Amélia’s paths

Work by the researcher ranges from physics to education, from memory to scientific policy


Amélia Império Hamburger was a physics researcher who published some important works abroad when she was at the University of Pittsburgh, in the United States at the end of the 1950’s. However, it was at the junction between physics and various areas of human sciences that she obtained most prominence when she published studies and books on the preservation of scientific memory, epistemology and science and technology policy, in addition to organizing files of historical interest at the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (IFUSP). “She used to say she chose physics thinking about helping the country in the future,” says Ernst Wolfgang Hamburger, also a physicist, whom she met at USP and to whom she was married for more than 50 years. “It just so happens that her vision was not purely science-oriented. What most interested her was the social framework of science.”  Amélia died of cancer on April 1, aged 78.

The researcher graduated in 1954 from USP and worked with physicists, Philip Smith and Oscar Sala on the Van der Graaf particle accelerator. Two years later she went to do her Master’s in Pittsburgh. In 1958, she was the author of an article that was published in the first issue of the then recently created Physical Review Letters about nuclear reactions in the C14 and C13. A second, more complete work was published in the Physical Review in 1960, the year she returned to Brazil.

Four children were born in five years (between 1960 and 1964) from her union with Ernst (the fifth was born in 1970): Esther, anthropologist, Sônia, cultural producer, Vera, art director, Carlos (Cao), filmmaker and Fernando (Feco), photographer. In 1966, Amélia was one of the founders of the Brazilian Physics Society, under singular circumstances. “She was recovering from hepatitis at home and had been indicated by colleagues, along with Oscar Sala and Ross Douglas, to draft the proposed statutes of the new society. The other two went to her house and sat at the foot of her bed so that she could help them with the statute,”  relates Ernst.

Because of the bad political situation resulting from the military coup, the family went to Pittsburgh, where it remained from 1965 to 1967. At the time, Amélia was doing post-doctoral studies at the Carnegie Mellon University, but with a peculiarity: she had not done her PhD. “Various sensible voices at USP admitted that Amélia was a researcher who, although she had not completed her PhD in physics, had sufficient knowledge and experience to be recognized as a PhD,”  Ernst says. Amélia did research into the properties of magnetic crystals at low temperatures. “But, after some time she wanted to come back,”  he says. The decision proved to be traumatic. The couple was imprisoned by the organs of repression in December 1970. “Our youngest child was just eight months old and this worried Amélia a lot. She spent little time in prison, but was tortured and was beside herself.”

After the episode, the two managed to return to their careers at the Physics Institute at USP (IFUSP). Amélia became involved with the graduate course in physics teaching, wrote and gave students guidance about epistemological issues, mainly relating to topics of classical and quantum physics. “She was concerned with reinforcing our academic and political institutions and with all issues relating to education,”  says Sílvio Salinas, a professor and researcher from IFUSP. “Her work in epistemology and the history of science were motivated by her interests in teaching physics and in preserving the memory of science in the country.”

LUCIA MINDLIN LOEBConcern about scientific memory led her to organize the first volume of Obra científica de Mario Schönberg (Edusp, 2009) [Scientific work of Mario Schonberg] , which won the Jabuti Prize in 2010 in the Exact Sciences, Technology and IT category. Interested in scientific policy, the researcher organized two books on the history of FAPESP: FAPESP, uma história de política científica e tecnológica (FAPESP, 1999), [FAPESP: a history of scientific and technological policy], with Shozo Motoyama and Marilda Nagamini, and FAPESP 40 anos. Abrindo fronteiras (Edusp/FAPESP, 2004) [Forty years of FAPESP . Opening frontiers]. She was also one of the organizers of A ciência e as relações Brasil-França 1850-1950 (Edusp/FAPESP, 1996) [Science and Brazil-France relations, 1850-1950] and published with Retina Katz the book Flávio Império (Edusp, 1999) on her brother, architect, set designer, theater director and artist.

“Amélia was a great friend who worked tirelessly on behalf of science in Brazil,”  said the scientific director of FAPESP, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. “She always defended the value of basic research and the progress of science, in the broadest and non-utilitarian sense of this expression. She was a scientist, a militant and on top of it all, along with Ernst she brought up a family of educated and intelligent people. She will be sorely missed.”

The president of FAPESP, Celso Lafer, showed his sorrow equally. “Amélia Hamburger contributed in a very important way to the organization and disclosure of the memory of FAPESP,”  he said. “French historian, Pierre Norat, talks of the importance of the locations of memory that need to be and must be preserved. Over the years, FAPESP has been an important place of research and science memory in the State of São Paulo, with national repercussions. The work of professor Amélia contributed to the creation of this place of memory to keep alive the soul of the institution.”