MIGUEL BOYAYANPhysicist Sérgio Mascarenhas, who turned 79 on May 2 of last year, won the Conrado Wessel General Science Award on June 4. This is one of the chief honors granted in Brazil in the field of science and culture. During the following days, rather than resting on these added laurels and enjoying the well-deserved recognition of his prolific scientific contribution to physics and other fields, he was setting up meetings with Ruth Rocha (another winner of this year’s Conrado Wessel Foundation award, in the field of literature), with Ricardo Brentani (the medicine award-winner) and the other scientists with whom he had shared the stage at the Sala São Paulo concert hall during the elegant awards evening. He had a tempting work proposal for each one of them, as well as a joint proposal: to hold a set of conferences under the auspices of the Conrado Wessel Foundation in São Paulo, similar to the Nobel Conferences that follow the distribution of the Nobel prize, the world’s most prestigious and enviable scientific and literary award.
Dedicated to constant , tireless, pragmatic intellectual activity, coupled with a lively imagination and an endless bubbling of ideas, is the perfect image of Professor Sérgio Mascarenhas, whose biography is undoubtedly one of the Brazilian scientific community’s richest and most multifaceted. Thus, if amongst his contributions to knowledge we have the discovery of bio-electrets, new dosimetry and archeological dating methods, assembling and organizing institutional infrastructure for knowledge, and his creation of the area of research into the physics of condensed matter at the São Carlos campus of the University of São Paulo (USP) back in the 50’s, must all be emphasized, the creation of Embrapa Instrumentação Agropecuária (husbandry instrumentation) in the late 60’s, in the same city, and the creation of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in the early 70’s – are among many other achievements he mentions in the following pages.
Sérgio Mascarenhas is now a retired USP professor, though he, of course, still runs the university’s Advanced Studies Institute in São Carlos, the city that this man from Rio de Janeiro and its Copacabana beach adopted, in his determination to lend substance to the field of physics, which was regarded as having little importance in Brazil in the mid 20th century and that is now at the heart of the contemporary world’s appearance and essence: computers, information, information technology and telecommunications. Part of what came from this field of knowledge over the last half century emerges from the words of this Brazilian researcher who worked with respected colleagues from other countries, many of them Nobel Prize winners, in the time he spent at the universities of Princeton, Harvard and London, among others.
These days, while taking care of a new scientific news portal, Mascarenhas is also finalizing his newest invention: a non-invasive device for measuring intracranial pressure. An unexpected illness challenged him and this is how he responded to it, in his own field: with creativity. The words of Mascarenhas, a fascinating personality and enthralling human being, reflect him faithfully: generous, fertile, always open to new ideas, such as a Thousand and One Nights, inverted babuchkas, or modern computer screens that enable sharing multiple windows within the same hierarchy. In his own words, it is full of fractals – no dull linear thinking from him, but rather, a totally radial conversation, of which the following interview is a sample.
Let’s start with your contributions to knowledge. If I’m not mistaken, at the start of your career you specialized in dielectrics, in particular the Thermodielectric Effect, which acquired the name of Costa Ribeiro Effect. In one of your experiments, electrical charges were found to appear during the sublimation of a solid, the first of your many discoveries. I’d like to know how important is this to current physics.
