Imprimir Republish

Letter from the editor | 220

Good-humored science

Apart from all the implications involving the unconscious that Freud attributed to humor, it is a delectable resource and an often irresistible device for adding color to even the most technical prose. And so it was that, as I read the cover story of this month’s Pesquisa FAPESP, I suddenly burst out laughing with delight at the witty comment from geologist Lucas Warren as he explained the new and powerful evidence indicating that, half a billion years ago, a shallow seaway covered a portion of what is now East Central Brazil. “That must have been the last beach Minas Gerais ever had,” he said, offering an inventive variation on the way people from Rio de Janeiro and other coastal areas love to tease people from Minas Gerais about that state’s landlocked setting.

That brief quip was enough to let me envision how much pleasure he took in telling our special editor Marcos Pivetta about last year’s discovery by a team of geologists and paleontologists from USP and Unesp. They found tiny fragments of marine animals of the genus Cloudina, embedded in a steep wall and in outcrops of rocks in the municipality of Januária, in northern Minas Gerais State. In geological terms, the fossils were found in the Sete Lagoas Formation, part of the Bambuí Group, a sedimentary unit of the São Francisco watershed. The animal remains provide virtually irrefutable proof that a seaway existed 550 million years ago in that part of Brazil, as now proposed by the researchers and described in an article published this May in the journal Geology, with Warren as the principal author. It is well worth perusing this compelling “story” of our distant past, beginning on page 16.

And, still on the topic of compelling and intriguing matters of science, I recommend the article by our colleague Igor Zolnerkevic (page 32), about a proposal from a group of São Paulo-based theoretical physicists who believe that the energy in a vacuum and its oscillations, usually too subtle to be noticed except at microscopic scales, can be amplified to astronomical scales, to the point of destroying entire stars.  This is due to an effect that the researchers call awakening of the vacuum, violent storms that arise in nearly empty space.

Moving on to the Science and Technology Policy section, do stop and linger over the article from our editor Fabrício Marques, about the efforts underway in Brazil to end the use of animals for testing the safety and effectiveness of products, including vaccines and cosmetics (page 26). A more systematic effort was launched in 2012, and the so-called alternative testing methods, such as artificial skin kits, are gaining ground. However, we are still far from being able to entirely forego the use of guinea pigs, in particular for drug safety and research into physiological or pathological processes that are essential to the creation of knowledge about the human body. In the Technology section, I recommend the article by assistant editor Dinorah Ereno, about the arsenal of weapons being developed to control dengue through diagnosis and treatment. One notable innovation is a biosensor, developed in the laboratories of the University of São Paulo in São Carlos, which can diagnose the disease in 20 minutes, as compared to the seven days required by the current methods (page 58).

And lastly, I bring to your attention the interview granted to our special editor Carlos Fioravanti and FAPESP News Agency reporter Karina Toledo by Francis Collins (page 22), one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003, who now heads the National Institutes of Health in the United States and coordinates the huge project to map the human brain, announced by President Barack Obama in 2013. Collins is one of the world’s leading figures in genetics and science today, which alone would be enough to justify interest in his interview, but readers can also examine his consistent scientific forecasts.

Enjoy your reading, and I wish you a splendid and peaceful World Cup!