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Our World — 14 February 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: Global warming shows up in bird migration patterns ... giving amputees better control over artificial arms ...and an advance in genetic research could lead to a cure for the common cold:

LIGGETT: "People might laugh, but I've got the whole genetic code for every one of these viruses. That's got to give me an advantage in trying to do that!"

Those stories, the marriage of art and science, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Green jobs central to economic recovery

At the heart of the economic stimulus package that the U.S. Congress was wrestling with this week is the creation of jobs.

Some activists have been pushing for jobs in sustainable energy and related fields. But in a new report, environmentalists and labor organizers say they want more than just 'green' jobs.

As Rosanne Skirble tells us, the report says the stimulus jobs must comply with standards that can sustain families and fuel the economy, as well as protect the environment.

SKIRBLE: The report calls for investment in high quality well-paying jobs that can green the planet. Supporters came together on Capitol Hill with advice on how to make that happen.

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow says her state has faced enormous losses in the auto industry. She says a green collar agenda can help reverse that trend.

STABENOW: I can sit in Michigan in the beautiful Upper Peninsula and watch barges come down across Lake Superior that have wind turbines on them, made outside this country. There is no reason that we should not be making them here and using them here.

SKIRBLE: Stabenow observes that it is a lost opportunity when jobs in the wind and solar energy industry are exported to Mexico or to China for cheap labor. But conditions vary widely for workers at 'green' manufacturers in the United States, according to Philip Mattera, research director for the non-profit group Good Jobs First and lead author of the report.

MATTERA: We found examples of very well-paying middle class jobs in areas such as green construction and manufacturing of components for wind and solar energy and even recycling. But we also found examples of companies that are providing substandard wages, inadequate benefits and overall poor working conditions.

SKIRBLE: A green job is not always a good job, says labor leader Terrence O'Sullivan, speaking at the release of the report. He urged lawmakers to ensure that the economic recovery includes quality green job standards for middle class workers.

O'SULLIVAN: Green jobs must as a minimum must make sure that there is prevailing wage protections as well as living wage provisions. That is what we believe, that we must invest in the green economy, that our government and all of us are obligated to ensure that our investments support communities and families.

SKIRBLE: That business strategy has guided Gerding Edlen, a real estate development company in Portland, Oregon. Among its landmark projects was transforming an historic sprawling factory compound into a neighborhood of offices, stores and homes. The company installed solar panels, applied green building standards, put parking lots underground and recycled almost all construction waste. Gerding Edlen executive Dennis Wilde says the company went even further to create a sustainable and livable community.

WILDE: We dramatically improve the energy efficiency, and we install green roofs. We can build a healthy environment. We can renovate our cities. We can create and maintain living wage jobs, and we can do this through the new green economy. We think this is the new national model for business of all types, not just construction.

SKIRBLE: Cathy Duvall agrees with that assessment. Duvall is the political director for the Sierra Club and part of the coalition that commissioned the report. She says partnering with labor groups offers distinct advantages for moving the environmental agenda forward.

DUVALL: If we are going to make this work, it has to be sustainable … not just to protect the polar bear - which we do and want to - but also to protect working American families.

SKIRBLE: Green jobs, Duvall argues, are not a short-term fix in bad economic times. With so much at stake, she says, the nation must make sure that those jobs are quality jobs that can protect the planet and help the nation prosper. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Birds respond to climate change by changing migration

In the past, mine workers used caged birds to alert them to the presence of toxic gases, which would affect the birds before the miners. It's where we get the expression, "canary in the coal mine."

Today, scientists studying birds say they provide tangible evidence of another danger - climate change.

For more than a century, the National Audubon Society, a bird conservation group, has organized an annual amateur bird count. Tens of thousands of volunteers watch for birds and record which species they see. This year's three-week count added up to 56 million individual bird sightings.

Audubon scientists analyzed reports for more than 300 bird species over the past 40 years and found that more than half of them are spending their winters farther north than they used to.

In other words, the places where the birds used to spend the winter have gotten warmer, so they don't have to fly as far to get to a place with winter temperatures to their liking.

Prof. Terry Root of Stanford University helped write the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She says the Audubon report shows birds responding to warmer temperatures.

ROOT: "It shows across the entire continent - it's just not in one small place - that the species really are shifting, they really are moving. They're moving north significantly. And what it's showing is that the birds are tracking that amount of change in temperature."

Audubon president John Flicker says that the bird study shows some of the first clear signs of global warming's biological impact:

FLICKER: "We are, in effect, conducting an unprecedented experiment, an uncontrolled experiment on our planet, and the consequences are showing up right now. They're showing up on birds, and the question for us is, will people be next."

Another bird study caught our eye this week. An international team led by researchers at Canada's York University has tracked the migration of songbirds by attaching tiny devices called geolocators to their backs.

They tracked seven birds over their full migration route from the U.S. to South America and back.

Their daily flight was previously estimated at about 150 kilometers, but the birds actually traveled as much as three times as far - over 500 kilometers a day in some cases.

