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Angelo Machado: Between books and dragonflies

Angelo Machado talks about his specialties: neurobiology, dragonflies, children's literature and environment

GLÁUCIA RODRIGUESResearcher Angelo Machado has the habit of taking big leaps from time to time. Graduated as a physician, he specialized in neuroanatomy. Once retired, he entered an entrance exam for zoology and became a renowned entomologist. When 50 years old, he began to write books for children and is an acclaimed author. Simultaneously with these activities, he works as an environmentalist, with an emphasis on the preservation of endangered  species. At the age of 72, he flies over all these subjects with the lightness of an insect. To be more precise, as if he were a dragonfly, an animal for which he has been nurturing a faithful passion since the age of 15.

Born in Belo Horizonte, Angelo Machado spent all his life as a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) – with the exception of two and a half years when he was living in Chicago, United States, at Northwestern University, where he did postdoctoral studies. He wrote over a hundred scientific articles on neurobiology and entomology and described 48 new species and four genera of dragonflies. At the same time, his name was incorporated into 27 living beings, including dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, spiders and even a fungus, as homage for his works by other researchers.

Today, his exuberant scientific production seems to interest him less than his present-day hobby, writing for children. Although he is still active as a researcher and emeritus professor at UFMG, Machado discovered the fantastic world of children’s literature 20 years ago. At the same time that he tells stories, he teaches a bit of biology in his books, which at the beginning earned him various criticisms from those who do not think it possible to reconcile literature with science.

The father of four children – Lúcia, Flávia, Paulo Augusto and Eduardo – and grandfather of six grandchildren, Machado is married to Conceição, a researcher in cell biology. At the beginning of his career, she worked and published papers with her husband, and both created UFMG’s Neurobiology Laboratory. About 25 years ago, Machado went to the Zoology Department and Conceição continued in the same line of research where she is to this date. Together, they are the only couple in the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

From being a neurobiologist, you turned into an entomologist. But you say that it has always been your passion to study insects. Why did you not go straight to entomology instead of doing medicine?
In those days, in 1953, the natural history course was beginning and there was only one good professor and researcher in an area that didn’t attract me. I thought of doing agronomy to be able to study entomology, but I looked at the program and noted that there were heaps of things that didn’t interest me. So I ended up with medicine, because the basic course was very good, both in theory and in practice. If it were today, I would have done biological sciences and a doctorate in entomology.

Did you go so far as to act as a doctor?
Not after graduating. But in the sixth year, when I was an intern at the Odete Valadares Maternity Home, in Belo Horizonte, I did a lot of childbirths. But thank God I didn’t dream up doing obstetrics, which is the most tedious thing in the world.

And the interest for insects?
My liking for the natural sciences was awakened by Professor Henrique Marques Lisboa. He was the chair professor of the Medical School and he liked giving practical lessons at our primary school. He would take us to see the things from the forest and show us how to catch and raise tadpoles and larvae of aquatic insects. I began to collect insects that I caught on the farm. In those days, I was a sexton and one day they told me about a priest who understood everything about insects. I took some beetles inside a little box for him to identify. The priest looked and said, “This one, this one and this, I’ll give you the name tomorrow. The others, I don’t know”. “What an ignorant priest”, I thought. Afterwards, I found out that he was the greatest specialist in the world in a family of beetles that had 20 thousand species. I became a friend of Padre Francisco Pereira and I learned entomology with him. Together, we did eight expeditions to the Amazon and we got to know several tribes of Indians who are excellent collectors of insects. This experience was important when I became a writer. The Indians are in five of my books.

