Imprimir Republish


In space without frontiers

The natural way in which an astrophysicist manages to refer to a heavenly body that is 20 or 30 light-years away from Earth has always sounded astonishing to me. Imagine then the sensation of hearing, during the course of a lecture on the search for habitable planets, a Scottish astronomer calmly say that she had identified “a promising target” that is 59 light-years from our punished planet, although she believes there is another that is some 33 light-years away. Let it be recorded that I still did not know that on September 29 American astronomers had announced yet another candidate that is 20 light-years away. As she was speaking, I remembered a recent interview with Stephen Hawking on the Big Think site in which the scientist said that the only chance for long-term survival of the human species would be if it left Earth and inhabited new planets, a task on which, incidentally – he argued – we should concentrate our efforts over the next two centuries. I thought his comment somewhat unusual and doubted his seriousness in order not to run the risk of suspecting the sanity of the brilliant English physicist. But hardly had I emerged from this digression when I heard another speaker telling his audience about unimaginably extreme environmental conditions – heat, cold, acidity, radiation, oxygen deficiency etc. etc.. – in which, against all common sense, life manifests itself. The provocative question “What is life?,” thrown out by the young Brazilian speaker hung, in the air with its subtle suggestion that it seems at the very least improbable that our old Earth is the only place to support the existence of life, any form of life, among the zillions of stars in the billions of galaxies in the Universe; or, connecting this to Hawking and the Scottish scientist, the only stronghold to make the survival of the human species feasible.

This debate on the most advanced limits of knowledge in astrobiology – the area that investigates the conditions that are essential for the emergence of life, that is looking for evidence of life beyond Earth and that searches for other habitable worlds – occurred in late August in Itatiba, in São Paulo, at an excellent symposium, Frontiers of Science, sponsored by FAPESP and the Royal Society. Although tempted I will not dwell on detailing the event, nor the enormous power of the imagination glimpsed there in the creation of knowledge; I will limit myself to referring the interested reader to the text of our science and technology policy editor, Fabrício Marques, on page 36 that explains it well. I will stay with astrobiology because, when listening to the young Douglas Galante lay out the evidence of the survival of microorganisms in environments that are completely adverse on our planet, explain the possibility of super-resistant bacteria traveling live through space, clinging to tiny fragments of dust and, finally, talking about the first national laboratory dedicated to astrobiology that USP is setting up in Valinhos, I thought that there we had fascinating material for a report. Indeed, it has been well handled by Maria Guimarães, our assistant science editor, who listened to a lot of people who deal with the theme; her report that begins on page 18 was elevated to our cover story.

I observe that the Frontiers of Science symposium, a dizzying kind of trip, represented a form of integration with an effort being carried out in São Paulo, under the leadership of FAPESP, to give an international dimension to scientific production in the state. In this sense, I draw your attention to a series of reports prepared by Fabrício Marques on different experiences of globalization that are being pursued by groups of researchers from São Paulo which the magazine began publishing in the last edition. This time the focus is on the team coordinated by physicist, Yves Petroff, scientific director of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS); the report starts on page 30.

Briefly, because of the imperative of limited space and not based on merit, in this issue I highlight the report by our assistant technology editor, Dinorah Ereno that reveals the broad possibilities of the universe of nanotechnology as applied to food and agriculture, starting on page 70; the report by our humanities editor, Carlos Haag, on the colors and strategic esthetics of the cangaceiros [a band of outlaws famous in the north of Brazil in the early 20th century], starting on page 80, and to close, something more about what physically connects us to worlds and to knowledge, our brain, this time discussed by Fred Gage, in an interview conducted by our science editor, Ricardo Zorzetto (page 58).