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Leopoldo de Meis: Science with art and emotion

Leopoldo de Meis, 63 years old, is an exceptional figure from the Brazilian scientific community. Graduated in medicine from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), professor of Biochemistry at UFRJ’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences and one of the most respected researchers in his area, he publishes non-stop in the most important scientific magazines on Biochemistry. His lines of research: Energy transducing mechanisms in biological systems, the active transport of ions, and the synthesis and hydrolysis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). So far, we have traces of a curriculum that would not distinguish him much from other good Brazilian researchers.

This Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro and born in Italy was brought to Brazil as a result of the quest by his father – a musician with a classical upbringing, a cellist – for better living conditions in the post-war period. What makes him unique is his persistent effort to make science more understandable. And, here, science is to be understood both as a global corpus of knowledge as for its capacity as a powerful social practice.

It is a question of making it more understandable, firstly, for himself. Because it is, without a doubt, his personal desire for understanding that De Meis is talking about, even though he ends up by encompassing his peers, when he says “how good it would be if each specialist were permitted to work too on clarity of the others”. In second – and perhaps more fundamental – place, his efforts are directed towards reducing the opacity of science for the unspecialized, for society at large. And it is by force of this admirable objective that De Meis includes “Education, management and dissemination for Science” amongst his lines of research, and seeks tirelessly ways of translating science, with emotion, for laymen.

These quests took him, for a time, to scientific policy, afterwards, to educational experiments, and, more recently, to a dialog with art and other languages for easy communication. The results are comic books about science, a theater play, a film for publicizing science with beautiful and breathtaking images produced by computer graphics, and new ideas that gush from his imagination. The text that follows contains just the main passages from the interview that De Meis granted FAPESP, in his lively, passionate and colloquial language, riddled with slang – the language of the ‘carioca’ inhabitant of Rio, in short.

Although for a long time you were a respected researcher in your area, you became far better known after the publication of your book Profile of Brazilian Science – Perfil da Ciência Brasileira. How did your interest for these studies begin?
There was a time when I did scientific policy. Today, I don’t do it any more, although I have a lot of respect for the people who know how to do it. I don’t have the vocation. But the work was done in 1988, 1989, and published in 1990. I showed the data on the growth of post-graduate studies in Brazil, comparing them with data from abroad that I had got hold of. I showed the time spent, publications per year, the qualities of the magazines in which they were published, their impact, etc. And the result of these comparisons is that, in fact, there was no significant difference between post-graduate students in Brazil and those abroad. Though with post-doctorate studies, yes, there is a big difference when you go abroad.

But, at this juncture, isn’t it time to strengthen post-doctorate studies domestically
Oh, of course. There is an enormous number of Brazilian research groups that owe absolutely nothing to any other. You can count dozens of these groups that are of an extremely high level for offering post-doctorate studies.

Would there still be insufficient understanding in Brazil as to what the role of science is for national development?
I think so. The major part of our Congress doesn’t have the slightest idea of what science is. And not just them. A few years ago, I did some work based on interviews with technicians from the CNPq, and the ruling philosophy was that basic science should only be done abroad, because we didn’t have the economic conditions to carry it out here. We ought to do applied science. Now this is something coming from someone who doesn’t have the slightest idea about what science is. There isn’t science and applied science. Anyone who starts classifying like that gets a zero from me. In these cases, I like to quote Pasteur, who used to say that there is no basic science and applied science, but knowledge and making use of it. I ask how would you classify the Xylella Genome project? Are you going to say that it is applied science? It is a sum of things, including the training of people.

What is this point of view due to?
I think that science is very new in Brazil. Some countries, a short time after the beginning of modern science, incorporated it right away, not only in economic terms but in cultural terms as well. And to this day 70% or 80% of science is done in these forerunning countries.

While we are there with 1.2% of world-wide scientific production.
But this is spectacular, if you consider that before the development of post-graduation the whole of Brazil used to publish 50 or 60 works, in all areas of knowledge. Science in Brazil is therefore very young…

That is, science only starts to become institutional in Brazil in the post-war period.
Yes, and it is therefore a new cultural trait, which gains enormous vigor after post-graduation, the greatest brainwave ever in Brazil. It grew in a vigorous way, and it is fundamental for the country in this process of globalization.

On that point, what is your analysis of our report with the tendencies and the predominant lines of research in this globalized world?
We are now increasingly exposed to things that happen in other countries. Cultural things, economic ones… We are at a very delicate moment, because in any place in the world there is starting to be cultural ages and ages of knowledge that are distinct. There are enormous groups of population with great discrepancies in exposure, acquisition and understanding of what we, the human race, have already discovered.

