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Our World — 16 June 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," ... Unearthing new evidence of feathered dinosaurs ... Measuring the dwarf planet Eris ... and replacing light bulbs to save money and, maybe, the planet, too.

COCKBURN:  "The bulb that is basically the target of all this is your standard light bulb. We're all familiar with it. It's 120-year old technology, and we think we've probably got some good replacements for that now."

Turning on compact fluorescents, technology and books at the library, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


Chinese paleontologists this week announced the find of the biggest bird-like dinosaur fossil ever unearthed.

The newly-discovered dinosaur is apparently part of a family of much-smaller, bird-like creatures. And as we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, the ancient big bird is prompting some new thinking about dinosaurs.

BERMAN:  Paleontologists in China estimate the dinosaur, which lived some 70 million years ago, was eight meters long, five meters tall and weighed 1,400 kilograms. 

The scientists say it had many of the same characteristics as the feathered dinosaurs known as oviraptors, which weighed only about 40 kilograms. But the enormous fossil belonged to a creature that was 300 times the size of an oviraptor. So, scientists are putting the giant dinosaur, which they are calling Gigantoraptor, in the same family.

The paleontologists say Gigantoraptor challenges theories of evolution that say as meat-eating dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus got smaller, they became more bird-like. 

David Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas, says the finding shows that diversity among dinosaurs is much greater than scientists had previously believed.

BURNHAM:  "And this is a really neat discovery to kind of show us what was going on during this critical time when birds were still primitive and you had multiple lineages of dinosaur-like birds developing at the same time."

BERMAN:  The fossil was discovered in 2005. At first, researchers say they thought they had found the bones of a tyrannosaurus because they were so huge. 

But as they studied the fossil, the Chinese researchers saw that the fossil had a beak instead of teeth.

SUES:  "It's very difficult these days to sort of find a dinosaur that really surprises me because there's just so much that we're still learning about these groups."

BERMAN:  Hans Sues is associate director of research and collections at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. 

He says the fossil of Gigantoraptor's beak and lack of teeth are physical features that made oviraptors excellent survivors.

SUES:  "These animals may have eaten some really unusual things like maybe seeds or eggs or — people have proposed all kinds of ideas.  There was some idea that some of the Mongolian ones were feeding on clams. Some very unusual diet that didn't require teeth but did require this very odd jaw mechanism."

BERMAN:  The Chinese researchers say the enormous dinosaur also had sharp claws, possibly for tearing meat.

The discovery of the gigantic fossil published this week in the journal Nature. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.


Scientists are learning more about Eris, a small planetoid orbiting the sun at the farthest edge of our Solar System, out in the neighborhood of Pluto. You remember Pluto? It used to be known as a planet until astronomers demoted it last year, to a new category they created: dwarf planet. The discovery of Eris, which is slightly bigger than Pluto, was actually a big factor in the new definition of a planet, which doesn't include Pluto, no matter what you learned in school. That's the thing about science: things change.

So the discovery of Eris was announced in 2005 by Prof. Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Last year, Brown and his team measured the diameter of Eris, and they also discovered a moon circling it. And that was the key to the latest announcement, of the mass of Eris, which can be very accurately calculated based on the orbit of that moon.

BROWN:  "So you follow the moon around the body [Eris], so if we follow Dysnomia — the name of the moon — around Eris over its [the moon's] 16-day orbit, and very precisely looked at its position every time, and by seeing those positions and seeing how fast it moves around there, you can figure out exactly how much it weighs."

And it works out to 16.6 billion billion metric tons, or about 27 percent more than Pluto. With the size of Eris, which had previously been measured, and now the mass, the Caltech astronomers could compute the density of Eris, which in turn provides a major clue to what it's made of.

BROWN:  "Turns out to have a density very similar to that of Pluto. And Pluto, we have known for a long time, has a density consistent with it being about half ice and half rock. And it's sort of like the Earth. You know, the Earth has an iron core and a rocky outside, and we think that Pluto — and now Eris also — has a rocky core and then ice on the outside."

