Accessibility links

Breaking News

Our World — 18 October 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... An update on a Hubble Space Telescope repair ... we'll tell you about a computer link that helps a paralyzed primate ... plus how dairy farmers make sure the milk we buy is safe to drink.

SCHUKKEN: "And it really doesn't matter if you milk by hand or you milk with a machine, or you have a thousand cows or you have two cows, there is always a very high risk."

Those stories, consumer complaints — and sometimes results — on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

NASA Engineers this week took steps to bring the Hubble Space Telescope back to life after a component on the orbiting observatory failed last month.

The science data formatter, as it's called, has a number of housekeeping functions, including preparing data collected by Hubble's instruments for transmission down to Earth. It's been working nonstop since Hubble was launched in 1990.

NASA manager Art Whipple this week said they're not sure why the device failed.

WHIPPLE: "The truthful answer is, we cannot be certain. We can almost never be certain when things are on orbit. And once we get the hardware back here, we'll be able to open up and get a much better idea. I would remind everyone that this unit operated flawlessly for 18 and a half years, which is a pretty good service time on any electronics that are operating continuously."

The device was built with two sets of circuits, to provide a backup in case of failure. So NASA engineers decided to switch to the backup circuit, which had not been used or tested since the telescope went into orbit 18 years ago.

The failure of the science data formatter prompted a delay in a space shuttle flight to repair Hubble. That flight has been postponed until February at the earliest. Astronauts will replace the science data formatter with a spare that's been in storage as well as doing some previously planned upgrades.

Hubble presumably has many more years of useful astronomy ahead of it, but this might be a good time to look back on what the space telescope has accomplished.

LIVIO: "I'm not sure it's even measurable"

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble telescope.

LIVIO: "Hubble contributed to all areas of astronomy and astrophysics, and in that it is really quite unique. In many cases, Hubble only took hints and suspicions we had about various phenomena and turned them into facts, and in some cases, it of course brought about very big surprises."

Livio says Hubble has given astronomers a window on the universe that they can not get from earth-based telescopes. Of all of the discoveries made by astronomers using Hubble, he said one is particularly notable — the discovery a decade ago of the force that drives the acceleration of the expanding universe

LIVIO: "There is no question, I think, that Hubble's contribution to the discovery of dark energy has been very unique, and since the nature of dark energy, you know, is arguably the biggest question that physics is facing today, then this contribution stands out."

Although ground-based telescopes are getting better all the time, Livio says there are still advantages to putting a telescope in space, out beyond the distorting and filtering effects of Earth's atmosphere. Certain wavelengths, like ultraviolet light, just don't make it through the atmosphere.

LIVIO: "But more importantly is that in visible light, which is the light we see with our own eyes, the resolution or the sharpness of vision that Hubble has is really incomparable to anything you can do from the ground."

We reached astrophysicist Mario Livio at his office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

In a first of its kind study, U.S. researchers have been able to get animals to move paralyzed muscles using an experimental device stimulated by brain cells. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, investigators say the research offers hope to people who are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injuries.

BERMAN: Using a computer device hooked up to cells in the brains of monkeys, researchers at the University of Washington found the primates, whose arms were temporarily paralyzed, were able to move their immobilized muscles well enough to play a computer game.

The nerves were located in the motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for movement. But the scientists tested other nerve cells in the brain.

Chet Moritz is lead author of the study appearing this week in the journal Nature.

In a teleconference with reporters describing the work, Moritz says investigators found that neurons that had nothing to do with movement, including those responsible for the senses, worked just as well.

MORITZ: "We found remarkably that nearly every neuron that we tested in the brain could be used to control this type of stimulation. We also found that monkeys could learn very rapidly to control newly isolated neurons in order to stimulate their muscles.

BERMAN: Researchers say two-thirds of the neurons they tested produced movement.

Experts say previous research into paralysis has focused on using a computer interface to record brain activity and to feed it into a prosthetic arm.

Co-author Ebhard Fetz, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, says the new experiments are different.

