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Struggling against a sea of obstacles

The name Alpha Crucis is sonorous and suggestive enough for the central character of a saga, but in fact the combination of the two Latin terms, roughly translatable as alpha cross, is the name of the most brilliant Southern Cross star. It is also the star that represents São Paulo state in the symbolic sky on the Brazilian flag. However here the words are referring to the new oceanography ship of the University of São Paulo (USP), which arrived in the port of Santos in May 2012, after being at the center, for months, of a story full of mishaps that meant overcoming a thousand and one technical and bureaucratic obstacles, from the vessel’s renovation at a US shipyard to its arrival in the country to which it now belongs. The narrative illustrates the difficulties that must often be overcome to establish sound, modern research infrastructure in Brazil. This went hand in hand with colossal personal efforts and persistence that are so often needed to overcome such obstacles.

Not very long ago, Alpha Crucis was called Moana Wave, bore the US flag and was used by the University of Hawaii. Today, it is an important platform for Brazilian research into biodiversity, climate change and the exploration of the pre-salt layer. This adventure, along with its protagonists and antagonists, is well told starting on page 12.

Another highlight in this issue makes us realize that there is still some doubt among neuroscientists as to the importance of determining the exact number and the spatial distribution of neurons in order to learn more about one of the most fascinating objects ever in scientific research: the human brain. Quantifying and mapping these cells may certainly help us to understand how the brain works. However this information seems insufficient to reveal what is so intriguing about this organ,  yet it was capable of driving a scientist such as António Damásio to examine it in detail in his work E o cérebro criou o homem (And the brain created man). Here, he resorts to the entire arsenal of available knowledge, regardless of the boundaries between disciplines, in order to advance his aims. This is taken into account in the article starting on page 26, which explains that what is actually of the utmost importance, more than the neurons themselves, are the effective connections that these cells establish, creating networks that process information in a well distributed manner.  Thus, the Brazilian technique that enabled a more precise counting of neurons and other human brain cells, which is the focus of the article, is put into a scientific context, even though it clashes with some neuroscience dogmas.

Brazilian research on astrophysics (page 44), geology (page 48) and biodiversity (page 32), as well as the technological advances of the biological control of agricultural pests (page 62), are the other subjects that FAPESP, the São Paulo State Research Foundation, brings to its readers worldwide, providing them with a consistent overview of the production of scientific and technological knowledge in Brazil.