Our World ?? 31 October 2009

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30 October 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: NASA tests the first piece of its new moon rocket system ... A landmark for the Linux computer operating system ... and some of the unique challenges faced by women scientists:

DE WELDE: "Those are the years when they really have to prove themselves. ... But those are also the years, just given the biological clock, where they are thinking about having children."

Those stories, the value of the sometimes overlooked sweet potato, and more.

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

After a series of weather delays, NASA launched its new Ares I rocket on its first test flight on Wednesday.

GEORGE DILLER: "Two ... one ... ignition and liftoff of Ares I-X, testing concepts for the future of new rocket design"

NASA called the six-minute, 240-kilometer flight a success.

The Ares is based in part on the space shuttle's solid rocket motors and is a key component of NASA's next generation Constellation program.

The rocket is designed to replace the nearly 30-year-old space shuttle fleet to transport astronauts to low earth orbit ?? to the International Space Station, for example, or to other future destinations.

But just a week before the launch, an expert commission appointed by NASA suggested that the Ares I might be scrapped in favor of commercially developed rockets. The Augustine Committee, as the panel is known, said NASA might better focus on more challenging projects.

Astronomers have discovered evidence of the oldest and most distant cosmic event ever detected, a burst from a dying star that occurred 13 billion years ago, very soon after the birth of the universe. Scientists hope the discovery of the ancient explosion will bring new insights into the evolution of the cosmos. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: Astronomers say the high-energy gamma-ray burst from the dying star occurred 630 million years after the so-called Big Bang that is believed to have created the universe nearly 14 billion years ago.

The discovery suggests the so-called Dark Age of the universe ?? the period after the Big Bang before first-generation stars could fill the cosmos with light ?? ended much earlier than previously thought.

Prior to the discovery, the earliest stellar explosion on record occurred 200 million years later and involved a star much closer to Earth.

Nial Tanvir of the University of Leicester in England headed one of two teams of scientists that discovered the gamma ray blast marking the death of the star.

Tanvir says the explosion of the dying star, or supernova, takes astronomers farther back in time than they have ever been.

TANVIR: "... which really is the sort of era, the one last era, that is left undiscovered in cosmology. We have sort of mapped out the Universe to very great distances. And we are now sort of probing into the last area that we really have no observational clue as to what it was really like then."

BERMAN: Tanvir says the discovery gives scientists a place in the sky to direct the earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope to look for other clues about the ancient universe.

TANVIR: "We think that if we look deeply enough, we will see a little galaxy there, a galaxy that hosted the star which exploded, and therefore learn something about the very early galaxies."

BERMAN: Dan Frail at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico is part of a team analyzing the waves of light given off by the star following its explosion, light that has taken more than 13 billion years to reach the Earth. Their observations may reveal what chemicals and compounds were dispersed during the Big Bang.

Until now, Frail says astronomers have presumed these ancient supernovae were brighter, hotter, and more massive than the explosion of later generation stars.

FRAIL: "And the next explosions that we study at these distances will tell us more about how the first generations of stars and first galaxies were formed. How the metals that make up the stars today got formed, how the light of the universe got distributed."

BERMAN: Two articles describing the discovery of the most distant cosmic object are published this week in the journal Nature.

Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington

This week the most popular desktop-computer version of the Linux operating system got the second of its two yearly updates. The release of Ubuntu 9 dot 10, nicknamed Karmic Koala, didn't have quite the impact of the previous week's release of Windows 7, but it's worth noting anyway.

The five-year-old Ubuntu project has popularized the free and open source Linux operating system as a credible alternative to Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OS.

One of the people responsible for that is Benjamin Mako Hill, who has been involved with Ubuntu from the beginning and is co-author of The Official Ubuntu Book.

HILL: "One of the explicit goals of the Ubuntu project, when we started it , was to create what we called 'Linux for human beings.' The idea was that it was an operating system that would be usable by our mothers and fathers, the non-technical people in our lives. And one of the goals of Ubuntu was to create something that really anybody could pick up and use."

Q: And the latest version was formally released this week, on Thursday. Have you succeeded?

HILL: "Well, we've succeeded in the sensed that there are a lot of people who are using Ubuntu who have tried and failed to use other versions of Linux in the past, so that's certainly great. There's also been lots and lots of people who are using it as their very first operating system, right, people who've never used it before and who are using a computer in school or buying a computer perhaps with Ubuntu preinstalled, and that's been pretty exciting. That said, a majority market share for operating systems still belongs to Microsoft, so there's lots and lots of work to do."

Q: We should mention, I think, where the name comes from.

HILL: "Sure. Ubuntu is a South African word and it has a meaning that's a little hard to translate into English. But one of the translations I like is 'humanity toward others.'"

Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to the wider adoption of Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular for the personal computer?

HILL: "The biggest obstacle is actually pretty obvious, which is that most people when they buy a computer, it comes with an operating system. And for most computer users, they'll never consider replacing their operating system. In fact, they may not even realize that they can. So that's a huge problem.

"And then of course there are issues of compatibility. I think we've made a huge amount of progress on all of these areas. There are now places where you clan get Ubuntu preinstalled on your computer, compatibility is much better, and support for hardware is much better, but there's still work to be done."