This thermodielectric effect – it wasn’t yet called the Costa Ribeiro effect – refers to the appearance of an electrical charge during phase changes. Costa Ribeiro had found this out during the fusion of a solid and I thought that this was a more universal effect. So I went and looked for it in other phase changes and I also found it in the sublimation of certain materials. Afterwards I found it in biological material. Thus, there was a generalization of the thermoelectric effect and when my work became better known, I started calling this the Costa Ribeiro effect, in honor of this dear professor of mine who, by the way, would be turning 100 this year. Lattes [César], very generously, told me that this was the only physics effect ever to be discovered entirely in Brazil. See how generous a person he was: he too had made an important discovery in the field of elementary particles, with pi mesons. But as he had to leave Brazil in order to achieve this, going first to England, then to the United States, he recognized in this way the great merit of Costa Ribeiro, alone in Rio, in a far less favorable environment, making this discovery of an experimental effect. See, one thing is making a theoretical discovery in a cabinet, whereas seeing that nature is talking to you is quite different. What is the language of nature? The physical interactions. Afterward, one must dress this up in mathematical language so that the discovery may then fly through theoretical spaces, through the space of new effects. It is fundamental, in a country like Brazil, to take possession of the knowledge connected to the creation of experimental knowledge, as Oswaldo Cruz, Carlos Chagas and others did. But I don’t look down upon theoretical knowledge, which is super-important for organizing what we discover. We can understand this by drawing a line from Galileo to Newton. Galileo destroyed a 2,500-year culture with one experiment. And then Newton came along and dressed that up in theoretical terms, which were even consolidated in the form of philosophy, Kantian philosophy, later on. So one starts off with empirical-experimental elements and then one dresses that up with a more abstract, theoretical framework. Consolidation as a model of the world came later, in a philosophical model. This has happened several times in the history of science. It happened with the Greeks, with Archimedes, Pythagoras, etc. All of his was consolidated as Aristotelian philosophy, later recovered by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas.
Allow me to interrupt this philosophical clarification to ask you what, exactly, characterizes the Costa Ribeiro effect.
Its chief characteristic is that it is a tremendously interdisciplinary effect, because you take something from heat, from thermodynamics and the solid state and transport it to an electrical effect. I’ll give you a practical example: you have the clouds; the clouds contain water; the water freezes. If during this freezing period the Costa Ribeiro effect occurs, we’ll have these marvelous electrical storm effects. I sought out the same effect in biological substances, such as DNA, proteins…
And did you find it?
I found it in all of them and, as I see it, this was one of my chief contributions: the creation of the concept of bioelectrets. Why electrets? Because in the change of phase, the Costa Ribeiro effect generated a material that was electrically charged. In reality, the meaning of life such as we find it on Earth is connected to these structures of the most important physical forces and to chemical forces, which come from the interaction of electrons, electrical charges, and quantum interactions as well. Then there are the gravitational interactions, which are important. In a tree, for example, the lymph may rise 40 or 50 meters; but how does it flow up if gravity is pulling it down? These are very interesting effects connected to surface forces and also to gravitational forces. But take note: the Costa Ribeiro effect is one thing and the electret concept, although related, is something different. We have to be careful here.
Who introduced the electret concept?
A Japanese physicist, long before we started working on this. Costa Ribeiro and Bernardo Gross rediscovered this niche and I, as their student, continued to pursue it. In the case of the Costa Ribeiro effect we had phase transition electrical effects, such as atmospheric electricity, the appearance of electrical charges in semiconductors, in crystals, or in sublimation. As for the electrets, that was what, in reality, induced Costa Ribeiro to discover his effect, given that he was very interested in materials that remained electrically charged after they were melted. As I said, electrets were discovered by a Japanese, using the carnauba palm tree wax; his team actually made some electrified membranes that were used to make microphones.
Did all of this happen around 1950?
Between 1943 and 1950, the time when Costa Ribeiro, Gross and another great professor, Armando Dias Tavares, who has been more or less forgotten, were all working on experimental physics in Rio, at the National School of Philosophy, part of the former University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Lattes, [José] Leite Lopes and [Jaime] Tiomno also taught there… Later I found out that if I remained in Rio de Janeiro, I’d be unable to structure my own ideas, my dreams, because that was the land of cosmic rays, of elementary particles… But I could see, with a clarity that to this day I’m unable to understand, that the future of society lay in solid state semiconductors, which led to transistors and later to the computer boom.
So this is what led you to São Carlos and to creating the first solid state physics research group.
Yes, in 1956 I started this group while still at the USP school of Engineering, created one year before, as there wasn’t yet a Physics Institute. I arrived at the age of 26 or 27, with Yvonne [P. Mascarenhas], who was even younger. We faced the challenge of departing from our beloved Rio de Janeiro because we saw the possibility of opening a new path for physics in Brazil, i.e., the physics of condensed matter, as it is now called. And really, we held the First Congress of Physics of Condensed Matter here in São Carlos. We thought that it was a harbinger of the future and that was a well-accepted idea at the time, because physicists thought of it as an engineering thing.
