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Our World — 12 September 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: Does NASA's future include Mars or the Moon? ... How early humans in the Caucasus used plant fibers ... and how convenience is edging out quality in the technology marketplace.

CAPPS: "it's a fundamental shift in what we really value from things like, oh we really want a lot of features and a lot of power -to- no, we really just want it always available and easy to use. "

The 'good enough' revolution, our Website of the Week, and more.

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



NASA, We Have a Problem, say Experts

An expert group assembled by NASA says that with the current space budget and planned modest increases, there isn't enough money to go to the moon until the late 2030s, "if ever."

The Human Space Flight Review Committee delivered its report to the White House this week after a series of public meetings around the country.

The expert panel, headed by former aerospace industry executive Norman Augustine, says astronauts could return to the moon by the mid-2020s, if a few billion dollars is added to current budget projections.

Another exploration alternative is what the committee calls Flexible Path, aiming for interesting, nearby destinations in the Solar System.

The committee said Mars is the "ultimate destination for human exploration" but concluded that the Red Planet is currently beyond our technical capabilities and budget.

NASA's future thinking comes as the 28-year-old space shuttle program is winding down, with just a half-dozen scheduled flights left.



New Hubble Telescope Instruments Return Images, Data

Also this week, NASA unveiled some of the first pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope after astronauts installed new instruments and other upgrades in May.

Astronomer Bob O'Connell says the latest pictures demonstrate the value of the new Wide Field camera.

O'CONNELL: "Now, based on these pictures and the other data we've gathered so far, we're fully confident the camera's working as it was intended to work, and we're eagerly looking forward to see what other astronomers are going to do with it over the next five years."

O'Connell chairs the science oversight committee for the camera, one of several instruments on the orbiting telescope.

Hubble's other new instrument analyzes the light coming from distant objects to determine the chemical elements and compounds in those objects. The main scientist on the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, James Green, says it's an important tool for understanding the universe.

GREEN: "The new instrument is ten times more sensitive, which means we can look at ten times as many targets or, alternatively, a target that's one-tenth as bright and get that science."

You can see the latest Hubble photos on our Website of the Week, coming up later in the program. But first ...



Drop in Research Funding Threatens Future Food Productivity

Growth in the global food supply is not keeping pace with demand, raising the threat that more expensive food is in the world's future. That's the conclusion of a new report, whose authors say the slowdown in productivity growth is largely because of slipping investments in agricultural research. VOA's Steve Baragona reports.

BARAGONA: The United Nations says one billion people are hungry today, and the global population is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. Additional pressure for future demand for food crops is expected to come from climate change and biofuels.

While yields for crops such as rice, wheat and maize have more than doubled since the 1960s, the new report in the journal Science says that the rate of growth in the harvest has fallen by about half since the 1990s.

The productivity gains were driven by major investments in agricultural research and development, or R&D. But those investments began to dry up in the 1970s. And study co-author Philip Pardey at the University of Minnesota says the effects are now being felt.

PARDEY: "You can get by with living off your R&D capital in the past for a while and not realize the effect it might be having on productivity until it's hitting you in the face."

BARAGONA: Pardey notes that farming is a constant struggle between crops on the one side and weeds, insects and diseases on the other. It takes a certain amount of R&D just to keep up. Improving yields is another matter. And he warns that it can take decades before investments in R&D begin to pay off.

PARDEY: "That's part of the concern we have: that just because of these long lags, if you start ramping up spending now, you're not going to turn productivity around in the next two or three years. It's going to take the next 10 to 20 years to turn it around."

BARAGONA: Pardey says investments by industrialized nations in agricultural R&D have spillover benefits for developing countries. But he notes that developing countries need to boost their own investments as well.

Steve Baragona, VOA News, Washington.



Scientists Decode Potato Fungus Genome

An international team of scientists has drawn a map of the genetic sequence of the pathogen that causes potato blight. That's a plant disease responsible for widespread loss of both potato and tomato crops around the world. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the genetic blueprint could help researchers develop better ways to protect these key crops.

