life is made possible by advances in the tools that ocean scientists use to get an unprecedented picture of life in the world's many underwater marine habitats.

HICKOX: "And by using new technologies and by going places we never ever looked before, we're able to find more species and more diversity, more abundance, and learn more about the distribution of these animal forms around the world."

Robot submersibles and research submarines are used, but Sara Hickox said they're also employing what she called "animal oceanographers" - elephant seals, for example, that wear tags that report the location and environment where they're swimming.

The Census of Marine Life will be published on paper in a couple of years, but it will probably reach a broader audience online.

HICKOX: "So by making all of this information available on the Web, we really are servicing not only the scientific community around the world but also the public and students around the world, too."

Learn more about the oceans near you and around the world from the Census of Marine Life at coml.org, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Mitch Ryder - "Too Many Fish In The Sea"

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


Planets circling distant stars photographed for first time


Two teams of scientists working separately with ground and space-based telescopes this week published what they say are the first visible-light images of planets orbiting distant stars.

Hundreds of planets have been identified around stars outside of our solar system, but NASA official Ed Weiler says they've all been discovered indirectly, by observing the effect the planet has on the star it orbits.

WEILER: "The analogy I like to think of is, if I live near a jungle and I hear elephants at night, and I go into the jungle in the daytime and I see what look like elephant footprints, I might think I've detected elephants. But until I get that picture, that simple picture of an elephant, I'm not really sure."

Well now, we have a picture of the elephant.

One elephant and a small herd, really.

Two papers published online by the journal Science this week describe the two discoveries.

The first is a single planet circling a star called Fomalhaut, about 25 light years away in the southern sky.

In a briefing at NASA headquarters, University of California astronomer Paul Kalas showed pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope two years apart that show a tiny white speck - the planet Fomalhaut B - moving across a dust field that surrounds the star.

KALAS: "Fomalhaut B is moving because it's orbiting the star Fomalhaut just within the dust belt. And Fomalhaut B completes an orbit in roughly 800 years."

A second team of scientists showed pictures of three planets orbiting a star in the Pegasus constellation using images from telescopes in Hawaii.

There have been some previous but disputed reports of images of planets outside our Solar System, but this week's findings may be a bit more solid. The findings may be solid, but the planets themselves are all gas giants and unlikely to support anything like life as we know it.

In other space news this week, NASA announced that the Phoenix Mars lander has probably succumbed to the Martian cold.

The space probe gets its power from solar panels, and at its location near the Martian North Pole, there just isn't enough light any more to keep the lander's systems going.

The last communication received from Phoenix was on November 2.

During its six months on Mars, the Phoenix lander's onboard lab identified water ice and other materials - including perchlorate and calcium carbonate - which are helping scientists get a better picture of the Red Planet's soil and geology. It even captured pictures of falling snow.


Science education is fun at California science museum


And finally today...

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to emphasize science and math education in his administration. And while most of that learning will occur in the nation's classrooms, science museums and learning centers also have an important role. VOA's Adam Phillips paid a visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley, which has been dedicated to hands-on learning since 1968.

PHILLIPS: At first glance, this group of 15 children gathered in a carpeted room inside the Lawrence Hall of Science seems to be absorbed in random play, as they build structures with thousands of little wooden planks. But Barbara Ando, Lawrence Hall's associate program director, says there is lots of serious learning underlying all the fun.

ANDO: "The little building blocks we have that are called 'Kapla' really allow you to invent and engineer for yourself. So you might be trying to create a bridge structure to get across a particular gap. And what does it take to do that? You need some supports. You need maybe some cantilevering or something like that. So you can actually try it out yourself.

"We are lucky that we're not a school and we allow a lot of free exploration, which is the best way to learn. We think that kids' play is really their work and they're learning the whole time, following their own path and really kind of doing the inquiry approach to their life."

PHILLIPS: At the "nanoZONE" exhibit, kids learn about nanotechnology. Nanotechnology deals with objects measured in billionths of a meter.

NanoZONE highlights various technical innovations in this emerging field. Darrell Porcello, director of the Lawrence Hall's Center for Technology Innovation says that one of the favorite stops in the nanoZONE exhibit celebrates the microscopic wonders of a gecko's foot.


PORCELLO: "A gecko is a small lizard-like creature that is able to climb tall walls and ceilings and amazes kids with its acrobatic feats. And it's able to stick to these walls with no goo, no mess, but simply with their feet and their legs. And what is on these appendages that are very interesting are these very tiny nano split tips on the edges of hairs. And because there are so many of the split tips, there is a small force that is added up across their entire foot that allows them to stick onto the wall. So we've created a small exhibit here that actually shows kids how more points of contact on an object can actually increase its attractive force to another object, to a wall or to a ceiling. And then we actually let kids actually simulate walking like a gecko with a foot device that resembles a gecko."

PHILLIPS: The most visually stunning program on display here is called the "Forces That Shape the Bay." With its one-third hectare of rooftop displays and 180-degree view of the San Francisco Bay region, the exhibit tries to show the various factors that continue to shape the Bay area's geology. Craig Hansen, the assistant director of exhibits, helped design the display so that visitors can see a feature in the view, then play with - and learn from - its miniature analog in the exhibit. Hansen points to an erosion table using sand and water that is popular with both kids and adults.

HANSEN: "Most kids, they make dams and they flood the basin and they build little houses and things like that. nd that's okay because a lot of kids hardly get the chance to play in the creek anymore. But as they grow older, we can also show them this is how a stream meanders, and this is how a delta forms."

PHILLIPS: In fact, two of the earth's most active tectonic plates meet under San Francisco Bay, where they shift and grind against each other, causing earthquakes. One of Hansen's favorite exhibits is a mountable machine with stacks of rubber mats of alternating colors. When the device is switched on, its movement mimics a shift in the tectonic plates, and models the ongoing formation of the area's mountains. Hansen likes to say it's one of the few exhibits that uses your rear end to teach you something!

PHILLIPS: The fun and the learning don't stop at the museum's exit doors. The Lawrence Hall of Science also develops curriculum materials for use worldwide. As museum official Craig Hansen says, science and math education - fueled with the joy of discovery - are the building blocks of America's future.

At the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, I'm Adam Phillips reporting.




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

Rob Sivak edited the show. Bob Doughty 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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