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Straight ahead on "Our World" … A close-up view of Saturn's biggest moon ... a new human ancestor discovered in Indonesia ... and computer experts worry about high-tech voting machines ...
DALET: TEASE (Wallach)
"Software like this would never be allowed to fly an airplane, never be allowed to run a medical device. Even gambling machines-you know, Las Vegas slot machines-are built to better standards."
Those stories, plus a new way to clean up a river. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
MUSIC: Up to button
This week, the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn gave scientists on Earth their first look at Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The images and data are already begining to paint a complex and tantalizing portrait of the almost planet-like moon.
Radar-based images of Titan and its dense atmosphere include a dark area that may be a lake - not of water, but of some organic material like liquid methane. There are also features resembling lava flows which, because of Titan's internal geology, would more likely be some sort of icy material. And scientists on earth are puzzled by unexplained streaks in many of Titan's cloud layers.
This first of what will be more than 40 fly-bys over the next four years was done under ideal conditions, says imaging team leader Carolyn Porco:
"The viewing geometry for this fly-by with the sun at our back was just ideal for seeing down to the surface."
Titan's exotic environment is thick with carbon-based organic molecules. And another imaging team member, Jonathan Lunine (lu-NEEN), says studying Titan could help scientists understand how life developed on Earth.
"On the early Earth, there were organic molecules before there was life. Somehow the chemistry of those molecules proceeded in such a way that something we call life began. You cannot study that process in the natural environment of the Earth today, so one has to find a place elsewhere in the solar system and Titan is a potential place."
In 1980 Titan was visited by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which got as close as 124,000 kilometers. Cassini got much closer, coming to within just 1200 kilometers of Titan's surface.
And there was more cosmic news this week -- much closer to home. On Wednesday, viewers in many parts of the world got to see a total lunar eclipse, as the Earth slipped between the Sun and the Moon, causing the Moon to slip into Earth's shadow.
The next total eclipse of the moon will be in March 2007.
Scientists have discovered fossils of an ancient, tiny species of human in an isolated part of Indonesia. They are bones from what they say is a smaller version of the now extinct immediate ancestor to modern humans. Some observers call it a surprising twig on our family tree, one that co-existed with modern humans until relatively recently, long after their normal-sized archaic counterparts disappeared. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.
The remote eastern Indonesian Island of Flores is an exotic place, with large lizards known as Komodo dragons and remains of extinct dwarf elephants and miniature humans.
It is the discovery of the chimpanzee-sized humans that is causing excitement among scientists. Australian researchers report in the journal "Nature" that they found the bones of an adult female who stood just one-meter tall with a head the size of a grapefruit. who lived as recently as 12-thousand years ago, just before the dawn of civilization.
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"In evolutionary terms, 12-thousand years is just yesterday."
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This is University of New England researcher Peter Brown, who admits to being flabbergasted when he realized these tiny archaic people had a brain one-fourth the size of modern humans.
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"My colleagues reported that when I measured the size of the brain of this skeleton and they were observing, I went pale and my jaw dropped to my knees because people with this brain size were supposed to have become extinct more than three-million years ago, but here we had a small-bodied human relative with a very small brain surviving until the relatively recent past, like we have only just missed them."
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Mr. Brown says the bones are not those of the three-million-year-old pre-humans to which he referred. Rather, they belong to a small newer human thought to be our modern species most immediate ancestor, Homo erectus. But the size of the creature has earned it the right to be its own species. Mr. Brown's team calls it "Flores Man."
But Homo erectus was much larger, so how did Flores Man become small? Mr. Brown believes that over time, the species shrank on the isolated island.
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"It underwent similar selection processes that happen to many other mammals on islands. In the absence of large predators and with reduced calories and a heavy covering of rain forest, it became much smaller in body size."
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Evidence gathered with Flores Man suggests the tiny species made its own tools and hunted, like Homo erectus. Remains of a dwarf elephant called Stegodon were near the human bones.
But unlike Homo erectus, which died out by at least 40-thousand years ago and maybe earlier, Flores Man stayed around a lot longer. The Australians believe a volcano eruption finally killed them off 12-thousand years ago, as modern humans were populating the Americas. This belief is based on the dating of ash layers with the bones.
Scientific reaction to the discovery has been enthusiastic. "Breathtaking" is the word used by University of Cambridge anthropologist Robert Foley. At the Natural History Museum in London, Christopher Stringer calls it remarkable, not only for the size and duration of Flores Man, but also because early humans managed to get to the remote island.
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"This island is a lot further away than Java. Humans could have gotten to the island of Java. At times of low sea level, Java was connected to the rest of southeast Asia. But the islands beyond Java, including Flores, are separated by deep water, so it was not thought that ancient humans could have got across that deep water."
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That implies that Homo erectus had mastered the technology of boats. As for their diminutive descendants, Mr. Stringer says they are another example of the variety of humans that once existed.
