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Our World Transcript — March 5-6, 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" ... A campaign against preventable infant deaths ... saliva as a diagnostic tool ... and the controversy over women in science ...

Hopkins (:10) "One of the professors was Jim Watson, the man who discovered the structure of DNA. And he told me that I had the ability to become a scientist. So I did become a scientist."

Those stories, plus putting a date on ancient fossils. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Public health experts say most of the four million newborn babies who die each year in developing nations could be saved by simple, inexpensive interventions. They appeal to rich countries, international organizations, and charitable foundations to increase their funding to promote infant survival. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.

McALARY: The number of newborn deaths worldwide is colossal in the view of one medical adviser to the Indian government. Vinod Paul, of the All India Institute of Medical Services, says the number of infants who die in the first month of life is about 10,000 every day, 99 percent of them in developing nations. But he notes that most of the concern and resources are focused on the other one percent in industrial countries.

PAUL: "It's as if one Asian tsunami is hitting the world every two weeks, year-after-year. And yet, the responses are very different -- to that kind of an event and to this invisible tragedy that is happening."

McALARY: Dr. Paul is a co-author of one of four articles appearing in the medical journal "Lancet" that point out the worsening plight of newborns worldwide, and what should be done. The contributors are scholars and health economists from several countries, United Nations agencies, and the World Bank. Their research was funded by the U.S. government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle, Washington.

Lancet senior editor Faith McLellan told a Washington, D.C., audience that the disaster of newborn mortality must end.

McLELLAN: "The Lancet is publishing this series to inform the world about this appalling situation, and to call upon the global community to reform it."

McALARY: The Lancet papers say two-thirds of all newborn mortality takes place in just 10 countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Tanzania. The major causes are infections, premature birth, delivery complications, diarrhea and lack of oxygen.

Dr. Paul says common, low-cost measures can prevent 75 percent of the newborn deaths, and can be offered within existing maternal care and child survival programs. They include tetanus shots for pregnant mothers, promoting clean delivery, extra care for low birth weight babies, inexpensive antibiotics, and breast-feeding. The Indian physician says the extra cost for assuring such safety is about $6 billion annually, or just one dollar a year for every person in the world.

PAUL: "There are not many health paradigms where such a low cost would save such a large chunk of deaths. We would like to plea, the time has come to bring these resources to save the babies."

McALARY: The Lancet outlines actions nations can take to address the crisis, including setting targets for reducing newborn mortality by 2015. It calls on the international community to demonstrate political commitment to increased resources, and to coordinate country support to turn what is known about saving newborn babies into action.

From time to time here on "Our World" we answer science questions sent in by you, our listeners. This week listener Jonah Ajuzie has sent us an e-mail. He wants to know how paleontologists determine the age of the fossils they dig up.

That's a great question, and for the answer, we turned to Richard Kissel. He's a paleontologist at Chicago's Field Museum, one of America's top natural history museums.

Today, paleontologists have some high-tech tools at their disposal, which we'll get to in a minute, but until the mid-20th century, the main dating technique involved studying the rocks where the fossil was found. Mr. Kissel says that could place an ancient creature in a geologic period, and it illustrates the close connection between geological and biological history.

KISSEL (:27) "The divisions between the different periods and eras is actually based on the biologic record, so it's based on the fossils themselves, and these boundaries, for example, are determined by the appearance of certain species. So if you're looking at a vertical cliff face and halfway up there there's an appearance of several new species, that may coincide with one of these boundaries, and so you can say, well, this fossil's from the Jurassic, this fossil's from the Cretaceous. But you wouldn't know precisely the date."

Knowing that a fossil comes from the Cretaceous period, say, is helpful, but that only narrows it down to an 80-million year period! For more precise dating, paleontologists needed a more sophisticated tool...

KISSEL (:04) "That's where the modern techniques like radiometric dating come into play."

The oldest and best known of the radiometric dating techniques measures Carbon-14. Carbon, like many other chemicals, has several isotopes, or atomic variations. By comparing the amount of carbon-14 in a sample to the normal form of carbon, carbon-12, using a device called a mass spectrometer, scientists can determine how old it is. Using carbon-14, scientists can determine the age of a once-living thing, but it's only useful for material that is less than about 50,000 years old.

To go back millions of years, to date dinosaur bones, for example, you need to look at the the chemistry of surrounding rock, but Mr. Kissel says the general idea is the same using isotopes of uranium or potassium.

KISSEL (:33) "It's based on the basic principle that those elements break down or decay over time. And this decay occurs at a steady, constant rate through time. And so, if you know the rate at which the element decays, and you know how much of the original element is left, then you can determine a specific date that the rock actually formed. If you have two sets of rocks you can get specific dates for, if you find fossils between those two sets of rocks, you can constrain the age of the actual fossil itself."

We'll be sending listener Jonah Ajuzie a special VOA gift as our way of saying thank you for his question. If you've got a question about science, health, space, technology or the environment, please send it in. Listen for our address at the end of the show.

