When he was 68 years old, in 1986, physicist José Leite Lopes was paid homage by the Federal University of Pernambuco and, in thanks, he made a speech which summed up his life and his passions in its title, “Pernambuco, science and culture.” His friends say that his native state was a constant point of reference, without it mattering whether he was in Princeton, Paris, Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro. Science was love at first sight, cultivated from the first and practiced at the highest level. Culture was a consequence of a life spent amongst spirited men and women and something that he strove to disseminate wherever he was. When he died, 87 years old, on the morning of June 12, because of multiple organ failure, the physician left a solid scientific work and a vast range of institutional accomplishments.
Leite Lopes’s career began to emerge when he was still in Recife, where he was born, during his industrial chemistry course at the Engineering School of Pernambuco, concluded in 1939. Influenced by Professor Luiz Freire, he decided to study physics at the National School of Philosophy (FNFi) of the University of Brazil, nowadays the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). In 1942, now a graduate, he began to work at the Biophysics Institute, at the invitation of Carlos Chagas Filho. But only for a few months, until he moved, with the help of Chagas, to the stimulating environment created by Ukrainian physicist, naturalized Italian, Gleb Wataghin in São Paulo. At the University of São Paulo (USP), there were talents like Mário Schenberg, Marcello Damy de Souza Santos, César Lattes, Paulus Aulus Pompéia, Oscar Sala and Roberto Salmeron gathered together, amongst so many others. “They all came to this environment created by Wataghin. Lattes came, a lot of people came and kept on producing new things”, he told Pesquisa FAPESP in an interview published in November 2000 (issue 59).
Lopes was the son of José Ferreira Lopes and Beatriz Coelho Leite. His father was the owner of a hardware store in Recife. His mother died three days after he was born, a victim of Spanish flu, which made Leite Lopes and his brothers Arlindo and Abelardo to be brought up by the paternal grandmother, Claudina. Almost all the courses that the physicist did were financed by scholarships he managed to get from industrial companies and foundations from Brazil and abroad – which was important, given the lack of resources in the family. In 1944, Lopes achieved one more of them, this time from the American government, and he went to Princeton University to finish the postgraduate studies started at USP. There, he went to the seminars of some of the greatest scientist of the age, such as Albert Einstein, the Swiss mathematician Joseph Maria Jauch and the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (a 1945 Nobel), one of the founders of quantum mechanics. Two years afterwards, he took his doctor’s degree, under the supervision of Pauli himself, and, back in Rio, he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at FNFi.
It was in this period that Leite Lopes moved to the center of Brazilian scientific policy – and remained there for several decades, without abandoning research and classes. In 1947 and 1948, César Lattes became famous with discoveries about the pi meson, made in collaboration with physicists from England, Italy and the United States. Lattes was already thinking about creating a center for research in physics in Rio and could count on the enthusiastic support of Lopes, a friend and frequent interlocutor. In 1949, with other researcher, the two helped to found the Brazilian Center of Physical Research (CBPF), with the assistance of João Alberto Lins e Barros, one of the leaders of the 1930 Revolution and, at that moment, a minister at the Itamaraty. They also took part in the liaisons for creating the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), in 1951.
In the following years, Lopes continued to work and to publish. In 1953, influenced by the plastic artist Adolfo Soares, he began to paint. Although he had no religion, cathedrals and baroque churches exerted great fascination over him, and they are present in many of his canvases. In 1956, he spent a spell at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in the United States, where he stayed until 1957. In this period, his first wife died, Carmita, with whom he had two sons, José Sérgio and Sylvio Ricardo.
In the following year, now in Brazil, he published his most important works.
In the 2000 interview for Pesquisa FAPESP, the scientist explained what he regarded as his most significant discoveries: “I did a work in 1958 in which I proposed a relationship between the boson and the photon, and after that an equality between the weak interaction and the electromagnetic constant that is given by the charge of the atom. When I made this hypothesis, I got the value of the mass of the w+ and w- bosons, in the order f 60 masses of the proton. That was a novelty, and C. N. Yang [a Chinese physicist with Princeton University, a 1957 Nobel] didn’t believe it. He thought that the mass of the boson would be only a little larger than the mass of the proton. In the same work, I proposed the existence of a neutral boson, which today is called Z0 (z-zero), which ought to be looked for in the interaction of electrons with neutrons”. This neutral boson predicted by Lopes was only discovered in the 1980’s. “But few people had read my work, although it had been published in Nuclear Physics, an important publication”, Lopes said.
