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Our World Transcript — December 3, 2005

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

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A record-breaking storm season ends... World AIDS Day ... and a school teacher joins scientists on a research ship...

GREEN: "I had no clue what I was in for, but anytime I learn anything first hand it's better for my students because I can bring it back more personal to them. So I'm the first elementary educator that they've ever picked."

Those stories, music and math on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

British scientists say the ocean currents that moderate Europe's climate are slowing.

The Atlantic currents, which carry warm water north, have slowed down by almost one-third since 1957.

The findings are based on limited data, but they conform to computer projections of what might happen in a world made warmer by greenhouse gas emissions, according to a separate article, which calls the research "alarming." In pre-historic times, northern air temperatures have dropped by as much as 10 degrees [Celsius] within decades based on changes in ocean circulation. The articles are published in the British science journal, "Nature."

This weekend marked the end of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, and the head of NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls it a record-breaker.

LAUTENBACHER: "The most named storms — we're up to 26 now with Epsilon in the Atlantic; the most hurricanes, 13; and the most category five storms in a season, three. And arguably, although the data is not completely in, it probably has been the most devastating hurricane season that the country has experienced in modern times."

That's the assessment of Conrad Lautenbacher, who heads NOAA, the U.S. agency that handles weather and climate matters. And Mr. Lautenbacher said next year could be just as bad.

NOAA scientists blame the severe storm season on natural cycles lasting twenty to thirty years, says Gerry Bell, with the government agency.

BELL: "Well, NOAA attributes the increased hurricane activity to naturally-occurring cycles in the tropical climate patterns near the equator. NOAA's research shows that the tropical multi-decadal signal is by far the dominant cause of the increased hurricane activity that we've seen since 1995."

NOAA's explanation for the severe storm season downplays a factor that many other scientists see at work: global warming. Among them: Judith Curry, who heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech.

CURRY: "It's very difficult to untangle the role of global warming and natural variability. But there is no way that we can explain this without some element of global warming."

Dr. Curry dismisses NOAA's main explanation for this year's record-breaking hurricane season.

CURRY: "They're talking about this 'tropical multi-decadal mode.' But nobody, no oceanographers, no climate dynamicists have any evidence of a global tropical multi-decadal mode."

Judith Curry says the different conclusion reached by the government scientists may reflect the different focus at NOAA, whose expertise, she says, centers less on long-term climate trends than on short-term storm forecasts — which, incidentally, have improved dramatically in recent years.

Thursday was World AIDS Day. A statement from the United Nations' AIDS organization, UNAIDS, notes some signs of hope, including lower adult infection rates in some countries of Africa and the Caribbean, thanks in part to safer sexual practices. Still, the epidemic continues to spread in other areas, says UNAIDS director Dr. Peter Piot.

PIOT: "The fastest growth is in eastern Europe and central Asia, in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where the number of people living with HIV has increased twenty-fold in less than ten years."

Because a person can be infected with HIV for a long time before symptoms develop, it's important for people to know if they may be carrying the AIDS virus. This normally involves a trip to a doctor or clinic, and waiting for the results.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering approval of a convenient, do-it-yourself HIV test. VOA's Andrew Baroch reports that the aim is to encourage more people to get tested by making the procedure — the test and the results — easier to obtain than ever before.

BAROCH: The product would be the first HIV test of its kind sold over the counter in the United States. HIV tests are currently available in doctor's offices and health clinics -- and while there is a test on the market for home use, samples must be mailed to a laboratory and the results aren't reported for at least a week. The test under FDA review would provide results directly to the home user in 20 minutes.

Dr. Elliot Cowan, a specialist on HIV testing with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says the product does not require help from a healthcare professional and works much like an over-the-counter, home pregnancy test.

COWAN: "What you would do is take this little device, which looks like a paddle, and you put it in your mouth, swab your upper gum and lower gum. Wait 20 minutes to read out the test result."