BERMAN: Scientists call the fungal disease Phytophthora infestans, but it's better known as late blight. It causes an estimated $7 billion in agricultural losses globally each year. Its main targets are russet potato and tomato crops.

During the mid-19th century, the disease caused a famine that was responsible for the starvation of more than a million people in Ireland and triggered a wave of Irish immigration to the United States.

Today, experts say late blight probably is the world's most costly plant disease on a per hectare basis. P. infestans is extremely hard to combat, even with a combination of herbicides.

Nik Grunwald, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Oregon at Corvallis, notes that late blight is a powerful pathogen that affects all parts of the plant and renders potatoes inedible.

GRUNWALD: "If you cut into the inside of a potato that is infected, it looks dark and mushy. I guess you would call it a rotten potato."

BERMAN: Grunwald says the pathogen can strike at any point in a plant's life cycle, but it's called late blight because it tends to affect mature plants when their leaves are fully grown and moist. Once infected, late blight can destroy a crop in a matter of days.

Chemist David Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin developed the optical mapping technology that helped a team of scientists decode the pathogen's genetic sequence. Schwartz says that having a DNA map of P. infestans will help scientists stem the spread of the aggressive disease.

SCHWARTZ: "We really want to get it under control. And one way of getting it under control is, if you understand the blueprints, the genetic blueprints which make up this pathogen, then you have a chance of developing new approaches for dealing with this pathogen. And many of these approaches I would say are probably going to be environmentally friendly."

Nik Grunwald of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service says researchers hope they will now be able to make potatoes more resistant to the ravages of late blight.

GRUNWALD: "We will have a much better ability to find genes for resistance or use a combination of genes in potatoes that the pathogen will not be able to overcome as quickly."

Grunwald says it is possible that scientists will be able to produce more effective fungicides against P. infestans.

The report on the mapping of the late blight genome is published this week in the journal Nature.

Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.



Chinese Community Records Track Epidemics

Illness has always been part of human history, but the information we have about long-ago illnesses is usually pretty sketchy. But in China, community health records have been kept for millennia … and those records include a history of epidemics. Rose Hoban reports.

There's been a tradition in China for people to write the story of the places where they lived. Scribes and clerks wrote about everyday life, as well as about unusual occurrences… weather, crop failures or successes, wars and migrations. These records were kept for more than 2,000 years, from one ruling dynasty to another.

Recently epidemiologist Alfredo Morabia from Queens College in New York started poring through these journals. He found they also contained information about illnesses and epidemics that occurred.

MORABIA: "And then, during the last dynasty of the Manchus, the Chin Dynasty, they wrote a huge encyclopedia. And so you have in China you have a source of centralized information on the major epidemics throughout the Chinese empire which was from more or less 200 [BC] to [AD] 1911."

The records don't describe what the epidemics were, just when they happened, and how many people were affected. Morabia says for a thousand years or so, there might have been three or four epidemics in a century, but that was it.

MORABIA: "Then, for a series of reasons the population started to expand very rapidly. And when the demographic growth starts, you have the simultaneous growth of the frequency of outbreaks."

Morabia traced this increase in outbreaks to increasing population and to the fact that people were living in closer proximity to animals. He says it was these factors that helped spread disease from animals to humans and back again.

He explains that in past centuries, traditional healers and doctors didn't make a connection between one ill person and another. They believed that if a person got sick, it was an isolated problem, even if there was an epidemic raging around them.

MORABIA: "Once you isolate one person in an epidemic, you don't see the epidemic anymore. What makes the change, the big change in our understanding about epidemics is when in the 17th century, first, and then more in the 18th century we start to think of health in terms of population."

Morabia says it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that European doctors and, later, scientists, were able to understand about epidemics, their dynamics, and, subsequently, how to prevent them. And the Chinese data show this was the case in Asia as well.

