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Messages from above and below

Astronomy has always fascinated humankind. Conquering space, in terms of expanding our knowledge of the universe we inhabit, has motivated scientists for centuries, and has led to some of history’s most epic moments, such as the trial of Galileo and man’s first steps on the moon.

When researchers announced in October that they had observed gravitational and electromagnetic waves resulting from a collision between two neutron stars, their excitement was palpable. There is a certain epicness behind the narrative of this observation; dozens of telescopes in a series were scouring the skies when they found signs of the cataclysmic event that caused the waves. The discovery demonstrates the success of collaborative research—which nevertheless remains competitive—and heralds the beginning of a new era of astronomy known as multi-messenger astronomy, which uses cosmic messengers (waves of various kinds) to obtain complementary information about celestial objects and phenomena.

This issue of Pesquisa FAPESP is devoted to this achievement. As well as describing the events of August 17, which relied on a certain level of good fortune—one gravitational waves observatory had just resumed operations, and another was planning to suspend its activities for a scheduled break eight days later—the report on page 18 explains what has been observed and what it means in terms of advancing our knowledge. In short, it could help scientists identify the origin of the short-lived gamma-ray bursts that have been detected since the 1960s, and understand the inside of neutron stars, which are extremely dense—and mysterious.

Two of the major outcomes of the collision are discussed on page 23: the production of heavy chemical elements, and the use of this type of phenomenon to measure cosmic distances and to calculate the rate at which the universe is expanding. The feature closes with an interview with Marcelle Soares-Santos, who leads one of the research groups exploring the sky in search of light emitted by colliding neutron stars.

Marcelle is not the only Brazilian playing an important role in this initiative. Astrophysicist Claudia Mendes de Oliveira came up with the idea for the T80 Sul, a small telescope with a wide field of vision that allows vast areas of the sky to be covered in a short amount of time. Located in Chile and funded by FAPESP, the T80 Sul was one of about 70 ground and space instruments that detected the emission of electromagnetic radiation from this event.

The initiatives described on page 46 are designed to get more women involved in the exact sciences and engineering. But their involvement need not be restricted to the labs: the report on page 38 tells the story of May Rubião, who decided to leave part of her inheritance to help stem-cell research. Having graduated in literature and social sciences in USP’s early years, she was a friend to artists and scientists alike, and a pioneer in the field of public relations. Before she died, she began looking for an established institution to implement her project, and chose FAPESP after talking to her friend and former president of the foundation, Celso Lafer. FAPESP must now live up to Rubião’s remarkable legacy by fulfilling her wishes and applying these resources to groundbreaking fields of research, as well as encouraging other donations to educational and research institutions, something that is quite common in Europe and the United States.