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"It shows us that human evolution, even in the recent past, was complex. There were many different species and nature was conducting its own evolutionary experiments with early humans."
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The Australian researchers suggest other remote Indonesian islands could be hiding similar surprises and plan to dig on them to find out.
A new study here in the United States indicates that obese people pay more for health care than people who are not obese.
About 30 percent of Americans are classified medically as obese, and their excessive weight puts them at risk for heart disease, stroke and other health problems.
Although the medical risks of obesity are pretty well established, this study is apparently the first to look at how those risks translate into health care costs. The study was done by Marsha Raebel, a researcher at Kaiser Permanente, a large U.S. health care system.
"Essentially what we found was that the median costs for the obese persons were $252 higher for a one-year period for each individual. And that this was primarily attributable to the median presecription costs, which accounted for nearly $200 of that difference"
Dr. Raebel says about four-fifths of that higher cost for obsese patients is attributable to their greater use of prescription drugs to treat chronic diseases such as high cholesterol and diabetes.
And those are some of the very diseases that pose an especially grave threat to obese people. Study author Marsha Raebel says her findings suggest obesity needs to get the attention it deserves as a medical problem.
"I think the facts are beginning to be very, very clear that we have clinical as well as cost consequences of obesity regardless of how you label it."
Dr. Raebel's study on the cost of obesity was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
You may have heard of Washington's famous Potomac River. Well, there's another river here, the Anacostia, and it's among America's most polluted waterways. Flowing through blighted and industrial neighborhoods, the historic river suffers from decades of abuse and neglect, and the riverbed is contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical PCB. But help is on the way in the form of a new technology that could engineer a cleaner and brighter future for the river, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
PCBs are dangerous because they stick to fatty tissue in organisms and move up the food chain into fish and humans. PCBs harm the immune, reproductive, endocrine systems. Although they've been banned in the United States since 1978, disposal has proved to be difficult and costly.
AUDIO-1: GREG LOWRY
"Dredging is the main option. If (the) sediment has PCBs in it, you use a backhoe and scoop them out and you either take them to a landfill or treat them on site."
TEXT: That is Greg Lowry, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He says dredging has its limits.
AUDIO-2: GREG LOWRY
"In re-suspension of sediments usually you are distributing PCBs. It is very expensive to treat the material. In high concentrations of PCBs you need to incinerate them. So you burn them. And when you burn them you make (extremely toxic) dioxins and dioxins can be released. Or, what is mostly done is that the sediments are moved out of the river and into a landfill somewhere. So you haven't actually destroyed the PCBs. You have just moved them out of the river and into what is considered a safe repository for PCBs."
TEXT: Greg Lowry offers another tool for river remediation: -- a sediment-trapping mat that absorbs the dangerous PCBs.
AUDIO-3 GREG LOWRY
"The idea is to put a cap down. Stop PCB transport from those sediments into the overlying water column."
TEXT: Six months ago crane operators lowered what looked like a large roll of carpet into a stretch of the Anacostia River. Greg Lowry says the 929 square meter (10,000 square foot) sediment-capping mat sunk slowly into place across from the Washington Naval Yard. It is made of geo-fabric mesh like that used in landfill liners embedded with absorbent particles.
AUDIO-4 GREG LOWRY
"We've used coke as a sorbent, at very low cost. And, then we are looking at activated carbon, which is a higher cost and it an extremely effective sorbent. Activated carbon is used in filters for water filtration. It is a technology that has been around for decades and applying it in a new way - actually putting low density, carbon material into the bottom of a river as something that people hadn't thought of before."
TEXT: Greg Lowry says that while initially invasive, the mat - covered by a thin layer of sand - remains in place and allows for the ecosystem to recover quickly.
AUDIO-5 GREG LOWRY
"From upstream you are getting clean sediment and clean sediment is depositing and you get re-colonization of the same benthic organisms (those that live in or on the bottom of the river) that were there before. And you won't cap 20 miles of the river all at once. You cap in stages and you allow the re-colonization."
TEXT: Greg Lowry says the cap is a means to buy time while the PCBs break down naturally in the environment. He says the goal is to engineer a system that offers those with a stake in the Anacostia's future a safer and cheaper way than dredging to clean up this important American river.
Demographics is the fascinating study of the characteristics of human populations -- things like age, income, marital status, employment, and so on. It's a great way for students, activists and leaders to assess progress and identify areas that need improvement. A leading online destination for all sorts of population data is Our World's Website of the Week, the Population Reference Bureau at prb.org. The group's president, William Butz, says their goal is to be a source of accurate information.
"We think it's very important in that kind of world for there to be at least one organization whose job it is not to take an advocacy point of view, but simply to provide the best unbiased, apolitical data on population and its trends."
One of the most useful tools on the Population Reference Bureau site is called the Datafinder.
"On the website we have about 95 variables - population, environment and health-related variables - on 220 countries and 28 world regions, all easily accessible around the world."
