MUSIC: "Our World" theme
This week on Our World: Astronauts are
fixing the Hubble Space Telescope ... How melting Antarctic ice could
affect sea levels ... and a key nutrient that can help prevent
premature births ...
BUKOWSKI: "The reduction was really huge.
It was 70 percent lower risk of delivering between 20 and 28 weeks.
This is the very premature babies, the ones who likely not survive."
The value of folic acid, computer programming that's simple enough for kids, and more.
I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
Shuttle crew begins Hubble telescope repairs
aboard the space shuttle Atlantis are about halfway through their
11-day mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The flight began on Monday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
DILLER: "... two ... one ... and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis on a
final visit to enhance the vision of Hubble into the deepest grandeur
of our universe."
As Atlantis roared into space, another space
shuttle, Endeavour, sat poised on the next launch pad, ready to fly a
rescue mission if Atlantis got into trouble.
thought it was too dangerous to fly this mission, far from the safe
haven of the International Space Station. But they bowed to pressure
from the astronomy community, which considers Hubble the most important
and productive telescope they've ever used.
The space shuttle
Columbia broke up as it was returning to Earth in 2003. Investigators
determined that there was damage to the heat-resistant tiles, caused by
a piece of falling insulation during launch.
Atlantis astronauts observed some minor damage on the shuttle after launch, but it is considered superficial and not a threat.
astronauts have a busy schedule of space walks to work on the space
telescope, which is now anchored in the shuttle's payload bay. Scott
Altman, who is commanding the shuttle mission, reported the successful
procedure to Mission Control on Wednesday.
ALTMAN: "Houston, Atlantis, Hubble has arrived on board Atlantis with the arm."
BURBANK (Mission Control): "Atlantis, Houston, we copy. Nice job,
Megan, nice job on the prox ops flying as well. It's great to be back
with the telescope."
Hubble has been in orbit for 19 years
now, and although it looked better than some expected, NASA
astrophysics chief Dr. Jon Morse said it is showing some signs of wear.
"There is degradation due to the space environment of the outer
blankets, and we'll take a look at that. But as John Grunsfeld wired
down, it was a beautiful sight out the back of the shuttle, and it was
a great sight on the TV."
John Grunsfeld and his shuttle
crewmates have begun a series of five space walks to install a new
camera and perform other upgrades during what will almost certainly be
the last time astronauts visit the Hubble Space Telescope.
the past couple of decades, Hubble has made some enormous contributions
to scientists' understanding of the universe. It has also sent back
some spectacular pictures of the cosmos that you don't have to be an
astronomer to appreciate. We'll have a link to a gallery of some of the
best on our website, voanews.com/ourworld.
Folic acid before pregnancy may cut risk of premature birth
researchers have known for some time that it is important for pregnant
women to have folic acid in their diets in order to have a healthy
baby. Now they're finding that women need to have the right amount of
folic acid even before they get pregnant if they want healthy babies.
Rose Hoban has more.
HOBAN: For a long time, doctors have
told pregnant women to take folic acid supplements in order to prevent
certain kinds of birth defects. But, as gynecologist Radic Bukowski
from the University of Texas Medical Branch explains, doctors don't
know exactly how much of the vitamin is the correct amount, nor do they
know how long a woman should take it.
Bukowski looked at data
from about 38,000 pregnant women around the U.S. They had answered
questionnaires about what they ate before and during their pregnancies.
BUKOWSKI: "And we collected very carefully, different
information and data including information if women took folic acid
before becoming pregnant, and for how long they have done this before
HOBAN: Folic acid helps the body make DNA
and other genetic material. It's found in green leafy vegetables and in
some kinds of meats as well.
But Bukowski found that women who
took folic acid supplements for a year or longer before becoming
pregnant, had a significantly lower risk of having a preterm birth than
the women who did not take folic acid regularly.
reduction was really huge. It was 70 percent lower risk of delivering
between 20 and 28 weeks. This is the very premature babies, the ones
who have most of the problems, and then the ones who likely not
survive. Then there was a 50 percent reduction of preterm birth between
28 and 32 weeks. That's also a very high risk group. And there was no
change in the risk for delivering after 32 weeks."
Bukowski says this is another piece of data in a growing body of
evidence showing that the health of a woman before she gets pregnant is
important for her baby's health.
