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Interview

Roberto Salmeron: A high-energy physicist

MIGUEL BOYAYANTime appears not to be of much importance to the physicist Roberto Salmeron to judge by the manner with which he ignores it. His routine would devastate any schedule, whether it be in Brazil or France. His most common activities include conferences, lectures and courses, participation in official commissions, support for Brazilian physicists in international cooperation enterprises, counseling for Brazilian students abroad, interpretations of someone else’s experiments, analysis of Brazilian scientific policy, articles and, more recently, planning for writing books. When he has spare time, he likes to paint. Perhaps all of this energy would not cause so much of a fright if the person in question was not eighty-two years of age and did not live on the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris.

Born in the city of São Paulo, physicist Salmeron is the son of factory workers who came from Spain. He fulfilled his parents’ dreams by graduating in engineering from the polytechnic College of the University of São Paulo (USP) at the end the 40’s but quickly migrated to physics, won over by a fascination that would accompany him for years. He was the last Brazilian assistant to the mythical Italian Professor Gleb Wataghin, who formed and enchanted a spectacular generation of Brazilian physicists.

After the return of Professor Wataghin to Italy, Dr. Salmeron completed his formal education in physics at the University of Brazil (currently UFRJ) in Rio, and went on to work at the Brazilian Center of Physics Research (CBPF) during 1950. Afterwards he spent some time at Manchester University, in England, at CERN – European Organization for Nuclear Research, at the University of Brasilia (UnB) and at the Polytechnic College of Paris, from which he retired.

During his stay at the UnB, Dr. Salmeron lived through a period as fertile in ideas and innovations as it was frustrating. The military coup of 1964 interrupted an important experience in the country’s university level teaching and forced the physicist to go abroad, as he could not manage to work within his own country. “It was the most difficult period of my life”, he recalls.

During this peregrinate period, Salmeron transformed himself into the rare case of being a professional reference point, of a physicist internationally respected, unifying himself into an ethical and political reference as a professional interested in contributing to research and to an improved standard of teaching, which would inevitably make his country better. Rooted in Paris for more than thirty years, today. Salmeron is working on an approximation between the Polytechnic of Paris and USP and UFRJ with the objective of cooperating with friends and colleagues who are working to improve the formation of Brazilian engineers.

During the long interview that he gave us, he demonstrated his concern with the constant lack of financial structure and the planning of scientific projects that are carried out through international cooperation. For example, he revealed that Brazil has lost out on projects within the CERN to countries such as Pakistan. As well, he criticized the lack of major scientific programs that would generate an impact abroad. All, I must add, with a great deal of enthusiasm.

You are retired, you are 82 years of age, but on this trip to Brazil you have a full schedule, visiting various cities in the country. What will make up this hectic program?
I’m coming more often to São Paulo, São Carlos, Rio and Brasília, but there are always other things to do in other states. A few months ago I was in Fortaleza, at a congress and I also have to go to Belém to give a few lectures.

Does this means that you’re really continuing at full operational level in Brazil and France?
I am. Evidently in France I’m no longer carrying out any experiments. I stopped after I retired at seventy. On the physics part I continue to be interested in the interpretation of experimental results carried out on the question on which I worked for fifteen years, namely the search for the plasma of quark-gluon. Although I’m not doing any experiments, I get to know the results of the work done in Europe and the United States and I’m interested in their interpretations. The group that I had coordinated before retiring continues experimenting on what I had begun there at the CERN, and they think they have discovered the plasma of quark-gluon. But I don’t believe it.

Why not?
The plasma problem is complex. One needs to carry out a collision of the nuclei of two atoms, preferably heavy atoms. For example, lead against lead or uranium against uranium. We do this so in order to place the particles into a state of very high energy. From this collision of the nuclei, if the phenomenon actually exists, the protons and the neutrons should dissociate themselves into quarks and gluons. How might we be able to know that this phenomenon exists? By analyzing the particles that come out after the collision. There are certain particles that, if the plasma exists, have to be produced with a certain probability and have to come out with certain properties concerning their energy. Now this is a nuclear process that is extremely complex. Thus, suppose that we were to study a certain particle named A, there are other nuclear processes that also produce this particle A. It’s not only the plasma. That is to say, that for us to know if this particle was produced by the plasma we have to exclude allof the other possible processes. I made up a simple theoretical model through which I demonstrated that certain particles that are characteristic of plasma are also produced with the same properties in classical nuclear processes and they have nothing to do with plasma. Consequently, we don’t need plasma to explain their production.

