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Center for endless energy: an interactive museum in Rio allows visitors to explore multiple aspects of science and carries on Brazil's history of innovative public-health programs.

On a sunny Saturday, knots of elementary-school-age children clamber aboard a miniature train that transports them through a tropical forest, past a rose-colored Moorish castle, to a converted horse stable. Here they follow the antics of a live tarantula, peer intently through microscopes at cells taken from their own cheeks, or climb inside a spaghetti-like "vegetal cell" made of steel and plastic and magnified four million times, all the while internalizing lessons on various life forms. "We want them to appreciate the beauty of biodiversity," says their mentor, Christina Castro.

At the next stop, the children explore colorful outdoor equipment. One youngster grasps a paddle to start forms spiraling around a pole, while others pedal stationary bicycles or watch with rapt attention as a dry leaf suddenly bursts into flame. The setting is a theme park of sorts--but here the theme is science, and the children are enjoying a hands-on introduction to concepts of energy transformation and transmission.

Biodiscovery Hall and Science Park are part of Rio de Janeiro's Museu da Vida (Museum of Life), an informal education center that makes use of interactive laboratories, cutting-edge technology, and Brazilian ingenuity to introduce science in an engaging manner. The complex is located on the campus of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), hallowed ground in the history of Brazil's long and ongoing crusade to improve standards of public health.

It's no accident that in this environment everything is moving, dynamic, charged with energy, open ended, interrelated. Nor is it surprising that children respond with enthusiasm to the multipronged stimuli. "Children are open to new learning, new experiences," says Paula Bonatto, biologist and educator, as she monitors the leaf-burning experiment. "Science helps to satisfy their curiosity."

Like Rio itself, the museum exudes a playful, spontaneous quality that accommodates charming incongruities. First, there's that mirage-like Moorish castle engulfed by tropical vegetation, the whole surrounded by the densely populated neighborhoods of the Manguinhos district. Then there's the matter of young children encouraged to have fun with science (Divirta-se com a ciencia!) in a place where serious research has yielded cures for some of mankind's most debilitating diseases. And where better to situate this innovative and user-friendly museum, devoted to the study of life in all its manifestations, than Rio de Janeiro?

Throughout the city, the beauty of Brazilian biodiversity is everywhere evident, from rampant vegetation bursting forth on near-vertical hills to the resplendent Jardim Botanico, with its imperial palms towering over some five thousand species of plants. A hike through the world's largest urban park, Tijuca, offers glimpses of monkeys, iguanas, and other endemic wildlife. Tijuca Park calls to mind the original Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Rain Forest), which at one time covered 800,000 square miles of Brazil's coastline and rivaled the Amazon for biodiversity.

For displays of endless energy, one has only to follow Rio's multitudes to the beach, where cariocas slice through the surf or soar overhead on hang-gliders or demonstrate their athletic bravura by propelling a ball over a net using only head and feet. Meanwhile a gloriously diverse parade of humanity jogs, skates, and pedals its way along Avenida Atlantica, its sidewalk mosaics echoing the perpetual rhythm of the waves.

At the turn of the last century, when Fiocruz had its beginnings, the picture was far different. Cosmopolitan beach communities like Copacabana and Ipanema were decades away from major development. The bulk of Rio's residents squeezed into the old part of the city that's now known as Centro, where overcrowding and poor sanitation led to epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, and typhus. Meanwhile, an outbreak of bubonic plague threatened Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the new republic.

In their efforts to eliminate disease, city planners favored destroying the homes of the poor and creating wide boulevards a la Baron Haussmann in Paris. Meanwhile another public-health advocate, the visionary doctor Oswaldo Cruz, brought back his own ideas from Paris. Almost single-handedly, the young microbiologist put Brazil on the path that would lead to international recognition for its public-health initiatives.

Oswaldo Goncalves Cruz was born in 1872 in Sao Luis do Paraitinga, in the state of Sao Paulo. His father, a doctor, moved the family to Rio de Janeiro when Cruz was five. The precocious youngster breezed through his early schooling and his preparatory exams, entering the Faculty of Medicine at age sixteen. He was only twenty when he completed his medical studies, after successfully defending iris thesis, "The Transmission of Microbes in Water."

Shortly after graduation, Cruz married Emilia da Fonseca, who would become the mother of his six children. In 1896, Cruz and his growing family departed for Paris, where he became the first Brazilian to study at the Pasteur Institute. He spent the next three years specializing in the new discipline of microbiology, under the guidance of Professor Emile Roux, who had developed a treatment for diphtheria.

