MUSIC: "Our World" theme
This week on Our World: An Earth-Day
look at the prospect for floating windmills ... a possible vaccine to
prevent deadly e-coli infections ... and the Neanderthal way of giving
WEAVER: "Neanderthals actually had a different birth
mechanism than modern humans. And so that suggests that the human birth
mechanism is actually a very recent occurrence in terms of the span of
Those stories, a hot report on the role of fire in the Earth's ecosystem, and more.
I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
Obama links clean energy future to robust economy
This week, for the 40th time, people around the world celebrated Earth Day, which began in 1970.
in the United States, governments, school kids, companies, and
neighbors planted trees, cleaned up waterways, learned about climate
change, or made plans to recycle more.
On Wednesday, President
Barack Obama went to a former appliance factory that now makes parts
for power-generating windmills. He linked the challenges of a tough
economy to the quest for clean, renewable energy, saying the switch
will generate jobs and economic growth.
For now, he said, the United States must reduce its dependence on imported oil by increasing domestic oil and gas production.
"But the bulk of our efforts must focus on unleashing a new, clean
energy economy that will begin to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,
will cut our carbon pollution by about 80 percent by 2050, and create
millions of new jobs right here in America."
President Obama also promised to work with other nations in addressing the energy crisis.
spoke of the plan to develop renewable energy, including wind energy
harnessed by turbines mounted on the very towers being made by the
workers in his audience.
OBAMA: "Through the Department of
Interior, we are establishing a program to authorize - for the very
first time - the leasing of federal waters for projects to generate
electricity from wind as well as from ocean currents and other
"And this will open the door to major
investments in offshore clean energy. For example, there is enormous
interest in wind projects off the coasts of New Jersey and Delaware,
and today's announcement will enable these projects to move forward.
it's estimated that if we fully pursue our potential for wind energy on
land and offshore, wind can generate as much as 20 percent of our
electricity by 2030, and create a quarter million jobs in the process,
250,000 jobs in the process, jobs that pay well and provide good
US company plans floating windfarm
wind energy offshore is promising. The ocean generally offers wide
open spaces and stronger winds than those that blow across land. And
there are projects already underway along European coastlines, in
shallow waters where a wind turbine can be anchored to the sea floor.
along most of the world's coastlines, it gets too deep too fast to put
a turbine tower on a solid foundation. So a company in Seattle,
Washington, near the U.S. Pacific coast, has announced plans for the
world's first floating wind farm. Tom Banse reports windmills that
would float many kilometers out at sea could one day help satisfy our
energy needs, without being eyesores from land.
world's beaches and coastlines are marked by the scent of the ocean,
the sound of the waves… and the fairly constant feel of the wind.
That's what interests energy developer Alla Weinstein.
WEINSTEIN: "The wind resource offshore is a lot stronger and more consistent than it is on shore."
BANSE: The challenge is how to harness that wind to make electricity.
WEINSTEIN: "Because the ocean is fairly deep, very quickly."
... Certainly on the U.S. Pacific Coast, where we're standing.
Weinstein founded a company called Principle Power. It is trying to do
something never done before... namely build a floating wind farm. The
Russian-born engineer proposes to marry two existing technologies to do
WEINSTEIN: "We actually are not inventing the wheel. We
are reusing the wheel. The wheels that we are reusing are the offshore
platforms that were developed for the offshore oil industry and also
the [wind] turbines that have been developed first for use on land."
Weinstein and one of her project managers have just finished presenting
their plans to a community meeting in the postcard pretty town of
The company wants to build local support for
its plans to moor 30 giant wind turbines offshore, each on its own
floating platform anchored to the sea bottom. The turbines would bob
about 15 kilometers offshore, right around the edge of the horizon as
seen from the beach. The presenters dangle the prospect of local jobs
and perhaps royalty payments to support community improvements.
architect Tom Bender listened to the presentation and then speaks out
against what he calls industrialization of the ocean.
"The red lights on these things... These 400-500 foot [120-150 m.] tall
towers obviously have flashing red lights. You get that on a foggy
evening, the entire sky is pulsing red lights."
BANSE: Danish naval officer Frants Poulsen, who retired to Manzanita, comes to an opposite conclusion.
"A windmill is a beautiful machine. They have been with humans for
10,000 years and it contributes to preserving our planet."
Fishermen are another constituency to assuage. Charter boat captain Jon
Brown foresees less disruption from the offshore wind farm than from
proposed wave energy parks nearer to shore.
BROWN: "I much rather have wind energy 10 miles offshore than wave energy right by the beach. Yeah, no question about that."
Still in question is whether the price of the electricity from an
offshore wind farm will be affordable. Another Seattle-based company
prepared an estimate in connection with a combination wave and wind
energy platform it proposed to build off the coast of Washington State.
Burt Hamner is president of Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company.
"It is expensive and there's no way around that. It'll cost twice as
much per megawatt - or twice as much per unit of energy - to produce
the power offshore as it will onshore. The reality though is that in
many places there's nowhere else to get that much energy onshore."
