Friday, September 13, 2013

Venezuelan Physicists

Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas (Dec 17, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 16, 2004 ---

Today Mayli went to a conference on high energy physics, hosted at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas (this was one of the many reasons for this trip). I was still sick, so I stayed home (I actually took this photo the next day) resting, while Mayli gave her talk about her neutrino experiment. All the participants at the conference were venezuelan physicists, some of them living in the country, several of them (like Mayli) working abroad. From left to right, Nelson, Jota, Alejandra and Mayli. Nelson was the thesis advisor of Mayli while she was studying at the University in Merida. Jota and Alejandra were both in Trieste (in Italy) while I was doing my Ph.D. there (I actually shared my office with Alejandra, who has also been my spanish teacher for a while, and she was the person introducing Mayli to me). Jota now works in Paris and Stanford, while Alejandra is back to Merida working on beautiful theories on right-handed neutrinos.

All venezuelan physicists that are back to Venezuela, except one, are theoreticians (theory require less funding than experimental physics). So most of the talks were in fact very theoretical and abstract, and the next day, when I actually accompanied Mayli at the conference, I enjoyed a day of superstrings, supersymmetry, Feynman diagrams and Ising models, lots of elegant stuff I didn’t see since my quantum field theory course in the University (I had been trained as a physicist, and only later become an astronomer).

--- Updates (September 13, 2013) ---

Since 2004 I have returned to Venezuela many times. keeping an eye on the status of scientific research in the country. As time passed under the "bolivarian" government, the situation in venezuelan academia has mirrored the changes happening to rest of Venezuelan society. The main issue is the interference of politics in places that should have nothing to do with politics. This has led to the appointment of incompetents in positions of responsibility at the head of scientific institutions, named only because of their political connections. They end up using these institutions to further their political ambitions, with no regard for the needs of the scientific staff, which is tolerated as long as it is not seen as an obstacle for their career. This sometimes leads to tragicomical consequences.

A few years ago the venezuelan government decided to change the timezone of Venezuela by half an hour, joining an exclusive club of only a few nations (Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Australia) with an half-hour offset with respect to the rest of the world. The official reason for the change was to have a time zone that was better centered with the median longitude of the country, so that in the West of Venezuela schoolchildren would not have to go to school while it was still dark. Malignant voices suggested that the real reason for the measure was that Chavez didn't want to be on the same time zone as the "Evil Empire" up North. Whatever the reason, it happened that a scientist friend of mine was asked by a journalist if it was true that by changing the timezone as proposed by the government, the sunrise would come half an hour earlier. My friend replied that yes, this was indeed the truth, and that it was also true that sunset would come half an hour earlier. The (opposition) newspaper immediately titled that the time zone plan of the government was evil because it would steal from all venezuelan half an hour of light at the end of each day. My friend was immediately called in the office of is (political) director, and told that since that moment the scientific staff was forbidden to talk to the press because it was inadmissible to divulge informations that were contrary to the actions of the government.

Political interference on what scientists can say is not unique to Venezuela (think on the gag-orders trying to silence climate scientists during the Bush administration, against internet security experts right now, and against every scientist in Canada). When I was in Italy it was a well known and accepted fact that to do a certain kind of career in Universities you needed to have the right political connections. One professor was infamously arrested at the University where I studied because his name was found on the list of a secret masonic group accused of plotting a right-wing power-grab of the italian institutions (Berlusconi was another member of the same group).

Despite everything, however, the last time a political institution succeeded to gag an italian scientist for saying some scientific truth about the relative movement of the Earth and the Sun, was almost 400 years ago. Even in that case, the muffle didn't really work (eppur si muove).

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