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Letter from the editor | 98

Scenes from the past and of the future

The cover story of this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP addresses a fascinating new theory drawn up in Brazil. Its proposition is that a significant climatic change in the middle of the Holocene, a geologic era that began some about 11,000 years ago, could have been the key element to explain the disappearance, in South America, and the reasonable preservation, in Africa, of some of the strains of the large mammals that generated, amongst other species, the present-day elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceroses. In the two continents, it was a period of pouring rain. But, according to the new theory, which special editor Marcos Pivetta details, while in Africa these formidable animals managed to escape from the old areas of savanna woodlands their habitat par excellence, which the excess of water had made inhospitable and migrate to new regions with open vegetation, at the northern and southern ends of the continent, in South America they did not have this chance they did not find any nearby environment compatible with their lifestyle, and perished. The result is that the largest mammal on the comment where we found ourselves is the tapir, big, no doubt about it, with its up to 300 kilos, but just a little animal when compared with the imposing African elephant, which can be 20 times heavier than it is. The theory is, of course, polemical, but for this very reason it is worthwhile diving into the delicious text that presents it.

Frontiers that challenge the very human desire for knowing and transforming reality are not always located enormous distances away in time or in space. Sometimes it is what is closest to us, even what makes us up, that resists for long the incursions of scientific reason. A good example? The human brain. But talent, persistence, and an almost obsessive determination to decipher what is in fact guarded behind the fortress of the cranial cavity have been throwing new light on the physiology, the power, and the ills that frequently attack the most noble of the organs of the human body.

It is some of this light that is dealt with by the block of articles on neurosciences. In the first, Pivetta, who was in Natal at the beginning of March, accompanying the symposium for launching the ambitious project for building an international neurosciences institute in this city, under the command of Miguel Nicolelis, reports the vanguard experiments of this scientist from São Paulo, who 15 years ago settled in the United States, where he commands a laboratory with 40 researchers, at Duke University, in North Carolina. The most recent and fantastic of them, now make public by the Brazilian press, suggests that man, in theory, can control robots and prostheses by means of the electrical activity of his neurons. In the second article, the assistant editor for Science, Ricardo Zorzetto, shows promising advances in Brazilian research into new compounds intended to reduce the damage caused by Alzheimers disease, which devastates the brain and the life of 5% of men and 6% of women over the age of 60 all over the world, affecting 40 million people, of which 1.5 million in Brazil. In the third article of the block, reporter Francisco Bicudo gives an account of the surgical experiments that, making use of gamma rays, have been carried out since last December in Brazil, to treat victims with severe manifestations the obsessive-compulsive disorder. Better known as OCD, this psychiatric problem that turns the daily life of its sufferers into hell affects some 3 million persons in Brazil.

To finalize, highly recommendable, not to say obligatory reading, is the interview of literary critic Roberto Schwarz, made by Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos, a philosophy professor from USP, the scientific coordinator of the Pesquisa FAPESP magazine project, and by me. Schwarzs lucidity, vast knowledge, and acute intelligence, which allow him to come through polemical questions, modulating in a masterly way his tone of voice between incisive and smooth, transform the act of listening him into a genuine pleasure and reading his words too.