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Straight ahead on "Our World," ... Studying the value of a low-fat diet ... pressing America to plan for climate change ... and exploring a lost world .
HELGEN: "It just looked different than anything I'd ever seen. And it turned out to be a new species of bird, the first new species of bird found in New Guinea since the Second World War. So right at that moment we knew we were onto something pretty big."
Those stories, Ray Kurzweil on the singularity, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
For years, the conventional advice on how to stay healthy has included eating a low-fat diet.
Now, a new study SEEMS to be casting some doubt on that advice ... or at least, suggesting that it's more complicated than that.
Four hundred million dollars and eight years went into this massive study, which tracked the dietary habits of 49,000 women. After all that, the researchers found a low-fat diet did not — did NOT — reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease. But one of the researchers, Ross Prentice of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, says that's not a reason to abandon a low-fat diet.
PRENTISS: "We did not see evidence of any adverse effects of a low-fat diet and we see some trends toward health benefits, especially for breast cancer. So we think that women who are currently on a low fat diet can confidently continue on such a diet."
This study, like all scientific research, has its limitations. It was designed a decade or so ago, at a time when the significance of different kinds of fats wasn't understood as well, so it didn't distinguish between the saturated and unsaturated fats. Cheryl Anderson of Johns Hopkins University wrote an editorial accompanying the study in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.
ANDERSON: "We have evidence that increased or elevated intake of trans-fatty acids and saturated fats will increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, whereas the unsaturated fats, commonly found in things like fish, nuts and vetegable oils, will actually reduce your risk for heart disease. So it's much too simplistic to take the approach that fats don't matter. It's important to look at type of fat."
Another limitation of the study is that it included only post-menopausal women and didn't include younger women, or men. But Anderson says other studies have confirmed the health benefits of a diet low in saturated fats, including those found in red meat and butter.
Although the study didn't find a direct link between diet and disease, it did establish that a low-fat diet reduces cholesterol and blood pressure, which are known as risk factors for heart disease.
Don't worry if you find all this confusing.
ANDERSON: "People should not be dismayed. I think that diet has a very powerful beneficial effect not only on the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but also on cardiovascular disease outcomes."
The take-home message from the majority of respected health and nutritution experts remains fundamentally the same: Don't eat too much. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Limit saturated fats. Get regular exercise.
A report released by the independent Pew Center on Global Climate Change calls for the United States to take broad steps to reduce industrial emissions that scientists believe are causing global warming. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the Pew Center's "Agenda for Climate Action" includes wide-ranging recommendations for U.S. emissions cuts and urges the Bush Administration to join global talks to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.
SKIRBLE: The new report focuses on the fact that the United States is the world's biggest polluter. The U.S. comprises 5 percent of the worlds population yet accounts for 25 percent of the worlds climate warming emissions.
And the situation is getting worse.
The Department of Energy says climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have grown by 18 percent since 1990 and are predicted to increase another 37 percent by 2030.
The Pew Centers Agenda for Climate Action culminates a two-year project that involved leaders from business, government and non-profit organizations. Pew Center policy analyst Vicki Arroyo says the result is a road map for action across all areas of the U.S. economy.
ARROYO: Some believe the answer to addressing climate change lies in technology incentives. Others say limiting emissions is the only answer. Our agenda sdays we need both.
SKIRBLE: Topping the list of recommendations is a market-based program that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from large sources like power plants and utility companies.
Much like the European Union's carbon-trading model, the program would allow lower- emitting companies to sell their allowances of greenhouse gas emissions to companies that produce more than their allotment.
Vicki Arroyo says required emissions reporting would be a stepping stone to economy- wide trading.
ARROYO: As of now, we don't even have required reporting in this country of greenhouse gas emissions. So that would be the first step of developing a greenhouse gas emissions cap- and- trade program, like we have with the acid rain program that controls sulfur dioxide emissions in this country.