Was that the view only here in Brazil or internationally as well?
Here. Internationally, it yielded the Physics Nobel Prize in 1956 to three Bell Labs scientists, the transistor’s inventors: Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley. Let’s say that here there was a lack of vision, a lack of perspective of the major innovation that was taking place in a segment of physics that was not as respectable and traditional as the physics of particles, of the large accelerators, etc. I thought that I could see, that I could sniff, a greater path for Brazil and an easier and more feasible one. And actually, a few years later, solid state physics started accounting for 60% or 70% of all the Brazilian contributions to the field. And it is still greater than this if we take into account the interdisciplinarity aspect, involving biophysics, the physics of materials, engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc. I remember that Bardeen, whom I met personally, later shared another Nobel prize for research into superconductivity; he used to joke saying that he had won two Nobel prizes that, added together, wouldn’t yield even one because he had shared them with other scientists! But the transistor’s discovery was something that changed humankind. Because that led to computers, and computers led to a language that did not exist previously, the truly globalized language of bits, and to the theory of information. Information theory led to a far broader view of the world, a certain Weltanschauung [conception of the world and life]. It seems you didn’t like my fractalizations much, but…
Who said I didn’t like them?
Well, then I’m going to refer to [Jacques] Lacan, whom I adore. If you prefer Freud, remember what Lacan said at one of his famous lectures: “You may be Lacanians, but I’m a Freudian.” I tried to study Lacan and also note that nowadays, if somebody is smart and has lateral vision, he can go into the web an ignoramus at six p.m. and come out the next day with a Ph.D., through Google.
And where does Lacan come into this?
You know the theory of the three stages, in which Lacan divided human evolution from the psychic point of view: we have there the imaginary, the real and the symbolic elements. And even before that, from the time of the fetus in its mother’s belly, kicking, sucking its thumb, building the neocortex’s circuits, everything consists of preparation for the fundamental thing in biology, which is survival. So survival is the construction of knowledge and that is the basis of the structure of life, negentropy, the transformation of noise into a signal. Thus we move from the imaginary to the real and later to the symbolic, which is really what characterizes Homo sapiens . Through speech, the baby ascends to the symbolic level and then the psychic structure of a human becomes complete. But I think one can extend Lacan to the new language of the Internet, the bits, the globalization of what is symbolic in a language that Lacan didn’t know because he died before its time. And I see this symbolic field growing and becoming unified through articulation with information technology. This business of “I think, therefore I exist” is Descartes’ greatest mistake (according to the great Antonio Damásio). I exist, therefore I think, that’s OK. But what I want to stress is that in the face of the language of the web, of globalization, the chief problem is that we don’t yet have a culture that is ready for what we’re experiencing nowadays. We still have the same culture as 500 years ago.
Why, as you see it, did computers and the worldwide web expand this notion of the Lacanian symbolic element?
Look, what I want to stress is that technology is always ahead of culture. It’s difficult to harmonize culture with what technology pre-announces, which currently is the following: we’re flying toward extraplanetary spheres. Men must therefore change, because they’re not going to be alone here on Earth. They’re going to have to go into Space, undoubtedly.
But don’t you think that our destiny is only tied to the Earth?
No way. Life must have come, initially, from outside Earth. That is Carl Sagan’s view, for instance.
Let’s go back to the time when you came to São Carlos, when you discovered a new phenomenon: the variation of the thermal conductivity of a dielectric liquid under the action of a magnetic field. Let’s talk about that.
