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Our World — 16 December 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" ... evidence that male circumcision slows the spread of AIDS ... Coming to the North Pole: an ice-free Arctic Ocean ... and a new, easier way to spot a deadly form of cancer ...

GOFF: "Sometimes they can carry even some risk associated with them. But this is no risk and really almost no cost, which is what's great about it."

Those stories, a look at this year's hot consumer electronics, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Circumcision of men can dramatically cut the risk of spreading HIV, according to a pair of major studies announced this week.

The results were so clear and dramatic that the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped fund the studies, ended the test early. The head of the institute, Dr. Anthony Fauci, announced the results in a telephone press conference.

FAUCI: "In summary, we are pleased to announce that adult male circumcision is effective at reducing the risk of HIV transmission by 48–53 percent in these studies conducted in Uganda and Kenya. While the HIV/AIDS research community will continue to strive for a prevention technique that safely protects everyone all the time, we are pleased to find a strategy that has the potential to significantly reduce new HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa."

The head of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS Department, Dr. Kevin De Cock, says that if circumcision becomes more widespread, it could have a tremendous impact. But he cautioned that impact may not be seen immediately.

De COCK: "It does have the potential to prevent many tens of thousands, many hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions of infections over coming years. The impacts of that in terms of disease, reductions in disease and death will obviously take a long time because of the natural history of HIV infection."

The reason circumcision seems to be effective is that the surface of the foreskin has lots of cells that are particularly susceptible to HIV. Remove the foreskin, and you remove one path for the virus to enter the body.

There is some downside to these findings. First, like any surgery, there are financial costs and medical risks associated with circumcision, although in this study the outcome was generally very good. Also, circumcision won't help reduce the risk of non-sexual transmission, which can happen when drug users share needles, for example.

These two studies, which included almost 8,000 men in Uganda and Kenya, did not examine the impact on women whose partner has been circumcised. This is being looked at in other research programs.

A 50 percent reduction in HIV transmission is encouraging, but the WHO's Dr. De Cock says traditional strategies should not be abandoned.

De COCK: "This must not reduce our emphasis on other preventive interventions — behavioral interventions, regular and consistent use of condoms."

There are obviously also cultural issues surrounding a procedure as personal as circumcision. Traditions vary from country to country, often with substantial variations among groups within a country, but among some groups there surely will be significant opposition to volunteering for the procedure.

Many illnesses, particularly cancers, can be treated more successfully if they are identified early. Trouble is, a disease can take hold long before there are any symptoms.

High-tech screening by techniques including DNA testing, MRI, and other advanced imaging procedures can help, but they are expensive and sometimes involve risk. Which is why the idea that some cancer cases can be identified early by a simple questionnaire is so appealing. Health reporter Rose Hoban has our report.

HOBAN: Obstetrician and gynecological surgeon Barbara Goff used to subscribe to the conventional medical wisdom that there are few early symptoms of ovarian cancer. But she changed her mind a few years ago, after a meeting with ovarian cancer survivors who told her they'd all had early symptoms of the disease. They urged her to follow up on their experiences.

GOFF: "The reason that it was so important was that the cure rates for women with early stage disease are 70-90 percent. Where for most women who present to late-stage disease, the cure rates are only 10-30 percent at best. So this to me was, like, wow, you know maybe there's something here, in this symptom thing."

HOBAN: Goff has now completed her third study, surveying thousands of women in the process. She says she and her research team have been able to identify six symptoms that seem to be strong indicators of early-stage ovarian cancer:

GOFF: "Pelvic or abdominal pain, abdominal bloating or increased abdominal size and difficulty eating and feeling full quickly. And when those … any of those symptoms occurred with a frequency of at least 12 times per month and they had been present for less than a year, these symptoms were actually predictive of women who had cancer."

HOBAN: Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other gynecological cancer. And currently there's only one blood test that can indicate its presence at an early stage. Goff says that using her symptom index is just as predictive as the blood test in detecting the disease.

