14 October 2013

21 minds met in Mexico to talk about astrophysics, climate change and how to improve science in Latin America.


Under the slogan “The future is decided in Mexico,” the Universal Thinking Forum in Mexico City last week brought together 21 presenters under one roof along with 3,000 attendees.

The speakers presented in just 21 minutes their ideas and proposals on philosophy, politics and science and how to change the world. Question and answer sessions followed the presentations in most cases.

October 9 was the first day of the event, during which the dirertor of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Dr. JosГ© Narro Robles, noted that the main enemies of humanity are poverty and ignorance–which often go hand in hand. He hoped that the event succeeded in elucidating ideas to combat them.

Investing in education

Alfredo QuiГ±ones-Hinojosa went from being an undocumented immigrant to becoming one of the most renowned neurosurgeons in the United States.

Among the personalities who attended the event was the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater who believes that though good education is expensive, it is more expensive for society not to invest in it. Savater urged everyone, not just politicians, to push for better education. In the same block of exhibitors, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa proved to be one of the images that resonated with the public throughout the event. “Dr. Q” as he is known among his patients and colleagues, attracted attention after telling his life story, which went from being an undocumented immigrant to becoming one of the most renowned neurosurgeons in the United States. He also works on using stem cells for the treatment of brain tumors at Johns Hopkins.

Latin American science should not be forced to compete

In an interview with LatinAmericanScience.org, Pere EstupinyГ  said the great problem of science in Latin America is trying to compete with places like the U.S., Europe and Asia. Instead, they should focus their efforts on what they have within the region: “Instead trying to study space, Latin America should focus on the Amazon, or glaciers, etc,” said EstupinyГ . The road ahead is long for Latin countries, he said, but if we changed our approach, we have great opportunities for growth.

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A Colombian immunologist

In the same vein, Manuel E. Patarroyo—a Colombian doctor world-renowned for the development of a chemical system for the creation of vaccines, explained how he built a malaria vaccine: “We said let”s break down the entire microbe, let”s split it, let”s split it, let”s see what the important molecules are and once we know what the important molecules are let”s find out how they are made and once you know how they are made of chemically manufactured bits, we look at those bits to serve as vaccines.”

Patorroyo considers a major problem in Latin American countries is the lack of a scientific policy. “Our governments have not realized how important it is to invest in research and the generation of new technologies.” Patorroyo said that Mexico and Peru are great examples of countries that were epicenters of scientific advances in pre-Hispanic times for studying the universe and mathematics (by the Mayans), “while today they have lost their mind.”

Star Trek and Einstein

Astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya explained in fewer than 21 minutes what it takes a semester to explain to his students.

Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya explained in fewer than 21 minutes what it takes a semester to explain to his physics students. He made the public understand in a short time the concept of relativity proposed by Albert Einstein and later explained jovially the idea that traveling faster than the speed of light without betraying the laws of Einstein could be proved mathematically and could be called Warp Drive—a name coined by the Star Trek series—though to make this theory we”d need antigravity. In response to a question from the audience Alcubierre said that while in theory traveling faster than light could theoretically allow us to travel to the past, it is a principle with which no physicist wants to toe the line between causality and certainty.

A future with transgenics?

The guest who generated the most questions was JosГ© Miguel Mulet—a professor at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain—who spoke of genetically modified foods and the importance of these in order to ensure adequate food security in the world. The controversy spilled into the halls, where participants were abuzz with chatter over transgenics and feeding the world. Mulet said that Mexico was the only country that had participated in three “green” revolutions. He described the modification of plants and fruits in order to breed a better crop and began by noting the maize crosses developed by the Aztecs and Mayas that gave rise to the domestic varieties we know today. He mentioned Norman Ernest Borlaug (Nobel Peace Prize 1970), who conducted his research for the improvement of wheat in Mexico and who was supported by a team of Mexican scientists. And finally he mentioned Luis Rafael Herrera Estrella, a pioneer in the genetic modification of plants. To Mulet “we are not what we eat, we eat what we are.”

Climate change in Latin America

Mario Molina, Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1995, used his speech at the Universal Thinking Forum to warn people of the importance of climate change. He said that although there are skeptics about the role man has played in this phenomenon, there is scientific evidence that shows man has influenced the acceleration of the process, causing major climate changes with major impact on the nature and thus on humanity. Molina said the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raised to 90-95% the likelihood that changes in global climate are due to human activities.

“We cannot say that the flooding in Acapulco was caused by climate change, but physics and climatology are telling us that extreme weather events and their intensity are being affected by it,” he said.

At the end of the event, Gabriel Rosales, president of Universal Thinking Forum, said that the event was a success and that the objective was not only to repeat it next year in Mexico City but also to throw it in other Latin American cities.