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Our World Transcript — 30 September 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" ... the science of wildfires ... giving better warning of tsunamis ... and improving science education for America's youngsters

JEMISON: "You know what? The best way to teach young kids about science is to let them do what they do naturally, which is to go out, pick up the bugs and the snails. We all come out of the chute doing that, right?"

Those stories, tarantulas' talented toes, a brain atlas on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

We begin this week with the latest from the amazing world of arachnids.

Spiders spin silk to make their sophisticated and often beautiful webs. You probably know that. The silk is extruded by organs called spinnerets located on spider abdomens. But now, a team of scientists in the United States and Germany have found one species of spider that produces silk from a surprising place.

SUMMERS: "We found that tarantula spiders, at least one species of them, produces silk with their toes. So they are actually producing the same sort of silk that spiders produce to make webs, except that instead of producing it out of their spinnerets, they're producing it out of those eight little legs that are up on the front end. And of course, they're tarantula spiders, so there's nothing really little about them."

Adam Summers of the University of California-Irvine is co-author of a paper describing the tarantula's silky toes published this week in Nature. In the journal's podcast Summers explained how the tarantulas apparently use the silk to make them more sure-footed.

SUMMERS: "We suspect that this silk is used to increase both friction and adhesion with their toes. Spiders have a really well-known dry adhesive system that's quite similar to the gekko toe. But that doesn't always work. And so having some sticky silk that comes out can give them a little more traction."

Summers says spinning silk out of spider toes is not as weird as it might at first sound, and it reflects questions about spider evolution.

SUMMERS: "The spinnerets, which make silk in all spiders, are thought to be vestigal limbs. Did those limbs have silk because ALL arthropod limbs have silk? Or did the limbs gain the ability to produce silk because the hardware for producing it was already in the genome and it was being expressed in the spinnerets?"

Adam Summers of the University of California – Irvine. The particular spider he and his colleagues studied, incidentally, was the colorful and really quite beautiful Costa Rican zebra tarantula.

Educators from around the country gathered outside Washington this week to share ideas on improving science education throughout the U.S. — a search for what educators call 'best practices.'

The meeting follows last week's release of a report from America's prestigious National Research Council, which criticized science curricula and a lack of progress after decades of reforms.

Many of the innovative programs represented at the best practices meeting involve hands-on science. Former U.S. astronaut Mae Jemison, who moderated the meeting, explained that even young kids can learn by doing.

JEMISON: "The best way to teach science is hands-on education. That means that you study the potato plant and figure out how it grows from the little nodes and nodules. It means that in order to learn how electricty works, you might wire a flashlight. It means that you actually have to use your mind, you have to use your observational skills. That's the way we learn things. Many times in classrooms these days, people want students to memorize more and more things. But the reality is, even if you are riding in a car, and you ride someplace over and over again, you don't learn the way nearly as well as if you drive the car yourself, and you get lost once or twice. Then you figure out how things are working.

Q: Is there an age below which this sort-of hands-on, experimental, do science in the classroom approach doesn't work?

JEMISON: "You know what? The best way to teach young kids about science is to let them do what they do naturally, which is to go out, pick up the bugs and the snails. We all come out of the chute doing that, right? We want to know, why is that like that. We make mud pies. We try to take things apart and try to put them back together. That's exploration. That's experimentation. So no, there is not an age below which that doesn't work."

Jemison serves as a spokeswoman for science education programs at Bayer Corporation, which sponsored the meeting. In a country where education is traditionally a local responsibility and where states and even local school districts maintain significant autonomy, innovative programs can be found everywhere.

JEMISON: "We've gone around the country to find programs of many different types. And so the idea is not that one program is going to fit everyone, but here are some programs that you can evaluate that may work in your community. Or may work with a certain group of children in your community. For example, Biotech Partners is out of Berkeley and Oakland California, where students who are at risk — which means that when they're coming into 9th grade, people don't think they're even going to make it through high school. So these students who are at risk come in and they work with biotechnology companies with special curriculums that emphasize the importance of job preparedness and other things, but as well as this hard-core science content they do internships with the companies. They graduate at way over 90 percent, and they go on to college. So these are different models that can be used in different places around the country."