Of all insects, you are fascinated by dragonflies. Why?
I have an aunt, Lúcia Machado de Almeida, who was a writer of children’s literature. In two of her books, insects are important: The Devil’s Scarab and The Case of the Butterfly Atiria. One day, she said to me, “There’s a professor called Newton Dias dos Santos who is giving a course at the Education Institute and understands a lot about dragonflies. Take your dragonflies there and he can give you the scientific names”. I was 16 years old, I went to see him with a little box with five dragonflies and said, “Professor, Aunt Lúcia told me you could give me the names of these dragonflies”.  He looked at me and said the following, “I’m not going to give you the name of any dragonfly”. I was dismayed. But he went on, “You yourself are going to find the names”. He gave me the manuscript of his thesis on dragonflies from Lagoa Santa, with a recommendation to go home, study and discover them myself. Next day, I went back there, some names I got right, others I got wrong, and he showed me why I had gone wrong. That was decisive. Instead of simply giving the solution, he showed me the way. Those dragonflies were commonplace. If he had given me what I had asked for, I would just have five names. As he didn’t give me them, I’m dealing with dragonflies to this day. I spent my vacations in Rio in the house of my uncle, the writer Aníbal Machado, and I went to Newton Santos’s laboratory in the National Museum daily, to study dragonflies. I went back the following year. That’s how I became a specialist in dragonflies.

GLÁUCIA RODRIGUESHow many writers were there in the family?
Besides Aunt Lúcia, there was my cousin Maria Clara Machado, and my uncle, Aníbal Machado, an important name in Brazilian literature. My father, Paulo Machado, also wrote a book that won an award. What we don’t know is how a scientist appeared in a family like that…

Let me put an inevitable question: what’s the fun in studying dragonflies?
There are two basic reasons. One is esthetic. The dragonfly is the prettiest animal in the world. The transparent wings, the big eyes, the lightness, the speed of its flight, they are beautiful. The other reason is biology, which is very interesting, because they spend part of their lives in the water where they lay their eggs. For taxonomic studies, which is what I am doing today, the group of the dragonflies (Odonata) is very good. It is reasonably well known, but new species are still found. That is very difficult, for example, with birds and butterflies, now much studied. But not like it is in certain families of beetles, which have so many new species that it’s no longer any fun describing them.

You published your first paper on dragonflies when you were very young, didn’t you?
It was in 1953. I was in the first year of the Medical School. Newton supervised me, and I published the description of an unknown female dragonfly. I was 18 years old. One year later, I discovered the first new species. Today, I have a hundred scientific papers published, and 60 of these are about dragonflies.

But the other 40 articles are about neurobiology. Why did you choose this area?
One day, Professor Liberato João Afonso DiDio, who occupied the anatomy chair, invited me to be a scholarship holder and, afterwards, his assistant, I used to like dissecting, but I didn’t see much future in that because I was more from the area of microscopy. So I began to study and to lecture neuroanatomy, because that would lead me directly to histology, to the cell, and that was what I liked. I studied, and I published a book that is used to this date, Functional Neuroanatomy.

You also worked in the United States with electron microscopy. What was this period like?
We were there for two years, I and Conceição, my wife. Let me tell you a story before. When I was already a professor, a student came to work with me. In those days I was studying a gland in the brain, the pineal gland, and she began to do the same. After some time, we noticed that we were more interested in each other than in the pineal gland. We did a paper on courting, a paper on engagement, and papers on marriage, which were the four children. When someone asks me, “What was the most important thing you discovered in science?”, I always say, “It was Conceição”.

And how did the interest in the pineal gland arise?
Professor DiDio had to choose a research topic for me, and he said, “This student likes strange things, so I am going to dig up something very strange for him to study. You are going to study… the pineal gland”. I agreed. So he imagined a really crazy animal and said, “You are going to study the pineal gland of the armadillo”. I did this research and soon find out that the armadillo has no pineal gland. This was something that at least acted to awake my interest in the gland. In those days, Conceição was already working with me, and the Rockefeller Foundation gave me a postdoctoral scholarship at Northwestern University, in Chicago. We married and went there, in 1965. Conceição also arranged to work with a professor who was researching into the pineal gland. I was doing electron microscopy, and she, advanced techniques in histochemistry. We did some papers together and we published a lot in those days, including in Science. Then there came that dilemma that everyone has when they are abroad: do we stay or do we go back to Brazil? In spite of out having an invitation to stay, we decided to go back.