But exactly why don’t you believe that your old work group has discovered the quark-gluon particle?
Because there is more than one possible interpretation of the phenomenon. A phenomenon can only be considered new if there is no other possible interpretation. But ,if it were to be explained by a classical process, well known, then we don’t need it.

You carried out this activity of the analysis of experiments in Paris. When you come here, what do you do?
Things which are very different, as for example, on this trip. The Ministry of Science and Technology established a commission to choose the new Director of the CBPF. Making up the commission are Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz the Unicamp Rector, José Roberto Leite the Director of Scientific and Technological Development at the CNPq, Fernando Zawislak from UFRGS, Marco Antônio Raupp the Director of the National Laboratory for Scientific Computation and myself. I’m here now because we have four candidates and we are going to interview them.

What other projects are you involved with here in Brazil?
I’m doing something that interests me a lot, which is working on teaching. I’m a retired physicist from the Polytechnic School of Paris, the École Polytechnique, one of the most important in the world and certainly the most important in France, along with the École Normal Supérieure. I have achieved an agreement between the École Polytechnique and USP for the campuses of São Paulo and São Carlos, and as well for the UFRJ. Through this agreement, the two Brazilian universities have the right to send graduate students to the Polytechnique. They will study for two an a half years at the Polytechnique and then receive an engineering degree there. They will then have two diplomas, one Brazilian and the other French. It’s an excellent idea and at the highest level that exists in the world for graduate courses.

How did you manage to achieve these agreements?
The Polytechnic of Paris has opened its doors to many countries. In Latin America it now cooperates with Brazil, Chile and Mexico. In Europe with Germany, Poland, Sweden, Russia and Romania. In Asia with China, South Korea and Vietnam… Since I am a Brazilian, they spoke with me to see if I was interested in helping to make contact with Brazilian universities. As I had come from USP and had constant contact as well with the UFRJ, I dealt with making this approximation.

How does the agreement work?
Brazilian professors select students of engineering, physics, chemistry, who have shown an interest. Let’s say thirty from a total of seventy or eighty candidates. The first criteria is to be good at mathematics. After the Brazilian selection, there is a commission of professors from the Polytechnique who interview these students. And once again they select a certain number. On the 2nd of April of this year I had an immense pleasure because the first group from USP, who went there during 2002, graduated. There were eleven students from the Polytechnic College of São Paulo, from the Engineering College of São Carlos and from the Physics and Mathematics Institutes of the two Campuses. There are already two other groups there, each with fourteen students. This year eleven were selected from USP and three from UFRJ because in Rio only a few candidates came forward. My objective with this is to contribute to raising the level of teaching at engineering colleges here in Brazil.

Who pays for those who stay in Paris?
The Polytechnique. This is something very fine in France and everyone has the same right, there is no discrimination. French students have a grant of around 1,300 euros per month (roughly R$ 5,000). Foreigners as well. With this money they can pay their boarding, their food, their study material and have almost 400 euros left over per month for the cinema, subway, clothes etc.

What like was your work at the École Polytechnique of Paris?
Sometimes, I had to teach courses on questions related to my work theme, but my main activity was research and to direct research groups. As well as a physicist I am an engineer. I previously graduated at the Polytechnic of USP and it was during the engineering course that I began to get a taste for physics, which I had taught in university preparatory courses and at high schools, as many young people do today. My family was poor and I had to earn for myself, but also to assist my family.