Their trip home in the Spring was much faster than their fall trip south. One purple martin flew from Pennsylvania to Brazil in 43 days in the Fall, but made it home in just 13 days.

The geolocators they put on the birds are about the size of a small coin, and they detect and record light. The researchers can use that information to determine the bird's location by cross-referencing sunrise and sunset.

Amputees use nerve function to move artificial arms

For people who have lost arms due to disease or war or accident, artificial limbs are a wonderful if limited substitute. Makers of these prosthetic devices are constantly working to improve the produce. Meanwhile, medical researchers have been at work trying to improve control of the arm.

They've developed a promising technique to help double arm amputees move their artificial limbs using a procedure that harnesses the remaining nerves that would otherwise be lost due to their injuries. VOA's Jessica Berman explains.

BERMAN: Arm amputees commonly use devices attached to their shoulders to transfer movement to cables that operate artificial arms or wrists.

But these conventional prosthetic limbs operate only one motion at a time and are imprecise and artificial arms that operate using brain signals are still in the developmental stage.

Now, researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago are working on a third option that holds promise for double arm amputees. The technique is called targeted muscle reinnervation, or TMR. It preserves the remaining nerves of arm amputees that might otherwise be lost in the injury.

TMR surgically transfers the nerves to the wall of the chest or the non-functioning muscles in the upper arm above the injury.

The idea is to stimulate the remaining arm nerves to generate electrical signals to operate prosthetic devices.

Researchers conducted a study involving five volunteers who had lost their arms, but had the TMR procedure. Double amputee Jess Sullivan was one of the volunteers.

SULLIVAN: "It's amazing when you are sitting there and you close your hand and the computer, the virtual screen closes, and you can make it move fast or slow. I mean you control the whole thing. It's exciting."

BERMAN: Researcher says investigators used advanced computer algorithms to help patients control their own movements.

KUIKEN: "Now when the patient thinks, 'Close hand,' for example, a little piece of muscle on their biceps or their chest contracts to tell their prosthetic hand to close."

BERMAN: Researchers, led by Dr. Kuiken, found that all of the patients were able to adequately operate arm prosthetics with TMR, with three patients using advanced prosthetics.

KUIKEN: "I hope that people with amputations realize that people are working on improving the technology and that there are technologies coming down the pike that will help them. Whether it's this technology or other similar technologies, a lot of people are working to minimize the impact of disability and apply technologies to help people with disabilities."

BERMAN: Todd Kuiken and his colleagues report their work in this week's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington

Scientists decode genes for common cold

What would the world be like if there was finally a cure for the common cold? Fewer people would miss work, school or their favorite activities, productivity would increase and people's noses would be a lot happier. But the common cold has thus far eluded a cure - in part because there's not one single cause for the common cold. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, it can be brought on by any one of more than 100 different viruses.

HOBAN: Dr. Stephen Liggett from the University of Maryland says he was surprised that scientists had decoded the genes for only a few of them.

LIGGETT: "I was struck by the fact that, while there were over 100 known serotypes - also called strains - only eight of them had ever had their complete genomes sequenced."

HOBAN: Liggett worked with a team of geneticists to decipher all of those 100-plus cold strains. They are part of the same family of viruses, called rhinoviruses, but they cause different symptoms. Some groups may give a person an inner-ear infection, for example. Others are more like to cause asthma-like symptoms.

LIGGETT: "It became clear to us that there are these groups and that maybe there was not going to be a one-drug-fits-all approach to treating rhinovirus infections, but maybe four or five. Which is still quite acceptable, because we've essentially been unsuccessful so far."

HOBAN: Rhinoviruses are known to mutate into new forms. Liggett says that in the course of unraveling how rhinoviruses evolve, he learned more about how those mutations occur.

LIGGETT: "They can recombine. Two rhinoviruses, if you are co-infected, can recombine to make a third. That was not predicted by anyone."

HOBAN: But despite the fact that rhinoviruses are wily, Liggett believes that knowing their genetic sequence is key to developing cures for the common cold.

LIGGETT: "You know I have very strong optimism for that and, you know, people might laugh, but I've got the whole genetic code for every one of these viruses. That's got to give me an advantage in trying to do that!"

HOBAN: Liggett says the next step is to look for other rhinoviruses that may have escaped him the first time around, and see how different strains affect different people. He says eventually drug makers can find ways to exploit this new information to bring relief to millions of noses.

His research is published in the journal Science. I'm Rose Hoban.

Images of slavery on our Website of the Week

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

This week ... it's African-American History Month here in the U.S., so from perhaps the darkest chapter in our nation's history we feature a website that displays life under what historian Kenneth Stampp called a "peculiar institution" that persisted in the Americas for centuries.

HANDLER: " is a website , which now contains about 1,200 images portraying the lives of Africans and their descendants in the slave societies of the new world."

Jerome Handler is the founder of

HANDLER: "I wanted to give people an idea of the range and diversity of customs and behaviors found among Africans and their descendants in the New World, and I also wanted to avoid images that grossly portrayed Africans and their descendants."