Were the children born later?
We took Lúcia from here, and Flávia was born there. Then Paulo Augusto and Eduardo were born in Brazil. As I never lost the connection with UFMG, together we created the Neurobiology Laboratory. She became a histology professor, and we continued to work together. In Chicago, she learnt new techniques of fluorescence histochemistry, to detect catecholamines [neurotransmitters]. It was something very advanced at the time.  By joining histochemistry to electron microscopy, it was possible to discover some very interesting things.

At the time, was your interest focused on electron microscopy?
Yes. I went to Chicago to learn electron microscopy, to use it in my experiments. When I arrived there, I already had a subject, which was the study of the pineal gland and its sympathetic innervation during development. I discovered a new function for the smooth endoplasmic reticule. In those days, it was thought that the synaptic vesicles with noradrenalin were only produced in the Golgi apparatus, in the body of the neurons, and migrated from there to the periphery. I managed to demonstrate that they can also be produced in the sympathetic terminals by the smooth endoplasmic reticule. I presented this paper at a symposium in Finland, and it was very well received and much cited. Afterwards, now at UFMG, we started a new line of research about the lesions of the autonomous nervous system in Chagas’s disease and we made some interesting discoveries. At that point I retired and went to zoology. Conceição continued extremely active in this same line of research where she is to this date.

Didn’t you also set up the electron microscopy laboratory?
I coordinated a project to set up the Electron Microscopy Center of the ICB’s Morphology Department. But that was an exception. I always used all my prestige at the university not to be anything.

I never wanted to compete for being head of department, rector, director or anything, for fear of winning. I never wanted bureaucratic positions. But I accepted the challenge of setting up the Electron Microscopy Center because I had a good curriculum and was the most qualified for this.

Why did you decide, after retiring, to do a new entrance exam?
I was a neurobiologist and I had a hobby, which was studying dragonflies. When I retired, I decided to do an entrance exam once again, for zoology. So what used to be a hobby became a profession. As a man cannot live without a hobby, I began a new one, which was writing children’s books and plays.

When did you write the first one?
It was 20 years ago, The Boy and the River. I went on vacation to the beach, I began to write, and it came out a mess. Unwittingly, I was using scientific language. So I decided to tell the story to an imaginary child on the tape recorder, and the text improved a lot. Today, I don’t need the tape recorder any more. Now I am going to ask you a question: do you think that the fact of being a scientist helped me or hindered me?

I don’t think that one thing has anything to do with the other. 
I agree, but many people think it does. There is a prejudice that scientists don’t know how to write books for children. I sent The Boy and the River to Editora Ática. After a year, they sent it back to me. They said it was no use as literature, because it taught things, nor was to any use as ecology, because there are animals that talk, which is not true. I was very upset and disheartened, and I realized that a novice writer, particularly if he is a scientist, has no chance. In those days, those who read The Boy and the River liked it, and who cheered me up a lot was my great friend Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa. It was then that André Carvalho, from Editora Lê, heard about the book and asked me for the originals. It was published, it has had 25 editions, and is still one of Editora Lê’s most successful children’s books.

Is it the one that sells most?
Not today, but it keeps up good sales. Last year, the Belo Horizonte Department for Education bought 10 thousand copies to distribute in the schools. There have been other difficulties. A critic of children’s literature wrote that that was not literature, because it taught science, and the mixture did not work.

Has this discussion been left behind?
No. Even today there is the attitude that scientists do not know how to write literature. Guimarães Rosa and Pedro Nava knew, and they were doctors. But scientists don’t. There is still a current in children’s literature for which it has to be fiction only. Once I had a cordial discussion about this with a professor and literary critic, Marisa Lajolo. At the time, I said to her, “See whether it’s truth or fiction: what do you think about a bee that tries to copulate with a flower?”. She joked, “A flowerbee is going to be born”. I insisted, “Is it the truth or isn’t it?”. And I explained that, yes, it is the truth. The flower releases a substance that attracts the bee to copulation, and when trying to copulate it gets smeared with pollen and goes off to pollinate another flower. To succeed in reproducing, the flower tricks the bee that wants to copulate with it. Can’t that be used in a book? And, if it is, isn’t it literature? You see, reality is sometimes more fantastic than any fiction. Well, my books are now well accepted by the critics, by my colleagues, and by children in particular.