This wasn’t so common in the decades of the 60’s and 70’s, is that not so? Someone coming from a humble family background, managing to frequent good public schools, getting to university and making the progress that you have made, so substantial within the university .
I had immense luck in my life. My family were factory workers. However, it may seem incredible, but all had a cultural interest. All of them read considerably and were tremendously politicized. I was a boy when the Spanish civil war began. I read newspapers every day, and I listened daily to discussions about what was happening. I have a recollection of that time with my father and uncles; they were against General Franco, against Fascism, and in solidarity with the Spanish republic. Why did I study engineering? Since very small I had listened to my father, my grandfather – my mother’s father – saying “Roberto is going to be an engineer, he’s not going to be a factory worker”. To study engineering became something that was obvious, I never thought of doing anything else. But during the engineering course I had an excellent teacher of physics at the Polytechnic College who was called Luiz Cintra do Prado. He was one of the best physics professors that I have seen in my career, within all of the countries that I have lived. I really enjoyed the course, I really enjoyed the logic of physics. Afterwards when I had graduated, professor Cintra do Prado invited me to be his assistant. This was what opened up my university career. I worked as his assistant and at the same time, for a year, once in my lifetime, I worked as an engineer, shortly after having graduated, at the Electro-Technical Institute of USP. But, since I had a liking for physics, when I was a student at the Polytechnic sometimes I would assist the courses of professor Gleb Wataghin at the Philosophy Faculty. One day I got to speak to him and from then on I began to work on cosmic rays.

Gleb Wataghin accepted you then, immediately?
Immediately. I resigned from the Electro-Technical Institute and accepted a scholarship at the College of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters, which was a lot less than my previous salary. Did you know that Professor Wataghin was a delightful man, of extraordinary humanity? He dealt with everybody equally as Sir or Madam. The youngest student who would go to talk to him he would call Sir. In our very first conversation he asked me: “Do you, Sir, realize that as an engineer you could well become a very rich man in your country?”. I replied: “I do, Professor”. And he: “And, Sir, you want to be a physicist?” To which I replied: “I want to try”. He remained thinking for a few moments and then said: “Are you married?” And I said: “I’m engaged.” Then He: “And she knows and is in agreement?” To which I replied: “She knows, Professor and is in agreement”. He talked to me as if he were preparing me for a catastrophe. It was very funny. In the end, he said enthusiastically: “All right then. let’s talk physics”.

Was it then that you entered into the world of particle physics?
It was. The experiments at the laboratory of professor Wataghin were all done with imported Geiger counters, which very often arrived broken. He suggested that I should build these counters on a large scale here. He was very enthusiastic about cosmic rays. And he told me that in a few years time he was going to go to Europe to work on cosmic rays in the laboratories in the Alps, in a marvelous countryside of snow that didn’t exist here in Brazil. He told me that sunset in the Alps was a spectacle and at night I would be able to see the Milky Way with millions of stars. Not only that: There in Europe, he said, there were lots of conferences and he would be going to meet (Albert) Einstein, (Adrien) Dirac, (Enrico) Fermi, (Niels) Bohr, (Wolfgang) Pauli… “You are going to see how it is that these men think, how they experiment, which is something marvelous”, my Professor Wataghin told me. Then he stopped and said: “With physics we don’t become rich but we have a lot of fun”.

And you yourself can confirm this?
I can confirm it. I think that throughout all of my life I was paid to enjoy myself. Right from that early time until today I have looked at physics with the same pleasure, with the same determination.

Did you yourself get to know those cited by Professor Wataghin?
Not all of them. Einstein and Fermi died more or less at that period between 1954 and 1955. All of the others I came to know.

Why did you decide to leave USP and go to Rio de Janeiro?
I was the last young Brazilian to be guided by Professor Wataghin. He stayed at USP for sixteen years and decided to return to Italy. When he left there was a vacuum at the Philosophy College. That is to say, there were eminent physicists there at that time such as Mario Schenberg, Marcello Damy, Oscar Sala, Paulus Pompéia, Abrão de Moraes, all of them excellent, but the personality of Professor Wataghin, that had been there, was missing. I decided to go to the recently founded CBPF, having received an invitation from Professor Cesar Lattes, and I stayed there for three years.

