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Letter from the editor | 198

Heading toward the endless unknown

“I dared not look into the bottomless pit I was diving into, perhaps forever. There was still time to give up.”

The fine cover story of this Pesquisa FAPESP issue gave me an irrepressible wish to reread the Jules Verne 1864 classic, Journey to the center of the Earth. And due to a very basic association: it deals with studies that, despite setting aside the dream of actually descending into the remotest depths of the Earth (only partially achieved by the audacious Professor Otto Lidenbrock from the French novel), probe them indefatigably, though of course with less risk, by resorting to tools more appropriate for the twenty-first century, such as computer simulations, far removed from the rugged adventures of the 1800s. And from the virtual probing of the interior of our planet, the people responsible for these studies, who are primarily physicists rather than geologists, have come up with new knowledge about the structure and transformation of minerals formed thousands of kilometers below the surface of the Earth and with a strengthened hypothesis about the existence of a volume of water greater than an ocean spread “over the thick mass of rock under our feet,” as our special editor, Carlos Fioravanti, tells us, starting on page 18.

The reference to this mass of water within the Earth, with the word ocean (so suggestive of vastness) being used as a sensitive measure of volume may have been what impelled me toward Verne. That huge fictional underground sea on the way to the core of the planet, though rather dulled, emerged from my memory, peopled by formidable prehistoric animals engaged in their terrifying fights, shaken by cataclysms, cut by dizzying abysses. Facing this sea and its astonishing events, now rather pale in my recollection, there were three adventurers created by the famous writer: Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel (the narrator) and Hans, the brave and silent Icelandic guide. I had to sharpen these images, to find out how the contemporary Pesquisa FAPESP article had removed them from their remote mental refuges. So I thirstily returned to the book.

First, I encountered Verne’s clear love of science, whose, let’s say, illuminist nature, broadly speaking, I failed to grasp at my then remote age of 10 or 11 years. “Well, I have learnt, Axel, that science can always be improved upon, and that each theory is soon replaced by another more recent one,” warns Lidenbrock, talking to his nephew and disciple. These lessons in the abyss cast light upon the scientific method: “Science, my son, is full of errors; but errors that one should learn about, because, little by little, they lead to the truth.” The statements about the nature of scientific knowledge are interspersed with explanations about geological, cosmological or biological theories that were facing, back then, technological and technical solutions. This notwithstanding, everything is so very well blended and woven into the powerful structure of Jules Verne’s narrative, so embedded in the tension-rich adventure toward the center of the Earth, so mixed up with the fantastic inventions of the author’s imagination, that one can intelligently absorb all this so that it becomes an experience of pure  pleasure. I was thinking about this as I was finishing the book and suddenly I recalled an old and marvelous feeling, one that Verne’s various works triggered in me a long time ago: the feeling that one can do, redo, transform, create, venture forth into the unknown and discover worlds. I just didn’t yet know the name of the basic tool that Verne identified for all of this power of being.

To continue with this notion of each theory being replaceable, invariably, by a better one, there is nothing better than reading, starting on page 46, the article by Igor Zolnerkevic and Ricardo Zorzetto, our science editor, on the avenue of opportunities and problems open to particle physics through the identification, on July 4 of this year, of what seems to be the famous and much sought-after Higgs boson. Maybe particle physics has reached a turning point and its successful Standard Model, tied to the idea of the Big Bang that gave rise to the Universe, and breathing its last sighs – maybe. The physicist Joseph Incandela, who coordinated one of the experiments that led to the alleged boson, declared to Pesquisa FAPESP: “This is the most exciting time in particle physics since the 1970s.” And perhaps, he might belatedly echo Axel’s sentence: “Yes I am in a dream; I am dreaming with my eyes open and experiencing something that I shall never forget.”