Q: Do you know if there are things that other countries are doing in terms of science education that we can look at and learn from?

JEMISON: "I think, first of all, expectation is the most important one. Children do what you expect them to do, right? They live up or down, achieve up or down to your level of expectation. And so one of the things that I'm always surprised by in our country is that we think it's OK not to do well in science and in math. Because you know very often you'll hear people say, well I wasn't that good in it either. So that's the excuse. I think many other countries — particularly India, China, Japan — expect students to do well in math and science. Not that it's, oh, he's very special because he's really good. They expect you to do well, to achieve. So if there's some model, something we can do, I think, it's to start changing what we think the world is like and the importance that we place on education in general, science and technology and mathematics education in particular."

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, worked in Africa as a Peace Corps physician and was a professor at Cornell University, among other distinctions. She says, by the way, that she always assumed she would go into space. Not as an astronaut, necessarily. By the time she grew up, she figured, civilian space travel would be routine.

The International Polar Year is set to begin in March. It will be an international collaboration aimed at improving our understanding of earth's remote but critically important polar regions.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on research have previewed the International Polar Year with some of the top experts in the field.

Among them: Dr. Robin Bell of Columbia University, who said that the impacts of climate change can be observed most strikingly at the poles.

BELL: "Environmental change and variability are part of the natural pattern of the Earth. But environmental change at the poles is much more pronounced than what's going on at the tropics. We know that arctic sea ice is decreasing. Some of the ice shelves in Antarctica are retreating and thinning. The glaciers are shrinking and the ecosystems are changing. In some places plants are flowering significantly early. These changes do have human impacts, both locally and globally."

Organizers are comparing the International Polar Year, which actually runs from 2007 to 2009, to the International Geophysical Year a half-century ago, which included 80,000 scientists from 67 countries in a host of activities aimed at learning more about our planet.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations. Today, it's a brand-new site that provides new insight into how the brain works, the Allen Brain Atlas at

JONES: "So what is the Allen Brain Atlas? If the Human Genome Project described the what — What is the genome? What are the genes there? The Allen Brain Atlas is the first project that's addressing the question of the where. Where in this complex organ called the brain are all 21,000 of these genes turned on."

That's Dr. Allan Jones, chief scientific officer of the brain atlas project. It's actually an online database, not of the human brain, but of the mouse brain, which is simpler but still has a lot in common with ours. The brain atlas was financed by Paul Allen — similar name but no relation, of course, to Dr. Allan Jones. Paul Allen was, along with Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, and now he's putting some of his money into medical research.

ALLEN: "We put together a team, I think it's about 80 people today, and in less than four years, with a lot of hard work, we've put up online this thorough, deep, accurate, and really easy to use graphic database of the genes of the mouse brain."

The aim of the brain atlas is to show the link between specific genes with particular locations and functions in the brain. Allen says that the online brain atlas makes it possible for scientists everywhere to share this fundamental information about how the brain itself and the instructions coded into the genes relate to each other.

ALLEN: "Scientists from China to Scandinavia, anywhere in Europe, anywhere in the world can get online and in minutes be looking at correlations between genes or genes of particular interest. Just doing this database we've seen fine structure in the mouse brain that I don't think anyone had ever seen before. So it's really exciting to have that effort complete today."

Unless you're a biomedical researcher, the Allen Brain Atlas of the mouse brain is probably something you won't really use. But since humans share more than 90 percent of their genes with mice, this website could help researchers increase their understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy, which could lead to improved treatments for you or a loved one. See for yourself at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC - "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

And you're listening to VOA's brain-stimulating science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Taming fire was one of the human species' earliest achievements. Fire keeps us warm and cooks our food. It can also inflict horrible burns and devastate entire cities.

