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Our World — 17 April 2010

16 April 2010

This week on Our World: President Obama and the U.S. space program ... ham radio in the age of twitter ... and a new take on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

DAVIES: "We have genes inside our body that go back three billion years. So if you can somehow upload a message into DNA, it could last a very, very long time, indeed."

SETI 2.0, plus the latest renewable energy research on our Website of the Week, and more...

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

Obama Sets Space Exploration Goals

President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday to talk about his plans for space exploration.

Earlier this year, the administration outlined sweeping changes in the space program, including cancelling the next-generation spacecraft aimed at returning astronauts to the Moon.

This week, the president seemed to dismiss the Moon — "We've been there before," he said — but stressed his commitment to exploration farther out in space.

OBAMA: "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it." (Applause.)

VOA correspondent Brian Wagner was at Cape Canaveral for the president's speech, and I asked him about Mr. Obama's pledge of $3 billion for research on new rockets to power the next phase of exploration.

WAGNER: "The president today talked about throwing down a challenge to NASA to develop new propulsion systems that will be needed to get beyond the moon and escape Earth orbit. That, up until today, remains the biggest challenge for any of these missions that would go to Mars or anywhere beyond Earth orbit, Art."

Q: Right, with the current chemical rockets, you're talking about very, very, very long journeys at those speeds. Meanwhile, we've got the space station in orbit. The shuttle's up there right now, and the shuttle's due to be retired by the end of the year, so the private sector is going to have, at least for the shorter term, a considerably larger role, apparently.

WAGNER: "He did sound pretty positive about the efforts of these private companies to pursue this. I think in a way the president kind of hopes that, may the smartest succeed in this. If we have private companies and NASA pursuing this [goal], then the competition is there to really encourage these people to find those propulsion systems and all the other systems that will be needed to get astronauts to a place like Mars."

Long before astronauts go to Mars, privately developed spacecraft will be taking astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. The plan to leave that part of space transportation to the private sector goes back to the Bush administration, and it's been controversial. But corporate contractors have had deep involvement in the space program for decades.

WAGNER: "All these systems — at least many of them — have been designed and developed by private companies over the years. You know, what NASA does in a lot of ways is combine all of them and put them in one application. So there's always been a big role for private companies. The biggest frustration, obviously, is that the shuttle is going to retire, and if you don't have a NASA vehicle to take people up in space, then what happens? You look to these private companies. And I imagine for a lot of people it's just something that hasn't been tested yet, so they're pretty skeptical that it can happen. And I guess it shows how much confidence people have in NASA that, maybe nobody else can do that job. But we'll have to see.

VOA's Brian Wagner at the Kennedy Space Center.

Orbiting Science Experiment Studies Bacterial Infection

The three-decade-old space shuttle program is in its final year, and the shuttle Discovery is in the middle of a two-week mission, bringing equipment and supplies to the International Space Station.

Also on board Discovery is a science experiment that researchers hope will expand our understanding of how pathogens interact with the human cells they infect. Naomi Seck reports.

SECK: Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to return to earth next week [April 19], with seven astronauts and a box of salmonella. The bacteria are part of a self-contained experiment-in-a-box, sent aloft by a team of scientists from Arizona State University.

Over the course of the experiment, which happens in pre-programmed steps at the push of a button, human cells in the box are infected with salmonella, observed, and then chemically fixed so they stop changing and can be analyzed when the shuttle lands.

Speaking via Skype, lead researcher microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson says the space shuttle mission is the ideal place for this experiment.

NICKERSON: "Believe it or not, there are some very intriguing similarities to conditions that our bodies face and that microbial pathogens face in spaceflight that are directly relevant to what they face inside our bodies. When trying to study the infectious disease process in our bodies, the effect of gravity covers up some of the pathogen's responses and some of the host's responses that happen in our bodies when that dynamic dance of the infection process is going on."

SECK: Nickerson explains that while we are subject to gravity, there are spaces within our bodies where it doesn't exert as strong a pull — like the lungs and intestines, where bacteria often multiply. That phenomenon cannot be replicated in a Petri dish in the lab, but it can be, in the microgravity of low earth orbit.

