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Our World — 30 May 2009


This week on Our World: Falling behind in the quest for a healthy lifestyle ... a bacteria story that'll make your skin crawl ... and the amazing diversity of mammals, past and present ...

FLYNN: "A small shrew-like animal, batanoides, and it weighed one gram. In contrast you have the blue whale, which weighed more than ten million grams

Extreme mammals, a documentary on inventor-visionary Ray Kurzweil, and more.

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





Healthy lifestyle choices on decline in the U.S.

For years, health experts have been stressing some basic rules of a healthy lifestyle - don't smoke, eat fruits and vegetables, get some exercise - that sort of thing.

But despite that, a new study indicates that only a small proportion of American adults follow this healthy lifestyle pattern, and in fact, their numbers are declining. The study came out this week, and I spoke with its lead author, Dr. Dana King, of the Medical University of South Carolina.

KING: "In summary, America's healthy habits report card was not encouraging. We're actually exercising less and not eating our fruits and vegetables as regularly, and adherence to all five of the healthy lifestyle habits has gone from 15 percent to only 8 percent of U.S. adults."

Q: Why these benchmarks in particular?

KING: "Well, these healthy lifestyle habits - not smoking, eating right, exercise - are the key healthy lifestyle habits that help prevent a variety of problems, including heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and even cancer. So these key factors affect people's health in many ways."

Q: How valid are these particular measures that were looked at as hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle. Are there things that are missing?

KING: "It's pretty accurate. Eating fruits and vegetables regularly has [been] found to be a very good marker for a healthy diet. In other words, people that eat fruits and vegetables regularly are very likely to have better overall diet, to eat less fat, to eat less calories, and so forth, than people who do not eat fruits and vegetables regularly.

"One other point that was interesting in the data I thought I might mention. And that is that we found that people with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were no more likely to adhere to the healthy lifestyle habits than people without those conditions. And so it seems that even having these conditions does not significantly motivate people to change their behavior."

Q: Do you know if studies like this have been done in other countries, and if so, do you know how Americans stack up?

KING: "What we find, looking internationally, is that as countries become more industrialized, more successful - more Westernized if you will - their diet, their diabetes rates, their heart disease rates begin to get closer and closer to that of the United States. So unfortunately as the world becomes a 'better place,' and economies improve, there is apparently a tendency to eat more calories, exercise less, and there is a documented increase in global rate of diabetes, for example. So the news on the world front is unfortunately very similar."

Q: What do public health officials, policy makers, people who want to stay healthy do with this information?

KING: "Well, if we ever needed a wake-up call, I think this is it. We need to build in incentives to encourage healthy lifestyles more than ever because we're going backwards instead of forwards on it, and it will result in lower heart attack rates, lower stroke rates and improved lives for everyone if we would do so."

Dr. Dana King is the lead author of the study looking at Americans' healthy lifestyle habits. It's just been published in the American Journal of Medicine.




Human skin a rich ecosystem of bacteria

The swine flu outbreak prompted public health officials to recommend a high-tech prevention strategy ... hand washing.

It's really one of the simplest ways to prevent the transmission of the flu virus, as well as a host of other viral and bacterial disease organisms that invisibly attach to us throughout the day.

In fact, a new study reminds us that our hands are normally covered in bacteria. Scientists took a kind of bacteria census and found our skin plays host to a much more diverse population of microscopic guests than previously thought. More from health reporter Rose Hoban.

HOBAN: Skin is our first line of defense against disease and injury. It's an essential barrier against the germs of the outside world. But despite bacteria's bad reputation, not all micro-organisms are bad, says Elizabeth Grice. She's a geneticist working at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute.

Grice says many bacteria play some kind of beneficial role in maintaining health. Others exacerbate skin diseases such as eczema or acne. But our knowledge about these microscopic hitchhikers is incomplete, so Grice and her colleagues recruited volunteers to donate samples of their skin bacteria.

GRICE: "These volunteers had to agree to the sampling of 20 different areas of their bodies."

HOBAN: Grice used genetic techniques to examine the bacteria's DNA. This helped her identify the different micro-organisms more precisely. And she says they found many more types than expected.

GRICE: "For instance, the dominant bacteria in oily areas is a propioni bacterium which we know is present in oily areas for the most part because this type of bacteria is able to break down the oils in our skin. In the moist areas we commonly see Staphylococcus species, and in the drier areas we generally see a greater mix and variety of bacteria."

HOBAN: Grice says surprisingly, dry areas of the skin, such as the forearm, had the greatest number and variety of bacterial species.

GRICE: "Some of the drier areas are more exposed to the environment, and what we may have sampled from the drier areas may actually be transient bacteria and not actually bacteria that set up permanent residence there."

HOBAN: Grice says there's much more to be learned about the many different kinds of bacteria on the skin and what role they play in health. And she says the bacterial environment on your skin may determine what types of pathogens you are susceptible to.

Grice's paper is published in the journal Science. I'm Rose Hoban.




Supreme Court cases argued on our Website of the Week

President Obama this week nominated federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to a position on the United States Supreme Court. The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate, but she could take her seat on the nation's highest court at the beginning of the October term.