BUKOWSKI: "There are some
also animal studies which support that, that health before pregnancy or
in the very early stages of pregnancy are very important for what is
going to happen in the end."
HOBAN: Bukowski says he'd like to
find out how folic acid interacts with other nutrients and exactly how
it works to help babies get a healthy start in life.
Bukowski's research is published in the journal PLoS Medicine.
I'm Rose Hoban.
Acupuncture study shows benefit for chronic back pain
A study published this week has some interesting findings about the treatment of chronic lower back pain.
Chronic lower back pain is very common, and it's very difficult to treat effectively.
often suggest drugs that relieve pain or reduce inflammation. Physical
therapy may be recommended. Sometimes the patient gets better;
With conventional therapy so iffy, some patients choose alternative therapies, such as acupuncture.
a research team from the Center for Health Studies in Seattle and other
institutions decided to compare the results of conventional treatment
with the results of acupuncture therapy.
There were more than 600 study participants, and the researchers divided them into four groups.
of the groups got different kinds of acupuncture. The third group got
simulated acupuncture with toothpicks. Their results were compared with
a control group that received what the researchers called 'usual care'
- drugs, physical therapy and so on.
The researchers found that
acupuncture was more effective than the usual medical treatment. For
example, before starting treatments, participants' back pain prevented
them from doing an average of 11 activities.
that received 'usual care' went down to nine activities that they
couldn't do, and those that received acupuncture or simulated
acupuncture reported six [activities that they couldn't do]. This is
after the seven weeks of acupuncture treatment. And some of these
effects actually persisted for one year."
The lead author of the
study, Dan Cherkin said there was no significant difference based on
the kind of acupuncture - or even simulated acupuncture.
"There was no apparent advantage of individualizing the treatment to
the patient, and there was also no benefit apparently of actually
inserting the needle compared to just stimulating points that were
believed to be effective superficially."
Cherkin says the result suggests if your back hurts, and the usual treatment isn't helping, you might consider acupuncture.
"Well, I think for the patient, the take-home message is that
acupuncture has the potential to offer relief of pain that other
treatments that they may have tried did not provide them. All the
people in our study had never had acupuncture before, and roughly one
out of five benefitted in the short run."
Dan Cherkin's study
came out this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which is
published by the American Medical Association. It was funded by the
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the
U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Scientists revise estimate of sea level rise from West Antarctic
say a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a feared consequence of
global warming, would cause the world's oceans to rise by only about
half of previous predictions. But as we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman,
the consequences could still be catastrophic for many living in coastal
BERMAN: For the past 30 years, geologists have known the
West Antarctic Ice Sheet, or WAIS, is unstable and could become
undammed, causing a lifting of the world's oceans with devastating
consequences for countries with land elevations below sea level.
say the bedrock beneath WAIS is geologically unstable, with potential
to cause the breakage of floating ice shelves which anchor the ice
sheet, while global warming is causing the frozen fringes of the ice
shelves to melt and slip from their moorings.
Jonathan Bamber, a
professor of Physical Geography at Bristol University in England, says
that makes the West Antarctic Ice Sheet of particular concern to
BAMBER: "Sea level rise is considered to be one of
possibly the most serious consequences of climate change. So, it's of
utmost importance to understand what the potential threats to
coastlines and people living in coastal areas is. And West Antarctica
is potentially the biggest or one of the most serious threats."
For the past three decades, geologists have predicted that a total
collapse of WAIS would cause the world's oceans to rise by up to six
meters. But experts say the prediction was based on imprecise
ground-based measurements of the ice shelves made under very harsh
However, a new study by British and Dutch scientists
uses data from satellites, which use radar that can penetrate the ice
to measure its thickness and the topography of the underlying bedrock.
The study is published in this week's issuex` of the journal Science.
the study's lead author, said in a Science magazine interview the
researchers' revised sea level figure of over three meters represents a
worst case scenario.
BAMBER: "We believe that that's an upper
bound to its contribution because of the various assumptions that we've
made in our calculations which have been quite liberal. And that's
around about half the value that's been quoted until now."
