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Our World — 16 May 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: Astronauts are fixing the Hubble Space Telescope ... How melting Antarctic ice could affect sea levels ... and a key nutrient that can help prevent premature births ...

BUKOWSKI: "The reduction was really huge. It was 70 percent lower risk of delivering between 20 and 28 weeks. This is the very premature babies, the ones who likely not survive."

The value of folic acid, computer programming that's simple enough for kids, and more.

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

Shuttle crew begins Hubble telescope repairs

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis are about halfway through their 11-day mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

The flight began on Monday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

GEORGE DILLER: "... two ... one ... and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis on a final visit to enhance the vision of Hubble into the deepest grandeur of our universe."

As Atlantis roared into space, another space shuttle, Endeavour, sat poised on the next launch pad, ready to fly a rescue mission if Atlantis got into trouble.

NASA originally thought it was too dangerous to fly this mission, far from the safe haven of the International Space Station. But they bowed to pressure from the astronomy community, which considers Hubble the most important and productive telescope they've ever used.

The space shuttle Columbia broke up as it was returning to Earth in 2003. Investigators determined that there was damage to the heat-resistant tiles, caused by a piece of falling insulation during launch.

Atlantis astronauts observed some minor damage on the shuttle after launch, but it is considered superficial and not a threat.

The astronauts have a busy schedule of space walks to work on the space telescope, which is now anchored in the shuttle's payload bay. Scott Altman, who is commanding the shuttle mission, reported the successful procedure to Mission Control on Wednesday.

ALTMAN: "Houston, Atlantis, Hubble has arrived on board Atlantis with the arm."

DAN BURBANK (Mission Control): "Atlantis, Houston, we copy. Nice job, Megan, nice job on the prox ops flying as well. It's great to be back with the telescope."

Hubble has been in orbit for 19 years now, and although it looked better than some expected, NASA astrophysics chief Dr. Jon Morse said it is showing some signs of wear.

MORSE: "There is degradation due to the space environment of the outer blankets, and we'll take a look at that. But as John Grunsfeld wired down, it was a beautiful sight out the back of the shuttle, and it was a great sight on the TV."

John Grunsfeld and his shuttle crewmates have begun a series of five space walks to install a new camera and perform other upgrades during what will almost certainly be the last time astronauts visit the Hubble Space Telescope.

Over the past couple of decades, Hubble has made some enormous contributions to scientists' understanding of the universe. It has also sent back some spectacular pictures of the cosmos that you don't have to be an astronomer to appreciate. We'll have a link to a gallery of some of the best on our website,

Folic acid before pregnancy may cut risk of premature birth

Medical researchers have known for some time that it is important for pregnant women to have folic acid in their diets in order to have a healthy baby. Now they're finding that women need to have the right amount of folic acid even before they get pregnant if they want healthy babies. Rose Hoban has more.

HOBAN: For a long time, doctors have told pregnant women to take folic acid supplements in order to prevent certain kinds of birth defects. But, as gynecologist Radic Bukowski from the University of Texas Medical Branch explains, doctors don't know exactly how much of the vitamin is the correct amount, nor do they know how long a woman should take it.

Bukowski looked at data from about 38,000 pregnant women around the U.S. They had answered questionnaires about what they ate before and during their pregnancies.

BUKOWSKI: "And we collected very carefully, different information and data including information if women took folic acid before becoming pregnant, and for how long they have done this before becoming pregnant."

HOBAN: Folic acid helps the body make DNA and other genetic material. It's found in green leafy vegetables and in some kinds of meats as well.

But Bukowski found that women who took folic acid supplements for a year or longer before becoming pregnant, had a significantly lower risk of having a preterm birth than the women who did not take folic acid regularly.

BUKOWSKI: "The reduction was really huge. It was 70 percent lower risk of delivering between 20 and 28 weeks. This is the very premature babies, the ones who have most of the problems, and then the ones who likely not survive. Then there was a 50 percent reduction of preterm birth between 28 and 32 weeks. That's also a very high risk group. And there was no change in the risk for delivering after 32 weeks."

HOBAN: Bukowski says this is another piece of data in a growing body of evidence showing that the health of a woman before she gets pregnant is important for her baby's health.