So, she says, the experiment on the shuttle will allow her and her team to observe and measure things about the bacteria and how they interact with human cells in ways that just are not possible on Earth.

This will help scientists understand how pathogens might act if astronauts got infected while on a mission.

But Nickerson says the research is also critical to improving our understanding how to fight these pathogens for those of us within Earth's gravity.

NICKERSON: "For many pathogens we are running out of ways to treat infectious diseases, here on earth. Any time you can use a new environment to provide new insight in terms of how the pathogen is causing disease, means you have the potential to take that new insight and see if you can translate that towards a new strategy to combat the disease, potential for a new vaccine, a new drug."

SECK: Cheryl Nickerson plans to collect her experiment-in-a-box as soon as the shuttle lands. She and her team will spend the next few months analyzing what they find inside, and she hopes to publish results within a year.

I'm Naomi Seck.

Exploring New Frontiers of Computer-Human Interaction

People design and use computers, and how we relate to those machines can make a big difference in whether we're annoyed by a badly-designed web form, say, or thrilled by a great video game. In Atlanta this week, more than 2,000 experts have been exchanging ideas at the Computer-Human Interface (CHI) conference, where people and electronics meet. Philip Graitcer reports.

GRAITCER: Simon's a robot. He looks like an alien from outer space. He's got a white plastic head about the size of a basketball, expressive eyes and eyelids that are actually video cameras — and a computer for a brain.

Andrea Thomaz, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, designs social robots like Simon.

THOMAZ: "The task we are teaching Simon today is to clean up the workspace."

GRAITCER: Simon is standing in front of a table with several colorful household objects. His arm reaches out and takes a green sponge from a research assistant. Simon raises the sponge up to his eyes.And Simon drops the sponge into the green basket.

Teaching Simon seems a lot easier than teaching your kids to put away their toys, which Thomaz says is important if robots are to be used in homes and offices.

THOMAZ: "We think that a big problem for robots getting out into human environments is that they're going to have to be able to adapt and learn new things from people that don't necessarily know about robots or machine learning."

GRAITCER: But computer-human interaction at CHI is not only about robots.

Scott Pobiner, who studies how computers and people interact, says people are no longer just playing and working with computers. They're living with them.

POBINER: "The cutting edge issues are different ways we are interacting with computers, for example Simon the robot, and ways that robots, themselves, are starting to learn in many ways and becoming pseudo-sentient. So we're touching that uncanny value that we're also afraid of getting close to."

GRAITCER: One hot topic actually involves touch: how to design keyboards for very small mobile devices, like the iPhone. Right now, an iPhone's size is dictated by the size of the finger.

HARRISON: "We can't shrink phones anymore, mobile devices anymore, because they'd just become unusable, and so we have to think about other ways to give them kind of a big feel, but keep them small."

GRAITCER: Chris Harrison, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, has a solution: use the body as a keyboard. He calls his creation Skinput.

HARRISON: "Skinput works by having this armband with ten very specialized vibration sensors and it's basically acting like a microphone that's listening inside your body."

GRAITCER: When Harrison taps his hand with a finger, a series of wavy curves rolls across a computer monitor.

HARRISON: "This is data from the ten sensors, and it actually listens to what those sound like and it can classify them. And it learns what, for example, your middle finger sounds like. Then it can say, 'Oh, I just heard the middle finger, I just heard the pinkie finger, I just heard your palm.'"

GRAITCER: Each finger is assigned a command on the handheld device, so tapping different fingers gives different commands. Although Skinput is still in a prototype stage, Microsoft thinks it has big possibilities. The company is investing in Harrison's research.

And that's what the annual Computer-Human Interface Conference — CHI — is about: changing the way we do things with computers and the way computers do things with us.

For VOA News, I'm Philip Graitcer in Atlanta.

