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Letter from the Editor | 255

Connections and classifications

The convergence of researchers from the fields of the humanities and social sciences with computer scientists has resulted in a new interdisciplinary field called digital humanities.  It is a give-and-take kind of relationship: social scientists contemplate immense social and economic databases or digitization of artistic and historical collections that have expanded research fronts while computer scientists face the challenge of designing tools to meet such needs.  Another aspect of this field is the study of the role of digital technology in society.

This issue’s cover story shows how researchers have incorporated the tools and concepts from other fields into their own activities.  One example of the use of so-called Big Data in humanities research involves the organization of records about slave ship voyages during the days of slavery, which has allowed the emergence of a more comprehensive portrait of the slave trade. The efforts to organize databases and design new tools are as impressive as the findings of the research studies themselves: for 30 years, the consortium behind the Text Encoding Initiative has developed and maintained a standard for encoding texts in digital format, in other words, enabling documents to be read by machines–an achievement that has had an impact on fields such as linguistics.

It was by analyzing a database of nearly 34,000 entries that a group of paleontologists from the University of Cambridge and London’s Natural History Museum presented a controversial proposal to reclassify the known lineages of dinosaurs.  They analyzed 457 anatomical traits of 74 species of dinosaurs and the reptiles that preceded them.  The report on page 40 presents the suggested new classification, which changes the relationships and the degree of kinship between the principal lineages of those prehistoric animals.  Now it’s time to follow the debate to find out if the proposal will overcome the skepticism of the community as it undergoes scientific scrutiny on the part of its peers.


Neuroscientist Roberto Lent of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) gained international distinction for demonstrating that the human brain has far fewer neurons than previously thought–86 billion rather than 100 billion.  The researcher has devoted 40 years to studying the formation and reorganization of connections among areas of the brain.  The author of a popular series of children’s science books and a founder of the journal Ciência Hoje, Lent recently became interested in what he calls the science of learning.  The idea is to propose scientifically proven measures to improve teaching, such as the findings of studies on physiological factors that impact learning, such as sleep.

In another interview published in this issue, endocrinologist Berenice Bilharinho de Mendonça of the University of São Paulo talks about the complexity involved in the definition of the sex of those who are born with sexual development disorders.  Hormonal imbalances during formation of the fetus result in men who have identical sex chromosomes, XX, or women who have different sex chromosomes, XY, and also cause different types of malformations of the genitals or the internal sex organs.  That is why neither karyotype tests (chromosome set) nor examination of external appearance are able to determine the sex of these individuals with certainty: such a determination requires tests such as that for sensitivity to androgens and could lead to interventions like genital reconstruction surgery. Working in this field since 1975, the endocrinologist had a role in describing the first genetic mutations involved and she continues to study the long-term development of these patients.