BAROCH: About 300,000 of the approximately one million Americans who have the HIV virus don't know they're infected. FDA official Elliot Cowan says these people need to learn about their condition — for their sake and the general public's — and this product may help.

COWAN: "Possibly identifying so many people with HIV and slowing or stopping the spread of HIV from person to person here in the U.S. is a tremendous benefit that could really help public health in some very tangible ways."

BAROCH: Officials believe the fact that the highly accurate test, which can be done privately and provides speedy results, will appeal to Americans who fear they have the HIV virus, but dread the stressful process of finding out.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic is a non-profit agency that provides HIV testing and other healthcare and AIDS-related services in the Washington, D.C., area. Kim Mills is a spokesperson:

MILLS: "There is a certain denial on the part of some people. They don't want to know in some cases, and you can't run and hide from this."

BAROCH: But healthcare professionals have some reservations about a test someone can take themselves and find out the results alone. Again, Dr. Cowan of the FDA:

COWAN: "There are a number of risks associated with testing such as this. The most common one is suicide."

BAROCH: Dr. Cowan says there's also the risk of what he calls coercive testing.

COWAN: "There is the potential for someone to force testing on someone: for example, an insurance company, an employer, a parent testing a child, or there could be abuse involved: a spouse or partner forcing someone else to be tested and some violent consequences following. These are all very real issues that would need to be addressed and things we're examining very seriously before we would allow a product like this to be approved and sold."

BAROCH: Kim Mills of the Whitman-Walker Clinic says the organization has other reasons for not endorsing the product. For one thing, the test is considered to be highly accurate only when taken after a certain time.

MILLS: "That's really important that people understand: you can't just have unprotected sex one night and get up in the morning, go and buy a home test kit. It takes three to six months for the antibodies to show up."

BAROCH: Ms. Mills notes that the home test would require verification by a medical professional, and that even those who test negative need advice from a doctor or at a health clinic.

MILLS: "Even if you test negative, what we have found is that it's a great opportunity for us to explain to people how to remain negative, which is so critically important to stop the spread of the virus — the necessity of using condoms, practicing safe sex, and really continue to reinforce this can be prevented."

BAROCH: As for the home test now under review, FDA officials want private healthcare companies offering to market the product to address all of the social and psychological concerns associated with its use. I'm Andrew Baroch.

Some of the most heartbreaking stories of AIDS' devastating impact involve children who are infected with HIV. Now, a new study published in the British medical journal, "The Lancet," suggests new hope for the youngest AIDS victims. The study indicates that supplements of zinc, a necessary mineral that is key for growth, are OK for HIV-infected children. VOA's Rosanne Skirble has our report.

SKIRBLE: Lead author William Moss is assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. He says it had been theorized that zinc would speed up replication of the HIV virus, increasing the so-called viral load.

MOSS: "We found that over six months of zinc supplementation, there was no increase in HIV viral loads in children receiving zinc supplements. We also did not observe any decline in CD4 cell count, which is a marker of a degree of immune suppression."

SKIRBLE: Two point three million people under the age of 15 are living with AIDS. More than 70 percent of the 700,000 who are born HIV positive die before age one.

Antiretroviral therapy - which prevents HIV transmission from mother to child - is not readily available in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the need is greatest. William Moss says zinc is a cost-effective, safe intervention for HIV-infected children and provides the same health benefits that it does for non HIV-infected children.

MOSS: "We also observed that the number of episodes of diarrhea that the zinc supplemented group had was lower than those receiving a placebo, and there was a trend for reduction in the number of episodes of pneumonia."

