Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shameless Ratzinger

by Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published on Milenio Diario, December 31, 2008

It shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, it comes from the Pope that attacks gender ideology by stating that "it's opposed to human nature" and that it seeks to "emancipate man (sic) from creation and the creator" (in reality, it has been useful to defend women rights).

He's the same pope that declares that "saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior is as important as avoiding the destruction of jungles" and that to protect "human ecology" (ignoring the precise meaning of the term) compared such behaviors to a "destruction of god's work".

He is the Pope that defends "fundamental Christian values" but considers that they include a deep intolerance towards sexual diversity and women's and men's right to fully enjoy their own bodies and to take decisions over them.

Recently he rejected sex change surgeries because they "contradict God's decision".

These press statements serve to justify discrimination and unjust actions such as the State Family Council of Guadalajara (Consejo Estatal de la Familia de Guadalajara), which decided to separate the girl Rosa Isela from her adoptive mother, who raised her for eight years, only because the mother, Alondra, was born as a man named Alberto. The council has maintained Rosa Isela illegally kidnapped though a judge conceded Alondra the custody of the child.

Pope Ratzinger criticizes relativism: to think that things are not intrinsically good or bad; that this epends on the context. But now he is taking advantage of the 400 years celebration of the first telescopic observation by Galileo and of the celebration of the International Year of Astronomy to try to wash the image of the Catholic Church, an institution that traditionally has been an obstacle for science.

He is now proposing through the Pontifical Council for Culture that Galileo, convicted by heresy in 1633, "could be the ideal patron of the dialogue between science and faith".

If there is a distinction between science and religion is that science does not pretend to have absolute truths. Ratzinger, which says he "is convinced of the congruence between faith and reason, seeks to "give reason its deserved place in all the scheme of things". Taking into account Galileo's history, we can imagine what place that is.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but still it makes one feel indignant.

Happy 2009!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An obtuse program

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, December 24, 2008

The Special program of Science and Technology (PECyT, Programa Especial de Ciencia y Tecnología) 2008-2012, published on December 17 by the Official Government Diary is obtuse and lacks ambition. It conceives science not as an integral part of society, but as an matter of elites.

Mi colleagues Arturo Barba and Horacio Salazar are ahead of me on commenting the issue, but it is worth to make the point once again: if the idea is, as declared in the program's objectives, "to strengthen the education-basic science and innovation-technology-application chain", "to encourage a greater financial support" of these areas and "to evaluate the application of public resources that are going to be invested", this cannot be achieved in a society that does not know, understand or is interested in supporting science and technology (I do not know what is the difference between the latter and "innovation").

True enough, the PECyT mentions the promotion of scientific culture (strategy 1.4) and talks about "perception, appropriation and social recognition of science", about encouraging science popularization and support for projects as well as museums and organizations dedicated to science. But in the central scheme that shows the "National System of Science and Technology" (Sistema Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología), where the general concept of the program is defined as well as its participants and organization, the President of México is included (at the top of the list), as well as the National Committee for Science and Technology (Conacyt) and government institutions, and (right at the bottom) the scientists, businessmen and students… but the common citizen did not make it to the list. A vertical and excluding scheme.

The PECyT 2001-2006, conceived during the government of Vicente Fox, promised "to make bigger efforts so that the spreading of scientific knowledge reaches more people". It explicitly included popularization in their objectives (2.6) and mentioned a "special fund for scientific and technological popularization", from which the scientific community did not see a penny. In practice, nothing changed: science popularization in the Country remained, as usual, limited by the achievements of individual popularizers, professional organizations, public universities and media. The government still believes that scientific progress is achieved by decree.

When are we going to understand that our first need is a population that knows, appreciates and supports science?

Merry Christmas!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Klaatu or the hopeful fable

by Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published on Milenio Diario, December 17, 2008

Science fiction, besides being a form of entertainment, usually communicates certain kinds of messages about science, technology and their effect in human society.