And why did you leave the CBPF?
I was a young man with left wing views and everybody knew it, I didn’t hide anything. But I was never linked to any political party and didn’t take part in any political activity. I never had any time for it. And then there was an incident. We, the CBPF physicists visited the Navy Arsenal in Rio where there were very well mounted physics laboratories. We spent many hours there and had lunch with the officers. Admiral Álvaro Alberto, at that time the President of the CNPq participated in the visit and by chance during the lunch, I sat down next to him. We were photographed and the photos appeared in the Navy’s magazine. I got to know later that the Rio chief of police telephoned the Admiral saying that I was left wing. The Admiral was furious… with me. So much so that I never got a grant from the CNPq.

Did you ask for a grant?
By chance I ran into Professor Costa Ribeiro, from Rio de Janeiro, who was on the Board of the CNPq. I told him that I wanted to go to England on a grant and he counseled me not to ask for it at that moment. It was a sign, was it not? In reality, he was my friend. It would have been a lot worse to have been refused a grant.

The Admiral was mad at you only because of the photography episode?
Isn’t it incredible? Shortly afterwards I got proof of the rage that he felt for me. Cesar Lattes wanted to get a synchrotron for Rio de Janeiro, identical to that with which he had carried out very important work at Berkeley, when he produced the artificial pi-meson. So engineers and physicists from Chicago University came down to the CBPF to spend some time in Rio and to project the synchrotron. At a certain moment, they remained in one of the CBPF buildings. Admiral Álvaro Alberto gave an order that barred me from entering the building where the Americans had been working. I though that that was ridiculous and unacceptable and decided to leave. It would have been something immoral for me myself to have accepted that condition. Therefore, I decided to resign from the CBPF. At the same time, I got to know that Unesco had been offering study scholarships abroad. I requested one of them for myself and obtained it. I went off to study for my master’s degree at Manchester University. This was back in 1953.

In cosmic rays?
Yes, in cosmic rays. I chose Manchester because I knew that there they had the most important cosmic ray laboratory in the world. And I knew that Patrick Blackett, the Director and Professor of the laboratory, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, was the authority on the subject. Afterwards I learned that he was also a great scientific leader, the best science administrator that I have known in my life. I’ll give you an example of the great vision that he had. During the Second World War, the English enlisted in the armed forces to fight. This included the universities and naturally the universities became almost empty. Blackett said: “It’s not possible to continue in this manner because the war is going to end some day, so we must think about preparing young people for after the war”. And he made the recommendation that the lecturers return to the universities.

And this happened?
Yes. Many university personnel were recalled but worked in what was called the Civil Defense. That is to say, when there was bombing they worked as firemen, as assistant nurses, those kind of things. But the courses never stopped.

Was it Professor Blackett who put your name forward for the CERN?
It was. When I had written my thesis and was ready to return to Brazil, Professor Blackett called me in and asked if I would like to spend some more time in Europe working at the CERN. I didn’t even know what the CERN was as it had just been established. He said that it would do me good to spend one or two more years in Europe. I went off to Geneva, spoke with the CERN Director and ended up being hired for a year. Then the CERN was just at its beginning. In reality, it didn’t even exist. We worked out of wooden sheds lent to us by Geneva airport. When I went there were less than ten experimental physicists – I was one of the first ten experimental physicists contracted by the CERN. We had absolutely nothing.

How long did you stay there?
The idea was to stay a year. I ended up staying for a second, a third, whereupon they gave me a permanent contract. I could have retired there if I had so wished. During the first phase, I remained for eight years in Geneva.

The first particle accelerator was ready after how long?
In less than three and a half years – a record. The next one, much larger, on which I worked, took five years. It was at that time the largest accelerator in the world. Today a very large proton accelerator, named the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is being built. In reality what happens is that the protons pass through a series of accelerators before arriving at the LHC.

Is the LHC going to take the place of the Large Electron Position (LEP), the electron accelerator that was deactivated?
Exactly. It’s going to be in the same tunnel of 27 kilometers in circumference. But, it is a different machine because the conditions for accelerating electrons are very different from those of proton accelerators.

