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Our World — 13 December 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... technology and the presidency ... a possible new approach to battling malaria ... and science meets art at a California museum...

LEWIS: "He was the guy that devised a system of rotating paper disks, which are called volvelles. You can perform calculations by rotating these disks. And this work is as much a calculating instrument as it is a work of art

Those stories and more, plus human-made noise in the ocean and how it's affecting marine life.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Web 2.0 is changing U.S. political landscape

Forty years ago this week, Douglas Engelbart gave the first public demonstration of the computer mouse at a conference in San Francisco. The original mouse was a clunky wooden box with two metal wheels underneath to track horizontal and vertical motion. Its first mainstream appearance wasn't until the 1980s, when Apple introduced first the Lisa and then the Macintosh computers.

Englebart's demonstration also included email, video conferencing, and other technologies that in 1968 were more likely to appear in science fiction than in real life.

Well, it's 2008 and a lot of what was science fiction four decades ago is now part of everyday life for many people around the world, and the potential is just starting to be explored.

For example, technology is exponentially changing American politics. Journalist and media executive Carin Dessauer notes that in the last presidential election four years ago, social networking websites and online video services like YouTube were in their infancy or not even invented.

DESSAUER: "Barack Obama changed the political landscape. By using the Internet and all of its related technology to collectively create community, build and control a political brand, redefine grassroots tactics, and fundraise - all strategically integrated with the entire campaign operation."

Dessauer led a panel discussion this week on technology, new media, and the presidency, hosted by George Washington University, here in Washington, D.C.

Panelist Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post says the interactivity of the Web has changed the nature of political campaigns. He recalls that when Hillary Clinton announced her presidential bid, she said she wanted to have a conversation. Vargas says that's a change from previous campaigns, which were more like performances.

VARGAS: "The politicians get up on a stage, strategists handle them. And for the most part, we - like, the people - have always been outside the process. We've always been the audience, just looking in. Well, with the arrival of Faceboook and My Space and YouTube, and the ethos that they've created, people want to be involved."

Even critics concede that the use of the Internet and other technologies by President Elect Barack Obama's campaign was masterful. They raised a lot of money online, and used technology to recruit supporters and stay connected to their volunteers. The campaign's director of new media, Joe Rospars, says that to keep their supporters engaged, they poured out an "almost unlimited" amount of information on audio, video, and text platforms.

ROSPARS: "Strategy briefings from the campaign manager to give our volunteers context for the organizing tasks that they're being asked to do. It took the form of inspriational videos to make people more likely to donate when they were asked at a given time. It was individual profiles of our supporters to put a human face and a real story behind the campaign and the movement."

Analysts generally agree that this time, the Republicans weren't as competitive in the new media arena. Republican operative Mindy Finn says that has to change.

FINN: "The Republican Party has to make Internet and technology its number one priority. You can't be fighting a 21st century war with 20th century tools."

Not that Republicans were totally clueless. The candidate Finn worked for, Mitt Romney, took a hard anti-abortion position this year. But in the past, he had been considerably more flexible. Opponents were quick to post video that highlighted the discrepancy on The Romney campaign knew voters could easily find the negative video, so, as YouTube news director Steve Grove notes, they uploaded their own - positive - video.

GROVE: "And so when you search for Romney's position on abortion, yeah, you might see the piece of content that someone uploaded from the mid-1990s or something that denegrates or criticizes Romney's position, but you also see his. And so, that sort of listening and responding, that dialog that takes place online, is really I think the hallmark of campaigns that use this medium well."

The next U.S. presidential election is still four years off. But given the speed at which new technologies reach critical mass, it's not too soon to wonder what kinds of new media and technologies the 2012 campaigns will be using.

New malaria approach targets mosquito vulnerability

Malaria kills a million people a year, mostly poor children in developing countries. One child every 30 seconds, according to the World Health Organization.

The heartbreak is that malaria is both treatable and preventable. But for a variety of reasons, existing programs still have not brought malaria under control, so as we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, scientists are looking for new approaches to this killer disease.