That's what the movie The day the earth stood still, a 1951 classic directed by Robert Wise and based on a Harry Bates, did. The story —an extraterrestrial being, together with a super-powerful robot, come to warn humankind of what can happen if they don't choose peace over war — was a typical cold war-era message .

The movie did not end the cold war, but left a mark on the people who watched it.

The new version that is currently being shown in theatres, starring Keanu Reeves (for once, his stiff acting suits the role) as Klaatu the extraterrestrial being, keeps, an updates, the earth-salvation moral of the story. And, apart from the weak ending —I understand that Klaatu's speech at the end of the movie could not be kept, but something should've been done to substitute it —, is a good (not great), exciting and interesting action movie.

Is it worth it to continue making science fiction movie fables? I don’t know, but they don't hurt either. The impact of movies as means to modify attitudes is well portrayed by movies like Philadelphia or An inconvenient truth, films that, using fiction or documentary, sparked a change in the public opinion about such important issues as AIDS-related discrimination or global warming. The day the earth stood still will not be that influential, surely, but at least it helps people who watch it, to remember that we have a pending issue: to stop hurting our planet.

Although it lacks strict science fiction —it's more a fantasy movie —, the 2008 version includes very welcomed updates to the original version's naïveté: the complex sphere instead of the flying saucer; the destructive nanomachines, the biotechnological placenta-space suit from which Klaatu is "born" in its human form… and it keeps the character of the sensible scientist that chats with the extraterrestrial and starts to convince him that humankind still has a salvation.

In summary, an enjoyable movie, that transmits a very valuable message and gives a positive image about science. Something to be thankful for.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The secret of the nucleolus

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, December 10, 2008

The news that appeared in several media two weeks ago does not grab the reader's attention at first glance: it's been discovered that parasite Giardia duodenalis does in fact have nucleoli.

It was, however, the subject of several scientific front pages. Why? Let me explain the importance of the discovery and why it is good news.

The amazing image of the cell that molecular biology has revealed to us in the last few decades shows that it is a much more complex and dynamic system than the gelatin with inserted fruits that high school students usually study. For example, the nucleolus appeared inside the nucleus as a little sphere with no well-defined function.

Today we know that it is a complex sub-cellular factory where, with great precision and speed, ribosomes are assembled, whose function is to make proteins. Since proteins are the molecules responsible of performing basically all of a cell's functions, it's clear that ribosomes, and thus nucleoli, are vital to the cell's economy. However, only cells with nucleus — called eukaryotes — have a nucleolus. Bacteria and their cousins archaea — prokaryotes — do not have nucleus nor nucleolus. In the border between the two reigns, it was thought that some "primitive" eukaryotes, like the protozoa Giardia duodenalis (also known as Giardia lamblia), a common cause of gastroenteritis in humans and other mammals, had a nucleus, but not a nucleolus.

This being said, the importance of the discovery is that it "breaks the paradigm" that there were exceptions to the rule that prokaryotes, besides a nucleus, also had nucleolus.

Furthermore, the news deserves our attention because it was a discovery done by Mexican researchers, leaded by Luis Felipe Jiménez, from the Science School at UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), together with scientists from IPN (National Polytechnical Institute) and from the Cancer and Pediatrics National Institutes (and from Zurich University). The discovery was achieved using diverse techniques of light and electronic microscopy, in which Jimenez is one of the main national experts.

As the note stated, "it was a triumph of Mexican microscopy" and another demonstration that our universities and public health institutes can do first world-quality science, that may have health applications. Good job!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ten years of ¿Cómo ves?

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, December 3, 2008

Evaluating the quality of cultural projects is complex. Even more when we deal with the promotion, popularization, democratization of scientific culture. Two possible criteria are the acceptance of the public to which they are targeted, and their permanence.