It was an interesting thing, because Costa Ribeiro and Gross were thinking about the opposite of the Costa Ribeiro effect: if I use an electric field, can I generate a change of phase? A fusion, for instance? They tried and they found something of an effect. One applied an electric field to a solid or liquid phase and it melted faster with the electric field. But I didn’t believe that and said: “Wait a minute, first we need to see whether the electric field hasn’t affected the liquid’s heat conductivity, because then it transfers more heat to the solid and this melts not because of the electric field per se, but because of the induced thermal conductivity.” Then I went to work on the liquid and saw that my idea was right: when I applied the electric field to the liquid, its thermal conductivity changed; it turned into a better heat-conduction channel.
Actually, the electric field makes it easier to increase the liquid’s thermal conductivity.
That’s it! But thermal conductivity is a complex phenomenon; there are several types. There is one more subtle kind, which is that of the vibration of the atoms and molecules. In the same way as the light has photons, a solid or liquid may have phonons, which are the collective vibrations of atoms, and I believed that when you came right down to it, the electric field might affect these phonons. And then I found this thing, that was the greatest thing in my life and gave me tremendous self-confidence. Originally, I was aligned with Socrates’s old methodology, “doubt that it will work out”, with Einstein, “the important thing in life is not to stop questioning”, and then… there I was, expanding on what my professors were putting forth.
What type of practical impact did this have?
Two contributions, and quite practical, because the transformer over there in the lamp post always has dielectric liquid inside, and there’s also an electric field. A very important thing in a transformer is getting rid of the heat it generates so it won’t overheat, and with the electric field one can help the heat to get out. This was published in Russian: “Effect discovered by Mascarenhas.” When I saw the article in the Russian book, though I didn’t even understand it, I felt such emotion… And this effect gave me another wonderful thing… there was a Nobel Prize winner called Lars Onsager, from Yale, a marvelous guy tremendously creative, regarded as a demigod, who liked my interpretation of the work a lot. He had a really broad, interdisciplinary view and worked out some equations, a model that says the following: everything that happens in common life consists of states of equilibrium. And these states don’t lead to much, because there are no excitements, fluctuations outside the equilibrium. He started to see that the important thing in physics was also what happens outside the situation of equilibrium. This applies to many more concepts and situations, of course, but Onsager managed, for the first time, to quantitatively describe non-equilibrium physical effects. Then I applied his equations to quantitatively understand the effect that I’d described and published this in a famous journal of the time, Il Nuovo Cimento. The calculations I worked out with Onsager’s equation tallied with the experimental part. And when Onsager saw my work, which provided a real basis for his equations, he really liked it. When I presented the work in Europe, he was charming. I suddenly saw myself sitting at a hotel table in Switzerland explaining Onsager’s equations to Onsager “My goodness” only a Brazilian from Rio could get away with this! He was calm and quiet; he didn’t get upset. I became great friends with him.
Did you actually work together?
Yes, I am honored at having published a piece of work with Onsager, one of his only pieces of work in the area of phase transitions with the appearance of an electric field. I’m very proud of that, because he was very good and generous. Some scientists are like this and others are very arrogant. I’m a little tragicomical, but I’m not arrogant.
Why tragicomical, professor?
Because I laugh at myself, understand? Because I don’t believe in people who look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and don’t know that they’re rather stupid and that they make mistakes. I like the English, this trait of making fun of themselves. It’s dangerous to take yourself too seriously. I have very moving memories of Onsager. I remember, for instance, an occasion after he had retired from Yale and went to the University of Miami, when he fetched me at the airport and took me to his house. And in the garden he took an orange and peeled it for me. To this day I’m moved by this scene.
What was the age difference between you?
At least 20 years, he was already a Nobel Prize winner when I met him.
In a summary of your work we learned that your theory of electro-thermo-conductivity was developed using the thermodynamics of irreversible processes.
The basis of which is exactly the major contribution theoretically structured by Onsager’s equations.
A third effect studied in your production was the appearance of huge electric tensions of 50 kilovolts or more when forming dry ice.
Actually, 100 kilovolts… I was following an intuitive path regarding phase transition around 1962. This was an effect we discovered in São Carlos and that transformed itself into a great experimental demonstration in the teaching of physics: the CO2 electrostatic generator. It gained international recognition through the American Journal of Physics.