Bristol University's Jonathan Bamber and colleagues also concluded that
a redistribution of ice mass from the Antarctic would affect the
Earth's gravity field, causing sea levels along the Atlantic and
Pacific shorelines of the United States to rise 25 percent higher than
the global average.
Bamber plans to conduct another study to try to answer the next big question - how fast are the world's oceans rising.
Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.
Travel writing featured on our Website of the Week
Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.
World Wide Web is full of sites for people who love to travel - sites
where they can book a vacation online or get recommendations the best
Our Website of the Week is a travel site with a difference.
"World Hum is a travel site dedicated to publishing great travel
stories. It's not really about telling people where to stay or what to
eat. We like to say that its focus is the geography of wanderlust."
Jim Benning is the co-editor of WorldHum.com, which brings the travel experience to you on your computer.
travel sites may include the comments of the visitor to hotels,
restaurants, or museums, but at World Hum you get the careful
observations of professional travel writers.
One writer follows
her great grandmother's footsteps in Italy. Another goes along with
bird watchers in Oklahoma. When the swine flu scare prompted a warning
about non-essential foreign travel, a veteran foreign correspondent
contributed an essay on essential versus non-essential travel.
And a lot of travel writing seems to really be food writing.
"We recently published a list of the best places to drink coffee around
the world. We had dozens and dozens and dozens of people commenting,
sort of debating about which is the best city to drink coffee. We're in
the midst of publishing a series about looking for the spiciest food in
the world. And I think all of us just love to eat, and we love to read
Jim Benning says much of what you can read on
World Hum is by professional travel writers whose work appears in
leading magazines and newspapers.
You can read some of their
great stories, and take a virtual journey while you're at it, at
WorldHum.com, or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of
the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Patrick Saussios & Alma Sinti - "Rhythmes Gitans"
You're traveling with VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Lab produces shape-shifting fruits and vegetables
fruits and vegetables we know almost as much by their shape as by their
color or taste. Bananas are long and curved. Onions are round. But what
if you could alter the familiar shape? Would a square tomato still be a
Scientists are learning how to change the shape of
fruits and vegetables so they can be harvested or processed more
efficiently, or maybe just to reduce waste in the kitchen. It can be
done to some extent with traditional hybrid techniques. And as we hear
from reporter Julie Grant, it can also be done by flipping a genetic
GRANT: Ester van der Knaap steps gingerly around the greenhouse.
We're at the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.
Van Der Knaap points out short, round tomatoes - and some odd-looking long, thin ones.
VAN DER KNAAP: "That's one gene. One gene can make that difference."
Van der Knaap's team discovered that gene and isolated it. They call it
the SUN gene. And they've been able to clone it in tomatoes.
DER KNAAP: "You see this one is pretty round. It does not have the SUN
gene. And that first one makes a very elongated fruit, and it does have
the SUN gene."
GRANT: Van der Knaap's research could lead to
square-shapes - something she thinks the tomato industry might like.
Square tomatoes fit into packages better. And, overall, square tomatoes
might be easier to work with than the common round tomatoes.
DER KNAAP: "They are mechanically harvested. So if you have a very
round tomato, it would roll off conveyer belts, it's not very handy."
GRANT: So far money for her research has come from the National Science Foundation - not big ag.
Van der Knaap is just isolating the genes that affect the shape of the tomatoes. Turning them on or off alters the shape.
Designer fruit shapes are gaining popularity.
People have been cross-breeding tomatoes to make the shapes they want for a long time. But this is not the same thing.
ALFORD: "This is funny, 'cause my brother was working with some genetic things with tomatoes in our attic."
GRANT: Dick Alford is a chef and professor of hospitality management at the University of Akron [Ohio].
difference between what his brother and lots of other folks have been
doing and what van der Knaap is doing is the difference between
cross-breeding and locating a specific gene that affects the shape of
Chef Alford watches students as they cut yellow crookneck squash and carrots.
trying to make uniform, symmetrical shapes out of curvy and pointed
vegetables. There's a lot of waste. Chef Alford hates to see so much
get thrown away. So he's got a request of Dr. van der Knaap.
"If we could get square carrots, it would be great. If you could get a
nice long, a tomato as long as a cucumber, where you could get 20 or 30
slices out of them, it would be great."
GRANT: In a country
that loves hamburgers, Van der Knaap has heard that request before. But
the long, thin tomato hasn't worked out just yet. She says there's more
genetics to be studied.
