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Our World Transcript — May 14-15, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World Theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... violent storms on distant stars that protect planets ... some high-tech trucks and buses ...and a website that features conversations with top scientists.

SKANE: "We're trying to tell them that scientists do many different things and especially for young men and young women, we're trying to give role models that people can look at and say, gee I can do that, too."

Those stories, a new rodent, and a shortage of nurses. ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Astronomers say violent solar x-ray outbursts that would scorch Earth today paradoxically could have protected the planet billions of years ago while it was forming. A survey of very young stars by an orbiting NASA observatory finds that many like the Sun produce massive flares that help planets survive destruction during their emergence. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: Without a time machine as a tool, astronomers observe other stars like the Sun at various stages of their existence to guess what might have occurred in our solar system's early years or what its future might be like.

An international team used the U.S. Chandra X-Ray Observatory to peer at several young suns in the constellation Orion. They saw 27 of them about the same mass as our Sun, ranging in age from one to 10 million years, an age when planets form from the disks of gas and dust that swirl around the stars.

During a two week period, these young stars displayed enormous x-ray eruptions that Pennsylvania State University astronomer Eric Feigelson says dwarf anything seen from the Sun today in size, energy, and frequency.

FEIGELSON: "These flares are really incredibly strong. Even the faintest of the x-ray events seen with Chandra is more powerful than the strongest event seen on the contemporary Sun today. They also occur incredibly frequently. Every few days, there is a big flare in the baby sun while similar events occur on the Sun today once every few years."

McALARY: Some flares extended 10 times the radius of the stars, reaching the inner edge of the planet forming disks around them.

Astronomers infer that our Sun was just as energetic in its youth, but say it's a good thing it is far less so in middle age. Today's comparatively mild solar flares can create havoc if they reach our planet by damaging electrical circuits aboard satellites and aircraft and shutting down parts of the electrical grid on the ground. But much more powerful ones would be incinerating.

Yet theorists believe they were useful at the time of planet formation. Their recent work suggests that huge x-ray flares can create turbulence when they strike the gaseous planet-forming disks. According to Scott Wolk of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, such turbulence is thought to have influenced the position of Earth and its sister rocky planets Mars, Venus and Mercury as they formed billions of years ago, keeping them at a safe distance from the Sun.

WOLK: "Such flares would have had a profound effect on the material in the solar system and could even have helped protect Earth from rapidly spiraling in towards the Sun and being destroyed."

McALARY: NASA scientist Michael Salamon likens the process to a boat being cast away by waves in a storm.

SALAMON: "It's really remarkable how the early x-ray history of the Sun could have played a very profound role in our existence today."

McALARY: Even giant gas planets like Jupiter benefited, because the turbulence is thought to have given their inner rocky cores time to accumulate their surrounding gaseous outer layers.

The astronomers found during their Chandra study that young Orion constellation stars with smaller masses than our Sun produced less energetic flares than the bigger sun-like stars. Does this mean the smaller suns inhibit the development of their planets?

Again, Eric Feigelson of Pennsylvania State University.

FEIGELSON: "I think that is a good question, but this more theoretical interpretation has not been addressed yet in a study."

McALARY: David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.


FX: BUS IDLING AND BRAKES

Except for its promotional paint job, the bus that pulls up to the curb looks pretty much like any other modern city bus here in Washington. But Dave Mikoryak says this is no ordinary transit vehicle.

MIKORYAK: "It has a diesel hybrid propulsion system, and the reason we did it is obviously for a lot of environmental reasons to meet upcoming and current emission standards. And also to improve fuel efficiency in vehicles."

For about a century the internal combustion engine -- gasoline or diesel -- has been the global standard for motor vehicles. In the past few years hybrid vehicles have been making small inroads. They use a smaller engine combined with electric motors to supply power to the wheels. The technology reduces emissions and increases fuel economy. Its use is slowly propagating out from the small economy cars in which it first appeared.

At a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Washington this week, companies developing hybrid technology for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles were showing off their stuff.

Dave Mikoryak, of General Motors' Allison Transmission unit, explained some of the ways his company's hybrid bus gets better fuel economy and improved acceleration.

