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MUSIC: "Our World" theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... An accelerating decline in the Arctic ice cap ... The value of cutting back on smoking if you can't quit ... and an intriguing link between weight loss and Alzheimer's Disease ...
BUCHMAN: "It's possible that Alzheimer's Disease can be affecting the areas that control body weight well before it affects memory."
Those stories, Albert Einstein on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
Scientists studying the size of the Earth's North Polar ice cap released satellite data this week showing a — quote —"stunning reduction" in the amount of arctic sea ice at the end of the summer, and they have concluded that the Arctic ice cap is likely in a period of what they call "accelerating, long-term decline."
Each summer, as ice melts, the North Pole's ice cap shrinks, then grows again when the ice returns in the winter. But this past year, says Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, the ice cap didn't fully recover.
SCAMBOS: "Last year for the first time we saw that winter sea ice didn't recover as fully as it has in the past. Almost every month last winter was a record low for that particular month."
Satellite data going back more than 25 years show the summer ice cap getting smaller and smaller, and the rate of decline picking up speed. The winter ice cap is also getting smaller, but not as dramatically.
It's a feedback loop, says Ted Scambos. Melting ice and dark water absorb more solar energy, rather than reflecting it, so the more the ice melts, the more heat is absorbed, which contributes to more melting....
SCAMBOS: "It all points towards and accelerated decline of arctic ice, and we think that has significant implications for Earth's weather and climate in the future."
The scientist says this trend could be among the first manifestations of global warming. And it's a matter of profound concern, since the world's weather systems are largely driven by the temperature differential between polar cold and equatorial heat. The biggest concern from global warming, says Dr. Scambos, may not be rising sea levels, as some fear, but disturbances in climate that could affect agriculture and other human activities.
SCAMBOS: "Everything that we have and all the things that we grow on the earth are pretty much counting on the fact that next year's climate will look more-or-less like the last 10 years' climate. If we start to do things as profound as lose the polar cap on the top of the Earth, I think you can see that it's going to lead to a pretty significant change in the way Earth's climate works."
Many reputable scientists cite greenhouse gases — such as the carbon dioxide produced by vehicles and conventional power plants — as a leading cause of global warming. Regardless of the cause, however, Dr. Scambos says the climate changes brought about by the warming in the Arctic are already affecting those who live in there.
SCAMBOS: "I think for the arctic we're definitely in the era of global warming. I think people in temperate latitudes think of it as being something in the future; they're concerned about it, but they think that this will be something that their kids or their grandkids will be facing. In fact, in the Arctic they know it's here and it's now and it's having a profound effect on hunting seasons, growing seasons, how they interact with the ocean and the ice."
As for us here in warmer latitudes, Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center says we could be seeing the impact of global warming in years or decades, not centuries.
Some people suggest we're seeing it today, in the powerful hurricanes that recently battered the U.S. coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. But most scientists are reluctant to make that link. Still, hurricanes draw their power from the warm seas they travel over. And sea temperatures have increased in recent years.
A United Nations scientific panel this week said that global warming could be minimized by burying carbon emissions from power plants and factories before they enter the atmosphere. VOA's David McAlary has our report.
McALARY: One-hundred experts from 32 countries report that underground storage of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for rising temperatures, could play a major role in easing global warming.
The group issued its findings in Montreal, Canada Monday as part of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The document was approved by more than 200 delegates from 100 countries.
The U.N. panel had previously concluded that human activities such as fossil fuel burning have raised average global temperatures between half and one degree Celsius in recent decades and that temperatures will continue to increase by one-and-a-half to nearly six degrees by the end of this century.
The new report concludes that storing carbon dioxide below Earth's crust could reduce the amount entering the atmosphere by 20 to 40 percent by the middle of this century. The panel reports that carbon burial could cut the cost of countering climate change by 30 percent or more over the next 100 years.
The head of the U.N. Environment Program, Hans Toepfer, says the most important solutions to climate change remain energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources. But he says carbon capture and storage technologies can supplement these efforts.
TOEPFER: "We have not a silver bullet solution. We must underline the high importance of energy efficiency development, where we are really saving energy. And we have to underline the high importance of other energies, not carbon intensive energies, saving this other part of the limited resources of fossil fuel."
McALARY: The intergovernmental panel says many components of carbon dioxide capture and storage technology already exist, including pipelines and gas injection into geological formations. Three projects are operating in Algeria, Canada, and the North Sea off Norway. Furthermore, the experts say underground storage capacity is likely to be large enough, although the actual size of such reservoirs is uncertain. Other possible applications, such as ocean storage, are still being researched.
The costs of gathering carbon dioxide at the source, transporting it to a burial facility, and injecting it underground are estimated to vary between 17 and almost 200 dollars a ton, depending on the source and methods used.
Mr. Toepfer says the price would be worth it if governments adopt policies making carbon pollution expensive. That's why such policies, he says, are important.