SKIRBLE: The Pew report recommends mandatory emissions cuts. The Bush administration Administration favors voluntary reductions.
John Stowell is a Vice President for Cinergy, a leading gas and electric company in the American Midwest. He says a growing number of multi-national companies with major U.S. operations — including such giants as BP, Shell and Whirpool — support mandatory controls on emissions.
STOWELL: We will continue to let the Administration and members of Congress on the Hill know that we are interested in moving forward as quickly as possible. And, we are really just saying lets get started now. Lets not wait because we really think that we can make choices now that make good economic sense. We dont need a crash program, but what we are concerned about as we build our next generation of [power] that we just simply know what the rules of the road are, and we will comply with those rules.
SKIRBLE: The Agenda for Climate Action also recommends new investment in science and technology, increased efficiency in buildings and products, greater production of renewable fuels like ethanol and biomass and the capture of carbon from burning coal.
Pew analyst Vicki Arroyo says that while U.S. states and regions have come up with impressive initiatives to address climate change, they are simply not enough.
ARROYO: It is going to be a piecemeal approach, people are not going to know what their regulatory commitments are from one state to another. And you are then going to have different product standards in different states. It just doesnt make sense. We need a federal policy and that is what we are trying to promote."
SKIRBLE: Arroyo says that federal policy must include a commitment by the U.S. to participate in international climate negotiations. She says action on all these fronts must start now. Further delays, the Pew report says, will only make the challenge before us more daunting and costly. I'm Rosanne Skirble.
An international expedition to the Indonesian state of Papua in western New Guinea has found dozens of new species in the Foja Mountains, in an isolated region of the Pacific island.
One member of the expedition, Kris Helgen, said the discoveries began as soon as their helicopter landed.
HELGEN: "The first bird that I saw was a honey eater, and it had a bright orange face and it just looked different than anything I'd ever seen. And it turned out to be a new species of bird, the first new species of bird found in New Guinea since the Second World War. So right at that moment we knew we were onto something pretty big."
Kris Helgen is an American now at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He and his colleagues found 20 new frogs and four new butterflies, among other discoveries. What especially amazed Helgen is that, even though New Guinea has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, the area was so isolated that the animals appeared never before to have encountered a human being.
HELGEN: "The animals didn't recognize people. I just don't think they knew what we were. They would come down low in the trees for closer looks. Animals that are very skittish and rare in other places in New Guinea — forest wallabies, long-beaked echidnas - they'd be hopping through our camp or crossing paths with us on trails we cut. That's biologically pretty amazing. It makes it clear that it is sort of a lost world. It's a world that's been lost elsewhere as human encroachment has taken over the whole planet."
Leaders of the expedition — including scientists from Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. — say the one million hectare forest is the largest pristine tropical forest in Asia and thus a vital biodiversity resource.
Chinese and American scientists have uncovered the earliest known ancestor to the awesome meat-eating dinosaur known as Tyrannosaurus rex. The newly-discovered reptile lived 160 million years ago and was much smaller than the fearsome T-rex. VOA's David McAlary reports.
McALARY: The far western reaches of China's Gobi Desert, the same region depicted in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," have yielded a pair of small hidden dragons, long buried in a mixture of sand, clay, and volcanic deposits. In fact, the researchers who dug up the three-meter-long creatures have named them Guanlong, meaning Crested Dragon.
That is because the most striking feature of the two nearly complete skeletons is a strange crest at the front of the head like that of a rooster, only with a straight top edge rather than a wavy one. A U.S. member of the research team, James Clark of George Washington University, says the structure was unusual among this branch of theropod dinosaurs, the broader line believed to be related to birds. The crest dwindled in size to just a faint ridge in the next known tyrannosaur descendant. It was completely gone by the time of T-rex, 90 million years after Guanlong.