With the above basis, I dare to declare that magazine ¿Cómo ves?, published by the Dirección General de Divulgación de la Ciencia (General Direction for Science Popularization) of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), which yesterday celebrated its first ten years with an event in Universum museum, is an example of top quality science promotion.

Apart from being the largest university publication in the Country (20 thousand copies monthly), ¿Cómo ves? has become one of our most successful popular science magazines. Not only because of its acceptance and permanence, but also because of the intrinsic quality of its contents , elaborated by a small but efficient multidisciplinary team that sums the knowledge of its collaborators — some experts in science; others, in science communication — with the rigorous work of correctors and editors, and the creativity of designers, illustrators and photographers, and an enthusiastic support group.

¿Cómo ves? not only divulges data: it offers scientific culture. Its first number stated that "our ambition is that you get to know where scientific knowledge comes from and how it is related with you and the society you live in". It has achieved its goal. More than scientific curiosity or isolated data, the magazine offers accessible and timely knowledge in context. Science, of course, but also its history, its conflicts and debates; its advances and retreats. It shows us science as a human activity that cannot be isolated from the rest of culture and society.

However, if the goal is to encourage science appreciation by the common citizen, the development in scientific and technical investigation, its vinculation with industry and productive sectors and finally, an improvement of the conditions of a society that, as ours, aspires to get out of the third world and become a first world country, the road is still long. Projects like ¿Cómo ves? are a very good start, but they are not enough. I hope these first ten years are useful as a stimulus for new scientific culture projects. We definitely need them.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Trip to Oaxaca

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, November 26, 2008

Its true: trips make you wiser . Last week I had the opportunity of going to Oaxaca. I found a very prosperous and modern city, with better urban and touristic infrastructure than before, and that nevertheless has not lost its traditional flavor. Luckily, it's still humane, livable city. Also, a city that has not managed to overcome the great problems that affect one of our country's poorest states, where there's a lot of inequality.

It was also a trip to my roots, because I was invited to give a science talk in the Colegio de Estudios Científicos y Tecnológicos (College of Scientific and Technological Studies) in Etla valley, where my great-great-grandfather, doctor Mariano Olivera, was born in 1824.

The pleasure of the visit increased because on a Oaxaca bookstore I was lucky to find a book that I had been looking for for some time ago: Oaxaca Journal (National Geographic, 2000) by Oliver Sacks, the famous writer and neurologist, author of the master piece The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other books such as Awakenings (which in 1990 was turned into a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams), An anthropologist on Mars or Uncle Tungsten: memories of a chemical boyhood. All of them highly recommended.

It turns out that Sacks visited Oaxaca in 2000 as part of a trip organized by the American Fern Society, a group of enthusiasts for this plants (technically known as pteridophytes) of which he is a member.

Sacks dedicates his book to the enthusiasts —of the rocks, birds, astronomy— and his reading confirms why these groups of lovers —amateurs— are still important, not only because of the scientific contributions that they constantly make, but also because they preserve and transmit the joy of directly observing nature. Apart from his delicious prose, Sacks book offers the view of a foreign person in a culture he did not know and that he feels very different from his ("a new world", he writes).

He finds meals with grasshoppers and worms, markets, traditions, poverty and diseases, ancient civilization ruins and colonial convents, the ancient árbol del Tule (Tule tree), the old method for obtaining colorant from the cochineal insect… and of course, a lot of ferns.

A neurologist and writer, and fern enthusiast, describes the culture of Oaxaca. Science and culture. What a pleasure.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Science and marketing

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, November 19, 2008

Science is not only made in the lab: it is a human and social activity, therefore, it has ideological, political, ethical, cultural and commercial components… the list could go on.

To survive and fluorish, the scientific-technical research system has to generate a good public image: with politicians and decision makers, with investors and business men, and with the common citizen.

A good way of doing this is through the media. The objective is to gain "customers" for science: people that get interested, understand it, support it and even make a career on it. Its propaganda and marketing; in this case, for a socially useful end.