BERMAN: Some of the world's most deadly diseases are spread by biting insects. There are a variety of methods for fighting those illnesses - from prevention, such as spraying areas where the insects breed, using insecticide-treated bed nets and conducting vaccination campaigns, to treatment with drugs once someone is infected.

The prospect of improved vaccines and better drugs is appealing, but they are still in development.

So Brian Foy of Colorado State University and other researchers are trying to come up with a new strategy.

FOY: "Our particular part is trying to kill mosquitoes kind of at the bite preventing mosquitoes from surviving very long after they bite you and drink a gutful of your blood. And the way to do this that we're looking at is endectocide drugs."

BERMAN: Endectocides are used to kill parasites, such as the worm that causes river blindness. One of the most striking examples of its effectiveness against mosquitoes was discovered by Foy and his colleagues in Senegal, where villagers given the antiparastic drug Ivermectin to control river blindness.

He says mosquitoes infected with the malaria parasite unexpectedly began dying off when they bit people treated with Ivermectin.

FOY: "And we're seeing this pretty strikingly. So then our next test is to see if we cannot determine if this [is] actually reducing malaria transmission, but we haven't gotten that far yet."

BERMAN: Endectocides are not designed to cure those who are already infected with the malaria parasite. But Foy says the drugs may stop malaria-infected mosquitoes from ravaging a community one bite at a time, by killing them once they drink blood laced with endectocide.

Brian Foy and his colleagues presented their work on endectocides at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's annual meeting in New Orleans. I'm Jessica Berman.

Exhibit conveys beauty, excitement of science

There's a new exhibit at the Huntington Library, near Los Angeles, that highlights the thrill of discovery and the beauty of science.

Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the exhibit curator, Daniel Lewis, about ideas that changed the world and impressive works of art produced by scientists.

O'SULLIVAN: The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, is home to some of the world's rarest books and greatest art treasures, from a Gutenberg Bible, the 15th century publication that sparked a revolution in learning, to Thomas Gainsborough's famous painting of Blue Boy.

Curator Daniel Lewis says a new exhibit, called "Beautiful Science: Ideas the Changed the World," shows that many early scientists bridged the worlds of art and learning. He says this is seen in the 16th century work Astronomicum Caesareum by the German mathematician, mapmaker, and astronomer Peter Apianus. Some have called it the most beautiful book ever published.

LEWIS: "He actually printed it and did the art work on it, but he was the guy that devised a system of rotating paper disks, which are called volvelles, in this big work featured in the exhibit, so that you can perform calculations by rotating these disks. And this work is as much a calculating instrument as it is a work of art, and it is absolutely gorgeous."

O'SULLIVAN: The 17th century British scientist Robert Hooke shows detailed drawings of insects, animals, and natural substances studied under magnification in an illustrated book called Microgaphia. A first edition of the oversized work is also on display, and Lewis says it shows Hooke's excitement at his discoveries.

LEWIS: "He writes as if he is seeing for the first time as he writes. He says, this is a most curious and astonishing thing, and he will go on to describe and illustrate some of these things in this particular work. So there is a sense of wonder that saturates many of these works that makes them very exciting to read and look at."

O'SULLIVAN: The exhibit shows the expansion of scientific knowledge, often in jumps and starts, from a 13th century manuscript of a work from the ancient mathematician Ptolemy to 20th century items, such as letters from Albert Einstein and a logbook from astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Curator Lewis says the exhibit shows that each generation of thinkers builds on its predecessors, by tracing the development key ideas in science, which include this shifting concept in astronomy.

LEWIS: "The idea that the earth was the center of the universe, to the changing notion under Copernicus in the 16th century that the sun, really, was the center of the universe, to the idea now that we understand more precisely that we are a tiny speck in a gigantic, almost infinite universe."

O'SULLIVAN: The exhibit contains a first edition of the ground-breaking work by Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, which explains the orbits of planets around the sun.

Seminal works from later times are also on display.