And what about your research into the area, that was new at the time, of the effects of radiation on materials?
At that time, I became aware that I should do a bit of work in this area that was just starting, the effects of radiation on solids and crystals. You irradiate a crystal with X-rays or neutrons and it becomes colored. These are the so-called centers of color. Now I see that that was nanotechnology. The X-ray hits the atom, dislocating it, and the place where it was before becomes empty, but it isn’t compensating the electric charges of the place it came out of any longer. So there’s a capture of electron or electron holes that work as if they were a virtual atom with levels of excitement that can absorb light. And therefore the material becomes colored. We had a bunch of ideas in connection with this; for example, trying to make optical memories. Then Yvonne and I went to Pittsburgh to work with Roman Smoluchovski’s group. There was a group of spectacular people there; many won Nobel Prizes later on. So I stayed in an environment where all these people were keeping their eye on the future, sniffing out the future. Actually, Smoluchovski’s father invented just a little before Einstein a very important effect in physics, the Brownian Movement. The theory was actually Einstein’s, but he had a great admiration for Smoluchovski who described the effect before him. When Smoluchovski’s son went to the United States, Einstein welcomed him at Princeton with the following question: “What do you want to do?” I remember Roman Smoluchovski imitating Einstein twisting his hair and smoking. He answered he wanted to do atomic physics, to which Einstein replied: “Oh, then it’s not with me, it’s with Wigner.” This is another demigod, another one of the Nobel Prize-winning Hungarians. I didn’t work with Wigner directly, but when Smoluchovski went to Princeton and asked me to join him, whom did I meet? Wigner, the group’s head. I talked with him, discussed my ideas with him… these great guys are so constructive, aren’t they? Only the small ones need to push others down to think they’ve climbed up. It’s the relative movement of mediocre people.
But we were talking about the centers of color.
Yes. In scientific terms, I ended up by getting things right… When I returned to Brazil, I realized it was possible to compete with the foreigners with the technology I had here. It was easy, it was an X-ray tube. Yvonne would take the tube with which she conducted the refraction of molecules and crystals and she’d irradiate my little crystals. Brazil is the land of materials, it’s full of crystals here, so I would irradiate them and do the samples right here. And in my head I had that idea of optical memories with centers of color. It was an excellent idea but I didn’t manage to make it come true; it’s good to also talk about the things that didn’t work out, so we don’t get too arrogant, and for new generations to understand how things are. I returned with great enthusiasm and money. Because I was successful there with the Fullbright Foundation: I proposed that instead of isolated small grants, they should fund an entire project, in fact, a three-year program. I could bring American students together with guidance counselors, send Brazilians over there, it all looked beautiful!
But what was it that didn’t work out right?
I got a bee in my bonnet about creating a post-graduate program in São Carlos through this Fullbright program, and that worked out OK. The program was extended for another two years. I brought a bunch of people from Rio, CNPq started to help me, and then, in 1962, FAPESP was create… and solid state physics was growing here in São Carlos. This thing took off and suddenly São Carlos became the center where all the young people from Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Recife, Goiânia, etc. wanted to work on the new solid state physics. Besides the Peruvians, the Argentineans… In 1967 I discovered that I could do everything here: irradiate crystals, create the crystals, produce growth as was done with silicon in the Bell Labs. I started to go to backwards and forwards to the United States, created an international relationship, went to Germany, to a bunch of places; we got pretty well known, the students and I started publishing in the best journals in the field. São Carlos was finally breaking away from its early backwater status and acquiring a scientific culture of international standards, to the extent of having Americans from the Naval Research Laboratory come and do their doctorates with me over here. Some of them became important in American science, like Herbert Rabin, head of the US Navy’s space research. I saw that we could do optical memories. What is the fundamental thing for a memory? It’s being able to describe, read and delete. I could already do these three things with a little crystal at the atomic level, a memory far greater than the silicon one. I saw that we could compete and the Americans decided to finance this. I gathered my entire group, some 10 to 15 people, like Roberto Lobo, Milton Ferreira, Yvonne, etc. and proposed that we focus on this. And that was when disaster struck: as I was already CNPq member at this point in time, I decided to consult the Council about the resources the Americans were offering for the development of optical memory. We were under the military regime; I was being accused of being a communist and I even developed an ulcer; later I got tuberculosis, some of the professors from my team were being persecuted, there was great fear that these madmen might suddenly do away with everything, and then I presented the project. The CNPq president was General Mascarenhas; he was actually a relatively OK guy, with a strong connection to Geisel. The project was approved by the CNPq and moved onto the National Security Council. And then it was barred. I was told that the CNPq, in any event, would finance it, but it never did.
