Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Brazil: much more than soccer

Encrypted in its flag lies one of the areas in which the nation has a lot of potential: Astronomy.
by Viviana Peña Márquez, student of Astronomy Outreach at IAG/USP

When international media talk about Brazil, it is often about its soccer culture, especially this year because the country was the host of the World Cup 2014. But this is also a nation that within the space of two decades has escalated 11 spots in the world ranking of scientific production, reaching a decent 13th place worldwide, according to a recent survey by Thomson Reuters Corporation published by the Folha de São Paulo.

Clearly, Brazil has more to brag about than just soccer. Encrypted in its flag lies one of the areas in which the nation has a lot of potential: Astronomy. To the surprise of many, the position of the stars in the Brazilian flag are portrayed as they would be seen by an imaginary observer at an infinite distance above Rio de Janeiro. But of course, this is not the only bond the country has with the oldest science of all.

In fact, this year, an international team led by astronomer Felipe Bragas-Ribas, of the Observatório Nacional at Rio de Janeiro, found for the first time rings around an asteroid. The January 2014 issue of the Astronomy Magazine highlights the research on Black holes by Brazilian astronomer Rodrigo Nemmen, as one of the top ten space stories of 2013. Last year, Jorge Meléndez, an astronomer at the University of São Paulo, led a team that made a remarkable discovery: they found the oldest solar twin. These are examples of the impact that Brazil is making in the international astronomy arena.

Speaking about twins and to get a better image about Brazil’s impact in astronomy, let’s compare the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (IAG) at the University of São Paulo and the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics (IAFE) at the University of Buenos Aires. These institutes have about the same amount of Astronomy professors, belong to the best universities in their respective countries and are located in the largest metropolitan areas of South America. One way to make this comparison is through the m-index, a measure that shows the impact (h-indexof the published work of a scientist normalized by his or her experience (number of years publishing papers). This comparison (figure below) shows that both the IAG and the IAFE have very similar m-index impact, indicating a similar competitiveness internationally.

Comparison between the impact (m-index) of publications by astronomers at the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (IAG, Brazil) and the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics (IAFE, Argentina). 

Nevertheless, the nation needs to keep taking actions in order to achieve its full potential. Meléndez’s discovery of the oldest known solar twin was possible because of the use of an elite telescope that belongs to the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Further astounding discoveries by Brazilian astronomers could be made if the country becomes ratified as a member of ESO, a process that started in 2010. 

“There would be enormous benefits in different fronts. In the technological front, we could have partnerships to develop instrumentation for ESO [...] Regarding the use of the telescopes, we will be equal partners with other European countries, so that we could compete for observing time either for small or large projects. This can allow Brazilian astronomers to develop ambitious projects involving large allocations (about 50-100 nights) of observing time, something that is not possible in other observatories where Brazil has only a small share of time. Currently I'm developing one of those ‘Large ESO Programmes’, to search for planets around solar twins.” - says Meléndez.

In addition, Meléndez, who is also the astronomer with the highest m-index at the IAG Astronomy Department of the University of São Paulo, affirms that: “Brazil only invests about half of what developed countries invest in science and technology, hence we need aggressive investments.”

Perhaps the key to improve even more the impact of Brazil's astronomy is also encrypted in its flag: Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress), a progress that could be achieved by making available to the Brazilian astronomical community the world's best telescopes to perform cutting-edge research.

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