By Jon Cartwright
De Regules: “Science is the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world”. (Credit: Sergio de Regules)
One of the best features of the web is that it allows readers to give their opinion freely on the news, and at physicsworld.com we appreciate all your comments. In fact, it was while looking back at an article I wrote earlier this year that I came across an interesting comment by a reader called Sergio de Regules, who suggested we ought to have more “science commentators” to cover the history, philosophy, controversies and murkiness that make science so fascinating.
De Regules, 44, is a physicist, writer and musician living in Mexico City. As he tells me via e-mail, he has written a science column for the English-language newspaper The News (a selection of which are now archived on his blog, has edited at the Mexican science title Cómo Ves, has written several other books, and has appeared on radio shows and talks. Presently he is a science communicator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
I decided it would be worthwhile to ask him for his thoughts on science writing, and what academia is like in Mexico.
JC: What do mean by “science commentator”?
SdR: I like to think of science communication as a way of sharing science with the public. But we all know that science is not so much in the results of research as in the spirit of research, or in the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world. If the scientific results reported in the news can be viewed as newly conquered territories, science is the strategy by which they are conquered. Explaining the what in a scientific development is very good, but it is the how and the why which are memorable. The science commentator provides these.
What are the big research fields in Mexico?
I can’t really speak about the big research fields in Mexico, but I can speak about the main research fields at the UNAM. Research done here accounts for 50% of the scientific papers published nationally, but not necessarily for 50% of the diversity of research fields in Mexico (my more-or-less educated guess is that most research done in this country is oriented towards agriculture and fisheries). At the UNAM, though, hot themes are genomics, nanotechnology, and alternative forms of energy. However, this university does have a solid tradition in astronomy, physics, and chemistry.
Do you think Mexican science gets the attention it deserves?
There is a perception in the public that Mexican scientists must be mediocre scientists. This is not the case. Mexican scientists are world-class scientists — like scientists in the developed world, they are required to publish in international, peered-reviewed journals, and they deliver. It’s just that there are so few of them!
What are the problems with science in Mexico?
There is very little money for science, and here’s why. Many years ago a group of physicists visited a prominent politician. They argued that the Mexican government ought to spend more money in science, particularly in physics. The politician looked at them and said: “Why should we spend money in physics? We don’t need nuclear arms.” More recently, the media aired a video showing strange lights flying in mysterious patterns beside an airplane. Evidence of UFOs, they claimed. The Secretary of Defense decided to have the video analyzed by a specialist, so he sent it to TV’s most prominent ufologist. The Institute of Astronomy protested: why wasn’t it sent to the scientists, they asked. The Secretary of Defense answered: “Because we don’t know any”.
In a country where the Secretary of Defense can claim candidly that he doesn’t know any scientists there is not a lot of hope for the continued support of science. The way to change this is through science communication, and Mexican science communicators (at least some of them) are very good. But, again, it’s just that there are so few of us!