And is what explains your concerns about scientific education and dissemination.
Yes, because it is one thing when you are talking about ignorance about cars, computers, etc., but when you go on to other levels, for example, to the medication of the soul, let’s say, it starts to get complicated. Today, you can go to the drugstore, take a Prozac and medicate the soul. Now, dealing with a watch and not understanding it, that’s all right, but when you start to have things that affect the whole structure of the individual and don’t understand them, this can end up in pandemonium.

And what is your specific concern in this sphere
It is the human/technological conflict that is arising. The age-old concepts of paternity, maternity, etc. are changing with this business of artificial insemination, cloning… Age-old habits are changing very rapidly. And if people don’t have the possibility for understanding the extent of the changes, not only will they be alienated from their own social universe, but they will suffer. We are not dealing with something that is just economic, but with something human, and the biggest horror is for the men from the exact sciences and those from the humanities don’t speak to each other.

And so you advocate a process of constant education and dissemination of these new conquests of science and technology, for society to prepare itself for the changes that are under way.
That is very ambitious. Before thinking so far ahead, I am thinking of understanding among the scientists themselves. Look, mathematicians have a very precise view of the universe, but very different from the view that biologists have. Very different from the view of a physicist or a chemist. The amount of knowledge that we have is so big that it is impossible for one person to control all the areas of knowledge. A century or two ago, the volume of knowledge was small, and the brain could absorb it, digest a bit of each thing, and it all was blended. I like the example of Descartes: he was a great philosopher, a great mathematician (the Cartesian coordinates), and a great biologist (he discovered the hypophysis).

This is impossible today, with the enormous quantity of research, when just in the indexed magazines 1.2 million works a year are published. The production of new data happens at an overwhelming speed, because the number of people on the planet working in science has increased in an incredible way: at the beginning of the 1900s, the calculation was of around 2,000, 3,000 persons, and the figure estimated today is over 20 million. The speed of production has made superspecialization obligatory: what we do is to dig deep, and one specialist cannot manage to understand the universe of the other.

What could link them?
A new language to allow the various sciences to communicate with each other fast and clearly. If each one of us were able to work on the clarity of the others, I think we would find ways out and understand the universe much more quickly.

But wouldn’t there then be 20 million specialists who would understand a little more about everything, while the others would remain increasingly to one side?
First, the scientists. This would cause a big leap forward. The other portion, where I am also trying to work, is different. Look, when science is talked about in the newspapers, magazines, etc., in the majority of times the very important aspect of the application of science is approached, its usefulness, its importance for the economy of a country, for economic and social development. This is quite absolutely correct, but the other side is rarely talked about, which is man’s desire to understand the universe. This is the fun part of science, its original motivations, and, afterwards, the emotions associated with science. Nobody teaches this, and that is why our science lessons are so boring.

But aren’t the lessons boring too because of the lack of motivation of the teachers?
Without doubt this contributes. But, leaving this aside, the fact is the following: we only show the utilitarian side of science, and the other side, equally important and fundamental for the growing boy, is forgotten. Now a boy aged 7, 10, 15 years may, exceptionally, even be interested in the Gross Domestic Product, but he is much more interested in what he likes and what he doesn’t like. And showing that science brings something much bigger, as, for example, understanding the universe, can be an important matter for them.

Your theater work on scientific method fits in there precisely.
Precisely there. It started as a research task. I wanted to see how children saw science and I asked them to draw a scientist. From a great sample taken in Brazil and the United States, we saw that the drawing does not change much from when the child is 6 or 7 years old until he goes to university. It is always the same machismo drawing, there are no women doing science. The idea is the stereotype of the man, always lonely, with a rather bored face, there is no communication. Over 30% of these drawings show people you wouldn’t invite for tea at home. Some horrible, crazy, wild guys…

Afterwards, in other works, we asked university students what science was. We chose those who had just passed the entrance exam for medicine, for being the most difficult and the one that calls for more knowledge of the science that is taught at school, and the boys from the Fine Arts School. I expected different answers. Not a bit of it! They all said that science is a logical business that does not need creativity, because you discover what is already there.

It’s just observation.
Yes. Logic, observation, precision… no emotion, now feeling. Then I asked “what is art?”, and they said the contrary: it is emotion, creativity, creating new things, universes.

But where does this point of view come from?
I don’t know. I asked a colleague of mine in the United States, Harvey Penefsky, one of the discoverers of mitochondrial transduction, to do the same thing at Syracuse College, in the second year of college, when the boy has to decide which career he follows. The result was identical. This distorted point of view is not, then, a Brazilian quality. So I started to think how I could try to do something about this, and I was criticized by many colleagues (I was praised by others too), who said: “How are you going to do sociology in science?” It distressed me, because I really hadn’t done enough reading for this.