Sotomayor would be the first Latina and only the third woman ever on the high court, and it was big news here because of the tremendous influence the Supreme Court exercises in the American system of government. Our Website of the Week provides an up-close look at this key institution of our society.

COURT CLERK: "The honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business ..."
GOLDMAN: "Oyez.org is a multimedia database devoted to the United States Supreme Court."

Jerry Goldman is the Northwestern University professor behind Oyez.org.

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated racial segregation in schools in 1954. In 2000 it decided a disputed presidential election. To understand the way the American government works, you can't ignore this powerful institution.

Since 1955, the court has made audio recordings of its proceedings, and many of those are now available at Oyez.org.

In almost all cases the court considers, lawyers will appear before the nine justices for oral arguments, a spirited question-and-answer session on the legal merits of the case.

GOLDMAN: "It's an engaging way to hear lawyers and justices argue about great principles, and sometimes very minor ones. In each of the cases, though, you can rest assured that something significant is at stake."

The Oyez Project includes thousands of hours of audio recordings of Supreme Court proceedings, including all oral arguments that have been released since 1995. There's also a selective archive of earlier cases for listening or download.

Audio tapes, news about the court and its cases, and links to the text of Supreme Court decisions at Oyez.org, or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Bill Conti - "Cagney & Lacey"

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




Mammals go to extremes in NY museum show

We humans - along with horses and apes and tigers and rats - are all classified as mammals. The group includes a pretty broad range of creatures. New York's American Museum of Natural History is celebrating the diversity of mammals in a new exhibit called "Extreme Mammals." VOA's Adam Phillips found the exhibition both scientifically rigorous and richly entertaining.

PHILLIPS: Only mammals like us, with our highly developed brains, our opposable thumbs and our urge to collect, understand, and display could have put together an exhibit as fascinating and varied as the "Extreme Mammals" show.

It's an exhibit filled with surprises.

There is a model of an Indricotherium, an ancient plant-eater about five meters tall that weighed about 18 tons when it "galumphed" its way through primeval Central Asia about 35 million years ago. It looks a bit like a cross between a current day rhinoceros, a horse, and a cute, impossibly huge plush toy.

The exhibit also features the skeletons of extinct horned rodents, as well as present day tarsiers. Tarsiers are nocturnal Philippine primates with skulls so tight they can't move their eyes. It seems that when it comes to mammals, extreme is "normal."

Paleontologist and exhibit curator John Flynn suggests we consider, for example, the extraordinary range of weights within the Mammalian class.

FLYNN: "There is a reconstruction of a small shrew-like animal from about 50 million years ago called batanoides, and it weighed one gram, less than a dollar bill. And in contrast you have the blue whale, which weighed more than ten million grams - the equivalent of roughly 40 full-grown elephants. So you have this incredible spectrum of evolutionary modification that have occurred within this one single group."

PHILLIPS: The exhibit is divided into interlocking sections. The first one addresses the question of what a mammal is. Most people focus on characteristics when answering this question. They say mammals have hair, for example. But according to John Flynn, that characteristic is far from universal.

FLYNN: "Well, some mammals like whales don't have hair because they live in an aquatic environment. They've lost that hair. Other mammals modify hairs into very specialized structures like the quills on a porcupine. There are things called pangolins that look like scales that are made of a fingernail-like substance called keratin, and they grow from out of the skin and they form a complete covering over the body of these animals in tropical forests in Asia and Africa."

PHILLIPS: One popular section of the exhibit deals with mammalian reproduction. Even here, the mechanics vary widely among the 5000-plus known mammal species living on earth today. Like us humans, most mammals develop inside their mother's womb over a relatively long time, and are born live. But other mammals, like the platypus, lay eggs. And marsupials, including kangaroos, are born tiny and undeveloped, but feed on mother's milk for long periods, often inside a specialized pouch on the mother's body.

PHILLIPS: There is one characteristic that all mammals share, says paleontologist and museum official Michael Novacek ]. Human and elephant, mouse and porpoise, all have three small bones in their middle ear - the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup.

NOVACEK: "Fascinatingly enough, two of those bones are actually bones that migrated from the lower jaw of our early vertebrate ancestors - and the bones that are still in the back of the jaw in various reptiles."

PHILLIPS: Rather than defining animals by their attributes, evolutionary biologists group animals according to their ancestry. They say all mammals share a common ancestor with a group of ancient "sail-backed" animals resembling reptiles that lived 250-300 million years ago. Michael Novacek says that these animals looked like dinosaurs, but were not.

NOVACEK: "These things are 'proto mammalian' because of features of the skull, the way the bones fit together in the brain case and the relative sizes of those bones. So we see a transition there, kind of a series of links between very reptilian-looking forms and very mammalian-looking forms over a period of, say, 50 or 100 million years."

PHILLIPS: And there are more transitions ahead, Novacek adds, many of them potentially catastrophic. He says most large mammals may become extinct in the 21st century, and if man-caused climate change is not checked, the survival of many other animal species, including our own, could be at risk. He hopes the "Extreme Mammal" show at New York's American Museum of Natural History, and exhibits like it, will inspire us to do what our species can do best - think hard and act wisely. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.