By comparison, Earth is about twice as dense.

The calculation of Eris's density depended on knowing its moon's orbit, which in turn depended on getting clear pictures of where the moon was. Even as recently as a year ago, Brown says that couldn't be done from an earth-based telescope. The atmospheric distortion was just too great. But new technology has vastly improved the ability of telescopes on Earth to get clear views of distant objects in space.

The key is something called "laser guide star adaptive optics." You need a telescope with adaptive optics — a mirror that can change shape slightly to compensate for distortion — and a laser that projects a dot of light — a simulated "star" on a thin layer of the atmosphere, about 90 kilometers up. 

BROWN:  "And of course, you know what the laser 'star' is supposed to look like, but the laser 'star' is also distorted by all the turbulence of the atmosphere, so you have a very fast computer and very fast changing mirror that can change that distorted star to look back to what it's supposed to look like. When you're looking at, now, Eris, and you turn on the laser beam and turn on the system, Eris goes from being this big, smeared-out ball to suddenly — and it really is almost instantaneously — it suddenly just pops right in to a tiny little spot, and then you can see the moon right next to it."

That was at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They also used observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomer Michael Brown from the California Institute of Technology published his paper on the density of Eris in Friday's edition of the journal Science.


Scientists this week announced that monkeys with symptoms of Parkinson's Disease have been effectively treated with stem cells.

Parkinson's is a neurological disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

The disease is marked by a decrease in the brain's ability to make dopamine, an important neuro-chemical messenger. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, the stem cell injection prompted a dramatic improvement in the animals' condition.

HOBAN:  Without enough dopamine, a patient's ability to move voluntarily deteriorates steadily. Eventually, complications from Parkinson's disease lead to death.

Dr. Eugene Redmond is a professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at Yale University in Connecticut. He's been exploring the use of human stem cells in the brains of people and animals with Parkinson's disease:

REDMOND:  "First we treated the monkeys with a chemical that induces Parkinson's Disease by destroying dopamine cells. And then after they were Parkinsonian, we implanted their brains with stem cells that we then observed to see what kinds of effects they would have on behavior and what types of changes that they produced in the brain." 

HOBAN:  Stem cells are typically derived from human fetal tissue. Scientists believe these cells retain the ability to differentiate themselves into a variety of types of adult cells. They're looking at ways stem cells could be used for treating many diseases marked by cell deterioration, including Parkinson's. Redmond is very hopeful about his approach.

REDMOND:  "Before we put the stem cells in, the monkeys were practically unable to move. And after the cells started working they got significantly better and were able to feed themselves and move more normally. So it was a dramatic normalizing effect on their behavior."

HOBAN:  Redmond says these findings indicate that there are still chemical signals in adult brains that direct the stem cells to do certain things, such as to turn into new dopamine cells:

REDMOND 3:  "We did demonstrate that some new dopamine neurons seemed to come from the stem cells. So that cell replacement idea was confirmed in this study, although it was a very, very small number of cells. In addition to that, we saw effects to normalize and augment the existing dopamine cells that were still there."

HOBAN:  Redmond says they only studied the monkeys for several months, and he'd like his next study to run for a longer period of time. Redmond's results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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

Like governments the world over, the U.S. government collects a lot of statistics, from population counts to farm production to smoking to transportation. Figuring out which agency collects what information, and then finding it can be a daunting task. Our Website of the Week can help.

TAYLOR:  "Fedstats.gov takes you to the data directly without having to know in advance which agency produces which statistic. So, essentially, we are a statistical portal or gateway into the U.S. federal statistical system."

Rachael LaPorte Taylor is Project Manager for FedStats.gov, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary online this year.

The site is pretty much text-only, so it's fast even on a slow Internet connection, and you can get at the information in different ways, using the A-to-Z list of topics for example, or the online versions of published reports. There's also a search engine, of course.  Taylor acknowledges that you can find much of this information through general purpose search engines —

TAYLOR:  "But they're not tailored specifically for the statistical system, and in addition Fedstats provides context and tools to help you find and understand the data."

