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Our World — 10 July 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: Google takes on Microsoft and Apple with a new operating system ... new hope for a better rabies vaccine... and a New York planetarium takes us on a 'Journey to the Stars.'

TYSON: "Some of those stars explode those heavy elements back into the galaxy. These are the elements that planets are made of. These are the elements of life."

Those stories, smarter ways to use fertilizer, the Father of the Internet, and more.

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

Google says it plans new, Web-centric operating system

Google this week announced a new project, the Chrome Operating System.

It's designed, the company says, to be an extension of Google's recently-released browser, which is also named Chrome.

The announcement coincided with a major denial-of-service attack aimed at U.S. and South Korean government websites, among other targets. So security of the new operating system is one of the first questions I raised with John Timmer, science editor at online magazine Ars Technica, who wrote this week about the new Google OS.

TIMMER: "Google's Chrome browser brought a lot of very robust security technology to the table, and it was one of the first browsers to take several approaches that cut down on the opportunity for malware to slip onto your computer while you're browsing the web through Chrome."

Google hasn't revealed much detail about the new operating system, which is expected to show up in the second half of next year, initially on the smaller, low-powered laptops known as netbooks.

Most netbooks now run on Windows XP, though there are some Linux units out there, too. Timmer doesn't expect users of more powerful computers to switch to the Chrome operating system, but he says it could be an appealing choice for new netbook buyers.

TIMMER: "There, the fact that you're already looking at a limited computing experience, and Chrome promises to operate much more quickly on that lightweight hardware - it may provide some serious advantages."

Although it appears, from the sparse details released by Google, that Chrome will be very browser-centric, with applications for writing, email, and so on, accessed mainly online.

TIMMER: "The indications are that the complete focus is going to be on the browser, but there's no way to necessarily limit users to only using a browser, especially since the whole thing's going to be open source. So even if Google pushes things so that everything happens in the browser, there's nothing stopping the wider Linux community from taking what Google has made and making it a much more flexible foundation for other software."

The Chrome operating system also puts Google in direct competition with the leading commercial operating systems - the Mac OS from Apple and Windows Vista from Microsoft, which will officially launch its new version, Windows 7, in October.

Internet 'father' sees interplanetary future for Net

Google provides a lot of free services - from photos to email to, of course, search - all focused on the Internet. So it's perhaps not surprising that a while ago they hired a guy often known as the 'Father of the Internet.' Vint Cerf doesn't like the title much, saying there are others who deserve to share the credit. But when I met him recently, I had to ask him - like you would ask any proud father - how the kid is doing.

CERF: "Well, the kid certainly's gotten a lot bigger than it was when we started. It's also being used in ways that it wasn't being used when we were first doing design. And as the number of users grows, the rate at which innovation occurs also increases. So the Net is transforming itself literally day by day."

Vint Cerf, as I said, now works for Google, where he has two titles. I sort of know what a vice president is, but I had to ask him about his other title: Chief Internet Evangelist.

CERF: "Well, it mostly means that part of my job is to help get the Internet to go where no Internet has gone before. Only about 25 percent of the world's population is in fact online and able to access the internet. So the other 75 percent needs some help, and my job is to stimulate thinking about investment in the expansion of the Internet in every dimension possible."

We spoke at an industry conference here in Washington, where I asked him about the so-called digital divide that separates the Internet haves from the have-nots. Cerf says the digital divide is usually a consequence of economics.

CERF: "By good fortune, technology is moving in our favor. The cost of the devices that can do Internet is coming down. In addition to the reduced cost of the equipment, competition or other regulatory actions is driving the cost of access down as well."

And so as those prices - for equipment and for Internet access - come down, more people will be able to afford to go online.

CERF: "But I think the most dramatic one will almost certainly be mobiles, because they are rapidly proliferating around the world. There's an estimated 4 billion of them in use right now. Not all of them are Internet capable, maybe 20 percent of them are. But right away that's 800 million more people using the Net."