LEWIS: "We have Isaac Newton's own copy of his groundbreaking work, the Principia, published in 1687. He has made marginal annotations and notes in preparation for the second edition of this great work. We have got a first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species."

O'SULLIVAN: Nearby, 250 copies of Darwin's important book, in dozens of languages, are lined along a bookshelf seven-meters long to show the influence of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

In four rooms packed with treasures, curator Lewis says we see the excitement of science, and some of the works of art created by scientists who were inspired by their own ground-breaking discoveries. Mike O'Sullivan, VOA News, Los Angeles.

History meets social networking on our Website of the Week

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

This week, it's a place where you can see original historical documents and share your discoveries with other users.

SCHROEPFER: " is a website where people connect with history and with each other."

Justin Schroepfer is marketing director at, which includes millions of images of documents from American history.

SCHROEPFER: "We actually get the microfilm reels from the National Archive and we will basically digitize the microfilm. So we work together with them to find out what is being most requested, what it is it that needs to be preserved. We have been putting up millions of images every month by digitizing that microfilm."

Some of these collections are free; others require a paid subscription. They've just launched a huge collection of World War II documents, which they'll start charging to look at in January, but this month it's all free for the browsing.

I randomly chose the declassified log of an American submarine, the U.S.S. Icefish, and followed it as it traveled in Asian waters in 1945, getting a captain's eye-view of daily routine, military action, and human drama.

What's different and especially nice about is that users can share their comments on the documents, and you're encouraged to scan and upload your own historical documents, such as photos and letters.

SCHROEPFER: "So if I had uploaded a photo of my great grandfather in World War One, and somebody else had found that photo, they'd know that it came from me, and those people can get in touch with me. So it does allow a more collaborative environment, and when you can pull multiple minds together and resources, that's when real discoveries can happen."

Share the history at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site,

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

Film festivals showcase environmental films

Documentary films represent a very tiny sliver of the global movie industry, but they can have a big impact. Former Vice President Al Gore's global warming lecture in An Inconvenient Truth not only won an Oscar, it also hightened awareness of an important environmental issue and helped bring a new focus to the issue of climate change.

As we hear from reporter Jennifer Guerra, environmental documentary films are showing up more and more ... especially at film festivals.

GUERRA: Science films have come a long way from this.

Nature constantly wears away its own. Left to themselves, materials eventually decay.

GUERRA: Now, they've got flashy trailers, famous narrators and edgy music. There are hundreds of these environmentally-themed movies and they're hitting the festival circuit hard. You got [South] Korea, Italy, Israel, [Washington] D.C., Colorado, Michigan.

Susan Woods got to choose the movies to include in Michigan's first ever Green on the Big Screen film festival.

WOODS: "It was quite daunting in the beginning, to tell you the truth, at the beginning when I started looking up all these different films. I thought oh my goodness, how can I select them. I mean, there's just too many to select."

GUERRA: She eventually settled on about 30 films, including King Corn. Curt Ellis produced the documentary, which is all about corn and our dependence on it for almost everything we eat.

Corn, beef, bread. sodas, chicken, French fries, spaghetti sauces, biscuits with gravy, everything on your plate is corn.

ELLIS: "When you're telling a story about the natural world, you really have to be able to transport people to the place you're talking about."

GUERRA: And Ellis thinks the best way to do that - short of lecturing people in a cornfield in the middle of Iowa - is to show them a film.

ELLIS: "The reason we make documentaries the reason we do it is because we believe film can make a difference."

HERBERT: "My opinion of media effects in terms of film actually producing social action is pretty limited."

GUERRA: That's Daniel Herbert. He teaches film at the University of Michigan.

HERBERT: "Unless you have policies in your city government with recycling, what does it matter if you've watched An Inconvenient Truth? If Al Gore's telling you to buy $30 light bulbs and you''re making nine dollars an hour working at Starbucks, what's it matter?"

GUERRA: That said, if he had to choose between showing an environmental film at a festival, at a commercial movie theater, or on television, Herbert says he'd pick the festival. Sure, there's probably a greater audience to be had with television, but you lose something that way.