FETZ: "The big strategy here is to work with the muscles in the intact arms instead of artificial robotic arms or other devices other people have shown can be controlled, but may not be so practical."

BERMAN: The researchers envision paralyzed individuals acquiring the ability to pick up a coffee mug.

Investigators say their next step is to come up with an implantable computer device without wires, which could take years if not decades to develop before the technology is available for human trials. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

One of the great fears associated with aging is losing one's mental acuity. Scientists have been telling seniors to do activities such as crossword puzzles to keep their brains sharp. Now some new research shows that surfing the Internet might also keep aging synapses firing. Health reporter Rose Hoban has more.

HOBAN: Psychiatrist Gary Small from the University of California at Los Angeles has been studying the brains of aging adults for several decades. And he wanted to see what happens when seniors used the Internet to search for information. So he looked for people who had little or no experience with the on-line world.

SMALL: "We went out looking for what we called 'Internet-naïve people.' We knew they were out there. We knew they were older, because that's what the studies tell us. Eventually we did find about a dozen of them, and the next task was to just match them up with people who had had experience, who are in the same age group and had the same level of education."

HOBAN: Small put the seniors into a brain scanner. The machine reveals how blood flows throughout the brain as the person inside it does a task.

SMALL: "It tells us how well the brain cells are communicating, whether they're functioning or not, whether they're active or not, we could see that throughout the brain regionally."

HOBAN: Small had subjects do searches on the Internet. He also had them read pages from a book. He performed the scans as they did each task.

SMALL: "We found that reading a book activated parts of the brain that you would expect, the visual cortex in the back of the brain and areas that control language. But the Internet task had a much greater activation throughout the brain, but only in people who had prior Internet experience. So we saw, particularly in the frontal lobe, an area of the brain that controls complex reasoning and decision-making, we saw a great increase in activation in the Internet-savvy experimental subjects versus those who are naïve."

In other words, the more experience seniors had using the Internet, the more exercise their brains got.

Small says seniors shouldn't be afraid of going online, and in fact, surfing the net might be a good way for them to stay sharp.

His research is published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, and in his new book, iBrain. I'm Rose Hoban.

If you want to keep your brain active, you might want to check out our Website of the Week; that's when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, a site that is an outgrowth of the consumer culture, which is so much a part of the American economy, where we buy a lot of goods and services, and where we sometimes think we're not getting the value we deserve for our purchases.

POPKEN: " is a daily blog that is dedicated to empowering, informing and entertaining the everyday consumer as he navigates the murky and bloody waters of the marketplace."

Ben Popken is editor of, where buyers of products and services bring their complaints and post them online.

There are a wide variety of topics that consumers want to talk about online, but Popken described the typical issue this way:

POPKEN: "The basic formula for a lot of the complaints is: I bought something from the company, the good or service wasn't up to the standard that I expected, and when I contacted them, they didn't care. (laughs) And that happens over and over again."

And if that's the typical complaint, the classic example was the user who tried to cancel his account with AOL, at one time America's largest Internet service provider. The company was notorious for making it difficult for subscribers to cancel, so one persistent customer recorded a frustrating 20-minute conversation with AOL. posted it online, prompting the company to change its policies.

POPKEN: "So after we posted that, it very quickly went viral, and it ended up fast-tracking AOL's [response] — basically disintegrating the subscription-based service they had been known for and making them a lot more responsive to peoples' requests to cancel their account." also includes a variety of consumer news, including notable bargains every day and, more often in this economy, news of retail chain businesses reducing operations or shutting down entirely.

Check out a different side of American consumer culture at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: Stephane Hirondelle — "Bio Technology "

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

Thursday was World Food Day, an annual observance of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. The group says rising food prices have plunged an additional 75 million people below the hunger threshold, bringing the estimated number of undernourished people worldwide to more than 900 million.

For many people who live in cities, food has little connection with the farms. So it might be something of a shock to see a farm not just in the shadow of New York's skyscrapers, but floating on a barge in the Hudson River. But there it is! The science barge is about sustainable agriculture and teaching kids how food is grown. VOA's Adam Phillips has more in a story we originally broadcast last year.