On his return to Brazil, Cruz was dispatched to Santos, near Sao Paulo, where he confirmed cases of bubonic plague. But with foreign ships reluctant to put in at Brazilian ports, importing serum and vaccine from abroad became increasingly problematic. The solution: Brazil would establish its own facility, known as the Instituto Soroterapico Federal (Federal Serum-Therapeutic Institute) in Masguinhos, under the direction of Baron Pedro Afonso. When Afonso contacted Professor Roux, asking him to recommend a technician from the Pasteur Institute, he was told that the ideal candidate--Dr. Oswaldo Cruz--was already in Brazil.

Hired as technical director of the institute, Cruz quickly became embroiled in controversy when he clashed with Afonso. But two years later, the baron had quit, and Cruz was promoted to the position of director general. His "Instituto de Manguinhos," on an old farm then north of the city and surrounded by mangrove swamps, would become intimately linked to the history of Rio itself.

"Who is this Oswaldo Cruz?" asked President Rodrigues Alves when Cruz's name was proposed as director general of public health. The appointment of Cruz, then thirty years old and unknown in the medical community, raised some eyebrows. But affirming a motto of "work and justice," Cruz assured the president that he could rid the city of its festering health problems.

As promised, Cruz launched a successful eradication campaign against rats and mosquitoes, thereby reducing the incidence of bubonic plague and yellow fever. But his prescription for combating smallpox--mass compulsory vaccinations--provoked a disaster.

In November 1904, the populace went on a rampage, burning and looting and attacking the vehicles of the sanitation services in what has come to be known as the "Vaccination Revolt." Nevertheless, Cruz achieved his objectives: the dramatic reduction of deaths from major diseases and the elimination of yellow fever altogether.

While Cruz carried on his campaigns against disease-carrying rodents and insects, the prefect Pereira Passos undertook a massive makeover of the city itself. Condemning the derelict buildings in the city center, he leveled the homes of the poor, who began building shacks on the hillsides. Then he created the wide thoroughfares, seaside promenades, parks, and plazas that gave Rio the aura of a belle-epoque European city, against a backdrop of some of the New World's most magnificent scenery.

"La ville merveilleuse," rhapsodized the French poet Jeanne Catulle Mendes, and the name stuck: Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) later became a synonym for Rio in song and tourist literature. In 1907, at the XIV International Congress of Hygiene and Demography in Berlin, judges presented Cruz with a gold medal in recognition of Rids public-health programs.

Cruz and his disciples spread their influence far beyond Rio as they mounted scientific expeditions to ports, railroad construction sites, and the Amazon Basin, where tropical diseases ravaged the population. But fourteen-hour workdays and arduous travel took a toll. As his health deteriorated, Cruz gave up the directorship of the institute that now bore his name. Moving to Petropolis, he served a brief stint as mayor; there his ambitious projects were abandoned in 1917, when he died of renal failure at age forty-four.

Cruz, however, had already laid a foundation for the continuation of his health initiatives. The training center that he established in 1909 produced a succession of disciplined researchers, including his successor, Carlos Chagas (who would be nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Medicine).

The growing reputation of the Manguinhos facility attracted a stream of illustrious visitors, most notably Albert Einstein. Today, a nearly life-size photo in Experiment Hall shows a distinguished team of scientists, led by Chagas, greeting Einstein on his arrival at Manguinhos in 1925. Tellingly, next to the blown-up photo of Einstein and friends stands a rack of child-sized white lab coats, so that children can put themselves in the picture with the eminent scientists.

As early as 1912, Cruz had made plans for a modern hospital based on the model of the Pasteur Institute. The first director of the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital was Evandro Chagas, son of Carlos Chagas. Known for having discovered the first human cases of American leishmaniasis, the younger Chagas also researched yellow fever and malaria among other diseases. Evandro Chagas was only thirty-five when his life was cut short by an airplane accident in Rio de Janeiro. Today, the Evandro Chagas Hospital and Research Center, which specializes In infectious diseases, also trains public-health professionals in its postgraduate programs.

Created in the 1980s, the Casa de Oswaldo Cruz (House of Oswaldo Cruz) maintains archives of the history of the institution and its early scientific expeditions, as well as a public-health data base for Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to the journal that Cruz established in 1908, Memorias de Instituto Oswaldo Cruz (Memoirs of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute), the House of Oswaldo Cruz publishes Historia, Ciencias, Saude--Manguinhos (History, Sciences, Health), a journal in which researchers and others publish original articles, dissertations, and reviews touching on history, medicine, sociology, public health, anthropology, and philosophy.