MIKORYAK: "We are able to achieve that by downsizing the engine significantly from a large bus engine down to a medium-duty truck or even a large pickup truck-size engine, and also use regenerative braking to recapture energy to help with the vehicle launch."

That regenerative braking he mentions is a technology for recapturing some of the energy when the vehicles stops. City buses often stop every couple of blocks. As a normal vehicle brakes to a stop, the energy of its forward motion is dissipated as heat from the friction of the brakes. With regenerative braking, that energy is captured as electricity in batteries, which can then be used to help get the vehicle going again. That's a big plus for a vehicle like a city bus that is constantly in stop-and-go service.

Mr. Mikoryak says some 350 GM hybrid buses are now in use in the United States.

Energy savings can be teased out of other parts of the vehicle, too. Jon Morrow of the Oshkosh Truck Corporation explained some of the efficiencies built into a prototype vehicle they had on display.

MORROW: "In addition to the hybrid-electric drive system, it also has a high-efficiency cooling package. It cuts the energy consumption for engine and system cooling by 50 percent. The hybrid package is intended to provide a 30-40 percent fuel savings in a day."

Another high tech vehicle on display was a big, long-haul truck from Volvo. American truckers often sleep in their vehicles in luxurious cabins with air conditioning, television and other conveniences. To power them, the truck engine often idles away as the driver sleeps, using an estimated 8,000 liters of fuel a year. Volvo's simple solution is a system that allows drivers to plug in to an electric power outlet at a truck stop.

YEAKEL: "We'll have a 625 horsepower engine in a truck like this. You don't need that much to run an air conditioning system so we've put on what I call AC HVAC -- alternating current-powered heating, ventilating and air conditioning. Plug in, shut down [the engine]. About 2 kilowatts an hour is the average."

That's Volvo's Skip Yeakel.

Heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks are only a small percentage of the U.S. vehicle fleet, but because of their size and the fact that they're on the road many more hours a day than the typical passenger car, they have a disproportionate impact on both the environment and on energy consumption. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman stressed the importance of improving fuel economy in this segment of the vehicle fleet.

BODMAN: "Because so much of our commerce is dependent on trucks, which haul more than 65 percent of all the freight tonnage transported in the United States, it is essential that we make this sector as efficient as we possibly can. ... If the technologies currently being researched can reach commercial maturity and market acceptance, we can increase the fuel economy of the best new long-haul trucks by more than 50 percent in the next 15 years.

Currently there are government regulations limiting emissions from heavy trucks, but there are no rules on fuel economy. But because fuel consumption is an important part of the operating cost of these vehicles, manufacturers can take competitive advantage of features that save diesel fuel.


Time again for our Website of the Week. You know, each week on "Our World" you hear the voices of scientists talking about their latest discoveries, but what you rarely hear is the voices of scientsts talking about their own careers. Sometimes it can be just as interesting as the latest finding from their lab. For extended conversations with some of America's top scientists that you can listen to, surf on over to nationalacademies.org/interviews


SKANE: "It's a set of interviews with prominent scientists and researchers in various fields that's designed to give you a bit of the taste of what they do and also a bit about their careers and how they got to where they are."

Bill Skane heads the office of public information at the National Academy of Sciences. The academy, which advises the U.S. government on scientific affairs, includes some of America's most prominent researchers.

One of the scientists interviewed, plant geneticist Susan Wessler, describes how she chose a university career. She attended New York's prestigious Bronx High School of Science and later worked for a clothing company, writing advertising copy, when she had her epiphany on the subway.

WESSLER: "And what I saw was, every morning I would go in on the subway and everybody was sort-of all proper and prim and smiling a little bit. And I'd come home in the evening and everybody was dirty and mad, and I just said, if this is the real world, I don't want it. And you have to, I think, have been through the alternatives and rejected them to know that this is much, much better -- if it is much better for you."

That's a good example, I think, of what Bill Skane of the National Academy describes as an effort to humanize scientists.


SKANE: "We're trying to tell people, especially young people, what it is to be a scientist, we're trying to tell them that scientists do many different things and especially for young men and young women, we're trying to give role models that people can look at and say, gee I can do that, too."

