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Henrique Lins de Barros: From the atom to the airplane

LÉO RAMOSIn Henrique Lins de Barros’s office at CBPF, the Brazilian Physics Research Center in the district of Urca, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, there is a picture on the wall on the right. On the left side there is a poster showing details of a multicellular organism, Candidatus Magnetoglobus multicellularis. In the computer, music composed for a documentary on Santos-Dumont. On the shelves and desk, scientific articles on physics, biology and history, as well as about science. What all of these have in common, including  music and  film, is that their author is the man who occupies that office.

At the age of 60, Lins de Barros has the typical profile of a restless researcher who does not limit himself to his own field and  uses physics as a bridge to other domains. It was so when he migrated from theoretical atomic physics to biophysics, which is very close to biology. His investigations, carried out in conjunction with researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, resulted in the discovery of a multicellular bacterium (see Pesquisa FAPESP no. 137) in Rio de Janeiro lagoons.

A lover of airplanes his entire life, the physicist discovered Santos-Dumont in the 80’s and within a few years had become the greatest expert on this inventor and his work, a reference for other researchers in Brazil and abroad. It was a natural consequence to dive headlong from this into the history of science, which he was able to make the most of during his 14-year stay at the head of MAST, the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences, in Rio. MAST is an institution belonging to the Ministry of Science and Technology. It works on Brazil’s scientific and technological history and fosters the dissemination of science and science education.

A musician, script writer, painter, writer and poet, biophysicist Henrique comes from a family that made history in Brazilian physics. His father, naval officer Henry British, and his uncles Nelson, a poet and musician, and João Alberto, an influential politician and one of the leaders of the 1930 Revolution, played leading roles in the creation of CBPF in 1949, together with César Lattes and José Leite Lopes. Married to Myriam, an anthropologist, and the father of three children, Lins de Barros talked to Pesquisa FAPESP about his wide-ranging life as a researcher.

Your biophysics group recently published an article about a multicellular organism found in lagoons in Rio. What is a physicist doing in biology?
Normally, when we talk about an organism and enter the discussion of whether it is multicellular or these categories that come from biology, we associate this with biologists. We are working at CBPF with the physical properties of an organism that has a lot of physical properties. The contribution we can make is helping to discover how a set of cells provides organized information. This organism we found is not comprised of a single cell, but of a set of cells, whose behavior can be described by vectorial magnitudes, velocity, magnetization? These cells have a coordination that manifests itself, among other ways, in observable physical characteristics. In order to find the coordination of vectorial magnitudes one must add these vectors to obtain a component. A vector isn’t added like a number. If we add one vector that points in one direction to another that points in an other direction, the result is zero. To obtain  homogeneous behavior, one requires a certain degree of organization. And if I have organization, then this is an organism and not merely an aggregate. The bulk of our work was the observation of movement, of magnetic properties, of the total magnetic moment. With this information one can reach a mathematical model. This means that that organism has an anteceding order; in other words, I can describe a given reality that I am seeing based on an abstract and rational model. With a single equation we can describe the organism’s lifecycle.

This doesn’t seem to be  very typical behavior in biology.
I believe it isn’t. Biologists have a tendency to adopt the traditional procedures of placing the studied organisms in pre-established categories. The contribution I was able to produce as a physicist was a non-biological view. It is a view that is, in a way, freer of prejudice. We have the prejudices of physics, but not those of biology. When we look at things in this way, we can say, “this isn’t what you’re saying”.

Is this pioneering work?
Yes, it is. Biology, almost as a postulate, thinks of a bacterium as being unicellular. When thinking about the possibility of a multicellular organism constituted by bacterial cells, we fiddle with that basic biological structure in which there has been, for billions of years, the origin of life starting from a point followed by the division into a group of cells with no nucleus – the prokaryotes – and another group of cells that have a cellular nucleus, where one finds the DNA – the eukaryotes. This prokaryote group, that has no organization or sufficient complexity, is always going to develop as a unicellular being. Another group starts, in turn, to  develop differently, which leads to a multicellular being. However, we found something that lies in between, which is a bacterium and a multicellular organism. I would guess that this multicellular organism appeared during the Cambrian revolution, some 570 million years ago. At the time when there was an explosion of life forms, including multicellular organisms, many variations occurred. Perhaps at that time bacterial multicellular organisms appeared that did not survive later on, as was the case of most of the life forms that appeared at that time. But something remained. This is interesting because it enables one to rethink biology and its evolution a bit.