An Earth Day Website of the Week: Renewable Energy

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

This time, and just in time for Earth Day next week, we feature a U.S. government facility that focuses on wind and solar power, and other forms of sustainable energy.

DOUGLAS:? "Well, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, as we call it, is the U.S. Department of Energy's national laboratory that's dedicated to research into renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency technologies."

George Douglas is a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Lab, whose website, at NREL.gov, is a place where everyone from consumers to research scientists can learn about green buildings, geothermal energy, and advanced vehicles and the fuels that power them.

DOUGLAS:? "You can find the basics of how renewable energy technologies work. Consumers can find advice on how to be more efficient in their use of energy, and research papers are published."

The National Renewable Energy Lab does both basic and applied research, and Douglas says its work is aimed at better stewardship of our resources on planet Earth.

DOUGLAS:? "We're trying to help people become better informed as they make energy choices. As we think about Earth Day, one of the largest impacts that human beings have on the planet is the use of energy. And by using energy more thoughtfully, we can all reduce that impact."

Wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and more at nrel.gov, or get the link to this and hundreds of other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com.

MUSIC: "Lost in Space"

It's Our World, the renewable science and technology resource from VOA News. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Search for Alien Intelligence Must Be Broadened, Urges Scientist

For a half-century, astronomers have been systematically scanning the sky, using radio telescopes to look for signs of intelligence out among the stars. And basically they've come up empty-handed.

Physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies of Arizona State University writes about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, in a new book called The Eerie Silence.

In an interview he suggests the radio spectrum isn't the only place where an extra-terrestrial — ET — might have left a calling card.

DAVIES: Well, here we hit the major problem with the traditional SETI approach, I believe, and that is that ET doesn't know we're here. The reason for that is that even an optimist like Frank Drake estimates that there would be no more than about 10,000 communicating civilizations in the galaxy, which means that the nearest one is likely to be about 1,000 light years away. Now, if you're on a star about 1,000 light years away, you see earth as it was 1,000 years ago. There were no radio telescopes. There was no radio technology here. It would make no point in those aliens sending messages our way at this particular time.

"But it doesn't mean we should give up. We could look for beacons. It could be that there are alien civilizations that have simply created something a little bit like a lighthouse that sweeps the plane of the galaxy, goes bleep, and it's there to attract attention, or it's a monument, or an aesthetic symbol or even a religious symbol. Who knows? And that's a different type of search. I'm trying to urge the SETI community to change their tactics a bit.

Q: You talked also about some of the ways an alien civilization might send out perhaps some sort of biological something that might signal its existence. Talk a little about that.

DAVIES: There's a big difference between trying to establish contact and a dialog and simply a one-way message, something left for posterity — as when you build a monument. So if ET wanted to leave a message on earth for whoever may come along and appreciate it, one way that appeals to me is that, you have to think that this message may have to endure for an immense period of time, hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. What is there on earth that would survive for that length of time? Well, there's one thing, and that is DNA.

"We have genes inside our body that go back three billion years, largely unchanged. So if you can somehow upload a message into DNA of terrestrial organisms, it could last a very, very long time, indeed.

"The other possibility is to put a probe into orbit around the sun. There are two points in space called the stable Lagrange points which, in effect, keep pace with Earth as it goes around the sun. And you could put a probe there, and if it's properly shielded from radiation, it could survive for tens of millions of years. So for all we know, there's an alien probe going around the sun at one of these Lagrange points, lying dormant, maybe waiting for its moment to make contact.

"Of course, all of these things are highly fanciful, but they illustrate what I want to try to do in this book, which is to just broaden the thinking to get away from this traditional sort of radio search. That should carry on, of course. But in addition, we need some new thinking. After 50 years of silence, I think the time has come to take stock and say, maybe we should mobilize all of the sciences to look for anything fishy, anything weird, any anomaly, both in our own little corner of the universe here on Earth and in the solar system, and far out across the galaxy.

Q: The book is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Paul Davies, thank you very much for coming in.

DAVIES: "Thank you for inviting me."