Morabia's article is published in the journal, Epidemiology and Infection.

I'm Rose Hoban.




Early Humans Wove, Dyed Flax in Caucasus

An international team of researchers has found evidence that humans in what is now the Republic of Georgia were using flax some 30,000 years ago.

Flax is one of the oldest domesticated crops, and has been used to make linen for thousands of years. Flax fibers are also used in rope, twine, and paper.

Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says he and his colleagues stumbled across the flax while looking through soil samples for grains of pollen, which archaeologists use to infer climate conditions.

BAR-YOSEF: "So this was absolutely an accidental discovery, and of course a fascinating one."

The bits of flax they found were microscopic, but some of the fibers showed signs of having been cut, knotted, and even colored, using some of the 100 Caucasus plants suitable for dying fiber:

BAR-YOSEF: "And therefore, it's not surprising that they even dyed their own - whatever they [made] from it. Let's say they made ropes or strings, that they dyed some of them."

The discovery dates from a time when modern humans were fanning out through the Middle East into Europe and Central Asia, displacing the Neanderthals. By 30,000 years ago, they'd already reached Dzudzuana Cave, where the flax was discovered, though Bar-Yosef says it's unclear whether flax might have been used even earlier.

BAR-YOSEF: "Whether it started with modern humans, I'm not sure. Maybe Neanderthals had it before. But we don't know."

There's no way to know for sure how these early humans discovered that a plant could be turned into fibers that could be woven in useful ways, but Bar-Yosef says it probably was a woman who figured it out.

BAR-YOSEF: "Men, males, used to be the hunters, go after the animals, and so on. Females were always around the camp, but they were the ones who paid attention to the botany, to the plants all around [them]."

Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says the chance discovery of flax fibers at a site inhabited thousands of years before the plant was known to be used illustrates the key role that science has come to play in uncovering the past.

BAR-YOSEF: "When you start digging a site, you can expect anything, because there are a lot of things which were not preserved, and other that [were] preserved in such a way that you don't see them. And therefore, a chance discovery through the microscope shows you that the involvement of science in archaeology is critical."

The researchers identified more than 1,300 fragments of flax fiber from various locations in the cave, sometimes in combination with bits of dyed and twisted fur from the Caucasus antelope called the tur. In a report published in the journal Science, Bar-Yosef writes that this might - might - suggest that the early humans here were processing fur and cloth.



Pictures from Space on our Website of the Week

Time again for our Website of the Week, where we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

The successful repair and upgrade of Hubble, as we mentioned earlier, is reason enough for an encore visit to one of our very first featured websites.

KAKADELIS: "Hubblesite is the online home for the Hubble Space Telescope. [We] cover all the discoveries from the telescope as well as delve into some of the technology and engineering behind the instrument itself."

Stratis Kakadelis is the Online Outreach Manager at Hubblesite.org. On the phone from their headquarters in Baltimore, he explained that the site includes all publicly-released images captured by the orbiting telescope and a section on "Hubble's Future."

KAKADELIS: "We try to keep up on the latest information that has been going on in the [Hubble] project, 'cause it's a very large project with many hundreds of people involved. It's often hard to find that information in other places."

Learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope at hubblesite.org, or get the link to this and more than 250 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Oriental Stars (performed by E. Reeves on a 1920 Connorized piano roll)

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



Consumers Prefer Products with 'Good Enough' Features

What do you look for when buying a technology product? Price aside, do you look for the best? Or the most convenient?

Or is the most convenient the new "best"?

Wired magazine senior editor Robert Capps writes about what he calls the "good-enough revolution" in the magazine's September issue. I called him for an explanation.

CAPPS: "The good-enough revolution, the shorthand I use is the triumph of flexibility over fidelity. And to understand that you have to think of fidelity as meaning sort of broadly high quality. ... And the importance in the digital age of flexibility and how that trait has become much more important to us than our traditional idea of 'high quality.'"