SKIRBLE: Ultimately the therapy can help reduce illness and death from these conditions. Dr. Moss says efforts are underway in some parts of the world to enhance supplements in food and to distribute zinc in health clinics. He says it is safe to go ahead with mass supplementation programs in regions where high HIV is prevalent without concern that the zinc will adversely affect HIV-infected children. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: Wolfram Rock

Unlike most of the music we sometimes use between stories on Our World — we call them bridges — this tune isn't from our music library. In fact, I actually made it on my computer. — Well, me, some sophisticated mathematics and our really unusual Website of the Week called WolframTones, at

WolframTones is built on the pioneering mathematical work of scientist and author Stephen Wolfram, and the music is built on a basis of a handful of deceptively simple mathematical rules. The resulting possibilities, according to Wolfram Research mathemetician Ed Pegg, seem virtually endless.

PEGG: "Pretty much. Just with what we have on the site now, we could assign a unique tone to every atom in the universe. It may as well be infinite." Ed Pegg is a mathematician at Wolfram Research. He says when you visit tones-dot-wolfram-doc, the simplest way to get started is to click on a genre of music — such as jazz or hip-hop —

PEGG: "And then you can just generate new tones randomly. You can select different types like a classical-sounding sequence or rhythm-and-blues-sounding sequences or just random ones, and from there you will hear something that mimics that sort of style. If you want to experiment, you can try altering different musical variables, such as the instrument, the pitch, or the tempo. Or you can enter random numbers to seed the equations that generate the music. Ed Pegg says WolframTones is also based on musical principles, not just math.

PEGG: "We had a person who's an expert on music study various musical genres, and he tried to pick out various mathematical rules that could be applied to those genres. A lot of that is just due to instrumentations and rhythms. And with that he developed a set of mathematical rules to go along with each music generator. Unlike a lot of multimedia websites, this works fine on a dial-up connection, because WolframTones creates a very small MIDI file and sends it to your computer, which actually generates the music. Check it out at ... or get the link from our site, world.

MUSIC: Wolfram Jazz

Controversy continues to surround Charles Darwin's 150-year-old theory of evolution, despite its near-universal acceptance in the scientific community. Now, a major new museum exhibit in New York examines the scientific evidence for evolution, and attempts to understand Charles Darwin both as a scientific genius, and as a man. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: At a press opening for "Darwin," one of the American Museum of Natural History's biggest shows in recent memory, Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great grandson, stands between two exhibits that would certainly have pleased his famous ancestor.

To his left is a pair of live giant Galapagos tortoises - one of many species first recorded by Charles Darwin as a young naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle during its five-year voyage from England to the southern oceans. To Mr. Keynes' right is a full-scale model of the laboratory and study where Darwin conducted his experiments and ultimately wrote his landmark book, "On the Origin of Species."

KEYNES: "I think he remained a child all his life with his enthusiasm for the natural world, the beetles that he first collected and then for everything he went on to study. He wanted to find great truths in the wonderful variety of nature. And boy, did he find one!"

PHILLIPS: That would be the theory of evolution, which states that species change over time, through a process called a "natural selection." In other words, organisms that that adapt best to their environments tend to survive and produce offspring with those traits. This was is in sharp contrast to prevailing Christian views, which held that God had created humans and animals in an unchanging form, over seven consecutive days.

Although Darwin wanted to become a clergyman, he came of age in an era where traditional religious views of creation were already being challenged. And Europeans were getting their first chance to see exotic animals. Geology had shown the world to be at least millions of years old, not the four thousand years as the Biblical literalists believed. Also, strange animals from far-off Africa and Asia were being displayed in Europe for the first time. Randall Keynes said the young Darwin was especially interested by in the great apes.

KEYNES: "And he went to the zoo, the London Zoo, and watched a young orangutan called Jenny, he watched her with this question in his mind -- is she like a human child or is she different. And he just saw that she was so like a human child. And his great bravery was to say I'm going to take that further. I'm going to look at that possibility and see whether it's a clue, and what it might mean for human nature and for how we can understand ourselves…. And that I think is the mark of greatness. Without that courage, he would have missed the full reach of his theory."

PHILLIPS: The theory of evolution is still controversial in places where the Bible is taken as literal truth. In fact, the American Museum of Natural History reportedly had difficulty finding a corporate sponsor for the Darwin exhibit after it became the target of criticism by conservative religious groups.