In the wilderness, too, fire is a mixed blessing. For some trees it's an essential part of their lifecycle. But fires can destroy vast tracts of valuable and majestic forestland.

We sent our New York reporter Adam Phillips almost all the way across the country, out west to the state of Idaho, to learn more about the science of wildfires and the complexities of fighting them.

PHILLIPS: The scientific definition of fire is pretty simple, really. It is a chemical reaction of combustible vapors and fuel particles. According to Dan Buckley of the U.S. Forest Service, a fire always involves three elements: fuel, heat and oxygen.

BUCKLEY: "We call it the 'Fire Triangle.' It takes those three parts, along with an ignition source, for a fire to burn. That can be lightning strike. That can be a match. That can be a spark even from a rolling rock. Cigarettes butts. Trains often cause fire with the steel [wheels] on the steel [rails] that throw off sparks into the dry fuel bed and then the wind picks it up and takes it off.”

TEXT: Because wind and other weather factors can determine how a fire will behave, meteorologists play an important role in every fire-fighting team. They measure the speed and direction of the winds, which feed oxygen to a fire and steer its movement. Meteorologists also predict the amount of humidity and rain, which help to suppress fires.

BUCKLEY: "It also works on the heat side. Applying water to the fuel also cools it, and makes it less available to burn."

PHILLIPS: For most of the past century, firefighters have tried to extinguish wild fires as quickly as possible. Buckley says suppressing this natural process left forests filled with highly combustible tinder that have helped to fuel larger, more intense fires.

BUCKLEY: “We've had 100 successful years of putting out fires. Well, you're going to have quite an accumulation of debris. That debris has caused the fire behavior to increase, and that, combined with what seems like the warmer drier and a windier and volatile climate we have has increased fire behavior. We are seeing larger fires, that are driven larger by the fuels, where, for all of our history, most of our fires were mostly driven by the weather.”

PHILLIPS: Buckley says some forest ecosystems, such as the giant sequoias of the American West, actually depend on fire in order to thrive.

BUCKLEY: "If they don’t have fire occasionally come through and heat their sequoia cones to the point where they pop open and allow seeds to go on to soil that has been cleared by fire. When we have fire burn under sequoia groves it creates an ash bed which is an ideal seedbed for your sequoias and it also helps clean out some of the canopy that shades the soil. The young sequoias need sunlight to grow."

PHILLIPS: Sometimes a fire can be so hot that it burns the soil on the forest floor beyond its ability to support vegetation, and can also wreak havoc on areas untouched by the flames. Merrill Saleen is the Incident Commander at a major forest fire in Idaho’s remote Rattlesnake region.

SALEEN: "If we burn so hot that we remove all vegetation and all stabilization of the soils, we get tremendous runoff and the potential for downstream flooding, and landslide potential.”

PHILLIPS: Deciding whether or not a given fire should be allowed to take its natural course, or be contained or extinguished, is the job of fire managers — hybrid scientific specialists with a grasp of ecology, biology, botany, materials science and other disciplines.

PHILLIPS: A decision has been made to drop chemical retardant in advance of the Rattlesnake Fire, which has already consumed hectares of wilderness. The retardant will slow the spread of the blaze in the absence of a natural barrier, thus giving fire fighters a chance to battle it from a stationary position.

PHILLIPS: Though firefighters rely on a wide array of satellite and aerial images to track the progress of a fire, it’s still important to have human eyes observing a fire directly. Fire specialist Dale Jablonsky peers at a ridge about a half-kilometer away.

JABLONSKY: "It’s changing from white to a different darker shade of grey and the column is starting to expand. So it's getting a little bigger, burning a little heavier fuels now. And so now he’s going to move in and make his drop.”

PHILLIPS: For Our World, I’m Adam Phillips on the line at the Rattlesnake Fire in south central Idaho.

