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Science Journalism

Stories to Tell

Access to scanned documents helps reconstruct the historical path of the spread of science in Brazil

reproductionsDirect access to documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, largely facilitated by the recent digitizing of the archives of major media, and new case studies may in due course change the current perception of the history and dissemination of science journalism in Brazil. Instead of a journey marked by a few localized waves of intense dissemination, followed by long periods of silence, we may be able to reconstruct a more continuous path over two centuries in this field, even if in certain periods it is very narrow while in other periods it is much wider. “Although for now we should not discard the notion of the existence of waves of scientific dissemination in Brazil, along the lines of what English researcher Martin Bauer has shown for Europe, we may have to revise it in light of new data provided by empirical research,” says Luisa Massarani, director of the Museum of Life at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, who along with Ildeu de Castro Moreira has been systematically studying this area since 1997. She admits that much of what is seen as gaps in disseminating and reporting science in Brazil may, in fact, be gaps in the historical knowledge in that regard.

Take, for example, the results of a search of digitized files, the case of O Estado de S. Paulo – A Província de São Paulo, up to 1890. In a preliminary search for news on scientific subjects, journalist Carlos Fioravanti, special editor of Pesquisa FAPESP, discovered – without much effort we should note – that even in 1875, the year in which the important São Paulo newspaper was established, its front page carried a “Science Section.”  His initial search of the digital collection turned up 895 files with this expression between the years 1875 and 2000. But a small refinement to the search reduced that number to 145 occurrences of the exact expression through 1910. The only thing was that the bar graph of the process that readily appeared showed a gap for the years 1900 to 1909, which quickly led him to suspect that the “Section” that appeared in the following decade was not exactly the same one we had searched for. And in fact the two meager occurrences of the expression in the period, specifically on April 9 and 10, 1912, are found in a small advertisement for a certain “anatomy and science museum” located at 31 Rua de Novembro, which states that “Visits to the museum will interest all social classes, which ought to learn about the human body in its various forms.” The reclame [advertisement], to use the term of the time, further explains that the museum is “open from 10 o’clock in the morning until midnight” adding that “the establishment will sell tickets to the anatomy science section,” the last three words written in larger letters, and finally states that “children younger than 9 will be admitted free of charge.”

As much as the advertisement excites curiosity about the fact that museum exhibits would show the human body in all its forms back in 1912, the interest here was the remaining 143 files that actually showed a “Science Section” published with a certain regularity on the front page of the São Paulo newspaper, over an 11-year period from 1875 to 1886. There are 63 occurrences from 1875 to 1879 and 79 records from 1880 to 1886 (thus a section is missing, accounted for, but not identified, to round out the account). These sections bring such a wealth and diversity of themes and treatment of information that they seem to clamor for a consistent case study, as suggested by the history of science researchers Márcia Ferraz and Ana Maria Goldfarb, both of the Simon Matias Center for Studies on the History of Science (Cesima) at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). With some of their masters and doctorate research completed and more underway on the history and dissemination of science journalism, they see the multiplicity of case studies as a way to rapidly expand knowledge in this field and, at the same time, offering further support to deeper and more consistent reflections on the nature of its relationships to scientific research and science education and about its place in the building of contemporary Brazil.

The first “Science Section” found in the São Paulo newspaper appeared on February 16, 1875, a little more than a month after the launch of A Província de São Paulo on January 4, with the stated intention of spreading the ideals of a group of republicans. The title of this inaugural article was “Synoptic Meteorology and Weather Forecasting,” which, incidentally, appeared several times again in exactly that way in the paper. In this first article the writer, whose name was not given to readers, used all his energy to defend the new focus of efforts to develop meteorology, which had just begun (although no facts were offered to support this assertion). This followed an exercise in tolerance and understanding vis-à-vis indifference and even public sarcasm toward meteorological research, given that he thought only clear material results would give value to the science in the eyes of the public.

In one delightful piece of text, the author observes: “One would say that the shot of honor had already been fired at this unlucky science when some years ago, in plain view of the academy of sciences, two illustrious physicians attacked it, denigrating the methods, asserting no value in its doctrines and condemning its investigations to eternal sterility. Meteorology was about to join the museum of dead sciences along with magic and judicial astrology, when new perspectives pulled it ahead, and the patient, condemned by doctors, rose up robust, and with youthful ardor embarked on a path that was as fruitful as it was unexpected.”