When I asked Internet pioneer Vint Cerf what has been his biggest disappointment with the Net, he talked about the abundance of poor quality information now available online, not to mention cyber-pathologies such as viruses, identity theft, stalking, and so on.

CERF: "That's an inescapable side effect, unfortunately, and although I regret it, I recognize that that's also a sign that the Internet has become available to a very broad swath of our planet."

Our planet, ah, but what about other planets? In recent years Vint Cerf has actually been working on an Interplanetary Protocol, for moving data around a future Internet not stuck here on our home world.

The problem is that the current, very robust system for moving data around the Internet wasn't really built to cope with the very long time lags and poor reliability of space transmission.

CERF: "And so we had to invent a new suite a protocols that we call delay and disruption tolerant networking. What surprised me out of all that is that we discovered that those protocols are actually useful terrestrially in earthbound application, so now we're seeing people using these interplanetary protocols in order to make more robust the surface communications in mobile operations."

Some thoughts from Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who stays very involved, as you can hear, from his perch as Chief Internet Evangelist for the search engine giant, Google.

Big thinkers challenge users with ideas on Website of the Week

It's time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week it's a site where some of the world's most thoughtful people share great ideas, and you get to share your views with an engaged community of fellow users.

BROWN: "Big Think is a place for thoughtful people on the Internet. Essentially, we interview thought leaders and experts from many different backgrounds and open it up for user participation. We ask them open-ended, forward-looking, non-partisan questions, and get them to respond to those."

Victoria Brown is the co-founder of

Big Think includes video interviews with prominent opinion leaders in a wide variety of fields. The list includes former presidential candidate John McCain, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, and businessman Richard Branson.

In short video interviews, they and others discuss topics such as the private sector's role in stopping genocide ... or battling climate change ... or improving science literacy ... or how digital media and the Internet give us all a chance at a kind of immortality.

With experts and topics like that, it's interesting enough, but Victoria Brown says Big Think tries to foster a conversation.

BROWN: "So let's say you happen to watch a clip by Mohammed Younis, and you could upload your own content in response to that, or you could actually create your own idea that is new, and have people respond to that."

A conversation about ideas, including some big ideas from big thinkers, at , or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: "Big Lights"

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

'Journey to the Stars' highlights link to life on Earth

Our ancient ancestors were no doubt awed by the drama and sweep of a star-filled night sky.

We know a lot more about the universe now, but what we now understand about the size and complexity of the cosmos has, if anything, deepened our sense of wonderment.

A new show at New York's Hayden Planetarium takes visitors on a "Journey to the Stars," which, as VOA's Adam Phillips discovered, reveals not just much about our sun and other stars, but also their connection to life on Earth, and to the Earth itself.

PHILLIPS: The dramatic original music in the "Journey to the Stars" show complements the exploding supernovas, star clusters, and other stellar images projected on the planetarium's dome. The images are based on precise mathematical models and actual astronomical observations, says Hayden Planetarium director Neil de Grasse Tyson. He explains that stars begin their life cycles as gas clouds.

TYSON: "They are gas clouds in a galaxy that go unstable, which means they collapse, and where they collapse they get hot. And there is a point where they collapse with enough material and the temperature gets hot enough, so that it spontaneously begins nuclear fusion. Therein is the birth of a star!"

PHILLIPS: The temperature in the core of an average star is about a 15 million degrees Celsius. Radiation and convection carry that energy outward to the star's surface and to its atmosphere beyond. When the atmosphere gets hot enough to become transparent, the energy escapes into space in the form of light. Tyson notes that stars also release matter.

TYSON: "Many of them make heavy elements beyond the hydrogen and helium they are born with. Some of those stars explode those heavy elements back into the galaxy. Oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, potassium - these are the elements the planets are made of. These are the elements of life. So the life cycle of stars is inextricably bound to life itself."

