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Our World — 25 April 2009


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 birth ...

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 human evolution..."

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.

Here 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.

OBAMA: "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.

He 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 renewable sources.

"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.

"Now 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 benefits."



US company plans floating windfarm

Collecting 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.

But 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.

BANSE: The 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."

BANSE: ... 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 this.

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."

BANSE: Weinstein and one of her project managers have just finished presenting their plans to a community meeting in the postcard pretty town of Manzanita, Oregon.

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.

Manzanita architect Tom Bender listened to the presentation and then speaks out against what he calls industrialization of the ocean.

BENDER: "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.

POULSEN: "A windmill is a beautiful machine. They have been with humans for 10,000 years and it contributes to preserving our planet."

BANSE: 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."

BANSE: 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.

HAMNER: "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."

BANSE: 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

An 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 reports.

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 impact.

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.

PYNE: "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."

BERMAN: 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 discipline.

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.

PYNE: "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 such."

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.

BALCH: "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, Washington



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.

As 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 your question.

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 product."

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.

BENSADON: "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.

Tech support and troubleshooting at FixYa.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

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


E. 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.

HAWK: 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:

SAEED: "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."

HAWK: 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.

SAEED: "We chemically modified a carrier protein to accept the toxin in a way that it preserves its biological activity and that we were successful in doing."

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.

SAEED: "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 significant help."

HAWK: Clinical trials on humans could begin later this year. I'm Jim Hawk.



Reconstructing childbirth in Neanderthals

We 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.

The 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.

WEAVER: "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?

WEAVER: "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 like."

Q And you're doing this digitally?

WEAVER: "Yes, 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?

WEAVER: 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?

WEAVER: 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?

WEAVER: 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 Neanderthals.


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.




MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us - maybe you've got a science question we can answer on the show - our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. 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.

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