Like all things, in science there are good and bad publicists. Two good examples on hand are astronomers and biologists. Probably you already know that 2009 has been declared as the "International year of astronomy", since it will be 400 years ago since Galileo Galilei used a telescope to observe the sky.

He discovered amazing things: that Jupiter has satellites and that the surface of the moon, very far from being perfect as Aristotle used to teach, is filled with craters. He inaugurated a new stage in astronomic studies, and in science in general.

The international year will be, according to the International Astronomical Union, "a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and the culture that will stimulate the interest not only in astronomy, but in science in general, specially in young people". There will be a lot of conferences, fairs, publications, public observation events all over the world… a full strategy to bring the public closer to astronomy.

However, 2009 also could have been declared as "the year of evolution", because in February 12, 200 years of the birth of Charles Darwin is commemorated, and also, 150 years of the publication of the book presenting his theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. But, have you heard of an event to this respect? True: there are some, but they are few and isolated. Biology has not made a lot of noise.

Compared with the creativity and enthusiasm of astronomers to promote their science, biologists have been left behind. As mentioned: not all of us are good publicists.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The mercaptan of terror

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, November 12, 2008

Just what we habitants of Mexico City needed. Only two days after a plane crashed right in the middle of Mexico city's Polanco zone (an important suburb in México city), killing its crew and 40 other people that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, a new incident occurs in the same zone, causing alarm: a leak of ethylmercaptane that forced the evacuation of at least two thousand people. The fear was understandable, because although ethylmercaptane is harmless in low concentrations, is has a strong "gas" odor.

In reality, gas does not smell: the smell in gas is due precisely to ethylmercaptane. The reason why we associate mercaptane smell to gas leaks goes back to a tragedy that happened in 1937 in New London, Texas.

In march of that year the New London School, a rich school in an oil-producing region, suffered a leak of the gas that was used for heating. A spark lighted the mixture of gas and air, and the explosion caused, according to witnesses, the walls to bulge and the roof to jump momentarily in the air before falling again, destroying the main wing of the building. Around 300 kids died.

Texas government decided to look for a solution to the gas leak risks, and ordered that from that moment on, mercaptane was to be added to gas. This way, any leak would be detected easier. The idea expanded quickly around the world, and that's why the smell that propagated around Polanco last Thursday caused panic.

Mercaptanes or thiols are chemical compounds very similar to alcohols, but instead of oxygen, they have sulfur. The name comes from the Latin term mercurium captans, "that captures mercury", because such metal combines very easily with these molecules. Ethylmercaptane or ethanethiol, which is the one normally used make gas smelly, is relatively inoffensive in low concentrations, although in high doses it can be toxic. The smell in Polanco was due to a tank filled with the substance that someone left opened and abandoned in a terrain owned by a glass factory.

There was no risk involved, but there was fear. The doubt remains whether this was, as is heavily insisted with respect to the death of mexican state minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and ex-antidrug zar José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, just another "accident."

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Expense or investment?

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on the Mexican newspaper Milenio Diario, November 5, 2008

"México requires creators, not only servants", the ex-principal of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), José Sarukhán said in Xalapa (La Jornada, October 30).

He was not referring to artistic creators, but scientific researchers, engineers and experts in the humanities. University people formed in the discipline of academia and research.

Scientists are professionals that, apart from their high degree of specialization, require a great deal of creativity to be efficient. Ruy Pérez Tamayo, the famous Mexican pathologist, defines science as "a creative human activity whose objective is the comprehension of nature and whose product is knowledge."

That's why good scientists cannot be formed - and neither can engineers or humanists - in schools that do not perform research. Education seen as simple instruction is not enough.

The global economical crisis threatens to cut the budget for science and technology in our Country. Especially, as usual, the budget for academia and research (and even more in the case of the so called "basic" research).