A tsunami this past July off the coast of Java left 700 people dead. The toll demonstrates both progress and shortcomings as Pacific Rim nations strive to build a robust tsunami warning system.

Tsunamis can be detected by buoys out at sea. But identifying a tsunami won't help residents of vulnerable areas unless they get the word.

To warn American who live near the Pacific Ocean, the first of 32 new tsunami warning sirens have just gone up. But emergency officials agree that personal preparedness is as important as the latest warning technology. Tom Banse reports from Washington state, on the Pacific coast.

BANSE: That's the sound of the brand new warning siren next to the Sandy Point fire station. If that siren ever blares for three minutes straight followed by…

RECORDED WARNING: "Move to higher ground immediately! Do not delay. Do not call 911. Move…"

…a pre-recorded booming voice. That means a tsunami, or tidal wave, is headed this way. Volunteer fireman Ralph Peterson has watched a computer simulation of what that could mean for the flat peninsula near Bellingham.

PETERSON: "If the Big One should hit off of Vancouver Island, Sandy Point would be covered by about six feet [1.8 meters] of water coming in at 3-5 knots. The fire department is probably at sea level. You're a tall guy, and you'd be underwater right now."

BANSE: There are several hundred beach homes on the Point that could disappear under fast rising water. Fire chief Jim Petri is excited to see the long sought after warning siren. But he knows it will take more than the high tech gizmo to save lives.

PETRI: "You know, it's one thing to have the unit up and say we're done. We're not done. We've only just begun. We need to educate the public so when they hear it, they know what to do."

BANSE: He's far from alone. Two dozen West Coast towns that are getting new sirens face the challenge or publicizing evacuation routes and assembly points.

CRAWFORD: "Tsunami preparedness is definitely rising."

BANSE: Washington state earthquake and tsunami program manager George Crawford.

CRAWFORD: "But I get this question all the time: Are you prepared? No, I'm not prepared. I'll never probably be 100 percent prepared."

BANSE: In fact right now, Washington State estimates more than half of the people along the coast are unprepared. A researcher hired by the state government mailed questionnaires to coastal homes and quizzed tourists on the beaches. Crawford says the bottom line from the more than 300 responses is that people understand that tsunamis happen here. But they haven't done much about it.

CRAWFORD: "In other words have they walked the evacuation routes? Do they have a preparedness kit? Do they have NOAA [National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration] weather radios, for example."

BANSE: Crawford says education will be a never-ending task. He wants public preparedness to keep pace with improved warning technology.

CRAWFORD: "You get a tsunami that's coming for example within 20 minutes, you need to know what to do. You don't have time to start thinking about it or start looking for things."

BANSE: Lately, George Crawford has been helping Australia and New Zealand replicate the U.S. preparedness program. Separately, USAID money is paying for tsunami detection buoys, tide gauges, and the construction of a warning network in the Indian Ocean countries. The American government is running the fledgling network on an interim basis until countries in the region are capable of taking over.

Cutting edge research on tsunami hazards is happening at a federal research lab in Seattle. Lab director Eddie Bernard says the recent disaster along the coast of Java, Indonesia provided evidence of progress and of the distance left to go.

BERNARD: "Seven hundred people were killed by the tsunami in Java on July 17. About 24,000 people were at risk. So if you look at the number of people at risk versus the number of people who died, it's about three percent. That's a horrible loss of life, but it could have been much worse. Because remember in 2004 in some of those communities, 80 percent of the people were killed."

BANSE: The Seattle-based expert hammers home simple ideas every chance he gets. One, if you're on the coast and feel a strong earthquake, head for higher ground immediately. Another sign to hightail it out of there is if you see the ocean waters abruptly recede. If it's nighttime and you can't see the ocean withdraw, listen for a loud roar. That's another warning sign to move inland. I'm Tom Banse near Bellingham, Washington.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the program. Eva Nenicka is the 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.