TOEPFER: "If you have no limitation of CO2, you don't have the demand for those technologies. So you must, of course, have the demand. Otherwise, you will not have those technologies used."
McALARY: The new report and the existing carbon storage projects are unconvincing to environmental activists.
They worry that carbon dioxide could leak, or worse, be released in large amounts by an earthquake, worsening global warming. The expert panel says the chance of leakage is not higher than that from existing natural gas and petroleum pipelines. But Greenpeace International says there are still too many questions about environmental risks, safety, and costs for carbon burial to be deployed widely. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.
In many countries, smoking is much less popular than it used to be.
In part, that's because of health warnings on cigarette packages, and a barrage of news stories about how tobacco is implicated in cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other conditions.
For years, most experts have urged smokers to quit.
But tobacco is highly addictive, as anyone who has tried to stop smoking can testify, and many well-intentioned smokers just can't kick the habit.
So the question is, if you reduce your tobacco use, does that help? From researchers in Denmark this week, the answer is: yes, but less than you might think.
GODTFREDSEN: "A smoker who cuts back on the number of cigarettes by half reduces the risk of lung cancer not by half, but by 25 percent. So the risk is reduced, but not just as much as the number of cigarettes."
Nina Godtfredsen of Copenhagen University Hospital led a nearly-two-decade-long study of some 20,000 people. While the study found some reduction in lung cancer for those who smoked less, smoking reduction seems not to change the risk of other smoking-related health problems, such as heart disease. The research was published this week in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.
100 years ago this week, Albert Einstein published the scientific paper that introduced to the world the concept that matter contains a tremendous amount of energy. If you know only one scientific formula, it's probably e=mc-squared ... energy equals matter times the speed of light, multiplied by itself.
There are numerous websites devoted to Albert Einstein, but the one closest to him has got to be our Website of the Week, AlbertEinstein.info, sponsored by institutions entrusted with Einstein's original writings, and a great example of how the Internet is changing the face of scholarship.
SAUER: "The Einstein Archives Online provides fascimilies [of] documents from the archives which previously you could only obtain by writing to the archives or, indeed, by traveling to the archives. And now increasingly you can sit on your desk in your office and then click your way to an original and have it in fascimile on your screen."
Tilman Sauer is senior scientific editor of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, which is publishing a scholarly edition of the scientist's writings. Einstein bequeathed his archives to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which now holds more than 40,000 documents written by or related to the German-born physicist. The website is a joint project of the two groups.
The website includes a database with information about documents in the archive, as well as a sampling of some 900 handwritten documents. Most of them are in German, though many have English translations as well. Sponsors of the site hope to digitize more of those documents as resources permit.
SAUER: "We do intend to enlarge and enrich and extend the website, but that is something that will go step-by-step and depends on funding and things like that."
Although Albert Einstein died 50 years ago, letters and other documents related to his life and work continue to surface. Tilman Sauer urges anyone with original Einstein documents to get in touch with him at AlbertEinstein.info, or get the link from our site VOANews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Duke Ellington - "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" (1932)
You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin say pomegranate juice may be helpful in preventing prostate cancer— one of the most common and deadly cancers affecting men.
The pomegranate is a fruit common in the Mediterranean region and east to India. The seeds are eaten raw, and pomegranate juice is a popular drink in the Middle East.
Prof. Hasan Mukhtar and his colleagues used laboratory mice to test the effect of pomegranate juice.
MUKHTAR: "We verified in our laboratory that it contains remarkable antioxidant activity — much higher than that of green tea and red wine, for instance, which are two agents which have been talked about for prevention of cancer."
For a number of years now, scientists have been investigating the health benefits of antioxidants, found in certain vitamins and foods including berries, green leafy vegetables and sweet potatoes. In the body, antioxidants prevent the production of free radicals — molecules which may damage cells.
In his lab, Dr. Mukhtar compared cancer growth among groups of laboratory mice that drank the equivalent of one or two glasses of pomegranate juice a day, or none at all.
MUKHTAR: "We gave to the mouse human cells which will develop human equivalent of the prostate cancer in them. And we found that those mice which were drinking the pomegranate juice, their cancers grew much slower than those mice which were drinking normal drinking water."
Pomegrantes are, of course, only one of many antioxidant foods. Despite research reports like this one, many of us — particularly in western countries — continue to follow a diet that is not as rich in these beneficial substances as maybe we should. Hasan Mukhtar of the University of Wisconsin suggests that several antioxidant ingredients can be combined in a powerful anti-disease supplement.
MUKHTAR: "The idea is that if we have more and more agents, ultimately we have a cocktail of agents, which can be given to humans with the hope of prevention of the disease — in this case, prostate cancer."
The results of Dr. Mukhtar's work were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Another intriguing study comes to us this week from researchers working on Alzheimer's Disease, the devastating, fatal brain disorder that robs so many older people of their memories and personalities.
Scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that a decline in body mass index, or BMI — a measure of weight, adjusted for height — appears to be an early signal of impending Alzheimer's, even for people with no symptoms of dementia.
The idea for the study emerged from observations of patients who already have the disease, says Aron Buchman, who led this new study.
BUCHMAN: "People have known for a number of years that patients, once they've developed Alzheimer's Disease, they've noticed that their body weight decreases more rapidly than people without Alzheimer's Disease. And there'd been controversies on people who don't have any cognitive problems, what is the relationship or the risk of their body weight and the subsequent development of Alzheimer's Disease."
It seems unlikely that the reduced BMI, or weight loss, CAUSES Alzheimer's disease. Rather, says Dr. Buchman, it appears that the disease in some way causes the body to lose weight ... years before dementia sets in.
BUCHMAN: "It's possible that Alzheimer's Disease can be affecting the areas that control body weight well before it affects memory.
The study involved about 800 older members of Roman Catholic religious orders, including priests, nuns and brothers. The same group of people has been studied for more than 10 years in what scientists call a longitudinal study. The group all had access to healthy, nutritious food, which eliminated one possible variable in a study that hinged on weight.
While weight loss in an older person could be a signal — a "clinical predictor" — of Alzheimer's, there are lots of other reasons a patient could lose weight. Nevertheless, says Dr. Buchman, this link is important, even though there is no cure for Alzheimer's Disease.
BUCHMAN: "Weight loss is very common in older people. There are probably a lot more common things that cause weight loss than Alzheimer's Disease. And the truth is...that as I mentioned earlier, it doesn't have a direct payoff to the lay person today, but it's something that changes the way we think about Alzheimeer's, and is another clue in the puzzle as we try to figure out how we might try to treat or prevent the disease."
Dr. Aron Buchman of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He stressed that because the weight loss is apparently not causing Alzheimer's, a diet aimed at gaining weight would not prevent the disease. And he says he hopes further study of the relationship between weight loss and Alzheimer's will be conducted using more diverse subjects than the men and women of the Religious Orders Study. His paper was published this week in the journal "Neurology."
Every year the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation hands out what the media usually call the "genius awards." You can't apply; they have to find you. Since the program began in 1981, over 700 MacArthur fellows have been chosen in a wide variety of fields. This year, the trustees honored a rare book preservationist, a violin maker, several artists and scientists, and a guy who goes fishing in the state of Maine. VOA's Rosanne Skirble has this profile of Ted Ames.
SKIRBLE: Ted Ames was incredulous.
AMES: "(laughter) It was like wow, you could blow me away with a feather. It's wonderful. I had no idea. It just kind of jumped out of the woodwork."
SKIRBLE: Ted Ames lives on a remote island off the coast of Maine. He divides his time between trapping lobsters and scientific studies of coastal fish. The 66-year-old Mr. Ames says that over decades of fishing, he has seen a major shift take place in the New England fishing industry.
AMES: "The Gulf of Maine used to be an incredibly productive set of grounds for a whole suite of commercial fish stocks - herring, cod, haddock and suites of others. And, in recent years we have seen a dramatic decline in stocks all across the board."
SKIRBLE: Cod was once so dense in the Gulf of Maine that, according to fishing lore, it could be scooped out of the ocean in buckets. No more. A recent study finds that cod stocks have dropped 21 percent in the last four years, and after decades of overfishing, the fishery is now below sustainable levels.
The MacArthur Foundation saw genius in research Ted Ames has done to address the problem.
Mr. Ames has studied historic habitats, and spawning and fishing patterns in affected areas. Onto that data he has grafted anecdotal information from older fishermen to create a map that charts the evolution of current conditions in the region.
AMES: "At the conclusion of the study we were able to identify something like 1,000 square miles [2,600 square kilometers] of historic cod and haddock spawning grounds that had, to that point, been unknown to the scientific community. So, the potential for helping management create sustainable fisheries lies to a great extent with the commercial fishermen as well as with the scientists. The combination of the two is the key."
SKIRBLE: Mr. Ames asserts that fishery managers must reach out to involve local fisher communities, scientists and government officials. He says they must work together to enact strict regulations to promote and protect spawning and nursery areas on the coastal shelf. He says such a plan would boost the fishing economy of small communities and supply industrial operations further off shore.
AMES: "It's a win-win situation for everybody. And the key is rebuilding these subpopulations of ground fish. And my papers show that most of the fish migrate away from those coastal habitats and go to other places for periods of time. But there is a core population that remains in the area 12 months a year which means that if you protect the core population area you are guaranteed a successful opportunity for each area to have as good a reproductive season as possible."
SKIRBLE: Ted Ames believes the same strategy can be applied to coastal species and coastal economies worldwide. Mr. Ames says the money from the MacArthur grant will help him to continue his fish studies. And, he says, when the money runs out he'll just go back to trapping lobsters. I'm Rosanne Skirble.
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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak and Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Kevin Raimon. 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.