The absurd, denounced by Marcelino Cereijido, the well known Mexican-Argentinean researcher, of considering the budget for science and technology as a superfluous expense, instead of a strategic investment, is still current. "We will invest in science when we have solved our current problems", we think, ignoring that scientific research is precisely the first step in solving those problems.

The chain that goes from the production of scientific knowledge - academic work - trhough technological applications, to a more solid industry, and finally a more vigorous economy, with its consequent social goods, is still ignored by government politics.

Fortunately, some voices are rising to try and change things. Institutions like UNAM, the Scientific and Technological Consulting Forum, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and others have asked to stop the cuts and for an increase in the investment in these areas. A budget increase for Conacyt has been requested for 2009, to reinforce the technical-scientific community of our Country. Let's see if the people who decide how public money is spent have their priorities right.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Promoting science


by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, October 29, 2008

For more than 10 years, all around Mexico-and other nations- the National Week of Science and Technology has been celebrated. It is endorsed by Conacyt -the State Council for Science and Technology-, several Universities and educational institutions, private companies and all kinds of groups and people interested in promoting the scientific culture in our Country.

As a matter of fact, the "week" has passed its official limits and has turned, in many places, into a full month dedicated to science and technology, with all kinds of activities: conferences, science fairs with experiments, exhibitions, courses, workshops, contests and even concerts, rallies and scientific marathons.

This year, I had the privilege of being invited to Pachuca, Colima, Xalapa and Oaxaca, to offer courses and conferences. This way, I could witness the enthusiasm in which people in all places offer the best of their talents to allow the common citizen, and specially children, to discover how fascinating, pleasant and important science can be, as well as to develop more and better science communicators.

Why this urge to popularize science? What justifies this scientific evangelization by science comunicators? Is it justifiable to spend public money in this task?

The answer deals with, not only the intrinsic value of science and technology, as manifestations of human culture -culture that deserves being spread. It is also related with its tremendous practical importance. The products of technology derived from scientific knowledge (communications, computers, vaccines, transportation, energy…) change, more profoundly every time, our lifestyle and our life level.

Besides, scientific knowledge gives us a very reliable and realistic vision of the world that surrounds us, and of our place in it. Finally, a basic scientific culture is required so that a citizen can assume its responsibility in decisions related with scientific and technical subjects (cloning, mother cells, euthanasia, abortion, transgenic cultures, nuclear energy…).

Investing and spreading scientific knowledge is worth the effort: it may fructify, in the long term, in a more prosperous and democratic society. For all of the above, long live Science and Technology week!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Posthumous experiment

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, October 22, 2008

Rarely does a scientific discovery drastically change the contents of school books. Normally, the advances of science, with their slow but constant refining and their very rare revolutions, take years to be reflected in books.

But the discovery that the team leaded by Jeffrey Bada, from Scripps Institution, which involves the participation of Mexican biologist Antonio Lazcano, from UNAM (Science, October 17), will surely change Biology books.

It deals with, as reported by MILENIO Diario, the re-analysis of the results from the classical experiment about the origins of life performed by Stanley Miller in 1953. It consisted of the introduction, into a very simple apparatus, of water and several of the gases that, back then, were supposed to have formed the atmosphere of the primitive earth (methane, hydrogen and ammonia), around four billion years ago. This mixture was boiled and re-circulated for several days and also exposed to electric discharges . After that, the mixture was analyzed with the methods current in those days; in it, five amino acids (units that form the proteins, essential molecules for living beings) were found.

What Bada's team found when checking the samples stored by Miller together with his laboratory log was that, apart from the classic experiment, there were two variants that were not reported. In one of them, the gases, instead of simply circulating, were injected in a jet to the chamber where the electric discharge was occurring.

It is today's belief that the primitive atmosphere did not have the composition that Miller thought. But the jet apparatus simulates the conditions of a volcano, where these gases are indeed found. And a lot of times, the eruptions are accompanied by lightning. In the "volcanic" experiment, with today's modern methods, twenty two amino acids were found. With this, we now have a new option to explain the appearance of molecules that formed the living beings.