As you might expect, most of the statistics are domestic, but Rachael LaPorte Taylor says there are quite a few areas where you can compare figures for the United States with many other countries, including possibly your own.

TAYLOR:  "We have a section on international comparisons, including population, imports and exports, educational profiles, energy, that sort of thing."

All that and more — a whole country by the numbers — online at FedStats.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC:  Todd Snider – "Statistician's Blues"
We've got your number here at VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.


Free public libraries are a fixture of virtually every city and town in America. It's the go-to place to borrow a best seller or classic novel, or look up stuff for a school report. But as the world of information changes, libraries are changing, too. 

A generation ago in most community libraries, multimedia meant phonograph records and maybe some video cassettes, and a microfilm reader was about as high-tech as it got. Today, public libraries have automated their acquisitions, cataloging and circulation functions and introduced more visitors to its electronic means of information dissemination. Mohamed Elshinnawi prepared our report, which is read in the studio by Rob Sivak.

TEXT:  The public library in America is no longer just a place where a community gathers and shares its books.  Libraries are becoming digital information centers. Online public catalogues have replaced physical card files, more material is available on digital CDs AND DVDs, and users can search online databases for the information they need. Ingrid Bowers is the Associate Manager of the 20-year-old Pohick Regional Library in Burke, Virginia, one of the largest of 21 branches in the busy Fairfax County public library system:

BOWERS:  "Our databases are especially wonderful because they provide all kinds of E-books and magazine articles and newspaper articles, and encyclopedia articles — full text — online to our customers." 

TEXT: Ms. Bowers says library information specialists play an increasingly important role in helping to guide visitors through a maze of resources and options:

BOWERS:  "When a customer comes up to us, we need to make a professional decision on whether a book would be the best format, we have to kind of sift through our knowledge of the databases and what we know on the databases and which database would help our customer."

TEXT:  Jean Johnston, the Pohick library manager, says customers can also use the library from home or from anywhere in the world, by way of the Internet:

JOHNSTON:  "They can access the catalogue from home. They can place books "on hold."  They can renew items. They can check their accounts. Many of the databases that we have give them access to excellent periodicals, in many cases full text; they can access that from home.

TEXT:  Ms. Johnston says that information technology has allowed the public library to introduce another new service to customers — a web version of the traditional call-in or walk-up library help service:

JOHNSTON:  "We do have what we call: Ask-A-Librarian" and that is staffed with professional librarians, so if they have a question, they certainly can go back and forth, so it is rather like a chat format. Many times they answer the question, but other times there are referrals, but it's proved to be very popular." 

TEXT: With the rapid spread of mobile broadband Internet connectivity in the United States, most public libraries now provide visitors with wireless access for their laptops, as well as the traditional quiet room to work on school assignments or private research. New technology allows vision-impaired visitors to read enlarged-text displays of many periodicals, books and newspapers. An expanding inventory of digitally-recorded audio books are giving pre-school children new, easier access to the world of children's literature.

Sam Clay is the Director of Library Administration for Fairfax County, Virginia. He says information technology has given a great boost to the traditional mission of the public library to educate and entertain the public:

CLAY:  "Libraries are not doing new services; they are doing existing services but differently because of technology. Technology helps to expand our range, to expand what we are able to offer to our customers."

TEXT: But despite all this powerful new information technology, many visitors still come to the library for the pleasure of sitting down and turning the pages of a good old-fashioned book.

And that report, read by Rob Sivak, was written by Mohammed Elshinnawi.


A grassroots movement to phase out inefficient light bulbs is gaining international strength. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the movement is advocating the replacement of traditional incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents — a switch that activists say will help cut global electricity use and reduce emission of greenhouse gases.

SKIRBLE:  Americans use a lot of light bulbs in their homes.

