By Matin Durrani in São Paulo
Today was the second day of the Physics World trip to Brazil and I flew from Rio de Janeiro down the coast to São Paulo, which is about an hour’s flight away. After yesterday’s disappointingly poor weather in Rio, things aren’t any better further south – in fact, it’s probably raining even more heavily today.
São Paulo is the largest urban area in South America, as becomes obvious from the forest of tower blocks that you skirt over on approaching the city’s downtown airport.
But the city is also, according to US-born string theorist Nathan Berkovits, an enjoyable place to live. In fact, Berkovits has an extra reason to like the place – having worked at the São Paulo State University (UNESP) for almost two decades, he was last year appointed acting director of a new theoretical-physics institute that’s already one of the leading places of its kind in South America.
Going under the rather convoluted name of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR), it is the first overseas offshot of the famous ICTP set up by the Pakistani Nobel-prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam in Trieste in 1964 to boost science in developing nations.
Setting up centres like this was one of Salam’s dreams and ICTP-SAFIR is the first example of what the great theorist, who died in 1996, had foreseen. As well as Berkovits – and some 20 professors working at UNESP plus a number of support staff – it now has nine new postdocs while the first of a further five permanent faculty members has already been recruited.
I talked to two of the postdocs – Riccardo Sturani from Italy and Gero von Gersdorff from Germany – and it quickly becomes clear that without initiatives like ICTP-SAIFR, top international researchers like them would for sure not be working in South America.
I’ll be saying more about the institute in the Physics World special report on physics in Brazil, due out next April, but in the meantime it’s time to check out that rain again.