One of his ideals was the dissemination of a strong teaching of physics in Latin America. In 1959, with Marcos Moshinsky, of Mexico, and Juan José Giambiagi, of Argentina, he founded the Latin American Physics School, with annual activities in the three countries, by rotation. He also coordinated the commission of counselors invited to structure physics at the future University of Brasilia, which was to begin to operate in 1962, although he did not work there. With the military coup in 1964, Lopes accepted the invitation to be a visiting professor at the Faculté des sciences d’Orsay, in Paris. He came back in 1967, to organize the UFRJ’s new Physics Institute. The peace did not last long: in 1969, he was one of those whose civil liberties were quashed by the Institutional Act nº 5. With his second wife, Maria Laura, and their daughter Ângela, he set off for Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, in the United States. In the following years, he gave lessons at Université Louis Pasteur, in Strasbourg, in France, and in the Central University of Venezuela and in Mexico.
In 1974, an old law that prohibited foreigners from becoming full professors in French Universities was abolished. The new law was signed by President Giscard d’Estaing months before the end of Lopes’s contract as an associate professor, and Université Louis Pasteur asked for his promotion to full professor, with a permanent contract. He occupied the position of deputy director of the Centre de Recherches Nucleaires, a body of the Centre national de la recherché (CNRS), where he stayed until 1978. He only returned to Brazil for good in 1986, invited by the then Minister of Science and Technology, Renato Archer, to run the same institution that he had helped to found, the CBPF.
Leite Lopes wrote 22 books, over 80 scientific articles and some hundred texts about education and scientific policy. “The strength that he had to make scientific policy came from his capacity as a scientist”, attests Amélia Hamburger, a researcher from USP’s Physics Institute with works on the history of science. A friend of Lopes for 60 years, Roberto Salmeron, also a physicist, stresses the influence exerted by him on Brazilian physics. “Amongst the physicists of my generation, he was one of those who played an extremely important, uncontestable role in the development of our physics, which was still incipient when we started our careers”, he testimonies.
According to Salmeron, his influence made itself felt in several aspects. As a professor, he ran excellent and wrote good textbooks. “Some were the first on modern physics written in Portuguese.” He was also a good supervisor of youngsters at the beginning of their careers and as an animator of teaching and research programs. “At the beginning of the activities of the CBPF, he had a fundamental role in inviting eminent foreign physicists to spend spells in Brazil and in the institute’s interchange with physicists from other Brazilian states”, he says.
Another of Lopes’s friends, Francisco Caruso, a researcher from the CBPF and an editor of ‘José Leite Lopes, idéias e paixões’ [José Leite Lopes, ideas and passions] (Editora CBPF, 1999), kept a more personal image of the physicist. In a text published in Folha de S.Paulo[São Paulo Newssheet], Caruso wrote: “If I had to define him in just one adjective, I would choose ‘impassioned’. His passion was transcendent; it went far beyond the frontiers of science, spreading over education, art, and, why not say it, women and life. It was this passion that always nourished his lively and contagious intellect”.
Leite Lopes is a polyhedral, multifaceted figure.
One of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of his generation, he is also a great teacher, who through his books influenced a whole generation of scientists. He was, moreover, throughout his life, a cultural and political agitator, fighting the good fight with a view to implanting an environment of scientific research in Brazil – the key to its true national emancipation.
Leite Lopes is an apostle of the total man conceived in Illuminism, interlinking scientific, political and artistic work in a coherent and unified activity.
His painting is not a simple pendant from his scientific activity; rather, it consists of a partnership between art and science, aiming to exalt civilization and life, crying out against modern “despiritualization” and death.
Leite Lopes’s painting has essentially two leitmotifs – the jangadas (rafts) and the cathedrals interpenetrate each other – reflecting fundamental experiences in his life: his childhood and adolescence spent in Recife, and his exile in adulthood in Strasbourg.
In his abstract works, the live colors reflect the firm light of Recife, where there is to be noted a furtive reminder of the Parisian phase of his fellow-countryman Cícero Dias.
Let it not be thought that his paintings suffice themselves by exhibiting a facile and superficial colorism. In the crucible of impatience and despair, from the failure of the dreamt-of Utopia, Leite Lopes forges a Work in which the marvels and mysteries of the world of the living, seen from the heights as if by a Baudelairian albatross.
Amós Troper is a researcher from the CBPF. The text is to be found in the catalog of the exhibition Construction and Deconstruction: the cosmic world of Leite Lopes, held at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2003.Republish