But rather than get bogged down in that debate, museum official Michael Novacek says the exhibit attempts to focus on scientific evidence for evolution.

Darwin's theory was general enough to include minutely small organisms and their relationship with their much larger hosts. For example, the current concern about the bird flu virus and its potential to mutate - that is, evolve, is based on knowledge first advanced by Charles Darwin first put forth. Again, Michael Novacek.

NOVACEK: "You know, if we know, as we do now, that you can only get avian flu from getting in contact with a chicken or a bird species with it. That's bad enough. We don't transfer it from one human to another, which is really bad! But from the infective agent's point of view, the virus' point of view, its going to say 'to be more adaptive, maybe I'll switch hosts and I'll adapt to a system where humans are transferring to each other.' We wouldn't even have a concept of that or a worry of that without Darwin's theory of evolution."

PHILLIPS: As scientific knowledge of the natural world deepens, and as the applications for Darwin's insights become refined, just what is meant by evolution and its reach may itself evolve. Whatever the case, it is clear that, nearly two hundred years after his birth, Charles Darwin's ideas retain their power to stir debate. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I'm Adam Phillips reporting.

In recent weeks on Our World we've been telling you about the work of scientists on board an ocean research vessel. Joining the crew and a team of researchers studying deep sea corals was an elementary school teacher, part of the Educator at Sea program of NOAA, the U.S. ocean research agency.

We found a quiet place to talk on board the ship, the Seward Johnson — it was on the bridge, actually; a surprisingly high-tech control room that looked in places more like a video game console than a place to steer a ship.

GREEN: "I'm Reneé Green, and I'm a third grade teacher at Level Cross Elementary School in Randolph County, which is in North Carolina"

This is not the first science expedition Reneé Green has been on. Previously she went to Belize, in Central America, in the Educator of Excellence program of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum mails out announcements of similar programs, including the NOAA Educator at Sea.

GREEN: "And I read it, and I toyed with the idea of, wouldn't it be great to do it, I had no clue what I was in for, but I've got an adventuresome spirit, and anytime I learn anything first hand it's better for my students because I can bring it back more personal to them. So I'm the first elementary educator that they've ever picked."

While on board, Ms. Green worked with the scientists as they investigated coral and other marine life at the edge of the continental shelf. She even got to go down on the ship's research sub, the Johnson Sea Link. As the scientist sat alongside the pilot in the acrylic bubble up front, she assisted in the rear compartment.

GREEN: "Yes, that was the highlight of my trip, was going down in the sub. I don't know - it was just an awesome experience. And when we went down I had a lot of jobs to do. I had to keep track of what they said from the sphere, they would talk to me, the scientists in the sphere would talk to me and I would take notes and I had a video screen that I would watch, and then I would record the depth and the time, and then what they were seeing, and also I wore an audio recorder of what I would see. The whole experience was just so incredible."

It's actually pretty unusual for a third grade teacher, with students aged nine or 10, to have this sort of opportunity. So how does an educator at sea convey her excitement to her young students back in landlocked Randolph County, North Carolina?

GREEN: "Right now as it is I've been e-mailing my students and they've been following along the logs on the web, and they're very, very excited. They've posted some questions to me and I got to answer those. When we go back they'll do some research. I let them choose whatever they want to from the ocean to do some research on, which brings in a lot of different skills. I will come up with some lesson plans that will be posted on the museum's web page that will be geared more towards the kindergarten through fifth grade, because right now they're focusing from fifth grade up, and there's not anything really out there for teachers like me to tap into."

Finally, I asked Reneé Green, after surviving a trip to the ocean floor and a bout of seasickness, what she would tell other teachers who might be interested in this program.

GREEN: "I would say go for it ... but take plenty of medication with you."

Educator-at-Sea Reneé Green teaches at Level Cross Elementary School in North Carolina. We caught up with her aboard the research vessel Seward Johnson at port in Charleston, South Carolina.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. 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.