MAN 1: "How many light bulbs do I have in my house? … Fifty!"
MAN 2: "Yeah, I'd say 40-50."
WOMAN 1: "Probably like 25."
WOMAN 2: "Yeah, I'd say 25, yeah!"

SKIRBLE:  Fifty-five million light bulbs are sold every day in the United States.  Most of these are incandescent bulbs in which electricity passing through a thin metal filament inside the bulb's sealed vacuum turns it white hot and throws off light.

A lot of electricity is wasted in the process, compared with the compact fluorescents, or CFLs, which currently account for just five percent of U.S. light bulb sales. The new fluorescents are most commonly shaped like short glass spirals, roughly the same size as incandescents but five times more costly at the check-out counter.

But proponents of the new bulbs note that compact fluorescents use one quarter as much electricity and last 10 times longer than the old filament bulbs. A single CFL lasts between five and ten years.

Lester Brown is an environmental analyst and President of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.  He says people around the globe are waking up to the energy and economic savings of CFLs.

BROWN:  "What was a groundswell is fast becoming a tidal wave. I think it was February that Australia announced that it was going to be phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2010. New Zealand doesn't have a formal plan yet, [but] said it plans to take the same steps that Australia has taken."  

SKIRBLE:  Brown says European Union countries are also considering the switch to the more energy-efficient bulbs.

SKIRBLE:  In April, the government of Canada announced that it plans to ban the most inefficient lighting by 2012. John Cockburn is charged with developing Canada's national standards to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

COCKBURN:  "I think that the bulb that is the target of all this is the lighting applications that are serviced by your standard 40-100 watt light bulb.  We're all familiar with it.  It is 120-year-old technology and we think we have good replacements for that now."

SKIRBLE:  Similar actions are being considered in California and a dozen other U.S. states, a move backed by Phillips, the world's largest lighting manufacturer.  General Electric — second to Phillips in the lighting market — is considering another strategy.  Spokeswoman Kim Freeman says the company is developing a new high-efficiency incandescent for household use that would replace the most popular bulbs used by consumers. 

FREEMAN:  "It will be twice as efficient as current incandescents by 2010, and four times as efficient or on a par with CFLs by 2012.  So we are going to offer consumers another energy-efficient choice in an incandescent."

SKIRBLE:  Currently the only available alternative is the compact fluorescent.  So, what would it take for American consumers to make the switch?

MAN 1:  "… some additional information on what would be gained."
WOMAN:  "And that it wasn't going to cost me more to buy them, then I would do it."
MAN 2:  "Maybe to see them more because you still see a lot of the incandescent bulbs in the stores."

SKIRBLE:  Lester Brown with Earth Policy Institute has done the math. 

BROWN:  "We can shut down 270 large coal-fired plants, which amounts to about three percent of world electricity generation.  If we also were to do the same thing with street lighting and commercial lighting — that is switch to the most efficient — this would more than double the reduction in the electricity use that we would get on the residential front, pushing the global total up to about seven percent."

SKIRBLE:  Brown says mounting evidence of global warming and its consequences will continue to drive improvements in efficient lighting technology, and will continue to fuel consumer interest in the compact fluorescent light bulb. I'm Rosanne Skirble.


Finally, today, we note with sadness the death from cancer this week of Don Herbert. As you may have heard last year on Our World, his alter-ego, Mr. Wizard, was a staple of TV science shows here from the 1950s through the '90s, performing experiments and teaching in a way that was entertaining as well as educational. Many American scientists working today were young fans of Mr. Wizard.  When I spoke with him last year, he acknowledged the impact of his show.

HERBERT:  "There was almost a standard reaction from people who were in science that they got interested in science because of Mr. Wizard, which is always certainly pleasing to hear, the fact that the show had that kind of an influence."

Don Herbert was TV's Mr. Wizard. He died Tuesday, a month before his 90th birthday.


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments or your science questions. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. 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 voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.

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