A simple saliva test might soon replace blood and urine testing as the standard method for detecting disease or drug abuse. A team of U.S. researchers made that prediction at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the "spit test" relies on a variety of emerging medical technologies.

SKIRBLE: Researchers have known for a long time that human spit – saliva – is a lot like blood. It contains enzymes, hormones, antibodies and bits of genetic material.

Oral tests for HIV, as well as for alcohol, steroids and other drugs, are already in use in the United States and other countries.

But now spit is moving into the mainstream as a diagnostic tool. Scientists applaud its virtues. Saliva is always available, and samples can be collected easily, without using invasive needles or having to wait on a patient's bladder.

Biochemist Daniel Malamud says the saliva test he is developing at the University of Pennsylvania can detect certain microbes like HIV and a harmless bacterium related to anthrax. He is working on the prototype for an oral swab kit. The device — about the size of a credit card — could analyze samples on the spot in emergency situations or in a doctor's office to test, for example, for common respiratory infections in children.

MALAMUD: "We could take an oral sample and before the patient has left the emergency room or the doctor's office you can tell them what it is that they have."

SKIRBLE: Such information would reduce the misuse of antibiotics, which can lead to drug resistant bacteria.

Saliva has also been the focus of Paul Denny's research. He's a professor of diagnostic sciences at the University of Southern California. His research shows a relationship between saliva proteins and tooth decay.

DENNY: "There is also a version of the test that we have been able to develop in which we can forecast deciduous teeth, that is the baby teeth, and this leads us to the possibility that eventually a version of the test would be included in a well-baby checkup to provide early information on what the future health care needs of that child might be."

SKIRBLE: Saliva tests may also provide early screening for oral cancer and other systemic diseases. New findings from the University of California at Los Angeles show that genetic molecules in saliva match oral cancer proteins with 91 percent accuracy. Scientists like David Wong with the UCLA research group say the effort to compare saliva proteins of healthy people with those of people with disease is advancing diagnostic research and could help improve survival rates.

DAVID WONG: "The first order of challenge is to identify what are the usual proteins in people like ourselves in normal saliva and then we can begin to look at disease populations and see if they have signatures, protein signatures such as diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and so on and so forth."

SKIRBLE: David Wong says that such early detection of disease saves lives, lowers medical costs and promotes lifetime wellness.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research — an agency within the National Institutes of Health — is funding multiple projects across the United States to bring diagnostic saliva tests to market within two or three years.

Time again for Our World's Website of the Week, and this time we have an example of how the presentation of information can make all the difference in how well it's understood. Every 10 years the United States conducts a census, counting not just the number of people, but also their age, education, income, race and other factors.

FREY (:10) "CensusScope is an easy-to-use website for the average person to be able to pull down lots of information about the American society from the United States Census."

Bill Frey is a demographer at the University of Michigan, and he's director of, which presents much of the same information that's available on the official Census website -- at -- but in a more easily-digestible form.

FREY (:13) "You can compare income distributions for different places by the way of our graphics. We have lots of maps, so you can pull down a map and then click on a state, and when you click on that state it'll give you even more information about that state."

As Mr. Frey suggests, the real strength in CensusScope is its use of graphics. For example, on one map, different colors reflect the percentage of the population that is African-American in each of the country's 3,000-plus counties. Blacks represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population overall but are heavily concentrated in a wide arc from New York, down though the East and Gulf Coast states into Texas. You see the pattern at a glance on the map.

CensusScope also makes it easy to track population changes by comparing the figures from the last census with those of the previous one.

FREY (:25) We have on the site information from both the 1990 and 2000 censuses, and this is another easy-to-use feature on our site that you can hardly get anywhere else. If you went on the Census's site and you wanted to get some statistic for 2000 and get the same statistic for 1990, you'd have to go through an awful lot of work. On our site you can get them both at the same time and then see a graph on top of it to see how they compare.

For a snapshot of the American population, point your browser to, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC - "Everything Counts" (Depeche Mode)

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

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers touched a nerve recently when he suggested that a lack of innate ability was one of several reasons why there are relatively few women in top science jobs at universities. Other reasons he mentioned included discrimination and self-selection. His controversial remarks prompted a protest, an apology from the Harvard president, and - maybe - some progress in understanding this issue. Faiza Elmasry wrote our report, which is read in the studio by Faith Lapidus.

TEXT: Men are more likely to have science and math test scores in the highest and lowest ranges, according to Lawrence Summers, while women's scores often fall in the middle. The Harvard President suggested that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Sitting in the audience, biologist Nancy Hopkins couldn't believe her ears.

HOPKINS: "I did become very upset and concerned, because we have so much research that shows that the opinions that were being expressed are not supported by research."

TEXT: The Harvard graduate is living proof that women can succeed in science. Now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nancy Hopkins says she chose a career in biology because the subject fascinated her.

