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Images of science

What are zoos for? This is surely an appropriate question, especially during these times of heated debates on the suitability or lack thereof of keeping them in urban spaces. This question opens the article on page 16 of this Pesquisa FAPESP issue. The article was written by our special editor Carlos Fioravanti. Furthermore, the question gradually reveals to what extent zoos have turned into amusement parks, conservatories of wild animals or live laboratories for zoological research. It is a fact that we have often viewed zoos as a place where children go to become acquainted with lions, giraffes, wolves and bears. In short, a place where children can have safe contact with wildlife – period. And we have kept this point of view. However, even if this point of view still makes sense, it is no longer enough.

The absence of specific scientific teams at any of Brazil’s 129 zoos is a relevant issue, within the context of the current situation. Of these zoos, only 45 are duly registered with Ibama, the federal government environmental authorities. This situation differs significantly from the situation in, for example, New York, Washington, or Berlin. The fact is that, up to now, Brazilian zoos have been used as laboratories by outside research groups, even though the zoos depend on the approval of projects and on providing access to the animals. The zoos’ contribution in this respect has been quite important: while going through possible sources of information, a director of the zoo in São Paulo found approximately 1,100 academic publications produced at the zoo by outside researchers in the last 50 years. The fact that this is the biggest zoo in the country, housing approximately 3,100 animals, is noteworthy. An average of 2.5 million visitors come to the zoo every year, most of whom are children. It is interesting to enter this ambiguity-filled world of zoos.

I would also like to highlight in this issue the article by the same Carlos Fioravanti about research. The focus of the research he discusses has been a source of controversy: Namely, how the force of gravity, as described by Newton – which has now been so carefully measured – deforms the beautiful sphere of our Earth, as seen from outer space. The highs and lows on the ocean’s surface, for example, suggest that the so-called sea level might not even exist, given that this surface continuously adjusts itself according to the field of gravity. I recommend reading this article, on page 44.

Finally, I would like to take the opportunity provided by the British Wellcome Image Awards 2011, from which we chose one of the winning photographs to illustrate page 3 of this issue, which is always dedicated to the image of the month, to point out how our collection of photographs is still so insignificant in terms of Brazilian scientific production. In this issue, the illustrations are more widely used than photographs, given our difficulty in finding good, beautiful, and appropriate images to match the content of the texts. The issue is not only the macro photography of complex scientific experiences. To me, the most amazing example is that we were unable to find dark-skinned Brazilians (as defined by the nomenclature of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics/ IBGE) with green or blue eyes to illustrate the article written by our online editor, Maria Guimarães, on the research of geneticist Sergio Pena. According to Pena, these population groups in Brazil have at least 60% European ancestry in their genes. In my opinion, the color of the eyes was the element that synthesized the findings of the study. “What do you mean?” I kept asking indignantly, having spent at least three decades of my life in the city of Salvador, where every day I came across people with such features! I resorted to the files of the best-known and respected photographers from the State of Bahia but the difficulty persisted. It is a fact that the beautiful dark-skinned faces and blue or green eyes of celebrities, such as poet Elisa Lucinda, have been photographed. Nevertheless, it is not easy to find photos of ordinary people with these features. However, we did find one, and this is worth viewing from pages 54 to 56. My photographer friends will perhaps complain, but I insist on saying that the photographic records of the Brazilian sciences (and culture as well) are still at a very early stage of their development.
Enjoy your reading!