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Nobel

Networking party

Brazilians celebrate the prizes awarded to scientists with whom they have already worked

STEVE MCCONNELLEconomist Williamson STEVE MCCONNELL

Working in research networks and the internationalization of science in Brazil has meant that some of the Nobel victories were celebrated by Brazilians who have worked alongside the laureates. An example of this is Mateus Batistella, a researcher from Embrapa Monitoramento por Satélite (Satellite Monitoring) and a professor at the State University of Campinas, who collaborated to his advantage with the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, above all in the period when he was doing his PhD at Indiana University, the institution at which the researcher developed her career. In 2003, Batistella and colleagues from Brazil, Madagascar, Uganda, Nepal and Guatemala published an article with Elinor in an online supplement of the journal Science. The text presented case studies that were the basis of a previous article published by the Economics Nobel prizewinner and other authors, in which she explores her piece de resistance: the challenge of governing common resources. Elinor Ostrom challenges the social trap known as the “tragedy of the common people,” in which individual interests take precedence over a collective objective, resulting in the destruction of public property and scarce resources. She proved that, in practice, the isolated interests of certain groups might be more beneficial to the economy and the environment than intervention by the State, or the market itself. Batistella’s case study describes the example of an agricultural settlement in Rondônia.

The Brazilian also collaborates closely with Emilio Moran, a professor from Indiana University (see interview in Pesquisa FAPESP no. 125) who was a co-director, along with Elinor, of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change. The results of this center’s first years of the work led to the book Ecossistemas florestais – Interação homem-ambiente [Seeing the Forest and the Trees – Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems], edited by Elinor and Moran and published in Brazil by Editora Senac SP and by Edusp. Batistella was one of the translators. Elinor Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize in Economics with 77-year old Oliver Williamson, from the University of California, in Berkeley, honored for his analyses of economic governance.

Also celebrated in Brazil was the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared by three scientists who revealed one of the most fundamental processes for the existence of life: how the information contained in DNA is translated by the ribosome, a cellular compartment that is responsible for the synthesis of proteins in all organisms, from man to bacteria. Yvonne Mascarenhas, a professor at the São Carlos Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) celebrated the triumph of Israeli citizen Ada E. Yonath, from the Weizmann Institute of Science. Yvonne met Ada at several international congresses, such as that of the International Union of Crystallography, held in 1984 in Moscow, Russia. “At the time she invited me to visit her group in the Hamburg Synchrotron Laboratory. I accepted and had the satisfaction of meeting her,” she recalls. Yvonne invited her to take part in a symposium about crystallography and molecular biology held in Guarujá in 1990. “She accepted the invitation and, with her natural curiosity, in addition to coming to the symposium she still found time to visit Manaus and Salvador.”

Yale UniversitySteitz, who took the Chemistry PrizeYale University

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Another professor from USP, José Riveros, from the Institute of Chemistry, wrote an article recalling his friendship with Thomas Steitz, from Yale University, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Ada and the Indian Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. In the text, available on the Pesquisa FAPESP website (www.revistapesquisa.fapesp.br), Riveros reminisces about the time he spent with Steitz, when both were graduate students at Harvard University in the 1960’s. “We had the opportunity to attend several concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tom was an active member of the Harvard chapel choir when there were religious services,” wrote Riveros. “He maintains the same simplicity and the same enthusiasm as at the time I shared with him and I’m proud to have shared such rich experiences with him on both the scientific and the personal level,” he said.

In the case of the Nobel Prize in Physics, the award to Charles Kao, the Chinese scientist who developed the first optical glass fiber in 1966, was celebrated by the community of researchers who graduated in Brazil as from the 1970s and helped drive Brazilian technology in this field. Kao’s discovery gained commercial application in 1973; four years later, in April 1977, the first optical fiber in Brazil was drawn in a tower of the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics at Unicamp. “Brazil accompanied international development early on,” says Hugo Fragnito, a professor at Unicamp and coordinator of the KyaTera project, a structure of optical fiber cables that links research centers in São Paulo, Campinas and São Carlos, within FAPESP’s Information Technology Program in the Development of the Advanced Internet (Tidia). “The first experimental optical fiber usable in telecommunication was manufactured in Brazil in 1976, three years after it became feasible in the USA. For cutting-edge technology, it was a considerable triumph. This is a successful case of university-made technology being transferred to the production sector in a pioneering way in Brazil. Development in the world was carried out in private-sector laboratories,” says the professor.

Fragnito recalls that an essential ingredient was the establishment of the Research and Development Center (CPqD) of Telebrás, the Brazilian Telecommunications Company, that was inaugurated in Campinas in 1976 and that sought to transfer innovation to the industrial sector. While Unicamp made prototypes in the laboratory, the CPqD tested the technology on a pilot scale and transferred it to the production sector. “This initiative generated knowledge and produced qualified personnel, who became an important pool of human talent and enabled the rise of companies such as Padtec,” he says, referring to the largest manufacturer of optical communication equipment in Brazil, with its headquarters in Campinas. Charles Kao shared the prize with Willard Boyle and George Smith, recognized for the invention in the Bell Laboratories of an image semiconductor circuit, the CCD sensor, the electronic eye of today’s popular digital cameras.

Studies of major importance for understanding the biological mechanisms that regulate the ageing process gave the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology to three researchers who work in the United States: Elizabeth Blackburn, from the University of California, Carol Greider, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Jack Szostak, from the Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Each of them will receive the prize for studies that started in the 1980’s into how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and by the enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are structures that protect genetic material from degrading in the cell copy and division process.

The prizes in the non-scientific categories were the source of controversy. The Nobel Prize in Literature went to Herta Müller, 56, a German born in Romania. The award generated criticism because of how little known the writer’s work is internationally, which is nothing new in the history of the Nobel Prize. However, the biggest controversy of all marked the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to US president Barack Obama, who despite his anti-armament discourse has had no time to put his ideas into practice just nine months into his term.

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