You returned to Brazil directly from the CERN to the UnB. Who invited you?
In truth there was no formal invitation. I had participated in discussion groups concerning the founding of the university with friends interested in improving university level teaching. Now the person who put together the structure of the UnB was Anísio Teixeira, the greatest educator that Brazil has ever had. He had long ago thought about a new structure for the old University of Brazil in Rio, today the UFRJ, long before people had been thinking about the UnB. He wanted to introduce this structure of Institutes and Colleges, which we have today in all Brazilian universities, when the University of Brazil changed its location to the University City on the island called Ilha do Fundão. But in Brasilia we had begun before.

Before the UnB was this not normal?
No, it was not. The originality of the UnB was the following. The structure that is today adopted at USP and at the UFRJ, indeed in all universities, began in Brasilia in 1962. However, it was only one of the innovations, that of having central Institutes and Colleges.For example, the idea was to have the Physics Institute where lectures for students covering all of the disciplines of engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics medicine, biology and so on, were given. This had not happened before the Brasilia experience. In 1970, there was a university reform where this system was put into practice. Up until 1970, the Polytechnic College of USP had a department of mathematics and the Philosophy School had another. Another very important change with Brasilia was that we changed the structure of the university career. At that time, each discipline had a chair and assistants. We were the ones who introduced a university career plan in which the young professional would begin with the title of assistant after having completed his obligatory thesis in order to begin his career. The lecturer had to pass through the different positions of assistant professor, associate professor and incumbent professor; and in each one of these various steps there were levels for assistant professor No 1, 2 and 3, incumbent 1,2 and 3 and so on. We were the ones who ended the career structure of chair and assistants. This was a major innovation. And in the university reform of 1970 this system was introduced for all of Brazil.

Why is there the belief that Darcy Ribeiro was the great inspiration behind the UnB?
He had an enormous influence on the actual existence of the university, but he wasn’tthe inspirational force. Darcy had worked with Anísio Teixeira, who had then directed the National Institute of Pedagogical Studies (Inep) at the Ministry of education. It was through Anísio that Darcy learned exactly what made up a university. Anísio dreamt up and launched the project during the time that the capital city of Brasilia was being built. Darcy became super enthusiastic and then worked hard for its success. Anísio perceived the need for specialists to relate how the university should function within their own area such as medicine, engineering, biology, chemistry etc. And when he proposed this idea Darcy agreed with it and began to set up counseling groups. One day they wrote to me inviting me to participate in one of these groups as an adviser. I came a number of times from Geneva to attend these discussions. In the end, after a lot of work as an adviser, I ended up deciding to come to Brasilia as if it were something natural within my work, without having received a formal invitation. Everything was going smoothly until the military coup came along. It was dramatic. I had been in Brasilia only a few months and had not asked for leave of absence from the CERN. I simply resigned as I thought that I would never be leaving Brazil again. I began working in Brasilia on the 2nd of January 1964. And the military takeover occurred on the 31st of March, or better, on the 1st of April. And then there began a tough time as the university personnel were highly persecuted.

For how long did you resist?
Two years, until the end of 1965. But really it was an extraordinary period because there had been a lot of enthusiasm in Brasilia. Darcy Ribeiro was the university rector for only a few months. The university was created by Juscelino, but the law was only published during President João Goulart’s time. Since Anísio had organized the school system in Brasilia and knew everything about teaching in the city, President Juscelino wanted him as the rector. But he didn’t want that because his family lived in Rio and didn’t want to move. It was then that he suggested that Darcy become the rector. Anísio would them remain as vice so as to give support to Darcy. And Darcy, with all his extraordinary energy, had been working like a madman. President João Goulart ended up liking Darcy so much that he invited him to be the Minister of Education and shortly afterwards, Secretary of State. Anísio, as he was the vice rector, then became rector. This was in 1963. It was at that time that I arrived at the UnB.

And why wasn’t all of this abundant enthusiasm enough to stop all of the 223 professors resigning in 1965?
Because it was impossible to stay. The idea of resigning had been maturing individually in each of us. Anything that was to happen at the university was known by the secret service within a quarter of an hour afterwards. If there was a student discussion in the corridors, the police knew 15 minutes later. It had reached that point. Our lectures were taped and given to the police. We had been working intensely with enthusiasm that I had never seen before in any other place. The professors and students worked under conditions so difficult and deficient, that sometimes it pained me. But the students did not complain, they understood. It was a very constructive atmosphere.