PHILLIPS: Ted Caplow stands on the deck of a barge that's like no other on the New York waterfront. Part high-tech farm, part laboratory, and part floating classroom, the New York Sun Works' Science Barge sports solar panels, wind turbines, a couple of greenhouses and other gear aimed at demonstrating sustainable agriculture in one of the world's most densely-packed cities.

The Science Barge project, which is set to launch next month, aims to show how urban areas like New York can support agriculture using recycled water and renewable energy.

CAPLOW: "And the purpose of this project is to demonstrate that growing food in the city is good for the environment in a number of ways. When we grow food out in the country, we use a tremendous amount of water and land and fertilizers. And all these things have a large impact on the environment in the countryside. By moving food production into the city, we save a lot of land and, at the same time, we bring the food closer to the consumer. So we avoid the environmental and monetary costs of trucking food often thousands of miles from the field to the dinner plate."

PHILLIPS: There's not a lot of vacant land in Manhattan that would be suitable for farming. But Caplow says that farms don't have to be on ground level.

CAPLOW: "There is a lot of space up on the roof. In New York City for example, we have approximately 5,000 hectares of available space just on existing rooftops. That is space that is open to the sky, so there's plenty of sunlight where we can grow vegetables. But we can't grow vegetables in the city the same way we'd grow them out in the country."

PHILLIPS: On a traditional farm, there is one horizontal surface where plants are grown. It's the surface of the earth itself. But the Science Barge folks say many crops can be grown in containers stacked one atop the other, somewhat like a high-rise apartment building. Sun Works greenhouse director Jenn Nelkin says this is a good way to grow certain plants.

NELKIN: "So instead of having just a horizontal row of plants, here I have 40 plants instead of one that might take up that same square foot space if we were growing everything horizontally. So we'll be growing our basil and parsley and edible flowers. This is [also] a great system for strawberry production. So that's to get some vertical space out of short crops."

PHILLIPS: An abundance of other crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other vegetables are flourishing in the New York Sun Works greenhouses. They're grown using hydroponic technology where the roots are immersed in trays of nutrient rich water, not soil.

The water itself comes either from rainwater stored in an onboard tank, or from the Hudson River itself. Sun Works staff member Viraj Puri explains that the river water is purified and desalinated by a reverse osmosis machine.

PURI : "You pump water up, a lot of pressure builds up and it is passed through a membrane. It separates the salt from the water and the brine goes back into the water."

PHILLIPS: This machinery and sophisticated environmental control devices and computers, are powered by wind turbines, solar power, and bio-diesel fuel made from used cooking oil from city restaurants. But high productivity and new technology are only part of the project's mission. New York Sun Works director Ted Caplow says the barge is also a floating classroom that will educate Big Apple youngsters about how food is actually produced.

CAPLOW: "The joke about New York City kids is that they think that tomatoes grow in the supermarket and all the food just comes from the shelf somewhere. It's a joke but a lot of times it's pretty close to the truth! So this is a wonderful way for kids to understand where food comes from and what a plant needs to grow and how that works."

PHILLIPS: I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

And from New York City we move about 300 kilometers to the northwest, for a story about the healthfulness of the food we consume.

Concerns about the safety of milk and other dairy products spiked recently after we learned that Chinese milk producers were adulterating milk, and exporting much of the tainted product.

Thousands of infants were sickened and several died after getting formula made with the contaminated milk.

Chinese health officials say the problem has been corrected, but the incident underscores the importance of milk safety systems.

At Cornell University's veterinary college, researchers are working with local dairy farmers to keep bacteria and other contaminants out of the U.S. milk supply. Reporter Véronique LaCapra has the story.

LaCAPRA: New York State is home to more than 6,000 dairy farms, with cow herds ranging in size from just twenty to several thousand. In a state that produces almost 5.5 billion liters of milk each year, milk safety is a top priority.

Ynte Schukken is the director of Cornell University's milk quality program. His staff goes out to dairy farms, checks milking equipment, and takes milk samples. Laboratories then analyze the milk for bacteria and other pathogens.