Q: Does Ubuntu have a particular advantage in developing countries? It's free, after all

HILL: "Absolutely. The fact that Ubuntu has no cost has been a huge benefit in places where people can't afford to pay for their software. So sften, many people still just pirate software, especially in a lot of places in the developing world. That said, enforcement is becoming a bigger deal, and if you're a large company or a business or a government or a school district, then you don't have the same options. So in those places we're seeing Ubuntu becoming an increasingly attractive choice."

Benjamin Mako Hill also pointed out that in addition to the free operating system, those who use Ubuntu or another Linux system get to choose from tens of thousands of free application programs for most anything you might use a computer for.

If you want to try Ubuntu, you can test drive it without changing anything on your own computer using what's called a Live CD. If you don't have the bandwidth, they'll even mail you a free CD if you request it at Ubuntu.com.

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

Scientists publish their work in peer-reviewed journals, so other scientists can evaluate new discoveries. But what about science journalists? Our Website of the Week tries to bring a bit of peer review to the work of science journalism.

PETIT: "The Knight Science Journalism Tracker is an effort to allow reporters around the world and anyone else to get a sense of what is being written in the daily press about science news, but it is the [site] that looks specifically at how the press is covering science as much as it looks at what the science news itself is."

Charlie Petit is a veteran science journalist himself and the main writer of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at ksjtracker.mit.edu. The site is a project of the science journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Despite the decline of newspapers in recent years, there is still a lot of science reporting to cover, and Petit says he keeps his eyes open for stories that look at the news from a different perspective.

PETIT: "Too much of science journalism in this country particularly is sort-of spoon fed. Too often they, in fact, all use the same angle. They'll pick up some quotes, maybe from a press release. So what I look for are instances when someone takes ownership of the story for himself, a reporter who sees his own excitement and doesn't rely on a press officer to do it."

The site frequently compares the way different journalists report a story, highlighting, for example, a particularly good way a story helps readers understand a new research finding.

Take a critical look at reporting on science at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at ksjtracker.mit.edu, or get the link to this and more than 250 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Stuart Roslyn ?? "Broken Sky"

You're listening to Our World, the weekly science and technology magazine from VOA News. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

We're halfway through the show, so let's take time for a snack. How 'bout a ... sweet potato? VOA's Steve Baragona reports that researchers are launching a program to improve nutrition and raise farm incomes in Africa with the help of an under-appreciated vegetable. Guess which one?

BARAGONA: Sweet potatoes are a nutritious, energy-packed, and versatile crop that grows in marginal conditions with relatively little labor. But Africa raises just 5 percent of the 133 million tons grown worldwide each year. Researchers are now seeking to change that.

LOW: "This is a really exciting opportunity, I think, to get sweet potato on the map."

BARAGONA: Jan Low directs the new Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative at the International Potato Center, part of a global network of plant breeding centers. She says the health part of the initiative includes studies on how to use orange-fleshed varieties to reduce vitamin A deficiency in pregnant women and young children. As for the profit part, she says sweet potatoes have long been overlooked.

LOW: "We have a crop here in terms of its ability to produce lots of calories on small pieces of land and its ability to be utilized in different products that just hasn't been exploited fully enough in sub-Saharan Africa."

BARAGONA: She says the sweet potato's potential hasn't been fully exploited before, partly because it's considered a woman's crop ?? so called because it's mainly grown by poor women to feed their own families and not by large farms. The goals of the 10-year initiative include breeding virus-, insect-, and drought-resistant types and improving farmers' access to the new varieties. And they want to develop farmers' ability to process the plants into more valuable products. But Low says they need to be mindful of what might happen when this neglected tuber goes commercial.

LOW: "Often times in some areas we do see men becoming interested in the crop, when it's being grown on a larger scale. I, for one, am glad to see men become more involved in sweet potato production and have it go to a larger scale. But we want to be sure that the income that's derived from that is equitable in terms of its use within the family."

BARAGONA: She says one of the project's main goals will be ensuring that women share in the sweet potato's progress.

Steve Baragona, VOA News, Washington

On Tuesday, President Obama visited a solar power plant in Florida to announce more than $3 billion in grants to help improve America's electric power distribution system, promoting what he called a more secure and more reliable "smart grid."

OBAMA: "It will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago. And by facilitating the creation of a clean energy economy, building this 21st century energy infrastructure will help us lay a foundation for lasting growth and prosperity."

But what actually makes an electric power grid a "smart grid?" For the answer we turned to IBM. The big computer company has been working with clients around the world to deploy smart grid technology. Allan Schurr is a vice president at IBM's Energy & Utilities unit.

SCHURR: "I think that the smart grid is really no less than a modernization of the existing electric infrastructure, starting from generation all the way down to the consuming electricity and appliances and buildings around the world."

Q: The president emphasized that many of the federal grants will go for so-called smart meters. What exactly is a smart meter?

SCHURR: "A smart meter is a digital device that, instead of a mechanical measurement of electricity, this is done through what looks much more like a computer board, measuring the same consumption, and most importantly it measures it very frequently, every 15 minutes, in most cases, rather than once a month."