For more of my conversation with Paul Davies, check out our website, voanews.com, where you can hear how we humans might respond if scientists do find signs of alien life.

Ham Radio Hobby Thrives in the Internet Age

The Library of Congress this week announced they are archiving the billions of tweets sent by Twitter users over the past four years.

But not everyone wants to send 140-character bulletins about their latest thought or activities. In fact, a century old communications technology is attracting new interest. Amateur or 'ham' radio seems old-fashioned. But as Matt Sepic reports, this two-way radio service is thriving even in the Internet age.

SEPIC: With millions of people posting up-to-the-minute photos to Facebook, checking Twitter and snuggling up to iPhones, it's easier than ever to stay in touch.

SEPIC: So you might assume a hobby where you can make your own antennas to send and receive signals and tap out messages in Morse code would be as common today as, say rotary phones. In fact, a few years ago, several blogs put ham radio alongside 35 millimeter film and VHS video tape on a list of once popular things slated to disappear... but they were wrong.


SEPIC: New hams like Helen Schlarman are part of an upswing in the hobby. Sitting in a spare bedroom with a compact, two-way radio before her, she pushes the talk button, announces her personal call sign, and looks up a friend.

Fellow amateur operator Steve Schmitz answers from across town.

SCHMITZ: "Hi, Helen, how you doing? W0SJS"
SCHLARMAN: "I'm doing just fine, Steve. How are you and how is Wilma and those three puppies you have?"

SEPIC: Many hams chat with friends around the world, and hang postcards [QSL cards] from their global contacts on their walls. Helen Schlarman's chats are mostly local. She's 89 years old, and loves amateur radio's camaraderie.

SCHLARMAN: "It's a different community, there is no stereotypes of age, it's just talking and sharing and enjoying."

SEPIC: Until recently, ham radio was declining from its peak in 2002 as older operators died. But three years ago, the government phased out the Morse Code test that many saw as a stumbling block to getting a license. Maria Somma of the American Radio Relay League says that change sparked a lot of interest, and last year, the Federal Communications Commission issued a near-record number of licenses.

SOMMA: "We had over 30,000 new amateurs coming in to the radio service, and the trend seems to be going upward."

SEPIC: Somma says today about 700,000 Americans have ham licenses — a nearly 60 percent jump over a generation ago. Allen Weiner, who follows technology trends at Gartner Research, says that's really not all that surprising. While it'll never have the high-tech cachet of the iPhone, Weiner — over a less-than-perfect Skype connection — says ham radio has a certain nerd appeal.

WEINER: "If it creates its own experience, that's really what's key here. If it just emulates an experience that you can get online, it's not going to grow."

SEPIC: At a ham radio convention near St. Louis, the crowd swapping antenna parts and other equipment is mostly male, and mostly over 50. But the hobby has attracted 15-year-old Jonathan Dunn. He says Facebook and texting are fun, but making friends using a simple two-way radio is more rewarding.

JONATHAN DUNN: "With ham radio you can talk to new people, all kinds of ages, races, and it's just amazing what a little radio can do. Because no matter where you're at, if you have the right stuff and the right power you can talk to anyone."

SEPIC: Even though amateur radio is often more about the medium than the message, Jonathan's father Steve Dunn says all that polite chit-chat over the airwaves is still important — especially for a teenager.

STEVE DUNN: "If young people have the opportunity to communicate with a wide range of people, that instills a certain amount of confidence in their ability to carry on the lost art of small talk.

SEPIC: But ham radio isn't just about casual conversation. Even with all of today's digital technology, there is still a need for people to talk over long distances, without the help of wires or cell phone towers. Many hams are trained to provide emergency communications during a disaster. That proved valuable after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, when many mobile phones and land lines failed.

Still, even the most die-hard hams concede theirs will never be a mainstream hobby. After all, being an amateur radio operator takes skill and technical knowledge, and will never match the ease and convenience of smart phones and the internet. But even so, there are those who still find great joy in communicating with friends near and far via 20th century technology.

For VOA News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

Please stay in touch. You can email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or write us at — Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our program is 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.