WOODS: Susan Woods - you remember, she's from the Michigan film festival - she says a festival can provide a whole different experience.

"The difference is that these people are sitting home in a dark room as opposed to being with a group of people who have the same mindset. And I think that's the big difference."

GUERRA: And, she says, at a festival, if you feel inspired by one of the films, you can go up to a director afterward and ask questions, or you can sometimes even sign up with a local environmental group.

Something you definitely wouldn't be able to do sitting at home alone in the dark with your TV.

For The Environment Report, I'm Jennifer Guerra.

Environment Report is supported by the Park Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. You can contact them at feedback at

Underwater noise pollution harms marine life

And finally today ... In dark ocean waters, marine mammals such as whales and dolphins rely on sound to communicate with each other, locate prey, and find their way over long distances. But experts say all these activities - which are critical to their survival - are being disrupted by the increasing amount of noise from ship engines, sonar, and seismic exploration. And as Véronique LaCapra reports, climate change could make the noise problems for marine mammals even worse.

CLARK: "Part of my personal discovery over the last 15 years has been the incredible richness of the ocean in terms of the songs and the voices of whales."

LaCAPRA: Christopher Clark is the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University in New York state.

CLARK: "As our world is vision, their world is sound."

LaCAPRA: With their groans, clicks, booms, and shrieks, marine mammals send warnings, point out good sources of food, and attract mates.

But over the past four decades, says Clark, more and more man-made noises have been invading their acoustic universe. The noise produced by ocean-going humans falls into the same low-to-mid frequency range as many whale calls. Clark believes this acoustic competition has drastically reduced the distance over which whales can communicate, and may be drowning them out altogether.

CLARK: "So if you and I are having a conversation across the kitchen table, and a truck goes by outside on the street, the noise from the truck might be mildly annoying, we may not even pay attention to it, it doesn't interrupt our conversation. But it's quite different if in fact you and I are used to talking with each other across the street, and the truck goes by. Suddenly, I can't hear you anymore."

LaCAPRA: Although scientists don't know for sure, Clark says there is strong evidence that whales normally communicate with each other across large areas.

CLARK: "A blue whale can hear another blue whale 1,000 kilometers away."

LaCAPRA: A report released December 3 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) warns of the potential adverse effects of increasing noise pollution. In addition to impeding marine mammal communication and masking sounds produced by predators and prey, ocean noise may cause animals to lose their way, or it could interfere with essential behaviors like feeding and breeding.

The report also contends that ocean noise has resulted in injury and even death, by driving stressed animals to become entangled in fishing nets, or to strand themselves on shore.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court turned its attention to this issue, when it considered a case brought by an environmental advocacy group, which charged that the Navy needs to do more to protect marine mammals from harm caused by its use of sonar in training exercises.

Although the Court decided in favor of the military, the case did bring nationwide attention to the complex problem of ocean noise, and its potential implications for marine life.

And climate change may make a complicated problem, even more so.

BREWER: "We're putting carbon dioxide in the ocean from the sky at about, just over a million tons an hour."

LaCAPRA: Peter Brewer is a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

BREWER: "The focus of our work is on how the growing levels of carbon dioxide are changing the chemistry of the ocean."

LaCAPRA: All this additional carbon dioxide is making the ocean more acidic - and that's having a surprising impact on underwater acoustics:

BREWER: "Some of the molecules which absorb sound are decreasing in quantity, and so sound levels are going up."

LaCAPRA: Specifically, low frequency sounds like the ones produced by ships, sonar, oil and gas exploration - and whales.

According to Peter Brewer, addressing the global problem of increasing ocean noise will require a change in communication strategy - not by the mammals in the ocean, but by their land-based human counterparts. He believes that improved dialogue among scientists and the world's environmental, commercial, and military interests is needed to understand the impact of human activities on the marine environment and its inhabitants. I'm Véronique LaCapra.

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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

Faith Lapidus edited the show. Bob Doughty is the technical director.