BUKOWSKI: "There are some also animal studies which support that, that health before pregnancy or in the very early stages of pregnancy are very important for what is going to happen in the end."

HOBAN: Bukowski says he'd like to find out how folic acid interacts with other nutrients and exactly how it works to help babies get a healthy start in life.

Bukowski's research is published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

I'm Rose Hoban.

Acupuncture study shows benefit for chronic back pain

A study published this week has some interesting findings about the treatment of chronic lower back pain.

Chronic lower back pain is very common, and it's very difficult to treat effectively.

Doctors often suggest drugs that relieve pain or reduce inflammation. Physical therapy may be recommended. Sometimes the patient gets better; sometimes not.

With conventional therapy so iffy, some patients choose alternative therapies, such as acupuncture.

So a research team from the Center for Health Studies in Seattle and other institutions decided to compare the results of conventional treatment with the results of acupuncture therapy.

There were more than 600 study participants, and the researchers divided them into four groups.

Two of the groups got different kinds of acupuncture. The third group got simulated acupuncture with toothpicks. Their results were compared with a control group that received what the researchers called 'usual care' - drugs, physical therapy and so on.

The researchers found that acupuncture was more effective than the usual medical treatment. For example, before starting treatments, participants' back pain prevented them from doing an average of 11 activities.

CHERKIN: "Those that received 'usual care' went down to nine activities that they couldn't do, and those that received acupuncture or simulated acupuncture reported six [activities that they couldn't do]. This is after the seven weeks of acupuncture treatment. And some of these effects actually persisted for one year."

The lead author of the study, Dan Cherkin said there was no significant difference based on the kind of acupuncture - or even simulated acupuncture.

CHERKIN: "There was no apparent advantage of individualizing the treatment to the patient, and there was also no benefit apparently of actually inserting the needle compared to just stimulating points that were believed to be effective superficially."

Cherkin says the result suggests if your back hurts, and the usual treatment isn't helping, you might consider acupuncture.

CHERKIN: "Well, I think for the patient, the take-home message is that acupuncture has the potential to offer relief of pain that other treatments that they may have tried did not provide them. All the people in our study had never had acupuncture before, and roughly one out of five benefitted in the short run."

Dan Cherkin's study came out this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which is published by the American Medical Association. It was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Scientists revise estimate of sea level rise from West Antarctic

Scientists say a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a feared consequence of global warming, would cause the world's oceans to rise by only about half of previous predictions. But as we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, the consequences could still be catastrophic for many living in coastal areas.

BERMAN: For the past 30 years, geologists have known the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, or WAIS, is unstable and could become undammed, causing a lifting of the world's oceans with devastating consequences for countries with land elevations below sea level.

Experts say the bedrock beneath WAIS is geologically unstable, with potential to cause the breakage of floating ice shelves which anchor the ice sheet, while global warming is causing the frozen fringes of the ice shelves to melt and slip from their moorings.

Jonathan Bamber, a professor of Physical Geography at Bristol University in England, says that makes the West Antarctic Ice Sheet of particular concern to scientists.

BAMBER: "Sea level rise is considered to be one of possibly the most serious consequences of climate change. So, it's of utmost importance to understand what the potential threats to coastlines and people living in coastal areas is. And West Antarctica is potentially the biggest or one of the most serious threats."

BERMAN: For the past three decades, geologists have predicted that a total collapse of WAIS would cause the world's oceans to rise by up to six meters. But experts say the prediction was based on imprecise ground-based measurements of the ice shelves made under very harsh conditions.

However, a new study by British and Dutch scientists uses data from satellites, which use radar that can penetrate the ice to measure its thickness and the topography of the underlying bedrock. The study is published in this week's issuex` of the journal Science.

Bamber, the study's lead author, said in a Science magazine interview the researchers' revised sea level figure of over three meters represents a worst case scenario.

BAMBER: "We believe that that's an upper bound to its contribution because of the various assumptions that we've made in our calculations which have been quite liberal. And that's around about half the value that's been quoted until now."