Even with the coup?
Even after the coup. All the professors and students were conscious that we had been doing something new. Therefore in Brasilia the part associated with military persecution was constant. If there was to be a seminar in the amphitheater there would be policemen present. We had policemen enrolled as students. It wasn’t possible for you to work knowing that the department colleague at your side had been dismissed or taken prisoner, you couldn’t remain at peace. I had a lot of contact with the military personnel, trying to explain to them what was being done. Sometimes they invited me to drink coffee in the evening so that they could complain about the university. This was the environment. As you can see resignation was inevitable.

Your solution was to return to Geneva?
When I resigned, I stayed five or six months unemployed and it was my wife Sonia who sustained the family as a psychoanalyst. The Director General of the CERN, Victor Weisskopf, knew what had been happening at the UnB. One day there appeared at home a secretary from the French embassy saying that he had a letter from Professor Weisskopf to give to me personally by hand. It was a contract, already signed by Weisskopf, for me to return to the CERN. I even kept this letter for three months before deciding to go.

Why?
Because I didn’t want to leave Brazil. I even attempted to get work at universities in Rio, Minas Gerais and Bahia, but there was no interest from the rectors, most definitely because of the political climate. So I ended up returning to Geneva. Psychologically this was the most difficult period of my life. It was very tough. At the CERN, Professor Weisskopf gave me the same lifetime position that I had had before, which was very high. So I remained a further year and a half at the CERN. During this period I also received invitations to go to the universities of Oxford, in the United Kingdom, Columbia, in Nova York State, Trieste, in Italy and to the Polytechnic School of Paris. We could have remained In Geneva until I would retire. Life there was very good, my children’s education was very high and the university was excellent. But, after a lot of discussion with my wife, we concluded: “If we had to educate our children outside of Brazil we should go to Paris, because there the children would develop inan intellectual environment unique in the world”. Although the physics in Paris was at the highest international level, we went to Paris because of our children not because of physics. Physics of a very high level was also present at the CERN.

How do you see present day physics here in Brazil?
Physics, like all of the sciences, has progressed considerably in Brazil, especially over the last thirty years. We have many well-trained physicists who are very competent. But there are very few groups that make an international impact. This occurs due to the lack of an infrastructure that allows for three fundamental conditions for scientific research: an authority that defines priorities, and whose decisions are respected; agility so that a decision with respect to a project can be taken in a short period of time; and continuity in the financing of projects. Also missing are years of experience of the scientific community, with an acute critical spirit, within a maturing process, so that the people involved in the work acquire the habit of going as deep as possible into the specific problem that they are studying, of going to the final consequences so that they can prove themselves.

Brazilian participation in important international projects is also very small, even though we have the people capable of participating in such projects. There are certain branches of physics that can only be carried out through international cooperation. Even in rich countries such as the United States, France, England, German, Italy and Switzerland, there are certain branches that not one of them can do on their own. This is for two reasons: the financial question and the timescale of the work. There are certain pieces of equipment that, with international cooperation, can take as long as eight to ten years to be built, and have the participation of ten, fifteen or twenty countries.

If a country wanted to do it on its own, when it would be completed the question would already be obsolete, or perhaps it wouldn’t reach completion. International cooperation is indispensable. Look at two examples, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina and the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (Soar) in Chile. These two important projects were approved because there had been decisive participation by FAPESP. Unfortunately, this rarely occurs in Brazil, because decisions are taken by committees who tend to distribute small allocations of money to various groups and do not have the authority, as FAPESP has, to make decision, to take on responsibility, to assist strongly in the funding of a large project. There is a lack of infrastructure for international cooperation in Brazil, beginning with the need for a restructuring of financial sources. When there is international cooperation, the country must assume the responsibility of building the equipment. This construction may take years and traveling is always necessary to keep in contact with all of the laboratories that are participating. And in Brazil there is no structure such as this.