GOFF: "It doesn't cost anything to ask somebody about what symptoms they've had. Unlike a blood test or an ultrasound or a radiographic study that costs money and sometimes those studies are uncomfortable, sometimes they can carry some risk associated with them. But this is no risk and really almost no cost, which is what's great about it."

HOBAN: Barbara Goff says the next step is to have primary care doctors use the symptom index in regular practice to confirm its accuracy. The research is published in the current on-line issue of the journal Cancer. I'm Rose Hoban.

Getting information about health and the environment out to where it's needed can be a challenge, especially for users in less developed countries. A new satellite system is poised to give people in some of the world's poorest countries unprecedented access to that information.

VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports that the new system should help managers in remote corners of the world to respond more effectively to natural disasters and epidemics.

SKIRBLE: Global access to satellite data has taken a giant step forward with the creation of the new satellite data network, dubbed GEONETCast.

HINSMAN: "Five years ago some of the countries in Africa were receiving their [weather] data by teletype."

SKIRBLE: That's Donald Hinsman, director of the Space Program Office of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

HINSMAN: "Now they are receiving 12 megabits per second. That's like having an Internet connection in your office available to every country in Africa."

SKIRBLE: The WMO, the United States, China and European countries jointly developed GEONETCast. Mikael Rattenborg is director of the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.

RATTENBORG: "Through this partnership we are covering all continents. And we will be able to deliver data for environmental monitoring for all geographical areas around the world."

SKIRBLE: Rattenborg says getting started requires very little technical expertise or money.

RATTENBORG: "Essentially all they need is a personal computer and satellite reception system which will cost them in the environment of $500."

SKIRBLE: GEONETCast streams information from ground-based laboratories and space-based satellites. Users have access to everything from airport runway data to information on air and water quality and ocean conditions. WMO's Donald Hinsman says the high-tech tools give managers a real-time picture of rapidly evolving events.

HINSMAN: "And that is very valuable to developing countries. What is the weather like? What are the fog conditions? Where are the forest fires? What's the wind? [What are all these conditions like] in the country next to mine?"

SKIRBLE: Mikael Rattenborg, an official with the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, says such timely information can be a critically important tool.

RATTENBORG: "For example, [the manager can] decide how to manage water resources, predict food shortages and forecasts the likelihood of malaria and disease outbreaks. So the data provided on GEONETCast will be provided directly to the decision-makers to support them in [making] decisions. And these are decisions made by decision makers in the effected countries."

SKIRBLE: Countries with little or no technical infrastructure can take advantage the new system. WMO's Donald Hinsman says training is an important component for the success of the project.

HINSMAN: "And it's been spearheaded by the United States and Europe in developing what we refer to as a virtual laboratory where we link together centers of excellence where we do training on a continuous basis using high technology. And we train the trainers in how to be able to utilize this information."

SKIRBLE: GEONETCast is the cornerstone of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an international effort to establish coordinated earth observations from thousands of instruments worldwide. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

Our choice this week is a collection of highlights in the history of chemistry. They include physical places, like the home of the man who discovered oxygen, Joseph Priestly, to accomplishments like the discovery of penicillin. They are honored by the American Chemical Society in its National Historic Chemical Landmarks program.

WASSERMAN: "And its function is to remind both the public and the chemical community of the many and varied contributions of chemistry, both in the U.S. and abroad."

Ed Wasserman is a former president of the American Chemical Society, who has worked on the landmarks program, which is online at

Some of these historic landmarks involve chemical processes, like oil refining.

The development of carbon fibers is also highlighted. In the 1950s, chemists turned carbon into high performance fibers, leading to a new class of materials that have found use in products from aircraft to sporting goods.

WASSERMAN: "These, of course, as you have mentioned, have a good deal of uses. They are frequently found in sports equipment, where the idea of strength, stiffness and lightness is found in a desirable combination."