040-046_Jornalismo Cientifico_200Catarina BessellOver the years, using translations of articles published in both scientific journals and widely circulated foreign vehicles, now written by homegrown and local experts, the “Science Section” covered geology, agronomy, Darwin and evolutionary theories, astrophysics, positivism, inventions such as the artificial heart and the steam-powered car, and even science itself, such as an article with the beautiful title “The Offices of the Idea” of October 9, 1875, which presents applied sciences to the reader as the flip side of basic science.  Apparently the last “Science Section,” of April 10, 1886, brought part two of the translation of an article about evolutionary theories, with the title “Objections to the Theory of Darwin – II,” signed simply by Haeckel (probably the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919). After observing how savages, when seeing sophisticated devices such as a locomotive or an ocean liner for the first time regard them as supernatural beings, the author made a comparison: “Even many uneducated men of our own race would be unable to have any concept of these complicated devices or understand their purely mechanical nature. But under a very fair observation of Darwin, most naturalists would behave no more intelligently with regard to organized forms than the savages placed before a ship or locomotive. To be able to assess the purely mechanical origin of the organized forms, one needs to have received a solid education in biology, and be familiar with comparative anatomy and embryology.” The end of the article included the information “to be continued,” and we do not know why the newspaper did not observe this.

Most studied origins
If the treatment of science in the nineteenth century by Estadão still lacks a systematic study, some older vehicles from the early days of  the Brazilian press enjoy a different status, starting with Correio Braziliense or Armazem Literario. The monthly, considered an inaugural milestone of Brazilian journalism, despite being edited in London, where its creator, Hipólito da Costa (1774-1823) was exiled, was released in June 1808 and published continuously up to December 1822 (the Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro, official journal of the newly installed Court would appear  September 9, 1808).

The unique case of Correio, “essentially a political publication that made room for information of a scientific nature,” plus the distinctive characteristics of the Brazilian intellectual who created it led to a beautiful study by Professor José Marques de Melo on the work that Hipólito had done as a science reporter while on a diplomatic mission in the service of the Portuguese crown, 10 years before founding his newspaper. The purpose of the mission was to “observe the U.S. agricultural economy, in an effort to discern which scientific inventions and technological innovations were feasible for transplant to Brazil, then Portugal’s colony in the Americas,” reported Marques de Melo in his essay “Hipólito da Costa, the forerunner of science journalism in Brazil” (Anuário de jornalismo [Journalism Yearbook], vol. 2, n. 2, p. 150-71), published in 2000.

According to the researcher, former professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), the travelogue that preserved the history of the mission and foreshadowed “the vocation of reporter that the author would develop ten years later in his periodical,” Hipólito “made an astute record of the dawning of science and technology in the young American nation.” Further on: “It demonstrated an ability to recognize the scientific inventions and processes of collective dissemination that prevailed in that society while also referencing the European colonial context.”

In Correio, Hipólito da Costa would regularly edit “Literature and Sciences” as one of the four main sections of the periodical – the others were “Politics,” “Art and Commerce” and “Miscellanea.” In one of them, which appeared in the facsimile edition of the first volume of Correio Braziliense, coordinated by journalist Alberto Dines and published in 2000 by the Uniemp Institute and the Official Gazette of the State of São Paulo, Hipólito reported, celebrated and detailed the French imperial decree of March 7, 1808 that gathered all of France’s schools, academies and colleges into “a single body with the name University.”

Several other periodicals of the time were studied for their contribution to the spread of popular science, especially O Patriota, treated in the book of essays Iluminismo e Império no Brasil: “O Patriota” (1813-1814), organized by the historian Lorelay Kury and released in 2007, a co-publication of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and the National Library. Kury, in a text published in 2008, classified O Patriota as “an anthology of science” and observed that “it contains dozens of articles that cover the most varied of subjects, such as medicine, natural history, agriculture, travel, political history and poetry. This anthology demonstrates the weight that scientific subjects have acquired in the cultural environment of the Luso-Brazilian High Enlightenment.” She adds that “its numerous articles envision the contours of a political invention called Brazil, whose identity was forged more by its natural description than by the extent of its historical stages.”

O Patriota would be the subject of other studies, such as the article by Maria Helena Freitas, “Considerations on the first Brazilian science periodicals,” the result of a master’s dissertation supervised by Márcia Ferraz. She includes it prominently among the periodicals that circulated in Brazil from 1813 to 1830, most of which were short-lived. Maria Helena noted that “as in most Euro-American countries, the dissemination and communication of science in Brazil began in the nineteenth century in daily newspapers that were non-specialized and aimed at the general public.” Thus, “the Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro played the role of disseminator of scientific affairs, reporting on the production of works, courses held, and the production and sale of books and scientific texts. In addition to news and references, the newspaper even published science-related stories,” she says.