CLARK: "This tall crest on the skull is unique for a tyrannosaur and may have been primitive for the whole group, that is, something that was there at the beginning and then lost later on. It was probably a display structure, although this is something we really don't have a good handle on."
McALARY: Clark says the finding extends the tyrannosaur record back to about the time in the Middle Jurassic period when the species branched off from an earlier line.
CLARK: "We don't know a lot about these early tyrannosaurs because we have this huge gap in tyrannosaur fossils. So here we have them way back almost into the Middle Jurassic, and yet the Late Jurassic record and Early Cretaceous record is very, very slight. So we know now the early tyrannosaurs really did come off very early and we're just missing a big chunk."
McALARY: By the time of the 14-meter-long T-rex, tyrannosaurs were the dominant predators in eastern and central Asia and North America. They remained so for the last 20 million years of the Late Cretaceous era, which ended at the time all dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.
The researchers reported their findings in the journal "Nature."
Time again for our Website of the Week, and this time we feature an online document that is an important resource for job seekers and a window on employment trends in the American economy.
LEVINE: "The Occupational Outlook Handbook is probably the nation's leading career guidance resource. It's a compendium of vocational guidance information on a wide range of occupations."
Chet Levine is the senior economist who oversees the Occupational Outlook Handbook. It is published every two years — in print and, for the past 10 years or so, online at bls.gov/oco. The Handbook includes specific information about hundreds of occupations, from architect to zookeeper, with detailed explanations about the nature of the work, necessary training, working conditions, and pay and growth prospects for all sorts of jobs — for example, school teachers.
LEVINE: "There's an extremely high demand for math, science, foreign language, and bilingual education teachers. In general, job opportunities for teachers should be excellent over the next 10 years."
Economists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which publishes the outlook, analyze a wide variety of information to project the outlook for each occupation. Chet Levine suggested that reading about each occupation really gives you an interesting portrait of the nation as a whole.
LEVINE: "It could relate to technological changes, demographic changes, changes in the way businesses behave, and a wide range of other factors so yes, factors can resonate throughout the economy."
This would be a great resource if you're thinking about studying in the United States, or coming to work here. It's also fascinating to read about the different occupations people have, what they do, and how they're paid. The Occupational Outlook Handbook is online at bls.gov/oco, or you can get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
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And my job is bringing you VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Nanotechnology is an exciting new field in which materials — both the exotic and the everyday — take on new properties when manufactured with microscopic particles.
Engineered nanomaterials are already used in sporting goods, tires, stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics and electronics, and their applications are expected to increase dramatically.
But because nanomaterials are so new, it's not yet clear how safe they are. An article in the journal Science this month calls for the development of new ways of testing newly developed nano substances before they come into widespread use.
The paper's lead author is Dr. Andre Nel of the UCLA Medical School in Los Angeles.
NEL: "The action that I would like to see is the establishment of research into these materials so as to tell us if there is a toxic potential. If we do find any toxicity, I would like to see that we instigate safe manufacturing procedures, that we would also give consumer advice about the use of these materials [and] about their disposal. And I would also like to see the formation of regulatory committees that can help us."
Science fiction authors have imagined self-replicating, nano-scale robots, or nanobots, getting out of control and consuming all living matter as they reproduce. Dr. Nel believes that so-called "gray goo" scenario is "implausible," but said it does point to the need for a careful, rational approach to nanotechnology. He also stressed the importance of global cooperation in developing policies to govern the safe use of engineered nanomaterials.
Nanotechnology plays a positive role in a portrait of the future described by Ray Kurzweil - an American inventor, scientist, and author of the new book, "The Singularity Is Near." Explosive developments in genetics, nanotech and robotics will fuel what Kurzweil calls the GNR revolution, which he says will dramatically change our world over the next few decades. I spoke recently with the scientist, and asked him to explain first what he means by "the singularity."
KURZWEIL: "The Singularity is a point where progress, particularly in the information technologies, will be so fast that it will profoundly transform human civilization. We're understanding how the human brain works, and we will, within 20 or 25 years, have reverse-engineered the human brain.