And the optical memory based on color impression was never developed here?
It was developed abroad and today it’s all the rage. Years after my request, RCA, in Princeton, made the first one. I’ve got this all documented. We told the US Navy that we couldn’t accept it.
So this was a loss for Brazil?
There’s absolutely no doubt about it.
We “missed the boat” at that point in time.
And others. I’ve “missed other boats” myself. But I didn’t miss one that I’m very proud of: to have created the National Program of Emerging Centers in the CNPq. That’s when I took Sérgio Rezende to Recife, which today has one of the best physics centers. I also don’t regret having set up Embrapa for high technology instrumentation; that’s when this whole business in agriculture and livestock farming started, which has boomed in less than 25 years. You can’t do anything in one or two years; there are no miracles. There has to be continuity and you have to have the strength to stand the disasters, that Brazilian lack of continuity. Jorge Sábato, a marvelous Argentinean materials engineer, and brother of Ernesto Sábato [author of El Escritor y Sus Fantasmas (The Author and his Ghosts) among many other books], created a concept, Sábato’s Triangle: you can only set in motion a virtuous mechanism for developing a country if companies, sources of knowledge and the government all interact. Today, I’m talking about the tetrahedron: governments, companies, universities and research institutes, and very importantly, NGOs, the Third Sector, without which there’s no environmental and social sustainability, or even global ethics, as we can see from the devastating anthropic effects. But getting back to the Emerging Centers program, in addition to Sérgio Rezende in Recife, I took people to Curitiba, who worked extremely well, and to Goiânia, Mato Grosso, Rio de Janeiro….. I could see that the business was to “plant” good people all over Brazil. That’s when Ernesto Pereira Lopes appeared in São Carlos. He was a businessman and a politician, a fantastic person. He and another congressman, Lauro Monteiro da Cruz, proposed creating a federal university in São Paulo. So I went to him and said we should create a new university, with a vision of the future. My idea was to make a federal university in São Carlos and create new engineering skills in Latin America, materials engineering. That’s when Reis Veloso, Pereira Lopes and Lauro Cruz backed me, the whole city backed me, and do you know why? “Because I had managed to become part of the community.”
And they created UFSCar (the Federal University of São Carlos) in 1969.
Yes, I was temporarily the university’s first Rector [until they found a permanent incumbent]. If it weren’t for Pereira Lopes I would never have achieved that – nor without Veloso. He told me that I wanted to put him in prison because I wanted him to raise money for me outside the rules of Ministry of Education and Culture. He used to say to me “I can’t”, and I’d say, “Look, Veloso, either you break eggs (to make the omelet) or you’re going to keep on having the same trashy universities you have now.” So I brought in materials engineering, I brought in [José Galizia] Tundisi, when nobody had yet started talking about the environment or ecology. I understood that to make a new university it was fundamental to make it small and of top quality. Various studies in the United States had shown that universities with more than 5,000 students begin to fall apart at the seams.
Was it possible to reconcile being Rector at UFSCar with your work at USP?
I never left USP. I worked for nothing at UFSCar, because I had to be in a position, morally, to say that I wasn’t after the position, but after an idea, a future vision, educational technology – after all I was a student of Anísio Teixeira. That’s why I brought in the creator of Basic – the famous Basic language – from the United States to lecture here; I brought people from California, from England, from France.
I have a question: what work did you do with lasers in São Carlos?
