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Our World — 10 February 2007

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 politics of climate change ... contraceptives and the poor ... and the hidden potential of geothermal power ...

GRAZEL: "It really saves on the bottom dollar versus paying for gas or extra heat from various ways. The heating bill is cut probably 75 percent."

Tapping underground heat, the U.S. government's first science agency turns 200, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Last week on Our World we told you about the release of a U.N. report on climate change. The scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed that evidence of global warming is unequivocal, and human activity is very likely the cause.

This week, the U.S. Senate's science committee met to probe allegations of political interference in the work of U.S. government climate scientists.

The committee's hearing followed a controversial survey of climate experts by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. More than half the government scientists surveyed said they had experienced some kind of political interference over the past five years.

Much of the government's climate research is done at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Senior official Bill Brennan denied any interference with research at his agency.

BRENNAN: "To the best of my knowledge, no one has suggested the science or the research findings have been interfered with. But concerns have been raised about the intersection of science policy and science, and how that is communicated to the public."

For example, NOAA scientist Tom Knutson described how the agency's public affairs staff barred him from giving a television interview about his research.

KNUTSON: "The impression I had is that at times, NOAA public affairs was becoming more of an obstruction than a promoter of interaction between scientists and the media."

There was no interference with his research, he said, but his ability to communicate his work with a national audience had been hindered, he testified. NOAA is reviewing its media policy, and agency head Conrad Lautenbacher has stressed the importance of open communication.

From the senators present there was little partisanship.

Leading Republican presidential hopeful John McCain sought to distance himself from the Bush administration, saying it's time to focus on dealing with climate change, rather than debating it.

McCAIN: "For years we have been frustrated by the lack of recognition, much less cooperation on the part of the administration in addressing this issue. And fortunately, hopefully, we have now turned a corner in that there is finally recognition that the debate is over."

And from Democratic Senator John Kerry, his party's 2004 presidential candidate —

KERRY: "What happens if we're wrong, and we embrace doing things about clean fuels and efficiency and clean coal technology? If we're wrong we've got cleaner air, a healthier nation, more jobs, better technology [and] we've protected the environment. What happens if they're wrong? Catastrophe."

John Kerry at Wednesday's Senate Science Committee hearing probing allegations of political interference with government climate scientists.

On a less controversial note, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is celebrating its 200th anniversary this week. The government's oldest science agency was established as the Survey of the Coast on February 10, 1807, to chart our young nation's waterways and adjacent land areas.

NOAA librarian and historian Albert Theberge says the 19th century coastal survey called for the best science of its time.

THEBERGE: "The science that was required was geodetic surveys, precise land surveys, that used instruments such as theodolites. For the measurement of water depths there was only lead-line, but we had to position the vessels relative to the geodetic network that was on the land. And then there was plane-table and what was called an aladade for the development of coastal maps that would help mariners position themselves."

Before the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS, came into use, surveying was based on measuring distances and angles on the surface, and the use of trigonometry to tie it all together. The first step was to establish a baseline of known distance. In the 19th century, surveyors used metal bars to measure baselines.

At its headquarters just outside Washington, NOAA is marking its bicentennial with an exhibit of historic artifacts, including one of those measuring bars.

The one on display here is covered with faded canvas and looks like anything but a precision measuring instrument. Chief geodetic surveyor Dave Doyle says this duplex baseline measuring bar dates from about 1895. It resembles a piece of pipe with two small bars sticking out at the end.

DOYLE: "One bar of brass and another one of steel, and these duplex bars would be laid end-to-end, measuring a distance that would oftentimes be 10-15 kilometers in length. So just the simple measurement of a distance required a team of, typically, 15-18 surveyors, as well as support staff. And to measure a distance could easily take as much as three weeks, sometimes more."

The seemingly primitive technology was remarkably accurate. A 14-kilometer line measured like that was less then four centimeters off when checked with modern GPS equipment.

In the 19th century the agency hired famed artist James McNeill Whistler to work on engravings. Astronomer Maria Mitchell was the first woman professional to work for the federal government in the 1840s.

Today, NOAA's most visible activity is probably the weather service. Technology has long played a tremendous role, helping advance the science of weather forecasting. The modern era really began in 1960, with the launch of the first weather satellite. Before that, says NOAA meteorologist Brian Hughes, forecasters had much less information to work with.

HUGHES: "Really, all you had was surface observations, and you had a couple of upper air balloons and observations that were taken twice a day. You really didn't have a global perspective of the Earth as we do now. And you had limited data going into the computer models, so you really didn't have really well-tuned forecasts that you do nowadays."

Ground observations and weather balloons still play an important role, even in the satellite era, and more sophisticated computer programs can now produce accurate — if not perfect — forecasts up to seven days out.

As a science agency, NOAA has used a variety of specialized equipment. One of the most unusual, on display at their 200th anniversary exhibition, is a tide-predicting calculator, a hand-cranked brass machine more than 3 meters long, which uses a series of mechanical wheels, chains and gears to compute and display a graph of expected tides.

