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Our World Transcript — 25 March 2006


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" ... one avian flu mystery solved, while others remain ... the earth's biodiversity under threat ... and ancient tricks to build a fantastic memory.

FOER: "And I see Bill Clinton at the front door of my house. And then I walk into my house. And right behind the front door, I see the second card. Let's say it's the Queen of Diamonds, and it translates to a horse."

Those stories, the red planet on our website of the week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists this week said they think they now understand why avian, or bird flu does not easily infect people or spread between them. Teams of scientists in the Netherlands and Japan, working independently, said the deadly H5N1 virus attaches to cells deep in the lungs. Dutch researcher Thijs Kuiken of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam says that's in contrast to the ordinary seasonal flu, whose virus attaches to cells in the nose and throat.

KUIKEN: "Being able to attach higher up in the respiratory tract may mean, we're not sure, but it may mean that it comes more easy for such a person to become infected in the first place, and in the second place to transmit the virus to another person."

Understanding details of how the flu virus works could be key to understanding how to respond if this avian flu or a future strain mutates into a form capable of person-to-person infection. A lot of scientists are studying flu virus, but one of the best, Jeffery Taubenberger of the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, admits big gaps remain in the knowledge.

TAUBENBERGER: "Pandemics are quite variable. 1918 was this horrible pandemic. 1968 was a relatively mild pandemic. And we don't understand the differences necessarily that led to that. We don't understand the genetic basis for why one virus is more virulent in one particular host than another. So there are a lot of things that we still don't know."

Taubenberger and his colleagues reconstructed the 1918 virus last year from bits of genetic material taken from some of the estimated 50 million people who died in the 1918 pandemic.

The largest and longest international study looking at the consequences of cigarette smoking concludes that those who quit dramatically reduce their risk of dying in middle age. The study also gives long-time smokers a good reason to quit. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: According to the World Health Organization, smoking is the major preventable cause of death among adults, claiming about 5 million lives globally each year.

About half of the deaths occur in people under the age of 70, with 13 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 60, mostly from cancer or heart disease.

What's not really been known is the risk of dying prematurely, particularly in middle age, as a result of smoking. In the largest study of its kind to date, Norwegian researchers followed 50,000 rural men and women born between 1925 and 1941.

Ron Davis is a preventive medicine physician at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan.

DAVIS: "The key finding is that cigarette smokers are much more likely to die in middle age compared to people who have never smoked or compared to people who have smoked and have quit."

BERMAN: Writing in the journal "Annals of Internal Medicine," the authors report that 41 percent of men who smoked two or more packs of cigarettes a day during middle age died of lung cancer compared to 14 percent of non-smoking men.

Twenty-six percent of women who were heavy smokers developed lung cancer compared to only nine percent of non-smoking women. Cigarette smoking is considered the leading risk factor for lung cancer.

The Norwegian researchers found that mortalities related to cigarette smoking from any cause, including heart disease and alcoholism, were highest among those in their sixties.

But Davis, who wrote a commentary in Annals of Internal Medicine, notes the study also showed a significant reduction in the risk of dying the earlier that a smoker quit.

DAVIS: "In the forties and fifties. However, it's important to note that even people who quit at old ages will enjoy better health and a longer life expectancy."

BERMAN: The risk of death among smokers age 40 and and older was nearly double that of never-smokers or those who had stopped, prompting Davis to conclude that the study should provide a powerful incentive to quit. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

A U.N. report issued this week says that species are going extinct today at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

The study was released in Curitiba, Brazil, where government officials and representatives of NGOs are gathered for a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The U.N. report, titled "Global Biodiversity Outlook 2" paints a grim view as factors including climate change and population pressures result in a loss of habitat.

Among those at the meeting is Paul Faeth, managing director of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. I asked him, first, what is biological diversity?

FAETH: "It reflects both the genetic diversity of species, between species, and it also reflects the ecosystems in which species live."

Q: Why is the level of biodiversity important?

FAETH: "Well, it's important to us for a whole variety of reasons. Agriculture is a really key one. Our crops are dependent on biodiversity from the natural world to help us fight crop diseases. Biodiversity is important because of medicines. I heard yesterday here at the convention that there are 3,000 different medicines that have come from forests, and 70 percent of them directly used for cancer So much of our life and the natural world depends on having a diverse and healthy ecosystem around us.

Q: Is the effect of diversity local or regional, or is it global? In other words, should somebody in China or Nigeria, say, care about diversity in the Amazon?

FAETH: "It's all of those levels. Locally, a big effect on the loss of natural world and diversity has to do with water and with agriculture. You see at the regional levels watersheds and ecosystems that can - you can actually get changes in the climate at a regional level from loss of forest, for example, and globally some of the big impacts we see - climate change, for example, affecting biodiversity, and even affecting - you see things in agriculture, again, where loss of what they call 'centers of origin,' of where in the natural world crops have started from and then been developed by people, are being lost. So some of the services that we depend upon from nature are really being impinged upon at all these levels, and it's something that everybody really needs to pay attention to."

Q: Species come and go all the time. How much of it is part of the natural process, and how much involves human action?