But, why study the origins of life? Not only to know our history; also because if simple chemical process like these occurred on Earth, they could also be present in other worlds. The booming science of Astrobiology is a granddaughter of Miller's experiment, today again, surprisingly current. Good science is always full of surprises.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jellyfish and scientific bets

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, October 15, 2008

In the beginning it was curiosity, useless curiosity. In 1955, the Japanese scientist Osamu Shimomura was commissioned by his boss in Nagoya University to study why the mollusk Cypridina glowed in the dark.

Shimomura managed to isolate the bioluminescent protein that, through a chemical reaction, produced the glow. He was hired by Princeton University, where he started studying why the jellyfish Aequorea victoria glowed with green light. What he discovered in 1962 was another bioluminescent protein that he called aequorin. But aequorin glows in a blue color; the living jellyfish glowed in green. Why?

Answer: there was a second protein, but this one was fluorescent (meaning that it glowed when it received blue or ultraviolet light, without chemical reactions) and showed green light. The green protein absorbed the blue light from the aequorin to give the jellyfish their ghostly green glow. For lack of imagination, this second protein was named "green fluorescent protein" (GPF).

In 1998, Martin Chalfie, at Columbia University, heard about GPF and realized its enormous potential as a molecular marker. He came out with the idea of splicing it, through genetic engineering, to other proteins. This way, the glow of GPF would reveal where these proteins are inside and outside of the cell.

Finally, Roger Tsien, from California University, managed to modify GPF with protein engineering. He produced variants that glowed in cyan, blue and yellow. He also identified similar proteins in other organisms, including one from a coral that glowed red . This way, a full color palette was completed that today helps to study the location and movements of proteins in living cells with a level of detail that was unimaginable until now.

You know the rest: this story end up with a Chemistry Nobel price. But what is the moral ? That science is not a directed system that can be forced to yield predetermined results. Its more like a bet system, where only buying a lot of tickets ­giving support to a big amount of "basic" science ­ can, from time to time, win a mayor prize. Like the one earned from the "useless" curiosity of Shimomura, that wanted to know why the jellyfish glow.

(translated by Adrían Robles Benavides)


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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Nobel of the virus

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, October 8, 2008

There are people who live to finger-point the mistakes and failures of science. A recurrent example is AIDS: it is said that the efforts of the thousands of scientists during more than two decades have not been enough to fight it.

The announcement of the Nobel prize of physiology and medicine last Monday, given jointly to the discoverers of the HIV and the varieties of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer debunks such ideas. Bio-medical science has demonstrated its power by detecting the causal agents of two of the gravest evils of our time.

AIDS emerged in public sight in 1981. By 1984, French researchers Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, had already identified the cause agent. They supposed it could be a retrovirus -a virus with an RNA (ribonucleic acid) genome, instead of the most common molecule of DNA- and searched evidence of its presence; they detected it in the cells of AIDS patients. As mentioned by the Nobel committee, "never before have science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide a treatment for a new disease."

This made it possible to study the virus in more detail. Its genome was cloned and sequenced, every molecule that forms the virus was analyzed, and today the processes that lead the infection and death are much better understand. As a consequence, preventive methods and treatments to combat the pandemic have been developed. And if Montagnier is right, perhaps in less than five years we may have an efficient therapeutic vaccine that can help infected people.

On the other hand, German researcher Harald zur Hausen needed 10 years of detailed work to prove that another virus, the papillomavirus or HPV, is the cause of cervical cancer, the second most common in women. Finally, he identified, among the more than 100 known species, two guilty viruses (VP 16 and 18), and today we have detection tests and vaccines that offer an efficient protection against them.

Without any scientific knowledge, today we would be vulnerable to these and other diseases. Nobel awards reward, although a little bit late, discoveries that without a doubt have contributed to a greater welfare to humanity.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

¡China again!