And what was the repercussion of this work?
Before it was published I presented it at some congresses and got knocked left, right and center. Sometimes there is simply not enough time to present the discovery correctly and people don’t understand it. On one occasion I made a presentation in Barcelona, when Jorge Wagensberg was present. Wagensberg is the director of the Barcelona Science Museum and he invited me to go over there when has was in Brazil. When I was dealing with these things, while I was still the director of MAST, I told him about our work, which he did not believe. He said “I doubt it”. I thought “Very well. You’re going to fall flat on your face.”

And did he?
I showed him the researched material and he was fascinated. At the time Wagensberg had set up an exhibition at the Caixa Museum and put our organisms into one of the modules. The idea was to show the level of organization of these organisms. They multiply from one to two without going through a cell: from 20 cells, they suddenly divide themselves into 40 cells more or less and generate two new 20 cell organisms. In other words, they don’t go through the process of growth that starts with just one cell; they are born ready to continue the cycle, and that is a novelty in biology. The mathematical model describes this with a single parameter. When I went to Barcelona, invited by Wagensberg, I did a presentation for the biology people there. I was speaking in Portuguese, although the audience spoke Spanish, and I noticed they all seemed very skeptical. I finished the presentation and left a video playing on the screen to answer questions. It was very interesting because people were watching the video and started asking questions about it, whether that was in real time, whether it was filmed through a microscope, whether it was a model. As the video played they started to be persuaded. The change was total. When one sees it, one says “it’s unbelievable”.

How was the multidisciplinary group set up to do the work?
That happened almost 20 years ago. I had already completed my doctorate and was working with the theory of  atomic physics. Darci Motta, from CBPF here, had finished a doctorate in experimental physics and we knew the area of magnetoreception. This linked two things that we were interested in. One is biology, which is very boring when we learn it at school, but fantastic when you plunge into it. The other is physics, our field of work. It was difficult to reconcile the two things: in a physics institute such as CBPF there were no biological microscopes. We had to work with adapted equipment. And naturally, there was a lack of knowledge. As far as we were concerned, any small thing, smaller than what is visible, looked like a bacterium. We started just sniffing things out and this led us to see something – this particular organism – that biologists failed to see because they were looking for other things, such as bacteria or algae. Things that appeared but were not the subject of their studies were set aside.

Why did you choose atomic physics as the object of your initial studies?
When I had to make up my mind about my master’s degree, the area that was available was atomic physics. I did some work in this field, but I discovered that I like experimental things. I do the theory, but I have to have the experimental aspects in hand. When the connection with biology appeared, this being a paradigmatic path for science in the late 20th century, I became enthusiastic.

Examining your biography now, your choice of physics seems very natural, as your father and uncles played an important role in the creation of CBPF and most of the best physicists of that time knew them. Before settling for physics, however, there was a brief passage through music and engineering.
I had a crisis, one of these adolescent things, and went toward engineering to take the course at ITA (the Technological Aeronautics Institute) because of aviation. My older brother, Mauro, was already at ITA. And airplanes were always important to us at home. I and my brothers used to make toy planes all the time. I have 200 toy planes at home; I still assemble miniature models. At the time, we lived in the district of Copacabana and we could recognize planes by their sound: we knew exactly when it was worth rushing to the window. I believe that aviation was the counterpart of war ships. My father was a navy officer and we created an arena just for us, aeronautics as opposed to a naval arena. It just so happened I didn’t manage to get into ITA because I wasn’t much of a student. Here in Rio I ended up getting into the Federal Fluminense University, in engineering. But I didn’t really want to be an engineer and I spent a year and a half trying to persuade people that I had no mathematical capabilities and therefore couldn’t do engineering. At that time I started getting involved with music, just for fun.