The Principle Power folks insist their electricity will be priced
competitively with other sources of new renewable energy. The Seattle
company recently signed a contract with Portugal's biggest electric
company. They plan to moor the world's first floating wind farm in the
east Atlantic. The project would start with a single demonstration
platform launching in 2011. The project on the Oregon coast would come
second. Meanwhile, several European competitors in the wind energy
sector have conceptual designs for their own floating wind turbines.
For Our World, I'm Tom Banse in Tillamook County, Oregon.
Scientists call for new field of study: fire
international group of researchers is calling for the creation of a
separate scientific discipline devoted to the study of fire. The
scientists say there's a basic lack of understanding about fire, which
impacts virtually every aspect of life on earth. VOA's Jessica Berman
BERMAN: Uncontrolled fires cause billions of dollars
a year in damage to health, livelihoods and biodiversity, yet experts
say relatively little is known about this primitive element and its
In a paper published this week in the journal Science,
co-author Steve Pyne (PINE) and colleagues say there's currently no
systematic, scientific way to study fire.
Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University in Tempe, says a separate fire science is long overdue.
"Fire is an enormous large ancient presence and it has not been
considered in our disciplines. There is no fire topic as a
discipline. You know the other ancient elements - earth, air and water
- all have disciplines devoted to them but fire doesn't."
Pyne and nearly two dozen other researchers compiled current data on
fire's impact on global warming to underscore the need for a new fire
The scientists report that all fires combined --
from the intentional blazes farmers use to clear forest to the
accidental wildfires sparked by both man and nature -- release an
amount of carbon dioxide equal to half the CO2 emissions from the
burning of fossil fuels.
They say fires also pump other
potentially climate-changing pollutants into the atmosphere, including
methane gas, aerosols and soot.
Pyne adds that changes in climate could exacerbate the hot, dry conditions that trigger wildfires.
"That is to say we're seeing an outbreak of larger and more intense
fires, and climate is part of the background set of conditions that
allows that to happen. So fire is very much a cause and consequence
and, in some ways, catalyst for all of this, but it is not considered
BERMAN: The prospect of larger and more deadly fires
around the world makes it imperative that new ways be found to help us
better understand and manage those fires, according to the study's lead
author, Jennifer Balch, a researcher with the National Center for
Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California.
"What we're going to have to be concerned about in a warmer world are
where there are more fires where we don't normally see fires, where
there are more fires and where there are more frequent fires. And we
are going to have to figure out where those differences are going to be
and how we're going to respond to them, and accommodate these changes
in fire regimes."
BERMAN: The authors hope the report will
persuade the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an
international panel of experts studying global warming - to pay more
attention to fire as a significant force in global warming, and spark
interest within the scientific community for a new scientific
discipline devoted to the study of fire. Jessica Berman, VOA News,
Peer-supplied tech support on our Website of the Week
Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.
the products we use get more and more sophisticated, it's not
surprising that sometimes we need help in using them. Maybe you don't
like to read the manual - who does? - or maybe you can't figure out
what the manual is saying. The retailer or manufacturer may not be able
to help you, but our Website of the Week just may have the answer to
BENSADON: "FixYa is the first and largest
website for technical support where consumers are helping other
consumers to solve product-specific questions on practically any
Yaniv Bensadon is the founder of FixYa.com. It's a
place where 12 million users come to exchange information about a
million different products they use ... technology products like
digital cameras and mobile phones, cars and trucks, kitchen appliances
and tools. And not just the latest models.
BENSADON: "There is
a very 'long tail' of people that are looking for a question [and
solution] on an old alarm clock or a hot dog maker or a sewing machine,
and that's the beauty of this service. Over time, FixYa becomes the
main or the only source of troubleshooting information on products that
become obsolete because there are no alternatives."
If you post
a problem you're having, Bensadon says you'll typically get an answer
in just a few hours. But there is already a huge database of problems
and solutions, so you may not even have to wait.
"Each question and answer has been documented on the site, so the more
time passed, the more consumers are leveraging and using that service,
the more our knowledge grows on each of these products and becomes an
asset to the folks that are interested to find their own solution
instead of asking a question."
Help from other users is free, but if that doesn't work there are also experts who will solve your problem for a fee.
support and troubleshooting at FixYa.com, or get the link to this and
more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site,
MUSIC: Stephane Hirondelle - "Bio Technology"
You may find your solution on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
E. coli vaccine could save millions of lives
coli is a family of common bacteria. Most are harmless, even
beneficial. One strain of E. coli lives in our intestines and helps in
digestion. But other strains of the bacteria can be deadly, and one
especially lethal germ can be transmitted on fresh, unwashed
vegetables. Now a vaccine is being developed that could prevent
dangerous E. coli strains from doing harm. Jim Hawk reports.
The Escherichia coli bacteria - known as E. coli - kills two to three
million children each year. It causes severe diarrhea, which can lead
to fatal dehydration. Researcher Mahdi Saeed of Michigan State
University is testing the first-ever vaccine against this deadly strain
of E. coli, which can infect people over and over again:
"Because there is no immunity. You're exposed today and within 48
hours, you're exposed again and you're going to develop the same thing.
And in third world countries, children five years and younger are very,
very susceptible to dehydration because there is no immunity."