For a chance to go behind the headlines and learn a lot more about what some very accomplished scientists do and how they got there, your destination is the InterViews project at nationalacademies.org/interviews, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Nice Work if You Can Get It (Thelonious Monk, 1971)

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The Bush administration, which is frequently criticized by environmentalists, this week said it is considering a voluntary alternative to mandatory regulations aimed at protecting construction workers and others from lead paint.

Lead is a very toxic substance that can cause brain and kidney damage, and may cause cancer.

Lead-based paint has been banned in the United States for almost 30 years, but buildings that were painted before the 1977 ban still pose a hazard when they are renovated or demolished, or when old paint peels off the walls. Young children can eat the paint chips, and low-income kids living in dilapidated housing are especially at risk.

Efforts to write regulations have dragged on for years, and an EPA spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the agency is considering both a voluntary alternative as well as mandatory regulations.

Meanwhile, in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, researchers report that too many American children who have blood tests that show exposure to lead are not getting the follow-up they need.

Dr. Alex Kemper and colleagues looked at records from children below age seven who lived in low-income households.

KEMPER: "We identified about 3,600 kids who had elevated blood lead levels in Michigan and we found out of those children, only about half of them had follow-up testing."

Not only that, but as Dr. Kemper points out, the higher the risk of lead poisoning, the lower the likehood of getting the follow-up the child needs.

KEPMER: "One of those risk categories include children who are enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid or the WIC program. Children who are enrolled in these programs are supposed to be tested at one year of age and at two years of age, and if they werent tested at either of those two ages then between the ages of three and five years."

(Medicaid and WIC are health and nutrition programs for low-income families.)

In an editorial published in JAMA with Dr. Kemper's research, Dr. Bruce Lanphear of Children's Hospital in Cincinnati points out that prevention of childhood lead poisoning is long overdue, and he stressed the need for attacking the problem at its source -- buildings where children could be exposed to lead paint -- rather than focusing on screening of children after they have been exposed.

Obesity, we frequently hear, is a worldwide epidemic. People who are obese are at greater risk for a variety of ailments, including type-2 diabetes. And type-2 diabetes, which most commonly affects adults, is now increasingly being seen in children.

American and Israeli researchers reviewed all the studies on type-2 diabetes published in medical journals since 1978. They found that the disease is being seen much more often in children and teenagers than it used to be. The American researcher, Philip Zeitler of the University of Colorado, says the findings suggest that young people are fatter and more sedentary than they used to be.

ZEITLER: "Age is an important risk factor for type-2 diabetes, and so in order for kids to get type-2, they have to be pretty obese and pretty sedentary."

Type-2 diabetes, which was once rare among children, now accounts for significant percentages, particularly in certain ethnic groups, including the Japanese and Native Americans.

ZEITLER: "What it shows is what we have seen in the United States for about 15, 20 years is now occurring worldwide and is going to become a serious health problem."

University of Rhode Island anthropologist Marquisa LaVelle says obesity is increasing worldwide to the point where many societies have both under-nutrition and over-nutrition.

LaVELLE: "Given the associations of obesity with chronic diseases, with diabetes, as high risk factors for heart disease and cancers of various sorts, this puts a burden on the developing world that they can ill afford."

Professor LaVelle is not optimistic, concluding that increased disease and declining world health is "inevitable."


Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale was born 185 years ago on Thursday, and her birthday -- May 12 -- marked the end of National Nurses Week in the United States.

Despite the honor, American nursing is in crisis. Hospitals that depend on nurses for patient care are hard-hit, and the American Hospital Association says 126,000 permanent U.S. nursing jobs are going unfilled, with temporary and overtime workers stepping into the breach. Bigger shortages loom in the coming years, as large numbers of nurses are likely to retire. VOA's Nancy Beardsley reports on the worsening shortage in a key health care field.