I worked with lasers with Sérgio Porto at Bell. I have works published in this area, but the person who made this first laser was Robert Lee Zimmerman, an American I brought in from MIT, who was tremendously creative and totally exotic. He had a small airplane. He flew here from the States. He used to go and watch the Quarup and other Brazilian Indian festivals. There are a lot of cases…
How did you get into physics?
From the family and sociological point of view I have my own experience to thank for that. My father was blind and my mother was a secretary who had qualified as an elementary school teacher; my family split up when I was 10 years old. I went to a boarding school and failed the third year of junior high school, in the science-oriented stream. I used to skip lessons. I was throwing my life away – and superficially. Then I met a family at the school I studied at. There were three boys and three girls, who had another type of education altogether. They used to read the poetry of Drummond, they listened to classical music – on Sundays they used to go and listen to concerts by young musicians. One of the boys was an athlete. In short, they were serious people who became my family. And that mediocre guy, who had flunked school, that comrade, became an individual who discovered? What did I discover? I think the beauty of the group, of the family, really, through the love and togetherness that exist between people. I changed – completely. And now in my old age, at almost 80, I’ve started realizing that all the computers and all the machines in the world are not enough to get a true education. The enormous violence in schools, with teachers leaving classrooms crying, is the fault of a unstructured and violent society, where we find the unemployed alcoholic husband, the wife with four children by four different fathers living on the impoverished outskirts of the city? How can children in school possibly avoid reproducing the social violence with which we are all saturated? Is there any way? I can’t expect families to improve; that’s something for 200 years down the road. Can I improve this child now? I can, provided he has an education, an educational methodology that allows the flame to be lit, as happened with me.
Your life has taken many turns.
Yes, but the picture I have built up of myself is more or less like this: first, basic and applied science, and then I went into the interdisciplinary area. First, I worked in really basic, fundamental science, then I moved into the applications part. For example, I went into medical physics, where I got involved with the people from medicine in Ribeirão Preto, with the Harvard Medical School and with groups in Italy. That entire tomographic images part, for example, or cryogenic surgery, falls into this area – in São Carlos, and afterwards in Ribeirão Preto, and also with the Cancer Hospital in São Paulo. When I retired Adib Jatene asked if I didn’t want to tutor an applied bioengineering group at the Dante Pazzanesi Institute. I accepted. I used to go there and tutor some ten engineers and physicists; that was great. I managed to do various things there, but one day I said to Adib that all the money that came into the institute was going into gauze and food for the patients and that there had to be a foundation to channel funding into the research area. So I ended up setting up the Adib Jatene Foundation there. I was the foundation’s first Chairman. I stayed for two years and then I came and set up Embrapa in São Carlos. I already had a vision of science being applied more in the corporate area and I thought that in order to really help Brazil develop I needed to work on something in which the country was the absolute king: tropical agribusiness, where Embrapa would open up the frontiers (and the farm gates…). But then I began to see that I needed to work with molecules in the microscopic world, and not just in the world of organic, complex systems, not in medical physics, but in molecular biophysics. Well, that’s when I went to Trieste, at the invitation of Salam, another Nobel Prize winner, and I became the director of biophysics and medical physics there in Trieste, a very beautiful place. I spent 12 years going there, organizing courses for the entire underdeveloped world, helping Salam set up the Third World Academy of Science, of which I’m also a member. It was a really stupendous time in my life. And the end result: I kept on working in medical physics, molecular biophysics, the idea of bioelectrics, asking myself about the origin of memory, what molecules are involved in memory, etc.
Was this move into medical physics result of Adib Jatene’s invitation?
No, it came twenty years before. When I had tuberculosis I went to the Medical School in Ribeirão to get treatment. That’s when ideas started coming to me.
Something applied to bones?