Recognizing a need to encourage interest in science and technology while promoting sound health practices, the House of Oswaldo Cruz, in turn, spawned the Museum of Life in 1999. The staff of the museum supplements the hands-on activities with a series of science books for children.

In the museum's Science Park, the children cavorting on what appears to be playground equipment are actually enjoying an informal introduction to wave energy. "It's a matter of 'Let's look and talk about this," says Paula Bonatto. "The pole with movable parts is designed to start children thinking about how things are organized in nature." Bonatto explains that waves are not always linear. "Did you know that there are waves that are twisted like this?" she asks. "Did you know that hurricanes are manifestations of twisted waves?" From this simple observation, Bonatto can, for instance, segue into a description of the shape of DNA.

The discussion arising from the burning leaf may grow even more complex. It's not just the aluminum foil, she explains, but the curved shape of the surface that concentrates the sun's rays on the leaf. "The parabolic shape was calculated mathematically by a man named Archimedes, before the time of Christ. All waves that reach a parabolic shape horizontally will be reflected to only one point, and all waves that are sent from this one point toward the parabolic shape will hit it and travel parallel to one another." In this case, says Bonatto, the light is concentrated in only one point in the air. "In other words, all the light that hits the parabolic curve is reflected to this one point, generating a concentration that transforms light into fire!"

But can children really absorb such sophisticated concepts? Most assuredly, says Bonatto. She cites experiments in which young children are asked to draw a picture of their eye both before and after a session in Science Park's Camera Oscura. In the interim, they progress through the darkened room, pausing to consider the research conducted by scientists who have studied the human eye, beginning with the eleventh-century Muslim scholar Alhazin. They reflect on Leonardo da Vinci's experiment in which he refuted previous theories that light emanates from the eye. "You can see the difference in the drawings," says Bonatto. "The later ones show much greater understanding."

In Experiment Hall, where the focus is on mathematics, physics, and biochemistry, Bonatto plops down on a giant red beanbag. She's demonstrating an exhibit called "Microscopic Proportions," in which the beanbag represents a red-blood cell and the mobiles dangling overhead stand for a white-blood cell plus fifteen or so of the bacteria and viruses found in blood. "All of them are in real microscopic proportions in terms of their size," she says. "So when you lie down in the red cell you can see the bacteria in our throat and intestines that can generate syphilis, pneumonia, tetanus, and cholera--plus models of viruses for HIV, flu, herpes, variola, and polio."

The museum's penchant for applying a touch of whimsy to models of scientific precision goes all the way back to Oswaldo Cruz himself. No sooner had Cruz overcome the political fallout from the Vaccination Revolt than he plunged into his next grandiose project: planning the main building of his namesake institute. The drawings that Cruz sketched for the Portuguese architect Luiz Moraes, Jr. made it clear that no simple laboratory building would suffice.

Beginning in 1905, ships loaded with Carrara marble, Portuguese wall tiles, French mosaics, English ceramics, and German lamps docked at the port of Rio de Janeiro, their cargo destined for the opulent, if controversial, building that was rising on a hill at Manguinhos. A 1909 iron elevator transported passengers and freight between floors. Despite its resemblance to Spain's Alhambra, the fanciful Pavilhao Mourisco is said to derive its inspiration from the Montsouris Observatory near Paris, which Cruz visited frequently during his internship at the Pasteur Institute.

A new exhibition in the castle, The Past and Present Environment, chronicles the transformation of an old farm on Rio's outskirts to the modern facility that is very much at the center of national public-health policy. Visitors can examine some of the original laboratory equipment that was installed in the Moorish Pavilion even before the building was completed. An extensive photo collection documents early excursions into the interior to combat tropical diseases.

Today the Moorish Pavilion stands as the symbol of the largest biomedical research institution in Latin America. Among other historical landmarks are the Pavilion of the Clock, so called because of its four-faced clock; the Pombal, a house for small animals used in research; and the horse stable, now evolved to Biodiscovery Hall. The stable proved a model of ingenuity, with efficient distribution of fodder, an automatic water supply system, and the fermentation of waste to produce condensed gases for illuminating the stalls and manure for fertilizing the fields.