The landmarks program began in 1993 with Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, which was developed almost a century ago. The most recently honored chemical landmark is another consumer product — of all things, a laundry powder. Proctor and Gamble's Tide was the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent, introduced in 1946 after 10 years of laboratory work. Wasserman points out that a lot of science went into its development.

WASSERMAN: "This is not something you normally realize when you buy a box to put in your laundry. The idea of designating Tide as a landmark was a natural one to remind people that this, if you will, everyday product is actually something that involves a good bit of sophisticated science behind its creation."

Ed Wasserman says these and other highlights of chemical science are presented in a way that you don't have to be a scientist to understand. Our Website of the Week, the American Chemical Society's National Historic Chemical Landmarks, is at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC - "Chemistry" by Information Society

You're listening to VOA's science and technology landmark, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

From this week's meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco come two reports on climate change.

In one, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and Pennsylvania State University reported evidence of global warming, paradoxically, from observations of cooling in the upper atmosphere.

The researchers confirmed predictions made more than a decade ago that increased carbon dioxide levels would cause the upper atmosphere to get thinner and colder.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, is a greenhouse gas produced, among other ways, by burning fossil fuels.

One of the scientists, Stan Solomon, explained that in the lower atmosphere, carbon dioxide molecules absorb radiation and give off heat. The process is reversed in the thermosphere, which starts around 100 kilometers up.

SOLOMON: "Instead of absorbing radiation and then giving it up as heat, it goes through collisions with other atoms and molecules, thereby absorbing heat and then giving off radiation, which causes cooling of the very high atmosphere. As the thermosphere cools, it causes a decrease in density at any particular altitude. And this effect is now measurable through studies of satellite orbits, just as is the gradual warming of the lower atmosphere."

The scientists, in fact, measured the thinning of the upper atmosphere by very precise tracking of satellite orbits. As the atmosphere thins, satellites are less affected by atmospheric drag. It effects most everything in low earth orbit — the space station, GPS satellites, even space junk.

Stan Solomon, who works at the government-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, points out that his research is evidence of the "far-ranging impacts of greenhouse gas emissions."

His paper was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

In a separate climate change paper in the same journal, another NCAR scientist, Marika Holland, reports that computer simulations indicate declines in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will pick up speed in the coming years, and the North Pole could be free of ice during the summer in less than 34 years.

HOLLAND: "So the rates of change, how quickly the sea ice retreats, is, like, four times faster than what we see in the observed [historic] record. And we're seeing very large changes happening in the observed record. And these climate models suggest that that could become even more rapid."

Holland's projection is based on elaborate models — computer programs, really — that attempt to fit all the pieces of the global climate into a mathematical formula. It's not perfect, but scientists validate these models in part by plugging in data from years past to see how successfully they can project the climate in later years.

Aside from the sheer volume of information, one of the biggest challenges in getting a model right is figuring out how all the different elements interact with each other. There are a lot of simultaneous interactions that make climate modeling some of the most computationally intensive stuff done on a supercomputer. In some cases, effects are amplified by feedback loops.

Here's one small example. The bright white surface of ice reflects solar radiation. But when the ice melts, that white surface is replaced by water, which is darker and absorbs more radiation, and the warmer water contributes to more ice melting, and so on.

HOLLAND: "These sorts of positive feedbacks — ice retreating and being replaced by this dark ocean surface, which absorbs more heat, which then affects the sea ice — those sorts of positive feedbacks lead to this acceleration and this very rapid losses of ice cover."

Marika Holland says the impact of an Arctic Ocean free of summer ice will not be limited to the far north.

HOLLAND: "It also can affect melting of things like permafrost, and we think those frozen soils have methane, and as that melts, methane could be released to the atmosphere. And methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. So that could further amplify the warmings. I mean, it is all interconnected and, you know, you think one change in this small area where no one lives doesn't matter. But that's not what we think. Because it is interconnected, it really could affect locations that are very far away from the arctic region."

The far-off affects of melting arctic ice could include rising sea levels, and changes in ocean currents and fisheries.