Can you give me a concrete example of this lack of structure?
I can speak about the specific case of particle physics: if a Brazilian group wanted to work at the CERN there is no structure in Brazil that could finance the equipment and travel. For each single project there is a fight to obtain financing. Look at a dramatic case: there are almost one hundred Brazilian physicists who have presented projects to work on four experiments that must be done at the CERN’s LHC particle accelerator. These Brazilian projects were presented some years ago, were approved by the CERN, but have still not been approved in Brazil. What is happening is that, since for each part of the project there is a time limit and Brazil doesn’t make a move, the responsibilities are being passed to other countries. For example, one of the experiments calls for a large piece of an electromagnet, which is trivial for Brazil to manufacture, with the quality of our industry it could be made even in one of the National Nuclear Energy Commission laboratories. The Brazilian group proposed, the CERN accepted, and during two to three years nothing happened. As each piece has to be finished within a certain period, the project was passed to Pakistan. Brazil has already lost out. And other projects that Brazilians want to carry out are being passed to other countries.

When Brazil enters into these cooperative projects at the CERN, does it also have to come in with money?
It has to come in with equipment, which for us is excellent, its all cutting edge stuff. The CERN is very large, costs a lot and is financed by twenty countries (the owners of the CERN). But countries that participate in these experiments, such as Brazil, don’t finance the CERN, they participate in the funding of the experiments of which they have a share. This is different funding, which has nothing to do with the funding of the CERN itself. In order to evaluate the cost of participation in these experiments, the cost per physicist and per year must be evaluated. When this calculation is done, one will find that the cost of an experiment carried out by Brazilians in Geneva costs the same as carrying out solid state physics here in São Paulo or in Rio. There is a very serious lack of information: particle physics is no more expensive than other types of physics. If we were to make up a team of a Brazilian group with ten physicists this might cost, let’s say, US$ 1 million to be spent over a number of years. Brazil pays for this but almost everything is made in the industries of the country itself. There has to be part payment in the first year, in the second year, in the third year etc. This equipment will be used during eight to ten years. When one adds up how many years it will be used and how many people will be working on it, the cost per person per year is the same as with other projects. The difficulty is: how can a CNPq committee, with a limited budget, approve a US$ 1 million project if it doesn’t have the money? Therefore a special structure is required from which this financing comes. And this has to be a national project. Here there is also a lack of large national projects that mobilize priorities. There is no clear determination that establishes the line that will be given priority in the budget so as to have international impact. Lines of research created to produce international impact don’t exist here.

But doesn’t this only depend on money?
No. It depends on money and structure. Also there is the cultural part: scientists need to accept that this has to be done.

Do you yourself believe that this mentality is not present?
There’s very little. It’s not even close to that present in Europe and the United States. In France, when the government defines a priority evidently with doesn’t just fall out of the sky and isn’t only done by the authority. The question is studied by competent people over a period of time, using foreign consultants, and if the idea matures then it becomes a priority. As soon as it is launched, this priority is accepted by all, nobody protests. The concern “you have ‘x’ scientists and have a certain amount of money ‘y’, so let’s divide ‘y’ by ‘x’ doesn’t exist.

And who should have the responsibility for this funding?
I believe it should be the federal government together with the country’s research foundations. For example, we have people like Sérgio Rezende, the president of Finep, and José Roberto Leite at the CNPq, who know that there must be an infrastructure and are working to find a solution. An idea that is being developed is that by way of the sectorial funds, an infrastructure for international collaboration will be built, clearly not only for physics.

What do you yourself believe will be most important for physics in the future?
A report was issued some two years ago by a North American committee on this very issue. The conclusion was that in physics there will be five important fields: particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics, atomic physics and physics in medicine, biology and materials.

Do you, Sir, have faith in science, in education in Brazil… Do you have faith in God?
I don’t have, no. Not even when I was a little boy. My mother was a devout Catholic. So much so that she called me Roberto Aureliano Salmeron because I was born on the day for Saint Aurelian, and my mother and grandmother gave me the name in homage to the Saint. My father was not religious and I assimilated this without indoctrination. My mother wanted me to learn the catechism. I remember that on Sundays I would go off to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school in the district of Campos Elísios in Sao Paulo to assist catechism classes. But what really interested me was to play football as they had a marvelous playground… So I went to play football in the priests’ school.

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