FAETH: "Species do come and go, but the rate at which species are going right now is 1,000 times beyond the background rate. A study just released on Monday said that right now, humans are causing what is thought to be the fifth worst loss of life on the planet. So it's been 65 million years since we have seen the loss of diversity that we're causing right now on the planet.

Q: And how are we causing that?

FAETH: "Well, the big thing is loss of forests. Right here in Brazil, for example, where I'm at, about 56 percent of the forests in the Amazon - we just have released a study - is under pressure from humans moving into the forest, cutting the forests, mining in the forests. Fisheries, for example, all around the world, are collapsing. And we've seen that all over the place. So we're putting a lot of pressure from how much we take. And you know that pressure is resulting in degradation in a lot of the world's ecosystems."

Q: The very fact that there's a convention on biological diversity, the fact that we're having this conversation suggests that this is an issue that people are aware of, that action presumably is being taken. Is action being taken? Is there any good news here?

FAETH: "Yeah, there is some good news. You know, we worked on a thing called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which came out of some work that we did and was picked up and endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity more than five years ago. And this study had 1,360 scientists who worked on it. And the good news is that we're getting better at figuring out what's going on. You know, in business they say 'you manage what you measure.' Well, we're basically managing planet Earth without the right information. So the fact that the Convention and many, many scientists — predominantly from the U.S. but from all over the world — are actually getting a better handle on what's going on. Although that's the news, it's pretty scary, just the fact that we have the information, now we can figure out what to do about it is at least progress.

Paul Faeth of the World Resources Institute. We reached him at the UN meeting on biodiversity in Brazil.

Time again for our Website of the Week. One area where the Internet has made a great difference is in mapping and geography. In many countries there are online maps that show the smallest streets and give you directions from place to place. And there are aerial photos that give you a bird's eye view of almost any place on earth. And now, not just earth.

OHAZAMA: "Google Mars is an interactive map application that we've taken the technology from Google Maps and taken the data from NASA, and combined it together to show three different views of the Mars surface — from a thermal view to elevation views to visible spectrum."

Chikai Ohazama is on the team that developed Google Mars, at

The site is very user friendly. If you use the popular Google maps, you'll recognize the interface. If not, it only takes seconds to figure out how to zoom in on a crater, or use your mouse to move around the Martian surface. Ohazama says Google Mars could be of interest to anyone from kids to real scientists.

OHAZAMA: "This particular one, actually, came from real data that some NASA scientists and researchers were actually using for their PhD thesis. Also, it's a great way to take something that was in that audience and bring it out to a wider group of people, to the consumer, just taking the information that was in their labs and so forth and bring it in a form that they're used to and walk through and sort of explore the surface of Mars."

Ohazama says Google Mars is not the first website to feature images of the Martian surface, but he says they've tried to offer something extra.

OHAZAMA: "One is that the resolution is probably some of the highest resolution imagry of Mars ever put together and brought to the public. There's some insets that are, like, around on the order of 18 meters in terms of the resolution. But it's just taking some very, very high resolution data and stitching it all together into a big mosaic so people can view it and see the landing sites of different rovers and different missions that happened before.

Check out some really amazing images from Mars. Send yourself on a Google Mars virtual tour of the red planet at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "Conjunction Mars" - Hank Crawford (1993)

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The group that coordinates the names of websites, ICANN, has announced a timetable for testing non-English characters in web and email addresses. Currently a domain — such as — can include only 26 Latin characters, 10 numbers and a hyphen. Over the next several months plans will be formulated to test whether it is feasible for, say, to spell its name in Arabic characters, instead of the English ones.

This week Microsoft, maker of the world's most popular computer operating system, Windows, announced a delay in the release of the long-awaited Windows upgrade called Vista. Release was bumped several weeks and the software is now scheduled to be available to consumers in January. Microsoft also announced a management shakeup.

Vista will replace Windows XP, which came out in 2001. Microsoft says it's delaying Vista because the product is not quite ready. Given how many years Vista's been in development, the announcement raised eyebrows among industry watchers. I asked PC Magazine columnist Michael J. Miller if Microsoft's explanation makes sense.

MILLER: "Oh yes, it certainly sounds possible. Windows is a very big, very complex piece of code. And you have thousands of programs and thousands and thousands of devices it has to work with. One of the things about Windows that's made it so successful is, in fact, the great amount of choice it has given to individuals, companies, to the people who make computers as to what to include with it. And so making it work with the widest variety of things is a big issue.

Over the past five years wince Windows XP was released, even low-end computers have become much more powerful, with much better graphics capabilities. And one of the things users will notice on Vista is enhanced graphics. But much more important are security enhancements. Michael Miller says the new version of Windows will work like corporate systems and Linux -- where the ordinary user can't install new programs or make other major changes without special precautions.

MILLER: "Microsoft has changed the whole model of the operating system. For most users today you can do whatever you want at any time. You can install new software, you can connect to other computers. And it just will do what you tell it to do. In the new version, you're going to be running in the role of just a typical user most of the time, meaning you're not going to be able to install new software unless you type a password or something that says, 'no-no, let me work as an administrator now.' So you're going to have to more actively tell the system, 'yes, I really want this to work.'"