PHILLIPS: Here in our solar system, the constant churning of the Sun's gases creates a giant, pulsing magnetic field. NASA solar scientist Madhulika Guhathakurta likens it to a heartbeat.

GUHATAKUTA: "A magnetic field can get really wound up from all of these churnings and rotations and eventually it will just snap!"

PHILLIPS: And when it snaps, it creates huge solar eruptions in the form of electrons and protons which travel through space at speeds up to 3.6 million kilometers per hour. Indeed, such "space weather" can interfere with Earth's own magnetic field, knocking out our communications satellites, and damaging the power transformers that humans depend on for electricity.

As the planetarium show illustrates, stars vary widely. But the underlying physics for each of the estimated 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy - and in the 100 billion other galaxies - is the same. Astrophysicist and show co-curator Mordecai-Mark Low says that every star is essentially a ball of gas trying to collapse under its own gravity.

LOW: "What prevents that from happening is the immense pressure produced from hot gas that is heated by nuclear fusion in its center. That huge pressure balances the huge gravitational force pulling the gas in. And so you have this stable equilibrium as long as nuclear fusion is producing enough energy to hold it up."

PHILLIPS: Stars maintain this equilibrium through middle age.

Neil de Grasse Tyson says that our Sun's middle age will last between five and ten billion years, when it will become unstable, cool off, turn from yellow to red, and expand.

TYSON: "It becomes so large that in fact the surface of the Sun will come near enough to Earth that it will bring the oceans to a rolling boil, and life as we know it on Earth will cease. We'll either be extinct from other causes or we would've moved to a more distant planet by then, just to get a safe distance from the Sun that's about to kill us."

PHILLIPS: Soon after that, the Sun will contract from a red giant into what astrophysicists call a "white dwarf." Then, it will stop generating fuel, and slowly go cold like a piece of spent charcoal. But not to worry: As the "Journey to the Stars" show points out, there will be trillions of new stars, with perhaps quadrillions of planets, to take its place. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

Proper fertilizer use could boost food security

Fertilizers can help feed the hungry by boosting food production ... or they can cause serious environmental damage when used to excess.
Some activists contend these products have no place on today's farms. But the low productivity of farms in many of the world's poorest, hungriest regions highlights what a lack of fertilizer can mean. A new report says a better balance needs to be struck in the widely disparate use of fertilizer around the world. Meredith Hegg reports.

HEGG: Science magazine's recent report on fertilizer reveals how different parts of the world are challenged by opposite extremes. The study notes that while crop nutrient inputs are approaching an appropriate level in the United States, they are still dangerously high in China. However, according to co-author Alan Townsend of the University of Colorado, other regions face a different problem.

TOWNSEND: "Not all of the world is fertilizer rich. You've got parts of the world that still suffer extensively from malnutrition and hunger, with Africa being the most notable one."

HEGG: Soil infertility continues to be a major problem on African farms. That's due, in part, to the lack of easy access to manufactured fertilizers. But it's also because some farmers have not known about simpler ways to bring Africa's nutrient-depleted soils back into productive use.

GUSTAFSON: "Farmyard manure is a big one."

HEEGG: Daniel Gustafson of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization describes some forms of organic fertilizers that farmers can use now.

GUSTAFSON: "There are plants that when you incorporate leaves and so on into the soil increase nitrogen. There are other things you can do with crop rotation and other things where there's a lot of work going on."

HEGG: Sharing this knowledge among farmers is a major goal of the Food and Agriculture Organization. But this may not be enough, Gustafson says. The FAO also wants to improve African farmers' access to synthetic fertilizer.

GUSTAFSON: "The issue really is that the cost of applying fertilizer is really high and the market for it is not very well developed… The biggest push in the last couple of years has been through some kind of subsidy, hopefully in a way that is sustainable and also targets people who would not have used fertilizer otherwise."

HEGG: Improving soil fertility has implications not only for alleviating hunger in Africa but also for stimulating economic progress.

