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A tunnel to the future

German exhibit arrives in São Paulo with scientific discoveries that could change the world in the years to come

The Science Tunnel: a futuristic setting for examining the consequences of scientific progress

Eduardo CesarThe Science Tunnel: a futuristic setting for examining the consequences of scientific progressEduardo Cesar

A trip through a tunnel that spans the principal topics of science, from the origins of the universe, to the idiosyncracies of the brain, to the sources of sustainable energy. These are the attractions to be found in the Max Planck Science Tunnel, a global exhibition open to the public until February 21, 2014 at the Convention Center in the Frei Caneca shopping mall in São Paulo. Conceived in 2000 by the Max Planck Society in Germany, the exhibition has now traveled to 20 countries, including China, Argentina, the United States and Chile, and its three versions have attracted more than nine million visitors. It is being presented in Brazil for the first time, as part of the activities celebrating the Germany + Brazil 2013-2014 festival.

When the Science Tunnel was first presented in Hanover, Germany, in 2000, its mission was to show the latest innovations at the time in basic science, with a view to knowledge creation. For its version 3.0 in Brazil, the focus moves beyond mere display. “The findings of basic research will yield new applications and products in 20 years’ time. Our objective, therefore, is to offer the public a glimpse into the future,” says Peter Steiner, the German coordinator of the exhibition. The cost of about R$2.5 million is being shared by the Max Planck Society, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), and private-sector sponsors.

Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), which is a partner in the project, believes that this country needs to be more open to hosting, as well as creating, exhibitions like the Science Tunnel. “This exhibition serves to step up the dialogue between the scientific community and society, which is in fact the very source of funding for research,” she points out. “Most people have a cell phone with GPS and other technologies, but they have no concept of the important role that basic research played in creating such products. The Science Tunnel shows the public that science needs to be understood as a process,” Nader adds.

The complexity of the human brain is a topic in the exhibition

Eduardo CesarThe complexity of the human brain is a topic in the exhibitionEduardo Cesar

To inspire questions such as, “What kind of future do we want?,” the organizers opted for an exhibition model that uses technological and media resources to induce sensations and stir up people’s emotions, explains Steiner, who has 22 years of experience organizing science exhibitions, by way of the traditionally-focused Deutsches Museum in Munich. As a result, the futuristic milieu of the Tunnel, awash in colors and lights, contains attractions of all kinds: images, illustrations, films, many of which are activated by tablet computers or smartphones. “The exhibition does not focus on the teaching/learning process as in a school. Here, information is transmitted in a more playful way,” says Marcus Ferreira, head of Asas Produções, a company of Grupo Asas, which organized the installation in Brazil.  

The innovations on display include a replica of the Curiosity, the space exploration vehicle sent to Mars by NASA in 2012. The largest and most complex rover ever sent to that planet, it is equipped with a laser spectrometer and eight additional exploratory instruments. The replica is supported by two tablet computers that help explain how the rover works.

Replica of NASA’s Curiosity rover

Eduardo CesarReplica of NASA’s Curiosity roverEduardo Cesar

Another of the Tunnel’s high points is the Magic Mirror (EspelhoMágico), created in partnership with the Technical University of Munich. Using augmented-reality technology, the mirror creates the illusion of seeing inside the human body, like an X-ray, and shows the position of the internal organs. The Millennium Simulation reveals how the Universe would look if it were possible to see the dark matter that accounts for 23% of space. The attractions are distributed among eight themed modules to guide visitors through the exhibition: The Universe, Matter, Life, Complexity, The Brain, Health, Energy, and Society.

Steiner emphasizes that the focus of the exhibition is not just to democratize knowledge, but to reach further and inspire people to examine the meaning of scientific progress for the years ahead. “The exhibition invites politicians, scientists and the public to come together and think about acceptance of the role of science and scientific advances in our society,” he says. For this reason, Erwin Neher, a researcher with the Max Planck Society and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, participated in the January 29, 2014 opening of the exhibition, which represents the work of more than 5,300 scientists and was budgeted at €1.5 billion in 2012.

In his lecture, Neher spoke of the important role of international collaboration in scientific development and the need to appreciate basic science, which, he says, provides the foundations for the principal technological changes in our society. “Unfortunately, it can take a long time for research findings to find an application and turn into products. That is why we need to know today how to anticipate tomorrow’s challenges. Science done today molds the future,” he commented. 

Scientist Erwin Neher at the opening of the exhibition

Eduardo CesarScientist Erwin Neher at the opening of the exhibitionEduardo Cesar

One concern for organizing the exhibition is that people’s experience not be reduced to mere sensations induced by the attractions. Visitors must be given explanations. With this in mind, undergraduate, masters and doctoral students from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) were invited to work as docents for visitors at the exhibition, in particular to welcome elementary and middle school students. A group of students of Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, a professor of experimental neurology at Unifesp, for example, was involved in welcoming Erwin Neher. “He is one of the great scientists who have advanced our understanding of the nervous system, and since he was coming to Brazil, my group, which is working on that same subject, was chosen to accompany Neher during his stay in São Paulo and offer guidance to the public,” says Cavalheiro.

Another entity that helped bring the exhibition to Brazil was the MCTI, which allocated some R$318,000 to hiring the docents and other expenditures. In partnership with the University of São Paulo (USP), the Ministry put together a study to assess visitors’ perceptions about science. “On the basis of this information, we’ll be able to equip ourselves to create the Brazilian Science Tunnel, a national version of the German exhibition,” says Douglas Falcão Silva, director of the MCTI’s Department of Science and Technology Popularization and Dissemination.

The idea, he says, is that in the medium term, Brazil should be capable of presenting an exhibition along the lines of the Science Tunnel, but with the aim of showcasing the achievements of research conducted within our national borders. “People visiting the Tunnel need to know that we have Brazilians who are also working on major scientific topics. There are Brazilians in the major international research centers, and others working here in Brazil, doing basic research, about whom the general public is unaware,” Falcão points out.