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Inside Mexico’s giant centre of learning


By Matin Durrani in Mexico City

It’s one of the biggest universities in the world with several hundred thousand students, but the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México (UNAM) is certainly not the oldest. In fact, the first person to get a degree and PhD in physics at UNAM – Fernando Alba – is still alive. Aged 95, he studied at UNAM’s Institute of Physics shortly after it opened its doors in 1939.

UNAM is so big that it seemed an obvious first port of call at the start of the Physics World tour of Mexico. You can hardly come to Mexico and not visit UNAM, such is its dominance of the country’s higher-education system.

I spent an hour or so with Manuel Torres, who’d just been reappointed (on Friday, in fact) as director of the institute for a second four-year term. Fresh from a special ceremony to mark the start of his next stint as boss, Torres explained how the institute has 126 full-time physicists, who work in six main areas of research: theory, experiment, complex systems, chemical physics, solid-state physics and condensed-matter physics, although why the latter two areas should be separate areas seemed slightly lost in the mists of time.

I also met Ana-María Cetto, who does research into the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and who’s been at the institute for nearly half a century. “It’s a very good place to work,” she admits. But despite her long track record, Cetto is by no means remote from the world outside UNAM’s verdant campus.

She was chair of the executive committe of Pugwash at the time that it was awarded a share of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons, had a seven-year stint between 2003 and 2010 as deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna when it too bagged a Nobel peace prize, and was secretary-general of the International Council of Scientific Unions. Cetto’s also been closely involved in the International Year of Light and helped to set up Mexico City’s Museo de la Luz (Museum of Light) that my colleague James Dacey wrote about yesterday. Not resting on her laurels, Cetto has arranged for the museum to move to a major new purpose-built facility on the UNAM campus.

I also got a guided tour of the some of institute’s experimental facilities by Aleida Rueda, who’s communications officer there. In the video above, you can find out more from Rueda about what it does.

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  1. Some other physicist

    While the Instituto de Física is very important, there are other places at UNAM where high quality physics is pursued. The background of the Instituto de Astronomía dates back to 1876, and there is also an Instituto de Ciencias de Materiles, an Instituto de Geofísica, and the Instituto de Ciencias Nucleares at the Mexico City campus. There are also an Instituto de Ciencias Físicas at the Cuernavaca campus, a Centro de Fisica Aplicada at the Querétaro campus, a Centro de Radioastronomía at the Morelia campus, and a Centro de Nanociencias at the Ensenada campus. I may be missing other smaller centres. So actually, you only covered a fraction of physics at UNAM.

  2. Matin Durrani

    Hi Some other physicist
    Thanks for the information, which will be useful in preparing the Physics World special report on physics in Mexico, which comes out in September.
    Matin Durrani, Editor

    • The National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE in Spanish), is one the best know research centers outside Mexico City. INAOE manages the Large Millimeter Telescope and, in collaboration with UNAM, the HAWK telescope. But also do strong research in optics (quantum optics, optical trapping, optical fabrication, etc), computer science and electronics. Other prestigious research centers are the Centro de Investigaciones en Optica ( and the CICESE (

  3. Yet another phycist

    Dear Martin Durrani,

    I am surprised to see you didn’t know that you were visiting only one physics institute of the many at UNAM and in Mexico from your reply on May 22 at 2:!3 am. If you are writing a serious edition about science in Mexico which I think is a very nice idea, I hope you are getting truly informed about the wide range of science, institutes and research in Mexico.


    • Matin Durrani

      Dear Yet another physicist
      Yes we were also at the Institute of Geophysics at UNAM, for example. Later we were in Puebla at BUAP

      and also interviewed the head of CONACYT Enrique Cabrero.
      You can read all our blogs from Mexico at this link


  4. Bulmaro Valdés

    About other physics centers in Mexico:
    At Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM); Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN), Escuela Superior de Físico Matemáticas; Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados (CINVESTAV)
    Outside México City: BUAP (as reported in your article); UNISON at Hermosillo; UASLP at San Luis Potosí; CINVESTAV at Merida; UG at León; CIO at León; UdeG at Guadalajara; UANL at Monterrey; and many others at Ensenada, Zacatecas, Culiacán, Morelia, Toluca, Pachuca, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, etc. You may want to get in touch with the SMF (Mexican Society of Physics)

    • Matin Durrani

      Thanks Bulmaro. Perhaps I need to make an infographic showing some of these places for the special report.
      We were in touch with SMF and parts of our visit were very kindly arranged by their current president Jaime Urrutia Fucugauchi.


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