That should help protect computers against malicious attacks by computer viruses and the like.

A study reported in the Journal Nature identifies a substance in the brain that appears to cause memory loss. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports the latest findings are another small piece in the puzzle of Alzheimer's disease.

SKIRBLE: It is generally accepted that Alzheimer's is caused by naturally occurring proteins that build up into plaque between nerve cells in the brain.

Study co-author and Michela Gallagher with Johns Hopkins University says researchers hypothesized that a form of the protein amyloid beta was the culprit.

GALLAGHER: "Certain soluble versions of this protein that might be floating around the brain, interacting the physiology of the brain rather than deposited in these plaque reservoirs could be messing up how the brain functions and that could be causing problems with memory, some of the early clinical symptoms of the disease."

SKIRBLE: Researchers at the University of Minnesota genetically engineered mice to develop Alzheimer's-like memory loss and then isolated and extracted the amyloid beta protein and sent it to Gallagher's lab at Johns Hopkins University for further analysis.

GALLAGHER: "And we administered minute quantities of this protein into otherwise healthy, normal young animals. And we found that when very small quantities of this protein were administered so that it had access to the brain it caused memory impairment in these otherwise healthy young animals."

SKIRBLE: While this form of protein may be causing memory loss in the early stages of the disease, Gallagher says researchers want to better understand its connection to the brain's degeneration over time.

GALLAGHER: "So, in other words if you could find a way to interrupt the beta amyloid that in our work said caused a memory problem, could you also interrupt the cascade that leads to degeneration. So would you both symptomatically treat the disease and also prevent its progression."

SKIRBLE: Gallagher says Alzheimer's disease causes irreversible damage and the earlier the treatment the better. She says understanding how amyloid beta works is an important first step in treating the disease that afflicts 12 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of dementia among the elderly. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

From the science of memory loss, now, to ancient techniques for enhancing your memory.

A year ago, twenty-two-year-old freelance writer Joshua Foer wrote about something called the U.S. Memory Championships for the online magazine Slate. He started to write a book about it, then decided to actually enter the competition. As we hear from VOA's Ted Landphair, prodigious feats of memorization require special skills.

LANDPHAIR: A Yale graduate in evolutionary biology, Joshua Foer is plenty bright. But he swears he has only an average memory. "I'm no savant," he says. He insists he entered the national contest in New York in early March merely to experience and write about it from the inside.

FOER: I have access to 2,500-year-old mnemonic techniques -- the same techniques that were used by the Greeks, by the Romans, by medieval scholars. Once you've learned these techniques, your ability to memorize things just improves dramatically, in the snap of a finger."

LANDPHAIR: One of the world's greatest memorizers, Englishman Ed Cook, taught Joshua Foer mnemonics — or the creation of unique codes and mental images to help one remember useless information like random numbers. Mr. Foer says the concept traces to the fifth century B.C. and the Greek poet Simonides.

FOER: "What he had discovered is that our brains are really good at remembering things that are visual and spatial. And from this comes the concept of 'the memory palace' - building elaborate architectural spaces in your mind, and populating them with whatever it is you're trying to remember."

LANDPHAIR: At the memory competition, contestants were instructed to riffle through a shuffled deck of cards and then recall their exact order. Mr. Foer did so well that his time of one minute, forty seconds from the moment he looked at the first card until he successfully listed them all was an American record. How did he do it?

FOER: "[In my mind], I take a walk through my home. And I put the first card, which translates into an image of, say [former U.S. president] Bill Clinton. And I see Bill Clinton at the front door of my house. And then I walk into my house. And right behind the front door, I see the second card. Let's say it's the Queen of Diamonds, and it translates to a horse. Then I'll see that horse right inside my house. And as you deposit these images along the route, they stick, 'cause your brain is actually pretty good at remembering this sort of thing. And when it comes time to recall, you just walk through your house again, and you see the images in the places where you put them."

LANDPHAIR: Joshua Foer calls such exercises the kind of "cute parlor trick" that has made him a hit at parties, but that can also have practical value.

FOER: "There's a teacher in the South Bronx [section of New York City] at an inner-city high school, whose students compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. In school, they use these same techniques to literally memorize every important concept in their U.S. history textbook."

LANDPHAIR: Other challenges at the National Memory Championships included memorizing a previously unpublished poem, as well as 100 names and faces from photographs. At one point, five people walked onstage and began rattling off assorted details of their lives.

FOER: "The name of their cat. Where they were born. Their birthday. Their telephone number. And I said, 'Oh, man, the system I had prepared is just not going to work. I have to actually listen to these people and try as hard as I can to remember what they're telling me. I completely threw out the system I'd been preparing and training with. It's hard to listen to somebody and spit back their phone number, for example. It's almost impossible. So I didn't do as well on that event as I would have liked."

All that hard work paid off, and Joshua Foer, in fact, did win the U.S. memory championship. In August he heads to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to compete the World Memory Championships. Thanks to Ted Landphair for that report.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's it for this week. Drop us a line, let us know what you think. The email is Or write our address on an envelope -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

The show was edited by Rob Sivak. Gary Spizler 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.