BEARDSLEY: Jean Chaisson became a registered nurse in 1980. In the decade that followed, she was encouraged by signs of change in her profession, with a renewed emphasis on training and more resources for nursing practice. Then she saw the trend start to reverse itself. Ms. Chaisson says cost cutting measures not only reduced nursing staffs, but mandated shorter hospital stays for patients:

CHAISSON: "So instead of having a couple of stable patients on your assignment who are in that recuperative phase, you have nothing but disasters. They need a lot of evaluation, a lot of assessment. And instead of looking at this situation and saying, 'Well, a nurse needs to take care of fewer patients,' we see that the trend is that nurses have been asked to take care of more patients."

BEARDSLEY: Jean Chaisson became so discouraged she eventually gave up her hospital job for home care and hospice work. Stories like hers helped inspire a new book by Suzanne Gordon, a journalist and assistant adjunct professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing.

In "Nursing Against the Odds," Ms. Gordon warns that nursing schools aren't producing enough new graduates, experienced nurses are switching jobs or leaving the profession altogether, and those who remain are suffering stress and burn-out:

GORDON: "They're working a lot longer hours today. The eight-hour day for the nurse is practically gone. There was a new study in 'Health Affairs' the summer about the fact that most nurses are working 12, 13, 14 hour shifts. Many nurses are being asked to work an extra shift -- what's called mandatory overtime -- after their shift is over. Their pay has stagnated. And they don't feel they can give good care."

BEARDSLEY: Expanded opportunities for young women mean that many who might have become nurses in the past are now choosing to be doctors instead. Physicians earn more money, says Suzanne Gordon, and nurses often don't get the respect they deserve -- from doctors or the general public. She cites movies like "Meet the Parents" as examples of the kind of negative media stereotypes that surround the nursing profession. Ben Stiller plays a male nurse named Greg, whose prospective in-laws include a couple of doctors:

MEET THE PARENTS:
You know Greg's in medicine too, Larry?
Oh really, what field?
Uh, nursing.
(LAUGHTER.) That's good--no really, what field?
Nursing.

GORDON: "And the only way the guy's fiancée can prove to her parents and their physician friends that this guy is somehow not, God forbid, JUST a nurse is to show them that he took the medical boards and scored high."

BEARDSLEY: In fact, Suzanne Gordon says, nurses play a critical role in the care and recovery of patients:

GORDON: "Studies have shown a correlation between better levels of nurse staffing and fewer urinary tract infections, falls, pneumonias, blood clots, bed sores among other things. If they don't have time to put their educated eyes on you enought of the time to see that, 'whoops, her fever went up, maybe she's developing a wound infection,' then people are going to get sicker and health care costs are going to go up."

BEARDSLEY: In years past, American hospitals have recruited nurses from the Philippines and other countries. But those efforts can add to nursing shortages in other countries. And James Bentley, a senior vice president with the American Hospital Association, says the trend has declined since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. New visa restrictions make it harder for foreign nurses to enter the United States. However, Mr. Bentley says a task force three years ago proposed other ways to address the shortage:

BENTLEY: "We needed to change the workplace relationship between the organization and the nurse and make it more participatory. We needed to broaden the base of nurse recruits by recruiting more men in the field, by recruiting more minorities. And hospitals have to work together with community colleges and universities and high schools to interest young people in nursing."

BEARDSLEY: James Bentley says those efforts appear to be showing signs of success.

Despite the problems in the profession, author Suzanne Gordon says nursing is still a great job, offering the potential to ease recoveries and save lives. The challenge is to give nurses the resources they need to make the most of both their talents and their training. This is Nancy Beardsley.

New species are discovered all the time, but new mammal species are pretty uncommon. For scientists to discover a whole new family of mammals is extraordinary. And to do so, not on an expedition to a remote jungle somewhere but in a public marketplace is just too amazing.

But that's where the Laotian rock rat was first noticed for scientists. Robert Timmins of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society said he first spotted the animal at outdoor markets in Laos. Local hunters trapped the animals and took them to market. Another scientist separately had collected several carcasses of what Laotians call kha-nyou.

The funny-looking rodent is about 30-centimeters long, plus a thick tail about half the length of its body. Both DNA and anatomical studies confirmed the Laotian rock rat is an entirely new family of mammal.

MUSIC: OUR WORLD THEME

That's our show for this week. Got a science question? If we answer it on the show we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

Our World
Voice of America
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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. 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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