Friday, July 30, 2010

"Doctor and Writer Oliver Sacks"

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. This week, we tell about the doctor and writer Oliver Sacks. He has spent most of his adult life treating patients in New York City. He also teaches neurology and psychiatry at Colombia University.

But Doctor Sacks is most famous for his books about people with disorders of the brain and nervous system. The stories he writes explore the science of the brain and the way it works. But they also tell a very human story about the experiences of real people struggling to live with unusual conditions.


Imagine a person who has no memory of the past twenty years of his life and still thinks he is a young man. The patient suffers from Korsakov's syndrome, a brain disorder that leads to memory loss. He remains trapped in a distant past because his memory of recent activities only lasts a few minutes.

Or imagine a man who learns to control the repeated movements and shouts that are signs of Tourette's syndrome. His doctor gives him medicine to take during the week to control the disorder. But on the weekends, the man decides to enjoy the signs of Tourette's because they are a part of his identity and personality.

These are examples of stories about patients as described in Oliver Sacks' book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Published in nineteen eighty-five, the book became a huge success.

Doctor Sacks' earlier book, "Awakenings," told about his work with post-encephalitic patients at a hospital in New York City. Signs of this sickness include loss of speech and movement. In the nineteen sixties, Doctor Sacks gave the then-new drug L-Dopa to the patients. The drug gave them an explosive and sudden awakening to a temporary experience of active life.

When Oliver Sacks began treating patients, a traditional case history might be a detailed scientific description of a person's disorder. Doctor Sacks has expanded what he calls mechanical neurology to include the effects of the disorder on a patient's identity and personality.

In most cases, there is nothing Doctor Sacks can do to heal his patients. His aim is to help them find a way to live with and accept their conditions as well as is possible.

His stories describe a patient's disorders in detail. But more importantly, the stories express the patient's humanity as he or she struggles to survive in a world that has been changed by sickness.


Oliver Sacks was born in nineteen thirty-three in Britain to a family of doctors and scientists. His mother and father were doctors. His grandfather was an inventor. Doctor Sacks wrote a book, "Uncle Tungsten," about his uncle -- a scientist who made light bulbs with pieces of tungsten wire.

As a child, Oliver had a deep love of chemistry. His childhood heroes included the British chemist Humphry Davy and the French chemist Marie Curie. Oliver's questioning mind later led him to study medicine and neurology. Oliver Sacks moved to the United States in the early nineteen-sixties.

One expert who had a great influence on Doctor Sacks' work was the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Doctor Luria believed that the study of the brain and nervous system could not just be about facts and information. He urged neurologists to have a more "personalistic" method that included an understanding of the patient's self and identity. He also believed that patients could be taught to adapt, or get used to, their conditions as fully as possible even if they remained sick. Shortly before he died, Alexander Luria urged Oliver Sacks to combine scientific investigation with literary observation.

Oliver Sack's story "To See and Not See" gives a good example of his writing. This story is one of several in "An Anthropologist on Mars," a work published in nineteen ninety-five. It tells about Virgil, a fifty-year old man who had been blind since he was a child. Doctors believed that his blindness resulted from a genetic condition.

Virgil visits a doctor who believes he may not be permanently blind. The doctor successfully operates on one eye. But after the eye heals, Virgil has trouble seeing and understanding the light and images moving in front of him.

Doctor Sacks explains that people with eyesight have spent a lifetime learning how to see. So, they know how to judge distance and depth. He says they understand new experiences and sights based on similar, past experiences.

Virgil had an active, but partly damaged retina and optic nerve. Yet his brain did not know how to deal with the information coming from these areas of the eye.

As a blind man, Virgil had a rich life. He could enjoy great freedom because of his excellent sense of touch, hearing, and smell. But with sight, he was unable to understand the visual world around him.

Doctor Sacks explains that the brain's cortex in people like Virgil who become blind adapts to its new situation. By regaining sight, Virgil's nervous system had to undo its specialized adaptations.

Doctor Sacks also noted that such a big change made Virgil more fearful about his condition. The story Doctor Sacks tells is medically descriptive and informative. But it also remains personal and respectful of Virgil's special situation.


Doctor Sacks has written books on many subjects. In "Migraine", he explores severe head pain to further understand the way neurons in the brain operate.

In "The Island of the Colorblind," Doctor Sacks writes about a community living on an island in the Pacific Ocean. These islanders all suffer from colorblindness. They describe their world to Doctor Sacks in terms of lightness, darkness, and pattern.

In "Oaxaca Journal," Doctor Sacks explores his interest in pteridology, or the study of ferns. Ferns are some of the oldest plants on earth. They have not changed much over millions of years. In this book, he explores the ferns native to Oaxaca, Mexico and the cultural history of the area.