What type of music?
Popular music. It was the time of the festivals, so I used to write a few samba tunes. My uncle, Nelson Lins de Barros, partnered Carlos Lira and helped me along. I did a few things, nothing that was worth listening to. Anyhow, I proved that I had no aptitude for mathematics. As I couldn’t do the maths, I abandoned engineering. I spent six months announcing I was going into music or the theatre, until I started dating Myriam, my wife, who wasn’t in college yet. I found I had no way out, I had to do something. When they opened the entrance exams for physics as the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro [UFRJ] I sat the exam and passed. With two details: ranking first, and without taking the physics test.

How was that possible?
The college entrance exams hadn’t yet been unified. There was the Portuguese test, in which I got 10 out of 10. It consisted of an essay and there was a mathematics test. But regarding maths, for better or for worse, I’d been exposed to it in engineering; I had taken Calculus 1, Calculus 2 and Calculus 3. I got 9 point something or other on the test. As there were no other candidates, I passed. Physics wasn’t yet located at the Ilha do Fundão , but downtown, next door to the Maison de France. In the year in which I got in, 1967, the university moved to Fundão. That was all it took for me to request a transfer to PUC (the Pontifical Catholic University). It was easy, because I had passed in first place, but I started in mathematics because there was no room  available in physics. One should highlight that physics, to my mind, didn’t provide me with future prospects. I thought that real physicists were people like César Lattes, who used to go to my parent’s house, Richard Feynman, José Leite Lopes, Jayme Tiomno. They were way up there and I never thought I’d get to the same level – which I didn’t. One thing is being a wall painter, another thing is being a painter. There’s a step in between that’s rather difficult to transcend.

What did César Lattes think of all this?
He argued a lot with me when I went into physics instead of sticking to music. Lattes used to say that everything he had done wasn’t worth a Mozart symphony. I answered that “I’m not going to argue, but I’m no Mozart either”. At certain points in time, he was very close to my family, even during his crisis, but afterwards we became estranged . When I came to CBPF, he was still there but he seldom turned up. In the year in which he died, 2004, I went to Campinas for a seminar and I paid him a visit. His wife, Martha, had already died, as had my parents. I wanted to chat to him, recover a bit of my past. It was funny when I drove up to his house. Lattes opened the large garage gate and said: “For a Lins de Barros this gate is small”. He had been a friend of my father and my uncles and I entered that house with an entire family of ghosts. It was good. We talked a lot about life and death issues.

After atomic physics and biophysics, at a certain point in time, your interests turned to the history of science and of technical things. How did this change happen?
There was this fascination with airplanes, which I had always had, and this eventually surfaced when I saw myself facing certain basic issues of the history of flying. Why didn’t a plane fly in the 19th century, but did in the 20th? There’s a quantum leap there, something that’s not obvious. I remember that when I taught the Physics 2 course, still in the basic cycle, I focused the entire course on the airplane, to try and understand balance, support, the resistances, rotation.

And did you? The physics of flying  does not seem to have been entirely explained yet.
It hasn’t been, if the intention is to understand support, a very complicated thing. The plane continues to be a laboratory object, not a device that one can make and build through a production line process, like a car. From the prototype to production there is a long process of examination. Still, on the other hand, one can understand how a plane is balanced in the air, because we know which  forces  cause this, we don’t have to go into the origin of the force of support. These studies are interesting because one can deal with several fields of physics, converging toward a single objective. The plane isn’t attached to the ground, but is loose in the air; it has all degrees of freedom. We have the physics of a rigid body in an object that one can see. Knowing the history of flying helps one to understand certain issues. When I came to CBPF and completed my doctorate, however, these history of science issues did not appear in the day-to-day aspects of the center of physics. To this day, the center isn’t concerned about  history.

Why not?
There is a very strong practice  of focusing on  doing things that are current, although history is fundamental in order for you to understand what you’re doing. That is what bothered me about theoretical physics. The equation dominates you, you have to move ahead step by step, taking a great deal of care. After a while, you become a highly ordered, highly disciplined person that takes a problem and makes it fit your methodology,  develop the methodology and reach a conclusion. You take another problem and you repeat the process. It’s as if we spoke only one language. So the issue of airplane history, that interested me so much, was rather set aside. Still, I wrote the book on Santos-Dumont in 1986, which got as far as the Jabuti Prize for its visual design. It was with this work that Santos-Dumont came across strongly for me. Before that, I had no sympathy for him whatsoever.