BERMAN: Bristol University's Jonathan Bamber and colleagues also concluded that a redistribution of ice mass from the Antarctic would affect the Earth's gravity field, causing sea levels along the Atlantic and Pacific shorelines of the United States to rise 25 percent higher than the global average.

Bamber plans to conduct another study to try to answer the next big question - how fast are the world's oceans rising.

Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Travel writing featured on our Website of the Week

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

The World Wide Web is full of sites for people who love to travel - sites where they can book a vacation online or get recommendations the best tourist spots.

Our Website of the Week is a travel site with a difference.

BENNING: "World Hum is a travel site dedicated to publishing great travel stories. It's not really about telling people where to stay or what to eat. We like to say that its focus is the geography of wanderlust."

Jim Benning is the co-editor of, which brings the travel experience to you on your computer.

Other travel sites may include the comments of the visitor to hotels, restaurants, or museums, but at World Hum you get the careful observations of professional travel writers.

One writer follows her great grandmother's footsteps in Italy. Another goes along with bird watchers in Oklahoma. When the swine flu scare prompted a warning about non-essential foreign travel, a veteran foreign correspondent contributed an essay on essential versus non-essential travel.

And a lot of travel writing seems to really be food writing.

BENNING: "We recently published a list of the best places to drink coffee around the world. We had dozens and dozens and dozens of people commenting, sort of debating about which is the best city to drink coffee. We're in the midst of publishing a series about looking for the spiciest food in the world. And I think all of us just love to eat, and we love to read about eating."

Jim Benning says much of what you can read on World Hum is by professional travel writers whose work appears in leading magazines and newspapers.

You can read some of their great stories, and take a virtual journey while you're at it, at, or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: Patrick Saussios & Alma Sinti - "Rhythmes Gitans"

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

Lab produces shape-shifting fruits and vegetables

Many fruits and vegetables we know almost as much by their shape as by their color or taste. Bananas are long and curved. Onions are round. But what if you could alter the familiar shape? Would a square tomato still be a tomato?

Scientists are learning how to change the shape of fruits and vegetables so they can be harvested or processed more efficiently, or maybe just to reduce waste in the kitchen. It can be done to some extent with traditional hybrid techniques. And as we hear from reporter Julie Grant, it can also be done by flipping a genetic switch.

GRANT: Ester van der Knaap steps gingerly around the greenhouse.

We're at the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.

Van Der Knaap points out short, round tomatoes - and some odd-looking long, thin ones.

VAN DER KNAAP: "That's one gene. One gene can make that difference."

GRANT: Van der Knaap's team discovered that gene and isolated it. They call it the SUN gene. And they've been able to clone it in tomatoes.

VAN DER KNAAP: "You see this one is pretty round. It does not have the SUN gene. And that first one makes a very elongated fruit, and it does have the SUN gene."

GRANT: Van der Knaap's research could lead to square-shapes - something she thinks the tomato industry might like. Square tomatoes fit into packages better. And, overall, square tomatoes might be easier to work with than the common round tomatoes.

VAN DER KNAAP: "They are mechanically harvested. So if you have a very round tomato, it would roll off conveyer belts, it's not very handy."

GRANT: So far money for her research has come from the National Science Foundation - not big ag.

Van der Knaap is just isolating the genes that affect the shape of the tomatoes. Turning them on or off alters the shape.

Designer fruit shapes are gaining popularity.

People have been cross-breeding tomatoes to make the shapes they want for a long time. But this is not the same thing.

ALFORD: "This is funny, 'cause my brother was working with some genetic things with tomatoes in our attic."

GRANT: Dick Alford is a chef and professor of hospitality management at the University of Akron [Ohio].

The difference between what his brother and lots of other folks have been doing and what van der Knaap is doing is the difference between cross-breeding and locating a specific gene that affects the shape of tomatoes.

Chef Alford watches students as they cut yellow crookneck squash and carrots.

They're trying to make uniform, symmetrical shapes out of curvy and pointed vegetables. There's a lot of waste. Chef Alford hates to see so much get thrown away. So he's got a request of Dr. van der Knaap.

ALFORD: "If we could get square carrots, it would be great. If you could get a nice long, a tomato as long as a cucumber, where you could get 20 or 30 slices out of them, it would be great."