Q: When you talk about 'fidelity,' I think the first thing that comes into a lot of people's minds would be fidelity as in music, as in how accurate the music reproduction is, and CDs are kind of the gold standard for that. CD sales have been in decline and MP3 sales are on the way up, and by any objective standard MP3 doesn't sound as good as CD. So what's happening here?

CAPPS: "The MP3, by its very definition, it's a compression format. It reduces the quality of music. But what it does it allows you to get music on to your computer at tiny file sizes, small enough to be put up on the Internet or traded between computers or loaded up on mobile devices. The convenience that offered, the flexibility that offered matters so much more to people than the pure quality of the music, that it's really what we look for now, it's really become fundamental to the music industry. That's why CDs have all been wiped out."

Q: You start the article, actually, with a discussion of the Flip camcorder, and how does that fit into this paradigm?

CAPPS: "Well, the Flip camcorder was just this very inexpensive video camera. It didn't have barely any features, you know. It didn't even have a zoom, it had a very tiny screen, but the thing about it was it was small, it was pocketable, and it was really easy to just plug it into your computer and get the clips that you had recorded off.

"And the thing about it is, it happened to coincide perfectly with YouTube. It made working with video easy. And really, Flip proved that what mattered was getting people to work with video, making it a lot easier for people to work with video. And that's what people wanted, and they just snapped it up."

Q: Is 'good enough' just another way of saying we're willing to accept dumbed-down products and services if some clever marketing is behind them?

CAPPS: "That's not what I'm saying at all. The thing is, what we think of as 'high quality' has changed because of technology. What people want I broadly call 'accessibility.' They want to be able to have things now, they want to be able to have things easily, and they want to be able to have things everywhere. So it's a fundamental shift in what we really value from things like, oh we really want a lot of features and a lot of power -to- no, we really just want it always available and easy to use."

Q: You and I are in the service business, so I wonder if this good enough approach is showing up in journalism or other service providers. You know, if I'm sick I'm not sure I want to go to a doctor who went to a 'good enough' medical school and practices 'good enough' medicine. Or do I?

CAPPS: "Again, it's not about low quality, it's about a different idea of quality. And so if you're talking about medical care, you might now want to go to a doctor who is just 'good enough' at being a doctor, but you might want to go to a clinic that's easy to get to, that's good enough to make you better.

"Certainly in journalism you see good enough happening, and you can think of it as part of what's really hurting the newspaper industry right now. We get a lot of our information from blogs, and not even blogs - we get a lot of our information now from twitter, which is 140 characters. And I find out about new breaking news on Twitter faster than I can find out about it on the New York Times. It's more accessible. And then if I want more information I can go seeking it out."

Q: So is this a temporary facet or is it a permanent change in how we evaluate goods and services?

CAPPS: "I think it's a permanent change, and I think as more people sort of recognize it, they'll appreciate it more, and once you understand that accessibility is incredibly important, let's really focus on making it more accessible, let's really focus on trying to make it less expensive. So instead of focusing on features, you're like, how do we make this product easier to use."

That's Wired Magazine senior Editor Robert Capps. You can find more examples of the good enough revolution in his article at wired.com



South African Users 'Flock' to Internet Alternative

And finally today ... I think Internet users everywhere gripe about their online service. It's too expensive or too slow, or it's just down too often.

Internet users in South Africa have long complained about the country's leading service provider, Telkom. So the folks at technology company Unlimited IT decided to explore alternatives.

What they did is, they strapped a 4-gigabyte memory card to a racing pigeon named Winston, and sent him flying from their office in Howick to their Durban facility, about 90 kilometers away. Using this pigeon-based protocol, the data transfer took a couple of hours. According to news reports, Telkom's Internet circuits only moved about 4 percent of the data during that same time.


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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 program was edited by Rob Sivak. Felicia Butler 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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