None. It only emerged when I started to ask myself, “Where was the obstacle to the invention of the airplane? What was the key?”.

At that time did your brothers still share the same passion?
Always. I talked to Mauro, an aeronautical engineer, and Flávio, who did industrial design. Flávio looks at planes from the  point of view of design, how it is finished. Mauro sees it from the aeronautical  point of view. And I look at it through physics. It’s one of our great hobbies, which is still going strong, to this day.

When did the passion for the character of Santos-Dumont appear, which led you to became the chief expert on the subject?
It was when I was able, with a bit more time, to understand that the history of flying had been told wrongly, that it was false. And I started to understand  Santos-Dumont’s real contribution , which wasn’t merely flying. That was the result of an intense creative process. He is the synthesis of one hundred years of development necessary to be able to fly.

Was he aware of this?
I think he was, although he left nothing in writing. The 14-Bis project is a synthesis in which he showed that he knew it all. Santos-Dumont took off with the 14-Bis in 1906, spent some time carrying out experiments, and in 1907 he took off with the Demoiselle. It’s an astonishing development, besides demonstrating a total conceptual change.

Was it after your first book that the history of science entered your list of activities definitely?
I have four books on Santos-Dumont. I plunged into the subject because physics was a profession and airplanes, a hobby. I combined the two. By doing this I brought down a barrier. The moments of leisure, which previously consisted of making model planes at home, acquired a different purpose. The training in physics was good to make me disciplined. I aim at an objective and I decide: “I’m going to get there.” And I do. Regarding Santos-Dumont, I used to think: “Why did he make such an important contribution and was forgotten? When was he forgotten?” For instance, the time I spent in France with a friend, the philosopher Roberto Machado, who worked with Michel Foucault for a while, was important. Roberto had no interest in aviation, but kept asking for information about this. He posed the typical questions of someone who is unrelated to the subject of study and who asks those obvious questions that the expert doesn’t stop to think about. That’s the major contribution of someone who’s not involved with a subject. I realized that I didn’t know how to make a plane, but I did  know  the problems involved  in making a plane.  My tool for that is physics. I reduce the airplane to a sphere or a line and I add forces: how does this balance? You put the wing on one side and on the other, you advance with your trials, and, when you do this, you get to the 14-Bis. The 14-Bis is the direct result of a naïve and incorrect thought process – because it doesn’t allow one to take all the variables into account – but it’s the first rationale that a great mechanic, a good physicist of the 19th century would have pursued. Once you find out it doesn’t work, you fix it fast. But this is not the thought process of an aeronautical engineer. Today’s engineer looks at the 14-Bis and promptly announces that “it’s wrong here and here and here.”

He finds it too rudimentary.
Yes, but when I took part in the construction of a replica of the 14-Bis in Caldas Novas, built by Alan Calassa in 2005, I was profoundly impressed. The 14-Bis doesn’t have one single bolt that’s out of place, everything fits perfectly. We had a lot of trouble finding out how Santos-Dumont made the plane. The device didn’t fly until we discovered our error of interpretation , about the right point of the center of gravity. When we fixed the mistake, it covered a few meters and flew.

You have complained that in Brazil  history of science is studied, but few study the history of techniques. Why is that?
We thought that Brazil had no technical production, no technical participation. But of course it did. In the case of the flying, Brazilians had been thinking about flying since the 18th century. It’s the case of Bartolomeu Gusmão, who built the first São João balloon in 1709. This history of flying was the argument of the book Desafio de voar [The challenge of flying] (Metalivros, 2006). We had a very important naval industry in the 19th century. Brazil developed transmission at a distance,  not radio, with the priest Landell. We have important studies from the 1930’s. And we have small contributions, such as the telephone card, which is a Brazilian invention. The other day I saw some news about a group at the triple border that had  developed a software program to read the  chip  on a card in order to falsify it. If it were in the United States, this would have been patented already. For example: who invented the automobile? In France they ascribe this to one person, in Germany to another, in the United States to another. There are several inventors of the automobile, not to get into the airplane issue. This Brazilian habit of putting things on a backburner is a bit of a Portuguese heirloom. The aerial sextant is an absolutely brilliant invention of a Portuguese, Gago Coutinho. Who knows that? Not even in Portugal! And to this day it is used in the Columbia space ship. I think we don’t stop to look at our development. We put ourselves outside the pale and then resent it because we are so marvelous, so fantastic yet we get no recognition.