It was finished in 1910 and, remarkably, remained in use until 1965, when it was replaced by electronic computers.

You can learn more about NOAA's history and the science behind weather forecasting, geodesy — and we didn't even get to fisheries — at

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

We've been having some unseasonably cold weather in Washington this week, and that might be one reason why it's a good time to highlight the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It's a favored location for researchers looking to download raw data about the frozen north and south. It's also where non-specialists can learn more about the Earth's cold regions, and study, in one section devoted to the dynamics of global warming, how snow and ice can be key indicators of climate change.

RENFROW: "The State of the Cryosphere [section] is broken up into different sections of focus — essentially snow, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice — so that you can really focus on how those specific aspects of the frozen regions of our world influence climate."

Stephanie Renfrow is a spokesperson for the National Snow and Ice Data Center at Among the other features on the site is Ice Trek, which is a little like looking over their shoulders as scientists do their work.

RENFROW: "And that basically is a blog from one of our scientists who went down to Antarctica to explore the lifecycle of an iceberg in Antarctica, to watch it drift and better understand the melt processes that happen as that iceberg drifts into warmer waters."

Senior scientist Richard Armstrong says one of the strengths of the website is that it reflects the work of real scientists doing cutting-edge climate research.

ARMSTRONG: "So there's constant feedback between the data archive people; the writers, science writers; and the scientists actually doing the research, which we think is a really value-added component to our website and our overall operation."

Some information from those data archives he mentions is now available in a format compatible with Google Earth. It's a demonstration project for now, but it does illustrate new ways that non-scientists may be able to use and understand scientific data.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center online at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "Sleigh Ride" — U.S. Navy Band

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

Well, enough of the cold. Here's a hot story for you. Mention renewable alternatives to fossil-fueled energy and you might think of wind generators...or solar panels. Sometimes overlooked is geothermal energy. Unlike solar or wind power, heat from hot rocks deep underground is constant. A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that geothermal has been "undervalued" as a way of meeting future energy needs. Correspondent Tom Banse has more from Boise, Idaho, where they've been tapping into underground heat for more than a century.

BANSE: It's a chilly afternoon here in downtown Boise, in the Rocky Mountains. Makes my nose run. Around town, furnaces are gobbling up fuel to heat buildings and keep occupants warm. But 55 downtown buildings share a hidden secret — like this new hotel. Feel the warmth now. That's cheap heat from deep beneath our feet.

JOHNSON: "It's interesting talking to people that I know that work downtown. And I'll say, "Oh, you work in one of our buildings that is one of our geothermal customers.' They go, 'Oh, really?' They have no idea."

BANSE: Kent Johnson is the geothermal engineer for the City of Boise. Idaho's capital city is home to the oldest geothermal central heating system in the U.S. The first distribution line dates back more than a century. Johnson says that after languishing for years, the geothermal service is drawing renewed interest, in part because it's up to 30 percent cheaper.

JOHNSON: "I think primarily it's because of the price of natural gas that's risen so much in the last three to four years. But I also think there's more interest in renewable energy, too."

BANSE: There are just a few other American cities with geothermal utilities. Reno, Nevada, is one. Klamath Falls, Oregon, installed geothermal heating coils under downtown sidewalks to melt snow and ice.

The government-funded report from MIT concluded that non-polluting geothermal plants should become a bigger part of America's energy portfolio. A member of the expert panel that wrote the report, geothermal consultant Susan Petty, says cities now using geothermal provide just a taste of what's possible.

PETTY: "It may not be economic except in a few places where it is hot, very shallow. But there are some easy-to-do, incremental improvements to current technology that could bring an awful lot of this energy into being economic."

BANSE: The MIT panel backs a new approach to mining heat from the earth that can work pretty much anywhere by injecting surface water deep underground. Then you drill a separate well nearby to recapture that water, now boiling hot. Petty says the resulting steam can spin a power turbine before being re-injected to start the cycle over again.

PETTY: "We'll be able to manage this flow so we don't lose this water. And that was a really big breakthrough because a lot of the really high temperature bodies of rock in the U.S. — in particular in the western U.S., where it's sometimes very arid and there's not a lot of water available."

BANSE: There are two basic categories of geothermal power. There's drilling really deep for super-heated water to use to make electricity — Petty's interest. Then there's direct use of moderately hot water that might lie beneath a city or a business property. That's actually more widely accessible.

BANSE: Take for example, heating a greenhouse or fish farming. The Flora Company of Boise does both. The owners drilled a 200-meter well to tap a geothermal aquifer. Head grower Jayson Grazel shows off trays of bedding plants and fish ponds in the toasty warm greenhouse complex.

GRAZEL: "We have a leg up. It really saves on the bottom dollar versus paying for gas or extra heat from various ways. The heating bill is probably cut 75 percent."