The horses are long gone--though in a nod to the past, visitors can still see a portion of the original stable walls through glass partitions. Now the solid brick building facing Pasteur Square lies at the heart of the Museum of Life. Its aquarium of salt-water fish, prehistoric insects in amber, ersatz pterodactyl skeletons overhead, and an array of panels, microscopes, experiments, interactive activities, games, multimedia, and videos illustrate the history and basic concepts of biology. At some stations, parents lean over the shoulders of their children, absorbing lessons in science and health and the ways in which science affects their lives.

Besides the family groups who've come on their own, on this Saturday a Buddhist organization has sponsored the 120 children happily flitting from one science station to the next. Like most of the schoolchildren who come during the week, they're from a poor neighborhood. "The local children are willing to learn in spite of pressing needs," says Bonatto. "We feel that science can be a door for citizenship, awareness, and quality of life."

That's a sentiment shared by science centers and museums in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. This April, under the banner Science Centers: Breaking Barriers, Engaging Citizen, Fiocruz and the Museum of Life will sponsor the Fourth Science Center World Congress. More than eight hundred representatives of museums and science centers from forty countries will meet in Rio to debate issues raised at the 2002 Congress in Australia. Attendees will address access to health, education, leisure, culture, a healthy environment, and a life without fear and violence--in short, strategies for bringing the benefits of science to everyone. At the heart of the debates will be the issue of social inclusion, with an implied lessening of the barriers between cultures, religions, rich and poor, and science and art.

Related events will include a conference of science communicators, a meeting of the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Interactive Expo: Science for All, an exhibition of materials designed for science education.

At an opening reception at the Moorish Pavilion, visitors will bask in the warmth of a carioca welcome. One of the highlights of the Congress will surely be the visit to the Museum of Life, where an ever-expanding roster of activities includes a performance center called Science on Stage and a corner of Science Park called the Garden of Codes, in which modern "stelae" are inscribed with various codes that mankind has used to communicate over the centuries, from early writing systems like Egyptian and Maya to Braille and the computer code ASCII.

Behind-the-scene tours may shed light on how the Museum of Life generates a seemingly endless fount of ideas for making science come alive--some of them created by students in a special course where more weight is given to creative projects than to final exams.

Among the children crawling over the bumpy surface of an oversized "animal cell" or pondering the structure of a real cell, visitors may glimpse a future scientist of the stature of Oswaldo Cruz or Carlos Chagas, or--why not?--the next Albert Einstein.

As they explore the buildings that date to the early years of the last century, visitors may sense the spirit of Oswaldo Cruz, who during a short but incredibly productive life set all this in motion. It was his vision that led to the establishment of far-reaching research and teaching programs, as well as the production of immunobiological agents. Cruz was also ahead of his time in pushing for enlightened public-health policies. Just as the young Brazilian microbiologist triumphed in the Berlin competition of 1907, Brazil still garners international acclaim for its public-health programs, such as its distribution of generic medications, including HIV/AIDS therapy, free of charge to needy patients. Cruz might be especially proud of the leading role played by Fiocruz in making access to health care every Brazilian's right, a right now enshrined in the country's constitution.

RELATED ARTICLE: Science on parade.

One indication that science has penetrated the popular imagination surfaced h at the 2004 Carnaval. For the first time, the Unidos da Tijuca Samba School extolled the wonders of science, dazzling onlookers with the theme The Dream of Creation and the Creation of the Dream: Art and Science in the Age of the Impossible.

An estimated one billion viewers worldwide watched a white-maned Albert Einstein (the actor Marcos Palma) wave to the crowds from his time machine, on which clocks running forward and backward signaled the past, present, and future of science. Robots, Dolly the cloned sheep, and space exploration recalled scientific breakthroughs once thought impossible.

Among the real-life scientists who applauded this over-the-top interpretation of science was Roald Hoffman, a theoretical chemist from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for chemistry as well as a published poet, Hoffman, pronounced the event "a most unusual intersection of science and popular culture."

Like other scientists called upon to lend their prestige to the event, Hoffman, costumed as Brazilian pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, paraded through Rio's Sambodromo to a samba beat. The highlight of the romp through the Sambodromo. though, was a human pyramid made up of 123 gyrating performers spray-painted blue. presenting "Criacao da Vida." Creation of Life. Says Hoffman, "At times, their arms and bodies evoked the helices of DNA and proteins. At times, they just celebrated life."

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a California-based travel writer and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:Rio de Janeiro
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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