To enhance the accessibility, most pages on prb.org are mostly text, so they load quickly even on a dial-up Internet connection.
"Our users include students overseas. They include government ministers, parliamentarians, and people who are interested in knowing what's going on, what the past has been, what the present is, and what the future might be for population trends and their implications.
The Washington-based Population Reference Bureau - which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year - began putting its material online seven years ago. In addition to the raw data, prb.org offers articles on topics including aging, poverty, gender and rural populations, and increasingly those articles appear in French and Spanish, as well as English. Population Reference Bureau is online at prb.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
Tuesday is election day in the United States. The White House and thousands of other elective offices in the U-S Congress and state and local governments are at stake. Like the last presidential election in 2000, this one is expected to be extremely close, and every vote counts. But will every vote count? In many places, high-tech computerized voting systems have replaced low-tech systems, like the paper punch-card ballots that Florida had so much trouble with four years ago. But as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, some computer scientists are concerned about the reliability of the new technology.
There is no uniform voting system in the United States. Many places, like New York City, still use the old, heavy… but simple and reliable lever machines that first became popular in the nineteenth century. Other communities… some of them located in the battleground state of Ohio… are using the same punch card ballots that resulted in "hanging chads" in Florida four years ago. But an unprecedented number of American voters will be using computers when they go to the polls - about one third of Americans will be voting electronically. Many will be using touch screens designed by an Ohio-based company called Diebold [DEE-bold]. Company spokesperson David Bear says the computerized machines have advantages.
AUDIO: Cut One: Bear
Touch screen voting is much more accessible to voters with special needs. Someone who is blind can take a ballot completely unassisted, by having the ballot read to them [by the computer]. Someone who is sight impaired, they can change the font, so it's easier to read. Someone [for whom] English may not be a native language, it's much easier to adapt a ballot to meet their language needs.(0:22)
TEXT: The touch-screens also won't allow someone to "over vote." In Florida in 2000, many voters mistakenly punched out the names of two presidential candidates, and then dropped their ballots into the box. Those ballots were later declared invalid. But a computer won't let someone cast a vote like that. Instead, it will alert the voter to his mistake so he can fix it, and that's one of the many reasons touch-screen technology is being hailed by election officials in 30 states.
But not every official is embracing the technology. Reed Gusciora (guss-ee-OR-uh) is a state assemblyman from New Jersey who's filed a lawsuit to block the use of more than 8,000 electronic voting machines in his state. So far, New Jersey hasn't had any problems with the touch-screens, but Mr. Gusciora says he's trying to prevent the difficulties voters in other states encountered during their primary elections earlier this year.
AUDIO: Cut Two: Gusciora
There have been problems in California, where four counties have cancelled the use of them. So as more and more of these anecdotes come across, there's been concern about whether electronic voting machines can guarantee the integrity of the election. (0:24)
TEXT: Reed Gusciora is concerned about the sort of programming glitches that affect computers all the time. But he says he'd be less concerned if the machines in his state provided a paper copy of each ballot. Right now, Nevada is the only state where touch screens that print written records for voters are being used. And that's a problem, says Will Doherty, executive director of verifiedvoting.org. It's a grassroots organization, made up primarily of computer scientists who think technology has a lot to offer the electoral system… but say the old-fashioned policy of keeping a "paper trail" shouldn't be abandoned.
AUDIO: Cut Three: Doherty
When you go to a bank to get money from a bank machine, that machine prints not only a paper receipt for you, the customer, it also prints two paper receipts for the bank. They do that because the computer that's running that machine can crash, and they want to make sure they have a record of what happened, so they can figure out where the money should go. And I would submit to you that our votes are as important as our financial transactions with a bank. (0:33)
TEXT: So how likely is it that these machines will crash? Diebold and the other companies that make them insist they're very reliable, and they also say election officials can get a paper printout from each machine, after the election is over. But critics say anything that's printed out after the fact is useless, since it can't be verified by voters. And they say these machines are vulnerable to hacking. Dan Wallach is a Computer Science professor at Rice University who's examined the software designed by the Diebold company, which makes about 30 percent of the touch screens that will be used on November 2nd. Professor Wallach says the company's code encryption techniques are some of the simplest he's ever encountered.
AUDIO: Cut Four: Wallach
It's not up to any of the standards that you would expect for any kind of high reliability software. Software like this would never be allowed to fly an airplane, never be allowed to run a medical device. Even gambling machines-you know, Las Vegas slot machines-are built to better standards. (0:25)
TEXT: Dan Wallach says the machines wouldn't even have to be compromised by a hacker in order for the election's legitimacy to be questioned. A good hacker, after all, doesn't get caught. But if you know a computer system is vulnerable, you aren't going to trust it-regardless of whether you discover evidence that the system has, in fact, been tampered with. And if Americans don't trust the system they're being required to use on November 2nd, that could cause problems… especially if the vote is close, as political experts expect it to be.
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MINIDISC: Closing theme, estab, then under
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -
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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.