SCHUKKEN: "And then once we have the results of both equipment and milk, our veterinarians help the farmers improve the situation: prevent new cases and solve the current problems."

LaCAPRA: One particular problem for dairy cattle is a bacterial infection called mastitis.

SCHUKKEN: "Mastitis is a worldwide issue. Every place I have worked and that's Asia, Africa, Europe, America, South America, mastitis is typically the number-one problem of dairy farmers. And it really doesn't matter if you milk by hand or you milk with a machine or you have a thousand cows or you have two cows, there is always a very high risk."

LaCAPRA: Mastitis causes an inflammation of the mammary glands in a cow's udder. The milk from an untreated cow is still relatively safe to drink, but it's full of white blood cells that form unappetizing clots and flakes, and that make the milk go sour more quickly. The more cells in the milk, the lower the price that farmers can get for it — too many cells, and they can't legally sell it at all.

SCHUKKEN: "The biggest cost is loss of milk, loss of production, and the loss of the cow. Approximately ten percent of cases are so severe that the cow will either die or won't come back into good production again."

LaCAPRA: In most cases, though, mastitis can be treated with antibiotics. Since U.S. law prohibits antibiotic residues in milk for human consumption, dairy farmers have to throw away the milk a cow produces during treatment — yet another cost of the infection.

SCHUKKEN: "Well, we prefer to prevent it."

LaCAPRA: And the best way to prevent mastitis is surprisingly simple: keep the cows clean.

SCHUKKEN: "So the hygiene of the stalls, the hygiene of the pasture that the cows go to, the cleaner the better, obviously."

LaCAPRA: Since most U.S. farmers now milk their cows by machine instead of by hand, the hygiene of the milking machine — and the cow's udder — is also critical.

SCHUKKEN: "In the U.S. we require that before milking, the teats get disinfected with some sort of a chemical disinfectant like iodine and then they're cleaned before the unit - the milking unit is put onto the cow."

SCHUKKEN: "You can actually hear the pulsating."

LaCAPRA: With a hose attached to each of the cow's teats, the milking machines mimic the motions of hand milking:

SCHUKKEN: "Left-right, left-right, left-right so this is the continuous dance of the unit, of suction to get milk out, and massaging to release fluids and all that from the teat-end if you have this nice rhythmic noise, it means things are working well."

LaCAPRA: At the Sunnyside dairy in Genoa, New York, 2,800 cows are milked three times a day, producing more than 100,000 liters of milk.

In the milking parlor, the cows — about a hundred at a time — file into stalls on two, long, elevated platforms, which are separated by a wide center aisle. Workers move quickly down the stalls, cleaning the cows' teats and attaching the milking hoses.

SCHUKKEN: "It's five people having to do about fifty-two stalls. We like to milk one side of the parlor in about fifteen minutes, so it's all a game of time. One side, four times an hour, so that means they're milking 400 cows an hour, eight hours a day, so it's a continuous rotation here, to be able to milk the cows all the time you need to have a very efficient process."

LaCAPRA: From the milking parlor, the milk is collected and stored in large refrigerated tanks, called bulk tanks. Each tank holds about forty-five thousand liters of milk.

SCHUKKEN: "It's stirred continuously, so if you take a milk sample from the top — there is a little ladder here, and there is an opening in the top — if you take a milk sample from the top and it's quite a good representation of the total milk in the farm."

LaCAPRA: By collecting less than 100 milliliters from the bulk tank, dairies can reliably test their milk for bacteria, viral diseases, and food safety pathogens. The system is efficient, inexpensive — and new.

SCHUKKEN: "We're developing it in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security because the same infrastructure can be used to monitor for any nasty disease that comes into the country."

LaCAPRA: As a means of ensuring milk safety, Ynte Schukken sees a lot of promise in the bulk tank monitoring system — for individual dairies, and for milk-producing countries worldwide. For Our World, I'm Véronique LaCapra.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch — maybe you've got a science question we can answer for you — email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Faith Lapidus edited the show. Bob Doughty 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 technology ... in Our World.