This was in the 80’s, wasn’t it?
Yes, the 80’s. In those days, I played a lot of football, and when you play football, you are running, but sometimes you are stationary, and while the legs are running the brain is at work. That was when I got really distressed, and I even said: “Nonsense, man. Since the age of 18 I’ve been doing sociology in science, I’m interacting with people from science, I’m going to do it!” It’s my tribe, they’re my Indians, OK? Then I started to do it. Whether rightly or wrongly, I don’t know, but something is happening. And one of the things I began to do a long time ago is to teach courses for college boys in their vacations. A marvelous business.

To start with, I taught the course myself, but since the end of the 80’s the post-graduate students have become very keen on this. So the scheme works like this: a teacher picks a theme, and during the school year, the post-graduate students prepare a purely experimental course, with the characteristics of not making the boy see, but discover. There are 80, 90 boys in each round. Afterwards, the post-graduate students started complain to me because the women teachers were making a fuss, so they came in. About 50 a year. So, we have a good program for the low income boys who work in a laboratory. I choose a boy who has to do well on the course. I put him in the laboratory with the post-graduate student, who becomes his tutor, who has to look after him, keep an eye on his reports, explain the homework, the lot.

And how old are these boys?
Around 15, 16. On the other hand, the boys act as a kind of technician, helping the post-graduate students to work. And it shows the post-graduate student a reality, often an extremely cruel one, to which he is not usually exposed. And the objective is not for the boy to improve a bit, it is for him to go to a public university. And there are now over 40 who have managed this, and one excellent one, brilliant, who is doing his doctorate.

Afterwards came the theater, then.
Yes. The courses still did not satisfy me. And then I thought, once again playing football: the language of art is very important, if you want to convey emotion. Scientists have their moments of emotion, the problem is how to convey this emotion. The good scientists, those who are outstanding, talk about these emotions, and they talk about intuition.

And what did this lead to?
I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do. Then I started to go to any lecture that appeared on “science and art”. The majority were interesting, some brilliant, others a bore. But the fact is that in none of them did I understand what the relationship between science and art is. It was nice, but habeas corpus had nothing to do with corpus christi . So then I said “bah, I am going to try to learn the language of the arts”. And there’s a marvelous colleague from the Fine Arts school, Lourdes Barreto, who I started to talk with. The first thing I realized: the scientific material that goes to the schools is really boring; secondly, it’s ugly; third, it’s difficult to understand; fourth, it doesn’t speak the same language as the boys.

Then I remembered that when I was a lad I loved almanacs. When the end of the year came, there were three marvelous things that happened: first, vacations, I would be free from college, marvelous to be free from all that trash. Number two, Christmas was coming, there would be a party. And, number three, the almanacs would come out. I loved comics, Prince Valiant, Tarzan… Then I though, “I’m going to do one”. With my Fine Arts friends I looked for a good guy to do a comic, they indicated Diucênio Rangel and we did Scientific Method.

When was it published?
The first edition was in 1996. There were 4,000 copies, made with the support of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and of the CNPq, and they were distributed free at schools, thanks to support from the Vitae Foundation. Afterwards, there were another 4,000 copies in the second edition, and then FAPESP was priceless: it bought half, and distributed them in schools. Afterwards, in 1998, in the same style, came “Breathing and the 1st law of thermodynamics, or …the heart of the matter”. I am trying to do one now on the history of vaccines.

But how did the theater happen?
That was funny. Every time I do the vacation course, I bring a speaker who can make the boys stop and think. Then the scheduled speaker couldn’t come, and people said: “you go and give the talk, Leopoldo”, and I said, “None of that, we’ll do the following: instead of showing slides, I talk and you act out what would be in the slides”. The post-graduate students got excited, they started to invent marvelous things to do with the projector, clothes, roles. And then we did it. The boys loved it, they stood up and applauded, they shouted. Afterwards, Mackenzie University heard the story and asked us to take it to São Paulo. People from down south called, and we did a tour that started in Porto Alegre, and suddenly there were 8,500 children inside the amphitheater of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

Each time we traveled, we kept on changing, adding more music, more examples. We went to Santa Maria, Pelotas, Caxias do Sul, Vitória, São Carlos, Campinas and, just now, back to São Paulo, at the São Paulo School (Federal University of São Paulo, Unifesp). Now the Brazilian Societies of Biochemistry and Chemistry have asked us to do a presentation. And we are going to. We went to various colleges, to Pedro II, etc., always in a group of 13 to 16 persons, including teachers and post-graduate students. Now, finally, what I am most involved in is computer graphics and cinema. Mitochondria in three acts, a film with animation, is the latest bit of this journey. Our cinema room in the laboratory has just been set up.