Ray Kurzweil is the 'Transcendent Man'

You may remember Ray Kurzweil, who we interviewed here on Our World a few years ago to talk about his book, The Singularity Is Near. In the book he described explosive developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics driving a dramatic increase in machine intelligence that he said will change our world over the next few decades.

Kurzweil developed a reading machine to aid the blind, and his keyboards are used by some of the world's top musicians.

Now, this scientist and inventor is the subject of a new documentary film called Transcendent Man. My colleague Susan Logue has more.

KURZWEIL: "When I was five, I decided I would be an inventor."

LOGUE: Ray Kurzweil did just that, as "Transcendent Man" points out. Among his inventions were the first reading machine for the blind and the first keyboard synthesizer that could duplicate the sound of a grand piano, or any other instrument for that matter.

Despite those successes and Kurzweil's publication of several books, filmmaker Barry Ptolemy believes Kurzweil is still relatively unknown.

PTOLEMY: "Our hope is that we are introducing Ray to a mainstream audience. So I think 90 percent, 95 percent of the people out there who watch the film will be introduced to Ray for the first time."

LOGUE: And introduced to Ray's wife, Sonya. In this scene, as they prepare to drink a glass of red wine, she proposes a toast.

SONYA KURZWEIL: "Here's to living forever. That's not just a salutation in our family."

LOGUE: The central theme of Transcendent Man is Kurzweil's belief that death will not always be final.

PTOLEMY: "I don't think 'immortal' would be the word that he would use, but Ray strongly believes that he can catch a bridge to a bridge to a bridge and that is the metaphor he has created."

LOGUE: In one scene, Kurzweil encounters actor William Shatner, who asks him how he manages to look so good:

KURZWEIL: "Well, mostly I'm reprogramming my biochemistry with lots of supplements. I take about 200 pills a day."

LOGUE: Kurzweil believes advances in genetics, nanotechnology and intelligent robotics, or artificial intelligence will eventually lead to a race of beings that are part human and part machine, or AIs.

Kurzweil refers to the time that will happen as "the singularity."

PTOLEMY: "There are those who would say it is ridiculous to assume that we can predict what will happen with artificial intelligence one way or the other. I think Ray makes a pretty good case, though, that if we continue to practice and look upon our better angels these AIs will kind of really become who we are."

LOGUE: But Transcendent Man does present opposing views:

HURLBUT: "Engineering a better human being is going to be a daunting task."

LOGUE: Dr. William B. Hurlbut is a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University.

HURLBUT: "We shouldn't just arrogantly think we have transcended the wisdom of thousands of years of human experience."

LOGUE: Hugo de Garis, a professor of computer science in China, is working on an artificial brain himself. But he believes Kurzweil is naïve about some things:

DE GARIS: "His reason for living is to create inventions that help humanity. So for him to hear somebody like me saying, these inventions may end up causing the worst war that humanity has ever had, freaks him out. He doesn't want to hear such things."

LOGUE: Again, filmmaker Barry Ptolemy

PTOLEMY: "I think Ray is naturally an optimist and I think he does have to work at looking at the downside of technologies."

LOGUE: Kurzweil himself makes that quite clear in the documentary.

KURZWEIL: "People imagine destructive, dystopian scenarios, but in fact technology has been the only thing that has enabled us to overcome problems."

LOGUE: Kurzweil sees technology as his path to a very specific goal.

KURZWEIL: "I do plan to bring back my father."

PTOLEMY: "Ray is not talking about bringing back his father in a Frankensteinian kind of way. Really what he's talking about is a virtual reality model, where his father would exist in a virtual simulation."

LOGUE: Kurzweil's father, Frederic, was a composer. He died of a heart attack when Ray was 22. Kurzweil kept his father's letters, music manuscripts, photos, even financial records - 50 boxes of documents.

KURZWEIL: "With all of that information I believe an AI would be able to create someone that would seem very much like my father."

PTOLEMY: "At its core I think the film is a father and son story. I think our parents or the lack of them is the single biggest thing in one's life. And so I think his father's death was a big thing in his life."

LOGUE: Although driven by a personal longing for his father, Ray Kurzweil wants everyone to know The Singularity is Near. He has shared his beliefs through books, lectures, and now Barry Ptolemy's documentary, Transcendent Man. I'm Susan Logue.



Space news roundup

And before we go, a couple of space items ...

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station on Friday, carrying the space station's newest crew members and expanding, for the first time, the orbiting outpost's crew to six full-time astronauts.

Known as Expedition 20, the new crew includes representatives of each of the five organizations participating in the Station - the Japanese, Canadian, Russian, European, and American space agencies.


And NASA this week announced a winner in its contest to name the Mars Science Laboratory, a rover set to land on Mars in a couple of years.

Nine thousand youngsters from schools around the country sent in proposed names and essays to back up their choice. Twelve-year-old Clara Ma from Lenexa, Kansas, sent in the winning entry. And if you're curious about the name she suggested, it's ..."Curiosity."

In her winning essay Clara wrote, "Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn't be who we are today."

A NASA official said the name "recognizes something universally human and essential to science."



MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us, our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. 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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