In his latest book, "Musicophilia," Oliver Sacks describes the effect music has on the brain by studying the experiences of many people with unusual conditions.


" 'Musicophilia' means love of music. And this is a very general word. But I think this is almost universal among people. And the width of the title has really allowed me to embrace dozens and dozens of different musical experiences and sensations."

Music is an interesting subject for neurologists because many parts of the brain work together to listen to and make music. Music activates even more areas of the brain than language. And, music is very powerful. Even people with severe brain damage can still react to and even find healing in music.

For some people, music can actually change the structure of the brain. Researchers have found that an area of the brain called the corpus callosum is enlarged in professional musicians.

Another part of the brain is enlarged in musicians with absolute pitch. A person with absolute pitch can identify or recreate a musical note without the help of a musical instrument. Researchers also believe that the younger a musician begins training, the greater the changes in his or her brain.

One part of the book "Musicophilia" is about people with synesthesia.


"The word 'synesthesia' has been around for a century, a little bit more. It was introduced in the eighteen nineties for people who would perhaps see colors when they heard music. Or in whom generally, one sensation would give rise to another sensation."

For example, one person Doctor Sacks writes about is a musician who experiences color with every musical note. The note G minor is a yellowish color, while D major is blue. Another person with synesthesia sees colors, shapes, and light when she listens to music.

Modern brain imaging has helped medical experts understand conditions like synesthesia. Brain images show that synesthetes have activity both in the area of the brain that sees and in another area that reacts to music.


"I think of the book as sort of a treasury of stories and information which other people and in particular neuroscientists and others will be able to use and make sense of. But also, it's a fun book."

After the publication of "Musicophilia", Doctor Sacks received hundreds of messages from people with examples of the conditions he described.

A second version of the book includes information about their cases. Doctor Sacks has once again provided his readers with a rich exploration of the complex workings of the human mind.


This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Dana Demange, who was also our producer. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. Listen again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Pecos Bill, an American Folk Tale from VOA"

Pecos Bill had one of the strangest childhoods a boy ever had. It all started after his father decided that there was no longer enough room in east Texas for his family.

"Pack up, Ma!" he cried. "Neighbors movin' in fifty miles away! It's getting' too crowded!"

So they loaded up a wagon with all their things. Now some say they had fifteen children while others say eighteen. However many there were, the children were louder than thunder. And as they set off across the wild country of west Texas, their mother and father could hardly hear a thing.

Now, as they came to the Pecos River, the wagon hit a big rock. The force threw little Bill out of the wagon and he landed on the sandy ground. Mother did not know Bill was gone until she gathered the children for the midday meal. Mother set off with some of the children to look for Bill, but they could find no sign of him.

Well, some people say Bill was just a baby when his family lost him. Others say he was four years old. But all agree that a group of animals called coyotes found Bill and raised him. Bill did all the things those animals did, like chase lizards and howl at the moon. He became as good a coyote as any.


Now, Bill spent seventeen years living like a coyote until one day a cowboy rode by on his horse. Some say the cowboy was one of Bill's brothers. Whoever he was, he took one look at Bill and asked, "What are you?"

Bill was not used to human language. At first, he could not say anything. The cowboy repeated his question. This time, Bill said, "varmint."

That is a word used for any kind of wild animal.

"No you aren't," said the cowboy.

"Yes, I am," said Bill. "I have fleas."

"Lots of people have fleas," said the cowboy. "You don't have a tail."

"Yes, I do," said Bill.

"Show it to me then," the cowboy said.

Bill looked at his backside and realized that he did not have a tail like the other coyotes. "Well, what am I then?" asked Bill.

"You're a cowboy! So start acting like one!" the cowboy cried out. Well that was all Bill needed to hear. He said goodbye to his coyote friends and left to join the world of humans.


Now, Pecos Bill was a good cowboy. Still, he hungered for adventure. One day he heard about a rough group of men. There is some debate over what the group was called. But one storyteller calls it the "Hell's Gate Gang."

So Bill set out across the rough country to find this gang of men. Well, Bill's horse soon was injured so Bill had to carry it for a hundred miles. Then Bill met a rattlesnake fifty feet long. The snake made a hissing noise and was not about to let Bill pass. But after a tense minute, Bill beat the snake until it surrendered. He felt sorry for the varmint, though, and wrapped it around his arm.

After Bill walked another hundred miles, he came across an angry mountain lion. There was a huge battle, but Bill took control of the big cat and put his saddle on it. He rode that mountain lion all the way to the camp of the Hell's Gate Gang.