Actually, you have an advantage over the other writers, because you know about subjects that are unknown to them.
What was initially pointed out as a disadvantage by the critics has become an advantage. In my stories, I use facts that the ordinary writer does not know.

Give an example of this.
Look at Little Red Riding Hood and the maned wolf. The zoologists discovered that the maned wolf feeds itself more with fruit than with meat. So I devised a new version for the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The maned wolf goes into grandma’s house and is going to devour Little Red Riding Hood, when it sees a water melon in the fruit dish and asks, “Little Red Riding Hood, what do you have such a big water melon for?”. She replies, “It’s for you to eat?”. So, instead of eating the girl, it eats the water melon and other fruit, and the wolf, which used to be terrible, ends up demoralized. The zoologists discovery was the basis for the book, which won the Adolfo Aisen Award for Children’s Literature, in 1995.

How many books have you written?
Thirty five books for children and teenagers  including there three texts for the theater, a humorous theater sketch bok, a book of humor for adults, and seven scientific books. Those ones on science include the ones I participated in as one of the editors or authors, like the Red Book of the Species Threatened with Extinction in Minas Gerais, the Red List of the Brazilian Fauna Threatened with Extinction, and Priority Areas for Conservation in Minas. They all highlight species threatened with extinction.

Which book won the Jabuti Award?
The Old Man from the Mountain, an Amazonian adventure, from Editora Melhoramentos. It was one of the greatest emotions of my life. It was my third book, and to receive this award made me believe that I really was a writer. The narrative takes place in the Tirió tribe, in the state of Pará, where I spent a month collecting insects. The heroes are the Indian boys who would walk through the forest with me, and I dedicate the book to them. The anthropological part is all correct. At the end of the book, there is an explanatory note on what is true and what is fiction. Another prominent book was The Treasure of the Quilombo, which was given the Highly Recommendable seal by the National Foundation for Children’s and Juvenile Books. It’s the second of a line of books with a historical backcloth that I started.

Which was the first?
It was The Fugitives from the Squadron of Cabral. Nova Fronteira had ordered a book from me in the scenario of the discovery, for adolescents. I didn’t know what to write, until one day, reading the Letter from Pero Vaz de Caminha, my attention was called by one sentence. You know that story that is always repeated that Cabral left two castaways here? In the Letter, there is a phrase like this: “… two cabin boys who fled from the ship tonight stayed behind as well”. The cabin boys are adolescents, and I discovered my story. Why they fled, what happened with them, how they lived amongst the Indians, all that is in The Fugitives… It was a success, and I consider it my best worked out book.

Would you manage to live from literature alone today?
No. But copyrights from books and plays help a lot. The problem is that the market oscillates a lot. For example, in the year before last, everybody bought my books: the federal government, the municipal governments of São Paulo and Belo Horizonte and the government of Minas. Even the government of Mexico bought them. Last year, though, sales fell a lot.

Have you arrived at some conclusion about how children’s literature should be done?
I think that there have to be stories. You can go in with poetry, onomatopoeia, metaphors, the language you want. Children, particularly those around 10 years old, are only going to like it if there is adventure. Another important component that children like is humor. I like saying that the writer of children’s literature is more important than the writer of literature for adults. If kids don’t learn to like to read children’s books, they will never read books of literature for adults. If an adult reads a book and doesn’t like it, he puts it aside and looks for another. A boy closes the book and never reads one again.

Do all you children’s books have a scientific basis?

So you don’t make literature just to make science popular.
When I make children?s literature, my main objective is to develop the habit and the liking for literature in the child. That is my commitment. If, beyond that, they learn anything about science, so much the better.

Which children’s book has nothing to do with science?
One of them is The Bald King. With it, I accepted the challenge of making a book imitating the classic tales of Perrault and Grimm. But the most important thing that I have done in my life was the What Animal Will It Be? collection.