It turns out that E. coli can re-infect people so easily because it
produces such a small toxin that it is not recognized as a danger by
the body's defense system. Saeed says the key breakthrough in
developing a vaccine against it was to attach the toxin to something
bigger so it did trigger an immune response.
chemically modified a carrier protein to accept the toxin in a way that
it preserves its biological activity and that we were successful in
HAWK: Saeed and his team tested this approach on mice
and found the biological activity of the toxin increased by more than
40 percent, leading to its recognition by the body's immune system.
When they immunized a group of 10 rabbits, the vaccine led to the
production of the highest neutralizing antibody ever reported for this
type of the toxin.
Right now, the vaccine is administered
through a shot, but the ultimate goal is to develop a skin patch. Saeed
says, in addition to children, air travelers, cruise ship passengers,
troops stationed overseas and even livestock could all benefit.
"Diarrheal disease has a great impact on children in the third world
countries or developing countries. Less here for children, but for
travelers it is a menace, for animals it is, for our troops elsewhere,
for those who gather in big crowds - this vaccine can offer some
HAWK: Clinical trials on humans could begin later this year. I'm Jim Hawk.
Reconstructing childbirth in Neanderthals
humans have a tough time emerging into the world when we're born. We
have to squeeze through a narrow birth canal, twisting our way to
daylight. Other mammals have an easier time of it, including our
nearest cousins, primates like apes and chimpanzees.
But what about our nearest relatives, the species known as Neanderthal, which died out some 35,000 years ago?
This week, a new study concluded that Neanderthals probably had about as much difficulty in giving birth as women today do.
study's lead author, Prof. Tim Weaver of the University of California,
Davis, told me that modern humans face two major difficulties in birth.
The first is that the birth canal is narrow compared to the size of the
baby, specifically the baby's head.
WEAVER: "The other
interesting thing about modern humans is that when the baby passes
through the birth canal, it actually rotates as it goes down the birth
canal. And this is sort of a unique feature of human childbirth."
Q: So you looked at fossil record [of Neandertal], which is apparently quite sparse.
"The bones of the pelvis are quite fragmentary and so it doesn't tend
to preserve very well in the fossil record. So we only have a few
pelvic remains from early human ancestors, and so it is quite sparse."
Q So that presents a researcher like you, who is looking for info about the pelvis, with a pretty significant challenge?
WEAVER: "Yes, exactly."
Q So how do you deal with that?
"Well, one of the ways we've been able to deal with it - and this is
what we did in the study, and other researchers have done this - is
using sort of modern technology, using computers and computer imaging
methods. We're able to actually get more information out of the
fragmentary fossils that we have. And what you can do is you can make a
virtual image of the fossils, and then you can do things like mirror
fossils from, say, the left side of the body and mirror them over to
the right side of the body, and then sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, you
can kind of try to fit those pieces together to try to get a more
complete representation of, in this case, what the pelvis would look
Q And you're doing this digitally?
we use a medical CT scanner, a medical CAT scanner, to scan the fossil
fragments, and once we have those scans, those are in the computer, and
the we do all the manipulations actually in the computer.
Q: So that said, what did you conclude, what was the birth experience like for the Neanderthal?
Well, we concluded that the size of the birth canal was about the same
as in modern humans, and we know from other lines of evidence that
Neanderthal babies would have had about the same size heads and sort of
the same size bodies as modern humans. But the interesting thing that
we concluded is that neanderthals would not have had this rotation that
we were speaking about earlier, this rotation as the baby passed
through the birth canal. The baby would have just passed straight
through the birth canal without rotating at all.
Q: So at the
end of the day, what's the take-away message aside from just the facts
that you've laid out in terms of the long scope of development that's
brought us to Homo sapiens today?
WEAVER: Well, I think the
major take home message is that Neanderthals were actually a pretty
closely related species to humans. They were probably the most closely
related species that ever lived. And it's interesting because
Neanderthals actually had a different birth mechanism than modern
humans. They didn't have this rotation. And so that suggests that the
human birth mechanism, the one that we know today, is actually a very
recent occurrence in terms of the span of human evolution.
Q: Would there be an evolutionary purpose to that?
We think that the reason why modern human have this rotational birth
and Neanderthals didn't is because there was natural selection
pressures in the modern human lineage to have a narrower pelvis.
Q What would be the advantage of a narrower pelvis?
Well, we know from patterns in present day humans that people who have
ancestry near the equator tend to have a narrow pelvis, and people who
have ancestry closer to the poles tend to have a wider pelvis. We think
that this is related to thermo-regulation; it's good to have a narrow
body in a warm climate because it helps you dissipate heat. And so
there's sort of these ecological rules that apply to many different
species, and we think that they also applied to Neanderthals and sort
of contemporaneous homo sapiens that were living at the same time as
For our human ancestors, in other words,
developing in warmer parts of Africa, a lean body was an advantage,
favoring a narrower pelvis that required that rotation of the baby
through the birth canal. Neanderthals, living in cooler places, favored
a wider pelvis that allowed the baby to exit the womb more directly --
though it was still a tight fit.
Dr. Tim Weaver of the
University of California described the challenges of Neanderthal births
in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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