Now, when Bill saw the gang he shouted out, "Who's the boss around here?"

A huge cowboy, nine feet tall, took one look at Bill and said in a shaky voice, "I was the boss. But you are the boss from here on in."

With his gang, Pecos Bill was able to create the biggest ranch in the Southwest. Bill and his men had so many cattle that they needed all of New Mexico to hold them. Arizona was the pasture where the cattle ate grass.

Pecos Bill invented the art of being a cowboy. He invented the skill of throwing a special rope called a lasso over a cow's head to catch wandering cattle.

Some say he used a rattlesnake for a lasso. Others say he made a lasso so big that it circled the whole Earth.

Bill invented the method of using a hot branding iron to permanently put the mark of a ranch on a cow's skin. That helped stop people from stealing cattle. Some say he invented cowboy songs to help calm the cattle and make the cowboy's life easier. But he is also said to have invented tarantulas and scorpions as jokes. Cowboys have had trouble with those poisonous creatures ever since.

Now, Pecos Bill could ride anything that ever was. So, as some tell the story, there came a storm bigger than any other. It all happened during the worst drought the West had ever seen. It was so dry that horses and cows started to dry up and blow away in the wind. So when Bill saw the windstorm, he got an idea. The huge tornado kicked across the land like a wild bronco. But Bill jumped on it without a thought.

He rode that tornado across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, all the time squeezing the rain out of it to save the land from drought. When the storm was over, Bill fell off the tornado. He landed in California. He left a hole so deep that to this day it is known as Death Valley.


Now, Bill had a horse named Widow Maker. He got that name because any man who rode that horse would be thrown off and killed and his wife would become a widow. No one could ride that horse but Bill.

And Widow Maker, in the end, caused the biggest problem for Pecos Bill. You see, one day Bill saw a woman. Not just any woman, but a wild, red- haired woman, riding a giant catfish down the Rio Grande River.

Her name was Slue-foot Sue. And Bill fell in love with her at first sight. Well, Bill would not rest until he had asked for her hand in marriage. And Slue-foot Sue accepted.

On their wedding day, Pecos Bill dressed in his best buckskin suit. And Sue wore a beautiful white dress with a huge steel-spring bustle in the back. It was the kind of big dress that many women wore in those days — the bigger the better.

Now, after the marriage ceremony Slue-foot Sue got a really bad idea. She decided that she wanted to ride Widow Maker. Bill begged her not to try. But she had her mind made up.

Well, the second she jumped on the horse's back he began to kick and buck like nothing anyone had ever seen. He sent Sue flying so high that she sailed clear over the new moon.

She fell back to Earth, but the steel-spring bustle just bounced her back up as high as before.

Now, there are many different stories about what happened next. One story says Bill saw that Sue was in trouble. She would keep bouncing forever if nothing was done. So he took his rope out -- though some say it was a huge rattlesnake -- and lassoed Sue to catch her and bring her down to Earth. Only, she just bounced him back up with her.

Somehow the two came to rest on the moon. And that's where they stayed. Some people say they raised a family up there. Their children were as loud and wild as Bill and Sue were in their younger days. People say the sound of thunder that sometimes carries over the dry land around the Pecos River is nothing more than Pecos Bill's family laughing up a storm.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"The History of Longitude" - VOA Explorations.

STEVE EMBER: This is Steve Ember.

BOB DOUGHTY: And this is Bob Doughty with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today, we tell about how people learned an important piece of information necessary for safely sailing on the oceans. It is called longitude.


STEVE EMBER: On a foggy October night in seventeen-oh-seven, four English navy ships hit rocks in the Atlantic Ocean and sank. Two thousand men drowned. The ships had been sailing in the thick fog for twelve days. There was no sure way to know where they were. The commander of the ships had been worried that they could hit rocks if they were not careful. He asked his navigators for their opinion on their location in the ocean.

The navigators did not really know. They told the commander they thought they were west of a small island near the coast of northwestern France.

They were wrong. Instead, they sailed onto rocks near a small group of islands southwest of England's Atlantic coast. The navigators' lack of knowledge led to the loss of four ships and two thousand lives.

BOB DOUGHTY: When people began sailing out of sight of land, sailors did not know how to tell where they were on the open sea. Land travelers can look at a mountain, or a river, or an object that shows them where they are in relation to where they came from. On the ocean, however, there is no sign to tell a sailor where he is.

The most important device for knowing directions on the ocean is a compass. A compass is a device containing a metal object that points toward the magnetic north pole. This shows navigators the direction of north, and therefore also south, east and west. But sailors need more information to sail safely on the open sea.