Because thousands of children have now enjoyed themselves with the stories. The collection has five books, it was launched ten years ago, and even today it sells a lot! It has the objective of developing curiosity in the child, which I consider the main motivator for scientific research. In the collection, the animals are detectives. A mystery appears. An egg, for example. The dragonfly finds the egg, calls the other animals, and the question arises: “What could the animal that laid the egg have been?”, “What could the animal that the snake ate have been?” etc. After this series, Nova Fronteira asked me to do another collection, and I did books with the explicit objective of teaching. The series of five books of the People Have, Animals Too collection came out, which talk about the nose, throat, eyes, tongue and teeth. The collection was a success.

Your books end up being 2 in 1, literature with science. 
In the majority, yes. In the body of the book, I mix science and fiction. At the end, there is always an appendix in which the reader discovers what is real in the story. For that reason, I think that my literary work is also one of the popularization of science.

You wrote a book of humor. What is it like?
I did the Manual on Survival at Receptions and Cocktails with a Sparse Buffet, with Editora Lê, based on Manual on Survival in the Jungle, of the Armed Forces. What is the main problem with survival in the jungle? Arranging food and drink. At a party with a sparse buffet, the problem is the same. Look at the situation: you go to a wedding and don’t have dinner because there’s going to be a cocktail. You arrive there and there?s heaps of people, and you, dying of hunger, go off in pursuit of the waiters to get a turnover or a patty. What do you do? I explain that in the Manual, done with a scientific basis. This book arose with a bit of fun: the double pincer maneuver. Imagine that you have been looking for a patty for half an hour and a waiter stops in front of you with a tray. Etiquette says that you can only take one. This is the moment to use the technique of the double pincer. With the index finger and the thumb you form pincer no. 1, which you use to take the first patty. With the little finger and the palm of the hand, you form pincer no. 2, which you use to take the second patty. So you manage to take two in one go, as of you were taking only one, because the second stays hidden. It isn’t magic, it’s technology!

Did you yourself adapt this book to the theater?
Yes. At the request of humorist Carlos Nunes, I did the adaptation with the name of How to Survive in Receptions and Cocktails with a Sparse Buffet. I have now adapted five children’s books, all of them staged, three of which were also published as plays. The comedy about the sparse buffet went on and off the stage for six years in Belo Horizonte, and has now been in Rio as well. About 200 thousand people have seen the play, considered one of the greatest successes of the history of the theater in Minas.

In May, there will be the launch of one more scientific book in which you participate. What does it deal with?
It will be launched by the Biodiversitas Foundation, and I am one of the four editors. It is the Red Book of the Species of the Brazilian Fauna Endangered with Extinction. There are 627 endangered species, and each one will have a chapter. There will be two volumes with about 800 pages each, and 282 authors.

This is part of your work as an environmentalist?
It is. I went into the environmentalist movement for pure selfishness. I used to go to my father’s farm, in the Doce  River Valley, and I liked to collect insects, to walk in the forest, and to listen to the songs of the solitary or the undulated tinamous. Every year, there was less forest and fewer animals. As I like that, I joined the Center for the Conservation of Nature in Minas Gerais. After some 15 years, we realized that the environmentalist fight ought to be more scientific. So the Center created the Biodiversitas Foundation, which is a technical NGO, of which I was a founder and a president for various years.

You are also the president of Conservation International – Brazil.
Yes. CI-Brazil is a very big NGO. We have a body of 50 technicians with a higher education, five offices with activities all over Brazil, particularly in the area of conservation of ecosystems and creation of ecological corridors. The technical team is very good, so that my work is more in representation. And then in Biodiversitas I am the president of the Oversight Board, but I also work as a voluntary technician in projects about species threatened with extinction. I have been in the environmentalist movement for 30 years. Brazil’s environmental situation has changed a lot in this period. The greatest advance was the institutionalization of the environmental variables in entities of the government and of the large companies. Our legislation is very good, and there has been a great increase in the awareness of people about the environment. But we are still far from reaching the ideal situation.