And finally, it's time for our annual recap of the year's hot consumer electronics. Manufacturers have come up with new cameras, mobile phones, portable music players and game consoles for what, in the United States, is the year's biggest shopping season. It's the make-or-break time for the companies that make and sell the latest cool gadgets, as consumers stock up on gifts for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just decide to treat themselves to a new toy.

We sent VOA's Adam Phillips out on a really tough assignment - to visit a top New York electronics retailer for a look at what's hot for holiday shoppers this year.

PHILLIPS: It's the height of the holiday season in Manhattan. Amy Adoniz, a manager at Best Buy, one of a nationwide chain of electronics outlets, looks out with satisfaction over the crowded aisles of her store at the abundance of hi-tech products.

ADONIZ: "We were looking for the latest and the greatest. Whatever is new, what everybody wants. And electronics have come such a long way. The prices have dropped so much that I think people who would have never thought to go in the direction of new technology are looking at new technology. People now are creating home theater entertainment systems in their homes. The LCD TVs and the plasma TVs are really popular. They've come down so much in price so they are available to more people. And they're really hot!"

TEXT: In 2006, the coolest item for many consumers continues to be Apple's iPod, by far the most popular device in a range of handheld digital music players that include Microsoft's Zune and others. iPods have more memory — and are selling at a better price — than ever. Some models can hold up to 20,000 songs, as well as movies and TV programs. Other models hold fewer songs, but are as small as postage stamps. Steven Levy is technology correspondent at Newsweek magazine and the author of a new book about the iPod called The Perfect Thing.

LEVY: "As someone who has started using computers in an era where that amount of storage costs you a few thousand dollars, and was the size of a shoebox, it is really amazing to see something that small! It's almost weightless, you toss it up and down, there is nothing to break in it, and you just clip it to your T-shirt and you run and you have a lot of songs to listen to."

PHILLIPS: Today, some mobile telephones also contain digital music players, but they have far less memory than standard mp3 players. So most consumers still opt for two devices — a mobile phone for talking and text messaging, and a separate digital player for music.

On the other hand, many mobile phones feature digital cameras that are far better than last year's models, which typically produced photographs that were grainy and out of focus.

PHILLIPS: Computer sales have been down this holiday season, in part because users of Windows-based PCs are waiting for Microsoft to introduce Vista, the long-delayed upgrade to its operating system due out next month. Still, 2006 has been one of the hottest seasons for computer game systems ever, with two new models hitting the market in the past few weeks. One is a powerful virtual reality game console.

WII PROMO: "It's called Wii and it's from Nintendo."

LEVY: "It's spelled W-I-I. It has a controller which has the effects on the game depending on how you move it. You put this sensor on top of your TV which can read which way the controller moves. So when you swing your arm with a controller is in it, like you are swinging a baseball bat, on the game [displayed on the video screen] you can be swinging a baseball bat. Or there are other games that let you bowl or play tennis just by swinging this controller."

PHILLIPS: The other new game machine making a splash is Sony's PlayStation 3 console, which features the most powerful microprocessor ever used in a video console. Indeed, these two young teenagers at Best Buy seem utterly absorbed in the store's PlayStation 3 demo of a basketball game.

PHILLIPS: Do you like it?

KID 1: Yeah, I do. I'm actually going to get to one pretty soon.

KID 2: The graphics are incredible. It makes you feel like you are right in the game."

PHILLIPS: Michael Montague , an older adult who retains an athletic physique, is not convinced. He says no matter how good the game technology is, Play Station 3 is not real basketball.

MONTAGUE: "It doesn't work that way. You gotta get out there and run hard. You've to have a good pair of sneakers on. You've got to sweat. I don't see no fundamentals on this thing at all. Just 'run and gun' [dribble and shoot baskets]. That's all it is."

PHILLIPS: Still, says Montague with a grin…

MONTAGUE: "I don't know. I'll wait until the price comes down. I might get it for my grandson [laughs]!"

PHILLIPS: At the Best Buy electronics store in New York City, I'm Adam Phillips reporting.

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 edited 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.