Q: But actually how does that save energy or save money?

SCHURR: "Consumers can see the patterns of energy consumption and learn much more about where they might be inefficient or wasteful in their energy use. At the same time, the utility can see this information to help it plan its system better and in fact do simple things like detect when the power is out automatically, rather than waiting for the consumer to make a phone call."

Q: Earlier you spoke of the smart grid as really a point-to-point modernization of the entire electric power distribution system. We talked about metering. What are some of the other pieces that go into it?

SCHURR: "Line sensors are another place where investment is being made. Utilities can put now more sensing capability out on both the transmission lines, the large steel towers, as well as the local, what are called medium- and low-voltage lines on wood poles or underground, and use that information to size those lines better, maybe get more use out of those assets where there is excess capacity many hours of the year that is not currently being used. And to both respond to and even predict equipment failures that might cause an outage."

Q: The reason we're talking to IBM is that IBM has been working with real utilities on real smart grids both here in the U.S. and abroad. What are you learning?

SCHURR: "Well, we're learning that there is a lot of existing technology that can be stitched together into the smart grid systems. We're doing projects in Malta, in the Mediterranean, where electricity metering and water metering are both being modernized, and the consumer is being given more information about how they consume and when they consume both of those commodities for a more efficient system there.

"We're working on electric vehicles in Denmark, so that the electric vehicles, when they plug into the grid, can help absorb the wind energy that is so prevalent in the Danish electric grid. Those are just a couple of examples.

"IBM's research has shown that consumers want to become more active in the decision-making around energy, much like they are with setting ring tones on their cell phones or the way they select movies through their cable channel. They want to be an activist in energy also, picking renewables, reducing their carbon footprint, making better decisions. And so we see this as a very much a consumer- and customer-driven phenomenon as it is a technology-driven phenomenon, and those are trends that we think will happen throughout the globe."

Allan Schurr of IBM says smart grid technology is rolling out pretty quickly, considering. Considering the big investment required, and the fact that in most places the electricity supply is regulated or even owned by the government, which can slow things down.

And finally today ... three women were awarded Nobel Prizes in science this year ?? Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider in Physiology and Medicine, and Ada Yonath in Chemistry. This was the first year there has been more than one female laureate in a science, and it's a sign of women's growing presence and success in the sciences. But there is still only a tiny percentage of women in some disciplines. Anna King reports on some of the challenges facing women pursuing scientific careers.

KING: We're at the Migration conference in Kennewick, in the northwestern state of Washington. It's a meeting of the world's experts on radioactive elements. Geochemist Deb Stoliker is giving a presentation.

STOLIKER: "You will notice there was some variability in the uranium concentration at those later times so we actually took an average of the last three data points..."

KING: Most everyone in the audience of 250 has a Ph.D. And most of them are men.

Stoliker clearly won respect from her peers. But many women here say they still have to work extremely hard to get ahead in this mostly male world.

DE WELDE: "Women bring diverse and unique experiences to these fields, and I think we neglect this at our peril."

KING: Kris De Welde studies the reasons behind the low numbers of women in science. The Florida Gulf Coast University sociology professor notes that science, math, and engineering are increasingly the basis on which our global society makes decisions. And not enough women are at the table.

De Welde says women in science face many obstacles, from the time they are young girls to when they are trying to make a name for themselves. She interviewed dozens of women near the end of their doctoral work, most of whom were in their late 20s. What they told her is that their desire for a career was interfering with their desire for a family.

DE WELDE: "Those are the years when they really have to prove themselves. They really have to work those long hours and have a lot of face time in their labs, be publishing papers and presenting at conferences. But those are also the years, just given the biological clock, where they are thinking about having children."

KING: Since there aren't a lot of women in science and even fewer are in the top positions, De Welde says they don't have good support systems in the workplace. There is a lack of affordable daycare and rarely a clear path back to the lab after staying at home with children for a few years.

Even for women who don't want children, life in the sciences isn't easy. De Welde says smart scientific women can find it hard to get a date.

Take Jen Fisher, a smart, attractive woman in her early 30s. She easily chats with other scientists about her research. But Fisher says it can be really hard to meet men who are not intimidated by her brain.

FISHER: "Usually if someone, not necessarily in a bar, would approach me and they ask what I do, I say, 'I'm a scientist.' And if that's interesting to them I will tell them a little more about what I do. And if it's somebody who is very drunk or very annoying or abhorrent in some way, I'll say, "I'm a radionuclide microbiologist. I work on sorption and transport.' And then they will usually go away after that..." [laughs]

KING: Fisher says, as a young scientist, she has to reach far back to find female role models?? to the early 1900's and Marie Curie, who successfully isolated radium and received one of the first Nobels in Physics for her work. But there are a growing number of female scientists winning respect ?? and Nobels ?? today, and a growing effort by universities, science associations and government agencies to push those numbers even higher.

For VOA News, I'm Anna King, Kennewick, Washington.

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That's our show for this week.

We'd like to hear from you. Please email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or write us at ??

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our program was edited by Rob Sivak. Bob Doughty 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.