"So by 2030 we will have computers that are actually far more powerful than the human brain, and we'll understand the methods of the human brain, so these will be very intelligent machines. I view this, not as an alien invasion, but we will ultimately merge with this technology, and I envision nanobots - basically blood cell-sized devices that have computers and communication devices in them, that will be able to go inside our bloodstream and keep us healthy from inside and also go inside our brains, interact directly with our biological neurons and actually enhance human intelligence in this sort of intimate merger with our technology.
"When you get out to 2045, we'll multiply intelligence of our civilization through this non-biological portion of it, by a factor of a billion, and that will be quite transformative."
CHIMES: "The date that you mentioned, 2045, it's only about 39 years ahead of us, and 39 years behind us is 1967 — not that far away — and yet certainly technology and a lot of things have changed since 1967. It isn't the kind of dramatic change that you are suggesting will happen over the next 39 years."
KURZWEIL: "You've put your finger on just the right comparison because a lot of people intuitively use this linear method, that the change we've seen in the last 20 years is a good harbinger of what we'll see in the next 20 years. In fact, I was at a conference on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, and all the scientists there used the last 50 years as a way of predicting the next 50 years. But that's wrong because of this exponential growth. The pace of change is not a constant; it's accelerating. When we were halfway through the 15-year genome project, only one percent of the project had been completed. So skeptics said, well, in the next seven years you'll complete another one percent. But in fact the whole project was done because the speed doubled every year. So it's because of this exponential pace, rather than the intuitive linear view of things, that the next 30 years or 40 years will see dramatically more change than the last 30 years."
CHIMES: "That's going to be hard for a lot of people to adjust to, isn't it?"
KURWEIL: "Actually, as the technology gets more sophisticated, it actually meets human needs in a more superior way. Technology 30 or 40 years ago, you did have to be very sophisticated to use computers [which were] very remote and complicated and only technicians could use them. So the technology actually becomes more like we are as humans, rather than us having to become more like what we traditionally think of as machines."
CHIMES: "As new technologies get introduced they're often first available to the wealthy. We talk about a 'digital divide.' Will that be a feature of this future you're describing as well?"
KURZWEIL: "One of the features of this law of accelerating returns, this exponential growth of technology is a 50 percent deflation factor. You can see that easily . Anything having to do with information comes down in cost by half each year. When we look at digital cameras, or pocket computers, or anything. Ultimately it's almost free and works extremely well. The cell phone is almost at that stage. So these technologies very quickly will become quite ubiquitous and quite inexpensive."
CHIMES: "We have a lot of debate about new technologies as the public becomes aware of them — the ethics of stem cell research, for example, or bio-engineered crops. Do you think that these sorts of debates will continue as the what you call the GNR revolution — for genetics, nanotechnology and robotics — moves forward?"
KURZWEIL: "I think these debates will continue and these controversies will continue. But it doesn't slow down these technologies. So if you take stem cell research for example, it's really just a stone in a stream; the progress flows around it. There's been tremendous progress in stem cell research. I'm opposed to the restrictions. I think the research should be fully supported. But we nonetheless see tremendous advancement. What I really want to do is to be able to take my skin cells or find stem cells in my blood and replicate that and create my own tissues, so if I needed new heart cells I would create them from my own cells with my own DNA. It's not the case that stem cell research, which is at the heart of the big controversy, has slowed down.
"Same thing with genetically-modified organisms. Even Europe, which has been the center of this controversy, is coming around. in the meantime there is harm that's done by this reflexive anti-technology perspective. I can point out hundreds of thousands of children in Africa who have gone blind because of irrational opposition to Golden Rice, which is a genetically modified crop that's been well proven to be safe and effective. But ultimately the benefits of these technologies do win the day."
Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Singularity is Near," published by Viking.
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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 voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.