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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