BANSE: The recent MIT study on geothermal potential proposed a public investment of $800 million over the next 15 years to jump start this energy sector. President Bush's proposed 2008 federal budget does not include money for the suggested geothermal surveying and test drilling or technology prototypes. Other countries are taking the lead on mining deep geothermal deposits. France is taking advantage of European Union subsidies. In Australia, private investors are shouldering the risk.

For Our World, I'm Tom Banse in Boise.

A survey of health data from 55 developing countries shows that while the use of modern contraceptives has increased over the last several decades, their use by the world's poorest people remains low. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: Emmanuela Gakidou with Harvard University's Initiative for Global Health and lead author of the new study says the work demonstrates what she calls a contraceptive gap separating the poorest in the world from the rest of society.

GAKIDOU: "The gap can be measured in a variety of ways. What we have looked at is how the poorest women fare compared with what the country is doing on average. And what we have found is that the gap is large even in rich countries. So there are countries with an average income per capita of $4,000 that are not giving the poorest women access to contraceptive services."

Q: "What drives this gap?"

GAKIDOU: "I am not going to say that I know all of the drivers of this gap because I am sure that it is a combination of more distal factors such as poverty, but also more proximate ones such as the health system. What we found that is very encouraging is that if the health system supplies services to women in labor and to newborn children, than that same setup can also be used to provide contraceptive services. So where there are services, women are using contraceptive methods."

SKIRBLE: The study finds strong regional differences with the lowest rates of contraceptive use found in sub-Saharan Africa. Use among the poor was highest in South and Southeast Asia, and the largest inequalities in use were found in Latin America.

SKIRBLE: Gakidou recommends that ministries in developing countries change their focus to address the interest of the poor.

GAKIDOU: "Because the focus globally right now seems to be on the averages [of contraceptive use, and that average is going up for each country] and we really need to focus on the most disadvantaged women because the benefits from that will be huge."

SKIRBLE: The study is published in PloS Medicine and available for free online at I'm Rosanne Skirble.

The Internet has become an almost indispensable tool for sharing music, checking the latest news, doing school work and keeping up with friends. It has also become an essential tool for politicians. As we wade into the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a crowded field of candidates is relying on the Internet to connect with voters. Mohammed Elshinnawi wrote our report, which is narrated by Rob Sivak.

TEXT: Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton's long-anticipated entry into the 2008 Presidential campaign came not at a news conference or political rally, but in a brief, well-crafted video streamed to the nation — and the world — over the Internet:

CLINTON: "I announced today that I am forming a presidential exploratory committee…"

TEXT: As Senator Clinton and a growing roster of candidates gear up to compete for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, they are finding the Internet — more precisely, the World Wide Web — to be a relatively cheap, highly effective, and largely unregulated medium for communicating with potential voters.

Lee Rainie is Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project:

RAINIE: "We did a survey after the 2006 elections in America and found that the role of the Internet was growing as an important news source and information source for people that cared about politics, and also as the source of the way that they communicate about politics.

TEXT: Rainie believes that Internet video — already in wide use on most candidates' web sites — is becoming an essential fixture of the 2008 presidential campaign. Even before officially launching his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney created a website filled with videos outlining his position on national issues, and slick promotional messages touting Romney as presidential material:

ROMNEY VIDEO: "America seeks a new kind of leader to meet a new generation of challenges. This is the story of Gov. Mitt Romney…."

TEXT: It's this one-on-one connection to voters — through their personal computers — that makes the Internet so valuable to politicians, according to Rhodes Cook. He's the editor of the Rhodes Cook Letter, an online digest of political and election analysis.

But Cook warns that while the Internet provides political campaigners with a powerful new tool, it can be a double-edged sword:

COOK: "The Internet is multiplying the number of things that could be seen — not only favorable things, but also any gaffes or mistakes or missteps the candidates make can almost be instantly transmitted across the Internet.

TEXT: That's what happened to former Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia, once thought a likely contender for the White House. Speaking at a re-election campaign rally last August, Allen aimed what many took to be ethnic slurs at one of his rival's campaign workers, a dark-skinned Virginia man who was videotaping the event.

ALLEN: "…This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is.…"

TEXT: The widely-viewed Internet video of Allen's use of the term macaca — a racial slur sometimes used against African immigrants — may have cost Allen the November election. And his loss to a Democrat helped tip the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.

Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project says that all the 2008 presidential candidates understand very well now that the Internet has moved center stage.

RAINIE: "People read newspapers online, people view TV videos online, so, to some degree, the difference that existed between those channels will probably begin to vanish in voters minds, and the channels will just interact among each other in different ways with different people."

TEXT: Lee Rainie predicts the most effective Internet campaigners will be candidates who can move beyond web videos and tap into the medium's powerful interactive capabilities.

Last month, in her Internet video announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Senator Hillary Clinton made it clear she understands the interactive power of the Internet to connect candidates with voters in a way no democracy has ever before:

CLINTON: "I'll be holding live online video chats this week, starting Monday. So let the conversation begin. I have a feeling it's going to be very interesting…."

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.