Increasing agricultural productivity in order to boost economic development is precisely what Professor Alan Townsend says he and his co-authors hope to encourage with their report.

TOWNSEND: "Development of policies and approaches that would make chemical fertilizers more affordable and more available to that part of the world is almost certainly going to result in an improvement of the human condition."

HEGG: But Townsend concedes there are risks in taking this approach. He points out that widespread availability of fertilizer in China and the United States has led to over-use and pollution.

TOWNSEND: "If you go down that path, you'd want to have an eye on the long run towards making sure that the same mistakes aren't made that were made in other parts of the world earlier. But those parts of Africa are a long, long way from that problem."

HEGG: Townsend believes that with the appropriate policies and the right mix of fertilizer products, African farmers may be able to increase their food production without causing the environmental damage seen on many U.S. and Chinese farms.

Meredith Hegg, VOA News, Washington

New rabies vaccine shows promise for prevention, treatment

Rabies kills an estimated 55,000 people each year, almost all of them in Africa and Asia. The disease is transmitted to humans from infected animals, and efforts to control it have been stymied by limitations in current vaccines and treatments. In developing countries, there's also the issue of inadequate access to medicine, as well as its cost.

But as we hear from Véronique LaCapra, a promising new vaccine could help change all that.

LaCAPRA: Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, causing symptoms ranging from hyperactivity and hallucinations to paralysis. It is fatal if left untreated.

DIETZSCHOLD: "Ninety-seven percent of all human rabies cases originate from a dog bite."

LaCAPRA: Bernhard Dietzschold is a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who specializes in nervous system viruses like rabies.

Preventing rabies in dogs, says Dietzschold, is the key to eradicating the disease worldwide. And the only way to do that, he believes, is with a vaccine that is effective for the life of the dog, after only one injection.

DIETZSCHOLD: "Our working hypothesis is that the best vaccine[s] are actually live vaccines."

LaCAPRA: Unlike so-called "killed vaccines," which only contain dead or inactivated virus, vaccines made from a live virus provide much longer-lasting protection. But up until now, live rabies vaccines came with a risk: in some cases, they could actually cause rabies instead of preventing it.

DIETZSCHOLD: "What we have done is to remove all the pathogenic components from these viruses, so that they become almost absolutely harmless."

LaCAPRA: So far, Dietzschold and his colleagues have only tested their new vaccine in the laboratory, in mice.

DIETZSCHOLD: "What I can say [is] these vaccines are very safe. This vaccine virus we developed does not kill even very young mice, the newborn mice, and also mice which have induced immuno-deficiencies. This vaccine is also highly immunogenic. That means this vaccine induces or creates a strong anti-viral, anti-rabies virus immune response."

LaCAPRA: By providing developing countries with a cheap, long-lasting way to protect against rabies in dogs, Dietzschold says the new vaccine could substantially reduce rabies transmission to humans.

And he believes the vaccine could also provide a new, more effective way to treat rabies in people who have been infected.

Currently, the only effective treatment is to clean the bite wound with soap and water and administer a month-long series of injections, starting on the day of infection.

DIETZSCHOLD: "[If it is started] after this time, the treatment is ineffective or even may accelerate the disease process."

LaCAPRA: But a person may not realize right away that they have rabies. The first symptoms don't appear until at least ten days after infection, and in some cases, may take years to develop. Once symptoms do appear, the disease is fatal: the victim will usually go into a coma or die within a week or two.

Based on his research in mice, Dietzschold thinks the new vaccine could be effective even if treatment is not started right away.

DIETZSCHOLD: "We believe we can … treat people at least one week after exposure, or even at the onset of clinical symptoms."

LaCAPRA: The next step will be to test the vaccine on dogs and non-human primates. If all goes well, Dietzschold says the vaccine could be ready to begin the approval process for use in people in just a few years. His study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Véronique LaCapra, for VOA News.