Once we know all the genes responsible
for making different shapes in tomatoes, Van der Knaap says we'll have
a better idea of what controls the shape of other crops, such peppers,
cucumbers and gourds.
And maybe then we'll get those square carrots.
For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.
for the Environment Report comes from the Park Foundation, and the
Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. You can hear the Report, and
subscribe to the daily podcast, at environment report.org.
'Scratch' gives students tools to create interactive media
this week ... Two years ago, computer software engineers at The Media
Lab, MIT's innovative technology research center in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, launched a new and easy-to-use programming language they
called Scratch. Since its launch, Scratch has quickly found its way
over the Internet into classrooms and homes around the world, and as
VOA's Susan Logue reports, it is putting the creative power of software
design into the hands of some very young users.
ELKNER: "Go ahead click the green flag…."
Jeff Elkner's students are creating their own animated stories using
Scratch. Most of them, like Lydia Melgar from El Salvador, are learning
English as a second language:
MELGAR: "We learn how to use a lot of vocabulary words, some words I knew in Spanish…"
LOGUE: Elkner, a computer science teacher in Arlington, Virginia, introduced Scratch to his students in March:
"At first I wanted to introduce Scratch to teach programming. And what
we found when we were working with Scratch was that it was actually
amazingly good at teaching language skills."
LOGUE: That doesn't surprise Karen Brennan, a Scratch project leader at MIT's Media Lab, where Scratch was developed.
"Our agenda isn't to create armies of programmers, it is the ability to
express yourself. We have so many opportunities to be consumers of
media. But we like to think everyone should be able to create their own
LOGUE: Scratch is an object-oriented language designed
to be simple enough for anyone to use. Instead of writing commands out,
users choose from commands that come with the program.
"We were really inspired by Lego bricks and how you build things in the
physical world. How could you apply that to a digital space? So we have
bricks or blocks that you snap together. So you have 100 different
blocks that you can choose from."
LOGUE: There is also a
library of visual elements included in the program. There are
characters, interior and exterior settings to put them in, and objects
they can manipulate.
LOGUE: Anyone can download Scratch for
free from the MIT-sponsored Website at scratch.mit.edu. Brennan says
she and her Media Lab colleagues weren't sure how Scratch would be
received when the site first went online in May 2007.
"I think the group wasn't entirely sure what would happen. Would anyone
use it? What would people create? So I think a week or two after the
Website went live, this appeared:"
LOGUE: Maya Bee Game was created by a nine-year-old girl in Germany.
"And so, she's drawn this picture of a bee. She's taken pictures from
the garden. She's taken pictures of her family. She's had her siblings
record their voices, so it is a complicated project. And now I can
interact with it. I can use the arrow key to move over. The bee now has
the task of rescuing this grasshopper, who has been imprisoned by the
LOGUE: Brennan says they knew from the start
that they wanted Scratch to be easy to use, but they didn't want its
simple interface to limit how it was used:
BRENNAN: "You should be able to build complicated things and you should be able to create a wide variety of things."
Everyone who uses Scratch is encouraged to share their projects. More
than 400,000 have been posted on the Website in the past two years.
"We are obsessed with sharing, so when you share your project on line,
if someone else sees it, and is interested in it, they can download it
and look at how it was made."
LOGUE: Changing, adapting and
re-mixing projects is also encouraged. There have even been some
collaborations. Brennan says a game called Night at Dreary Castle was
the creation of an 8 year old, a 13 year old, and a 15 year old from
BRENNAN: "They decided on an idea. Someone
did an initial version; someone else downloaded it, extended it and
continued it. So they decided they would make a Halloween theme
project, where you go through the haunted house and you make decisions.
Do you open the door? Do you run away? And it's an epic narrative
that you go through."
LOGUE: Today, there are one quarter of
a million registered Scratch users. On Saturday, [May 16], many of them
will celebrate Scratch's second anniversary with World Scratch Day.
More than 80 events are scheduled in 30 different countries, from the
United States to Iran. I'm Susan Logue.
MUSIC: "Our World" theme
That's our show for this week.
you'd like to get in touch with us - maybe you've got a science
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Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA
Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. Usama Farag is the technical director.
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.