Handler recommends that first-time visitors go to the search page where they can browse topics like slave ships or plantation scenes, or search for pictures that mostly date from the slave period.

HANDLER: "All of these images were created roughly during the time period that they're referring to. So you can put in any word that you want. You can put in housing, you can put in family life, you can put in shoes. Or you can put in particular areas. Ghana, Gold Coast, Nigeria, and so on and so forth, and see what kind of images that we have."

Handler began collecting these pictures - many of them from old books and newspapers - to illustrate a course he was teaching some years ago. As an academic he stresses that the website isn't just a collection of interesting pictures. Each image includes information about its source and comments that help to put it in context regarding the institution of slavery.

Pictures of life in the era of slavery at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site,

MUSIC: Billy Taylor Trio - "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"

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

Artists find creative ways to communicate science

And finally today ...

Mixing art and science can be rewarding. Comedian Bill Cosby said the purpose of air is ... to pump up basketballs. Math professor and satirist Tom Lehrer took a Gilbert and Sullivan tune and raced through the periodic table in a minute and a half.

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium.

For a lot of people - not us! - but for a lot of people, science is dry and uninteresting. But as we hear from reporter Shelley Schlender, people pay attention - and even learn something - when artists and entertainers add some sizzle to the science.

SCHLENDER: If you've ever stifled a yawn as a scientist explains how carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, Michelle Ellsworth's approach may change that.

MUSIC: "The Burger Song"

This is a burger, and we are its helpers…

SCHLENDER: Ellsworth is a dance professor at the University of Colorado. Her audience laughs and watches attentively as she and other dancers pay homage to a hamburger on an altar. In song, they explain that while rising carbon dioxide levels increase the pace of climate change, carbon itself is not all bad.

This burger is carbon-based. It has carbon in it. We have carbon in us..."

SCHLENDER: She tells the crowd that carbon causes trouble when its use leads to more greenhouse gas.

To convey how time is running out for addressing climate change, Ellsworth interrupts her act with a timeout beeper.

ELLSWORTH: …CO2! And there's a concept ... [BEEP] Okay ..

SCHLENDER: Ellsworth's performance is not only entertaining, says University of Colorado climate scientist, Jason Neff. As her consultant and collaborator, he's proud to say the science information is accurate enough to impress experts in the audience.

NEFF: "People came up and said, 'Wow, there was a lot of science in that!"

SCHLENDER: Neff and Ellsworth are part of a growing number of scientists and artists teaming up to create lively and accurate performances about science. Ellsworth suggests their collaboration could lead to better climate change solutions.

ELLSWORTH: "Yeah, I think it is my fantasy that people are going to think longer and think twice and think differently."

MUSIC: "Dr. Atomic"
... We think that Matter can be neither created nor destroyed ...

SCHLENDER: Opera fans are thinking differently these days about the power contained in the atom.

... but only altered in form.

SCHLENDER: In the opera Dr. Atomic, the singers play scientists, working through the night, as the first atomic bomb is readied for testing. The opera uses factual information from declassified documents to tell how the United States tried to end World War II by creating the devastating weapon..

Batter my heart, three person'd God; That I may rise and stand…

SCHLENDER: The libretto includes poems that were cherished by some of the scientists, as they struggled with their fears that instead of stopping war, their invention might destroy the world.

…overthrow me, and bend/ Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new ...

SCHLENDER: While dramas such as Dr. Atomic highlight the conflicts that technology can present, the arts can also showcase the joy of science, as in Len Barron's one-man show about the renowned physicist Albert Einstein.

BARRON: "He was at a gathering one time and somebody made some mention of his manner of dress, and he said, 'look, when I discovered that the earth was matter, that expanded into nothing that was something, I want to tell you wearing plaids with stripes was real easy.'"

SCHLENDER: His content may seem light-hearted. But Barron's meticulously researched biographical sketches deliver a serious message. Fewer and fewer American students are studying math and science. One reason, he says, is that educators load them up with data, without engaging their hearts.

BARRON: "Einstein said you certainly don't start off education by giving people equations. You start them off with a story. If you give them data first, it doesn't matter whether it's science or any other subject. You know, first you have to elicit that curiosity, that sense of wonder, and then the data has a context."

SCHLENDER: Creating that sense of wonder is why dancer Michelle Ellsworth and geologist Jason Neff teach a class together at the University of Colorado, as well as presenting shows about climate change.

First, Neff gives a classroom lecture on climate science. Then, Ellsworth has students stand up, push their chairs out of the way, and produce a performance piece. Sometimes, she even asks Neff to join her in "performing" science. He admits that while it hasn't made him a better dancer, it does help his students be better scientists.

NEFF: "If you let students explore ideas through art to sort of internalize the ideas that are behind the science, they really understand it when they're done.

SCHLENDER: Neff says he hopes more scientists and artists will collaborate to enliven the dry facts of science with passion and play. And that seems likely to happen. The National Science Foundation provides some support to nontraditional outreach programs such as these, and so do many corporations and groups that support the performing arts. For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender in Boulder, Colorado.

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 is our editor. Bob Doughty 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.