Institutions and publishers contributed to the revitalization of science journalism in the years 1980-90 with the release of specialized magazines

Other periodicals such as A Idade d’Ouro do Brazil (1811) and As Variedades or Ensaios de Literatura (1812), both published in Bahia at the dawn of the Brazilian press, are highlighted by Maria Helena. But it is worth noting that the two are the subject of larger studies, the first in a book by Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva, A primeira gazeta da Bahia: “Idade d’Ouro do Brazil,” originally published in 1978, now in its third edition published by the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) press in 2011, presented by the journalist Luís Guilherme Tavares Pontes. And the second in a small and invaluable edition in two volumes, the first a facsimile of the periodical and the second a collection of four brief essays about them, edited by the Pedro Calmon Foundation / Ministry of Culture, also in 2011, the bicentennial year for the Bahian publisher.

20th Century Discoveries
In recent years, two books have shed new light on our understanding of both how the Brazilian press has treated science originating inside and outside Brazil in the twentieth century, and the evolution of Brazilian science journalism. They are: Domingo é dia de ciência: história de um suplemento dos anos pós-guerra, by Bernardo Esteves (Azougue Editorial, 2006), and Um gesto ameno para acordar o país: a ciência no “Jornal do Commercio” (1958-1962), organized by Luisa Massarani, Claudia Jurberg and Leopoldo de Meis (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation / Oswaldo Cruz House, 2011).

Although it is easier to trace the flow of science information that circulated in Brazilian society in the twentieth century than in  previous eras, an overview of the development of science journalism in Brazil was obtained much more readily through the documents issued by scientific societies and testimonials by scientists themselves rather than by direct examination of published material. In the last three decades, however, that began to change and dissertations and theses in the field of science journalism have been examining how science is presented in print, and on television and radio. There are still few in-depth, exhaustive case studies (and also few graduate programs that focus on the field of dissemination and science journalism), but there are indications that this will be expanding.

In a recent article by Massarani and Moreira that examines the main currents of science and technology dissemination in Brazil, after observing how two of these currents are directly linked to the Brazilian scientific community and the movements between 1920 and 1950, the authors propose that “a third current, now related to science journalism, which was in its embryonic stage at the end of World War II, will emerge with more intensity in the 1980s.” Later, in analyzing the third current, the authors would say that “a milestone has been achieved by the São Paulo press, within the context of the state universities, with qualified scientific human resources. Worthy of particular mention was José Reis, who came from the scientific community and was a founder of SBPC, and has worked for many decades, since the late 1940s to establish a tradition in science journalism, primarily in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.”

The authors emphasize the role of Spaniard Manuel Calvo Hernando who was drawn into science journalism in 1955, when the UN organized its first conference in Geneva on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. He inspired the formation of science journalism associations in Latin America (including the Brazilian Association of Science Journalism, the ABJC, in 1977) and the creation of new science sections in newspapers. He even played a pioneering role in training science journalists in Brazil when he taught a course in science journalism in 1972 at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Whether or not the dictatorship that controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 hindered the development of journalism and the spread of science is still a question that deserves further study. But it is notable that the 1980s, a time that inaugurated the re-democratization process in Brazil, brought so many new vehicles and proposals to this field (see the infographic). It is also interesting to examine how much this new movement was the product of close coordination between journalism and scientific research institutions and associations. Ciência Hoje, in 1982, the Revista Brasileira de Tecnologia, first established in the 1970s, but remade in 1985, and then in 1999, Pesquisa FAPESP were created through this interaction and connection.

All of these are magazines that seem to be proposing studies that would contribute to understanding the history and challenges of science journalism in Brazil. Incidentally, Pesquisa FAPESP at this point is the subject of at least a dozen academic studies, in the frequent company of Ciência Hoje and Superinteressante, a widely distributed science magazine that was launched in 1987.

As for digital files, it is worth noting that in 2010 every issue of Veja was made available back to 1968. In 2011 it was the turn of Folha de São Paulo, whose texts were made available going back to the 1920s. In May of this year, Estadão made its files available, opening a large window onto almost 140 years of history. But perhaps the most exciting news for scholars who use the periodicals as documentary sources for historical reconstructions was the National Library’s release of the Brazilian Digital Newspaper Library on August 9, 2012.

The portal that contains 5 million scanned pages of all kinds of Brazilian periodicals – newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, newsletters, science periodicals etc. – can be freely accessed from any computer connected to the Internet, using an advanced system to search and the freedom to print documents. It is a veritable feast for researchers.

Scientific articles
FREITAS, M. H. Considerações acerca dos primeiros periódicos científicos brasileiros.Ciência da Informação. v. 35, n. 3, p. 54-66. set/dez. 2006. (
MASSARANI, L.; MOREIRA, I. C. A divulgação científica no Brasil e suas origens históricas. Tempo Brasileiro. v. 188, p. 5-26. 2012.