GRANT: In a country that loves hamburgers, Van der Knaap has heard that request before. But the long, thin tomato hasn't worked out just yet. She says there's more genetics to be studied.

Once we know all the genes responsible for making different shapes in tomatoes, Van der Knaap says we'll have a better idea of what controls the shape of other crops, such peppers, cucumbers and gourds.

And maybe then we'll get those square carrots.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Park Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. You can hear the Report, and subscribe to the daily podcast, at environment

'Scratch' gives students tools to create interactive media

Finally this week ... Two years ago, computer software engineers at The Media Lab, MIT's innovative technology research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched a new and easy-to-use programming language they called Scratch. Since its launch, Scratch has quickly found its way over the Internet into classrooms and homes around the world, and as VOA's Susan Logue reports, it is putting the creative power of software design into the hands of some very young users.

ELKNER: "Go ahead click the green flag…."

LOGUE: Jeff Elkner's students are creating their own animated stories using Scratch. Most of them, like Lydia Melgar from El Salvador, are learning English as a second language:

MELGAR: "We learn how to use a lot of vocabulary words, some words I knew in Spanish…"

LOGUE: Elkner, a computer science teacher in Arlington, Virginia, introduced Scratch to his students in March:

ELKNER: "At first I wanted to introduce Scratch to teach programming. And what we found when we were working with Scratch was that it was actually amazingly good at teaching language skills."

LOGUE: That doesn't surprise Karen Brennan, a Scratch project leader at MIT's Media Lab, where Scratch was developed.

BRENNAN: "Our agenda isn't to create armies of programmers, it is the ability to express yourself. We have so many opportunities to be consumers of media. But we like to think everyone should be able to create their own media."

LOGUE: Scratch is an object-oriented language designed to be simple enough for anyone to use. Instead of writing commands out, users choose from commands that come with the program.

BRENNAN: "We were really inspired by Lego bricks and how you build things in the physical world. How could you apply that to a digital space? So we have bricks or blocks that you snap together. So you have 100 different blocks that you can choose from."

LOGUE: There is also a library of visual elements included in the program. There are characters, interior and exterior settings to put them in, and objects they can manipulate.

LOGUE: Anyone can download Scratch for free from the MIT-sponsored Website at Brennan says she and her Media Lab colleagues weren't sure how Scratch would be received when the site first went online in May 2007.

BRENNAN: "I think the group wasn't entirely sure what would happen. Would anyone use it? What would people create? So I think a week or two after the Website went live, this appeared:"

LOGUE: Maya Bee Game was created by a nine-year-old girl in Germany.

BRENNAN: "And so, she's drawn this picture of a bee. She's taken pictures from the garden. She's taken pictures of her family. She's had her siblings record their voices, so it is a complicated project. And now I can interact with it. I can use the arrow key to move over. The bee now has the task of rescuing this grasshopper, who has been imprisoned by the evil spider."

LOGUE: Brennan says they knew from the start that they wanted Scratch to be easy to use, but they didn't want its simple interface to limit how it was used:

BRENNAN: "You should be able to build complicated things and you should be able to create a wide variety of things."

LOGUE: Everyone who uses Scratch is encouraged to share their projects. More than 400,000 have been posted on the Website in the past two years.

BRENNAN: "We are obsessed with sharing, so when you share your project on line, if someone else sees it, and is interested in it, they can download it and look at how it was made."

LOGUE: Changing, adapting and re-mixing projects is also encouraged. There have even been some collaborations. Brennan says a game called Night at Dreary Castle was the creation of an 8 year old, a 13 year old, and a 15 year old from different countries.

BRENNAN: "They decided on an idea. Someone did an initial version; someone else downloaded it, extended it and continued it. So they decided they would make a Halloween theme project, where you go through the haunted house and you make decisions. Do you open the door? Do you run away? And it's an epic narrative that you go through."

LOGUE: Today, there are one quarter of a million registered Scratch users. On Saturday, [May 16], many of them will celebrate Scratch's second anniversary with World Scratch Day. More than 80 events are scheduled in 30 different countries, from the United States to Iran. I'm Susan Logue.

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That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us - maybe you've got a science question we can answer on the show - our email address is Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. Usama Farag 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.