I managed to consolidate bone factures using electric fields and so I was invited to the Orthopedic Department of the Children’s Hospital at Harvard. That was because they saw that I’d managed to consolidate some fractures in half the normal time, for example, fractures called pseudo-arthritis, in which children are born with their feet very soft – just cartilage. I published articles on this and lectured three theses in Ribeirão… When I started thinking about molecules and this memory business and to introduce the idea of bioelectrics I was invited to major international conferences in this area. There were five of them, with half a dozen Nobel Prize winners, including Onsager. That’s when I managed to introduce this idea of bioelectrics as a fundamental idea in Biology. And today I’m also working on this with people from Unicamp who are making the theoretical model of these ideas of mine. We published a paper last year about biomolecular systems outside the equilibrium… that’s where extremely interesting quantum phenomena come in. So I worked with Professor Roberto Luzzi’s group, from Unicamp’s Physics area. We’ve done several pieces of work in this molecular biophysics area. Previously, they had set up a post-graduate molecular biophysics group in São Carlos and I invited a bunch of young people to work with me, because Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, but I’m supported by the feet of the young. I go backward and forward between molecular biology and medical physics, physics in agriculture, livestock farming, radiation dosimetry, instrumentation, educational technology, scientific dissemination, archeological dating, science and art, scientific policy, a real interdisciplinary mess… Now I’m sick, for the third or fourth time. I had a sickness that seemed like Parkinson’s Disease, but a great neuro-radiologist and researcher from USP in Ribeirão Preto, Antonio Carlos Santos, told me that in fact it was normal pressure hydrocephaly, a rarer and more difficult disease to diagnose.
And this brought you a new field for research?
I read about 200 works about this thing and I decided to be operated on in Ribeirão Preto. I had the operation. It seems they connected one key to the other side. So this thing of my not being able to walk in a straight line stopped. There’s just a little dizziness, but I no longer suffer from the depression I had, because they changed the neuronal circuitry. I had surgery where they implanted a valve and a 6 centimeter-long cannula in my head to drain off the excess liquid into the peritoneal cavity. But this system is precarious. It could suddenly get blocked and then I’d have to be operated on again in a hurry, because if not I’m going get dementia or die. As I needed to take my revenge on this disease I tried to find something better, by doing research. I’ve been working on this business for one and a half years now. I’ve had five different ideas for measuring intracranial pressure without resorting to an invasive brain procedure. Three of them had already been patented, one by Nasa, one by IBM and another by the University of Lithuania with an American university that’s working there. But, that left still two, see? And I’m working away on it. Then I began to think about how I could measure it in a Brazilian way, something really simple. That’s when the idea came to me that if there’s a device for measuring the deformation of a beam, called a strain gage, then it would be possible to measure intracranial pressure by the deformation that the excess liquid produces in the brain. So I went to the engineering department here at São Carlos, which is of the very highest level, and I prepared a test using cow bones to test if it could really see when I deformed the bone with a weight, and if I could read on the instrument the deformation that was the equivalent of intracranial pressure produced by liquids, in other words, blood and cephalic rachidian liquid.
What should this pressure be?
From 10 to 15 millimeters of mercury is normal. If it exceeds 15, as in my case, it’s already pathological. From 20 and above it is dangerous and a person may even go into a coma around 30. The fact is that monitoring this is extremely important. I got three skulls from the Federal University to study, except that a skull presents terrible problems when it comes to studying it because it’s full of holes. That’s when I had the idea of getting a small rubber balloon from my grandchildren and I put it inside the skull and blew it up. This is going to put pressure on the bone, it’s going to deform it and I’m going to measure it with what? With the so-called chip. I got my blood pressure apparatus and took it apart, so then I already had the pump and the measuring device. Except now it’s being used to measure pressure in the cranium. I blew it up and put the sensor in the same place where they had made a hole in my head. The pressure caused by the balloon simulated the intracranial pressure and then I saw that I could measure it in an extremely simple way. I dismantled the blood pressure apparatus and used the apparatus that was there in the Civil Engineering area. The funny thing is that on this very same day they were measuring a beam in the subway in São Paulo using the same device. They were preparing a technical report. I almost died of laughter! A hole in the subway in São Paulo and a hole in my head! Science really is universal and nature “doesn’t know” that physics, biology and engineering exist just the poor single discipline scientists, the curricula, the chapters in text books, etc. know that…