When you moved to MAST were you already determined to work with the popularization of science?
That was when I once again managed to merge what was in a way a rather intellectual hobby with a profession. I went there invited by Pedro Leitão, who was the director and invited me to think about a scientific museum. I have a very critical view of museums and science centers. I don’t think they are pleasant places. I don’t mean in the sense of looking nice or orderly. I think there is a conception problem, which is one of the points I have been discussing with Jorge Wagensberg.

What is your main criticism of science museums?
They present science as if it were an experimental methodology, something technical, more or less interactive, a bit geared toward children. There are large museums, full of scientific demonstrations that are carried out  there. But the demonstration assumes that there is an underlying theory, based on which the experiment is constructed. The visitor sees a demonstration at the museum, then gets home and no longer knows how to reproduce that – and it’s not because he lacks the skill. All scientific experiments are a construction: I construct a piece of equipment to measure something. And the measurement is made with the underlying theoretical basis. I think this has to be shown.

Did you manage to transform MAST into a good science museum?
No. I think I managed to demonstrate MAST’s importance. What I managed to do well was to recover the building and most of the collection, which was getting lost. Brazil has been very careless – now a little less – in conserving historical collections. I think that we need to seriously think about what I call a technological contract. We are in the midst of an environmental crisis, a crisis of commitment to terrestrial resources. At some point in time, mankind, western culture will have to say “though this technology provides me with comfort and is very agreeable, I don’t want it because it kills me.” That doesn’t mean that we need to stop scientific development. On the contrary. We will have to advance scientific development a lot, but give up unnecessary technological advances.

Talking now about education; what was the reason for the book Física do parque: ciência, história e brinquedos (Playground physics: science, history and toys) (Mast/Vitae, 1997)?
The book resulted from a situation I encountered while I was at the museum and we had to remodel the children’s playground. MAST had built an amusement park within the campus that it shares with the National Observatory and it was a sort of visiting card. And I, as the director, saw that as a major problem for me, because I didn’t like the playground. I think that the Science Park is a make- believe thing. It may teach science to a professor. For the normal user, it’s a frustrating toy. The swing doesn’t swing right, the see-saw doesn’t see-saw right, and so on and so forth. We got some financing and the place became a pilot playground to be reproduced at our institutions, as happed in Vitória. So I thought about writing a book in which I took a playground device and followed the opposite path. Instead of writing a book about a specific playground element I wrote a book about the physics of that. The idea was to take away a bit of the playful side of the playground, because I don’t think you learn by playing. And to add a more formal, teaching side, that one can convey to another person.

What was your path like regarding poetry and as a script writer?
There are those who write verses with rhymes and verse metrics and then there are those who write poems. I belong to the first group. Regarding the script issue, when I first arrived at MAST, there was some Sony editing equipment there, U-Matic. I thought it was fascinating to be able to work with something like that. And it was necessary to produce material to advertise the museum, as it did not have any. That was when I started toying with cinema. I did some movies, such as A origem da vida (The origin of life). I also did one about Santos-Dumont, all based on documents. I had a problem with this one because when I was editing the film, the tape lasted 60 minutes. As I didn’t know how to transfer things to another tape, it ended up lasting 59 minutes. The film eventually was called Santos-Dumont – Uma vida não se conta em uma hora (Santos-Dumont – A life cannot be told in one hour). This soundtrack has now been redone by the Department of Popularization and Dissemination of Science and Technology of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Then came Nelson Hoineff’s invitation to write the script for the film Santos-Dumont, o homem pode voar (Santos-Dumont, man can fly) with music by David Tygel. This was a professional project with high technical quality; the film was shown in movie theatres and the DVD appeared in news stands. But the curious thing is that while I was doing the film at MAST, I was told that I’d have to pay  royalties for the use of the music. As I had no idea how to go about this, my solution was to write the tunes.

And you did so for the entire film?
I composed them on the guitar, transposed it to a score and transferred this to the computer, which has a program  allowing one to orchestrate the music. There were about 40 compositions of a fairly classical style.