HOPKINS: "I was inspired by a biology class I took at Harvard, as an undergraduate. One of the professors was Jim Watson, the man who discovered the structure of DNA. And he told me that I had the ability to become a scientist. So I did become a scientist."

TEXT: And since she graduated 40 years ago, the number of women becoming scientists has risen steadily. Women now make up a quarter of America's science and engineering workforce. Many are members of the Association of Women in Science. The group's president, Elizabeth Ivey, also graduated from the institution Lawrence Summers heads. She recalls that when she was at Harvard in 1957, there were only three women in the Physics Department graduate program.

IVEY: "We were completely invisible. And by that I mean, when you needed to speak with a faculty member, they told you frankly, as they told me, 'You're a woman and I notice that you are married, so you'll never be working your way through a long-term career. Therefore, you're not deserving of any of my time.'"

TEXT: After graduation, Elizabeth Ivey did have a family and raise her children. But fifteen years later, she says, she was back to continue her successful career in physics. Today, many young women are balancing a science career and a family. Thirty-three-year old Sonya Summerour Clemmons admits it takes a bit of spousal help.

SUMMEROUR CLEMMONS: "What I have to do is enlist my husband in the care and nurturing of our daughter. In order for women to achieve more, men have to start being more flexible."

TEXT: Ms. Summerour Clemmons is the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in bioengineering from the University of California at San Diego. She says it might be challenging for women to major in a technical field, but determination, not gender, is the key to success.

SUMMEROUR CLEMMONS: "There are a lot of men who don't like doing math and science. Any individual would have to want to do it. The only limits are the ones you place on yourself. If you place limits on yourself, you end up in a box."

TEXT: MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins agrees. She's concerned that remarks implying that women can't do science could keep talented students out of the field.

HOPKINS: "There are so many young women, we don't know how many, who would passionately love these fields of science and math and engineering as I loved them and other women I know. And so the concern is that by stereotyping people in this old-fashioned way, we really drive them out of these careers."

TEXT: Professor Hopkins says she is pleased that Lawrence Summers apologized for what he said. But she says she is even happier that the Harvard president's remarks have sparked discussions about what women have accomplished in the fields of science, technology and engineering, and what they can achieve in the future.

And that story was written and reported by Faiza Elmasry.

When my colleague Adam Phillips told me recently he was going to the American International Toy Fair in New York, my first thought was -- that sounds like fun, but what's that have to do with "Our World." Well, it turns out that, while many of the products promoted at the toy industry's annual expo are meant simply to delight and amuse children -- and, OK, maybe a few adults, too -- Adam found that there's a surprising amount of science at work in the toy business.


PHILLIPS: That's not just a toy balloon being pumped up by Christian Gackstatter, president of the Cold Spring Direct Company. It's a noisemaking nipple-nozzle rocket balloon designed to teach kids about science -- when the air is released and it zooms 15–20 meters into the air.


PHILLIPS: And what important science concepts does the toy teach?

GACKSTETTER (:29) "Acceleration. The air is the mass, and that accelerated mass turning into a force sends it up into the air. An action has an equal and opposite reaction! But I think originally, kids always like things that are cool sounding and they can run after. And adults will ruin it for them and explain why it's fun. [laughs]"

PHILLIPS: Mr. Gackstetter's company is not alone in trying to combine science with old-fashioned fun. Reyne Rice, who analyzes trends in toys for the Toy Industry Association, says over $800 million worth of science-oriented toys were sold in 2004.

RICE (:20) "Part of the reason is that they make science exciting. Instead of taking a metal detector which may be a piece of metal wand that you go over sand and try to find a metal piece, now you can use a remote control vehicle to do that. And the remote control vehicle is cool and it finds the metal and then you can see what you've found and what you've discovered on the treasure hunt."


PHILLIPS: That's Robosapien II, the interactive robot companion that was voted Most Innovative Toy of the Year at the Fair. Standing 34 centimeters high, Robosapiens may be doing disco dance now, but it can parrot almost any action its owner teaches it; it recognizes three colors with its visual sensors, and boasts scores of other features. Robotics physicist Mark Tilden designed the toy for the Wowee Corporation.

TILDEN (:26) "The technology is neat because we can do now with a really good body and a small processor what normally requires gyroscopes and laptops and big calculations to do. And this guy's flexibility is actually good. He is able to do like a complete disco dance, never falling down, without requiring any complex calculations. He has the ability to lay himself down, sit himself down and do all kinds of other things. And does this by dead reckoning technology and a very efficient mechanical structure."

PHILLIPS: Mr. Tilden says that while Robosapien's appearance is human-like…

TILDEN (:18) "In actual fact he is more like a walking lobster. His skeleton is in fact his hard shell. And this is for some very major reasons. He has to survive in the marketplace. And that means a robot that is tough enough to take a spill down the stairs without breaking. And that winds up being something that is a very different evolutionary approach!"

PHILLIPS: And a very far cry from a bouncing ball or a spinning top.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you if we use your question on the program. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

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 or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.