STEVE EMBER: Most maps of the world show lines that are not on the Earth's surface. One line is the equator. It is an imaginary line around the widest part of the Earth. There are similar lines both north and south of the equator. These circles become smaller and smaller toward the north pole and the south pole.

These lines, or circles, are parallel -- meaning that they are equally distant from each other at any point around the world. These lines show what is called latitude.

A navigator can know the latitude of his ship by observing the location of stars, where the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and what time of year it is. With this information he knows where his ship is in relation to the north or south pole and the equator.

BOB DOUGHTY: Still, there is one more important piece of information necessary for safely sailing the oceans. For many centuries, scientists, astronomers and inventors searched for a way to tell longitude. The lines of longitude go the other way from latitude lines. They stretch from the north pole to the south pole, and back again in great circles of the same size. All of the lines of longitude meet at the top and bottom of the world.

In her book, “Longitude,” writer Dava Sobel tells the story about longitude and how the problem of knowing it was solved.


STEVE EMBER: For centuries, the great scientists of the world struggled to develop a way to learn longitude. To learn longitude at any place requires knowledge about time. A navigator needs to know what time it is on his ship and also the time at another place of known longitude -- at the very same moment.

The Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full turn or revolution of three-hundred-sixty degrees. One hour marks one twenty-fourth of a turn, or fifteen degrees. So each hour's time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a ship's progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west. Those fifteen degrees of longitude mark a distance traveled.

At the equator, where the Earth is widest, fifteen degrees stretches about one thousand six hundred kilometers. North or south of that line, however, the distance value of each degree decreases. One degree of longitude equals four minutes of time all around the world. But in measuring distance, one degree shrinks from about one hundred nine kilometers at the equator to nothing at the north and south poles.

BOB DOUGHTY: For many centuries, navigators hoped they could find longitude by observing the movement of stars at night. During the day, the sun provided information about the time on a ship, and its direction. However, it did not provide necessary information about the time somewhere else.

In the sixteenth century, one astronomer suggested that navigators could observe the moon as it passed in front of different known stars to tell longitude. But, there was not enough information about the stars to use this method effectively. Astronomers could not tell exactly where the moon would be from one night or day to the next.

Yet it seemed to those seeking to solve the longitude problem that the only solution was in the moon and stars.


STEVE EMBER: During the seventeenth century, English astronomers began a major effort to map the stars and their relationship to the moon as it passed across the sky. Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed worked at this task for forty years. The next Royal Astronomer, Edmund Halley, spent another forty years gathering information about the moon's orbit.

After many years of gathering the necessary information, it became possible to learn longitude by observing the stars and the moon. In seventeen sixty-six, Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne published the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris. It contained all the necessary information about the moon and stars that sailors would need to help them learn their longitude.

This new method was not simple. A navigator had to use complex observing instruments to note the position of the moon and stars. Then he had to seek the correct information in the Nautical Almanac about the moon and stars at that time of night or day. The final step in the process was to take the mathematical information from the book, link it to the current information and solve the resulting problem. This took an average of four hours to do.

BOB DOUGHTY: While scientists were studying the stars and moon to solve the longitude problem, a man named John Harrison was working on another project. He was trying to build a clock that would help sailors learn longitude.

His task also was difficult and complex. Mister Harrison had to develop a clock that was not affected by the movement of a ship on the ocean or changes in temperature or atmospheric pressure.

He began developing his clock in seventeen thirty. It took five years to complete. The complex device weighed thirty-four kilograms. Several years later, Mister Harrison built a second clock. It was smaller, but weighed more than the first. Mister Harrison was not satisfied and began working on yet another device.

Twenty years later, he completed a device that was smaller than the first two, and weighed less. But still Mister Harrison was not satisfied.

Two years later, in seventeen fifty-seven, he produced a small clock that he could hold in his hand. The clock could tell the correct time in two places, meeting the requirements for learning longitude on the sea.

STEVE EMBER: For many years after Mister Harrison's work was completed, the idea of using a clock to learn longitude was rejected. However, that opinion changed when manufacturers learned how to make better and less costly versions of Mister Harrison's clocks. The clocks became known as chronometers.

By eighteen fifteen, five thousand chronometers were in use on ships sailing the world's oceans. The complex documents and mathematical work were no longer necessary. Almost any sailor could tell what his longitude was by simply looking at a clock. The world had changed.

BOB DOUGHTY: John Harrison's clocks can be seen today at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. The first three are still operating, showing the correct time. To look at them is to see the simple solution to a problem that worried people for many centuries.

Today, the solution to the problem is so common that it is difficult to understand that there was a problem at all.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Oliver Chandler and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Al Alaby. This is Steve Ember.

BOB DOUGHTY: And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.