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, October 1, 2008

The Chinese do it again! They managed to place a man into orbit in 2003 and then two in 2005 onboard spaceships Shenzhou ("divine vessel" ) 5 and 6. And last Saturday, they achieved their first space walk.

Actually, more than walking, taikonaut - from Chinese taikong, space - Zhai Zhigang stepped out of Shenzhou 7 and floated around it, fastened by cables, for 13 minutes. He waved the Chinese flag, sent a patriotic message on TV and recovered an experiment on solid lubricants that was outside the capsule.

The mission, lasting 68 hours - on Sunday, the ship with its crew of 3 people, landed on a parachute in Mongolia - was followed on TV by millions of Chinese. When they returned on Monday to Pekin, the taikonauts were received with a parade, garlands, ovations, interviews and honors. The official media declared that it was a "great advance" - half a century ago, Mao Zedong complained that his country could not launch even a potato into space - and showed the undoubtedly Chinese scientific and technical power.

Sensationalism, exaggeration? Information about the flight was not free of manipulation: state news agency Xinhua sent a bulletin reporting the successful launch on Thursday 25 in the morning, even giving details -hours before the launch!

But the truth of the matter is that China defined a clear course and has successfully achieved it. Its space program places China near to Russia's and United States program, the only countries that have achieved space walks, and ahead of their competitors, Japan and India.

The Chinese space program was started more than 30 years ago. Zhigang used a space suit made in China (4 million dollars) and most of the technology on Shenzhou 7 - that included a toilet - is national. No doubt about it: constant support of technology and science has financial, as well as othter types of returns that have contributed to turn China into a world power.

Could something like this happen in México? I doubt it: although, between 1995 and 96, UNAM (National University) launched two satellites (with poor results), and on April 2006 congress approved the creation of a Mexican Space Agency, there has not been any political will to develop a true space program.

HMexicans have a saying about a china man that "just stands looking"... maybe it would have to change: the one who stays just looking is mexican, not chinese.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The end of the world, postponed

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, September 24, 2008

It's tempting to say it like this:

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), maybe the most complex machine ever built (no doubt, the most expensive one, almost 6 billion dollars), product of the collaboration of more than 20 Countries, which took almost 20 years to build and was feared, when it is started operations, to cause a planetary catastrophe… is out of order.

An electrical failure caused that nine of its one thousand conducting magnets to overheat and melt, causing a helium leak. This gas, in a liquid state, maintains the magnet's temperature at two degrees above absolute zero. These magnets accelerate protons to make them spin at 99.9 of light speed around the underground ring of 27 kilometers (11 thousand rounds per second).

All that scandal for nothing?

But this version of the story, though tasty, is uninformed and simplistic. And misinformation can be a big problem: a young Indian woman, terrorized by the scandalous media reports about the possibility that the LHC would create a mini black hole that would swallow the earth, committed suicide by ingesting pesticide. It wasn't necessary.

The truth is that the start of operations of the Hadron (particles, like protons and neutrons, formed by the union of several quarks) Collider on September 10 did not represent any risk: it was only a test. Streams of protons were injected to start spinning, but were not made to collide.

When the real experiment is carried out - it's been postponed until spring, 2009 - there will be no risk, either. The probability of creating mini black holes is insignificant, and even if these were produced, they would disappear instantaneously, as they are very unstable.

The LHC will be useful to try to discover why matter has mass (and if the theoretical particle called Higgs boson, which would explain this property, really exists). It will also help to obtain a better understanding of the origin of the universe and the nature of “dark matter” and antimatter.

Has the LCH failed? Not so. Failures like these are a "psychological punch" for its creators, but were foreseen.

All technology requires an adjustment period. When the LHC functions properly, it will give answers to some of the most fundamental questions about the universe. But, as always in science, it is a long term investment.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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