Science of 1921 seems to be a strange mixture of avant-garde and backwardness in the eyes of today’s science – 02/18/2021

The science practiced 100 years ago when this Folha was born seems, in the eyes of today’s observer, to be a curious mixture of avant-garde and backwardness.

In physics, for example, the great revolutions in the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, which dominate the field to this day, were already well advanced and consecrated the German Albert Einstein (born in 1879, still 1921 with the black mustache) and pioneer for great technological changes.

On the other hand, it was a world where there were no known galaxies other than the Milky Way (there are an estimated 200 billion of them today), and as yet no one had formulated a good model for the origins of the cosmos.

Biologists didn’t even dream of the importance of DNA as the molecule responsible for transmitting genetic information, and doctors had a very limited arsenal for fighting infection (a single class of antibiotics that was difficult to store and had many side effects ) used only to combat syphilis). In fact, no scientist had seen a virus at this point (they were too small for microscopes at the time), although their existence and ability to cause disease had already been deduced in other ways.

A simple way of measuring the then-consolidated state of science, the list of Nobel Prize winners (which has existed since 1901), shows that the world of elementary atoms and particles attracted the greatest attention 100 years ago. The 1921 winners (who would not receive the award themselves until the following year) in the physics and chemistry categories were Einstein and Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) from Britain.

The second received the award for his studies on the radioactive conversion of one chemical element into another and for the discovery of so-called isotopes (heavier or lighter variants of the same chemical element). Earlier studies on radioactive elements had awarded the Franco-Polish Marie Curie (1867-1934) two Nobel Prizes. To date, she is the only woman to have received two awards.

Einstein was not honored for the theory of relativity, which the conservative Nobel Committee still found too controversial, but for the so-called photoelectric effect.

It seems simple: when light hits a metal plate at certain frequencies, electrons are pulled out of the material. Einstein showed that the best way to explain the phenomenon was to postulate that light reached electrons in the form of discrete “packets” or particles (later called photons). Understanding this phenomenon lies behind a number of modern technologies such as solar panels.

Ideas like the ones that enabled the elucidation of the photoelectric effect form the basis of quantum mechanics, which is responsible for explaining the counterintuitive and seemingly bizarre behavior of subatomic particles. Among other things, it shows that light photons as well as electrons and other basic components of matter can behave as waves as well as particles.

Scientists like the Danish Niels Bohr (1885-1962) and the German Max Planck (1858-1947), both at the height of their prestige in 1921, played key roles in developing these ideas.

At the same time, a younger generation of researchers such as the Briton Ronald Fisher and JBS Haldane (born 1890 and 1892, respectively) took important steps to combine Darwin’s ideas on evolution with the emerging science of genetics using rigorous mathematical methods. This conceptual marriage would create modern biology and make evolutionary theory the foundation of the discipline.

In Brazil 100 years ago there was a beginning scientific community with little institutional and financial support, although there were some islands of excellence. Suffice it to say that the country had only one university at the time, the newly created University of Rio de Janeiro (which came into being by decree of the federal government in September 1920). The vast majority of leading Brazilian scientists now live in these institutions.

Among the few areas with international impact research in Brazil, tropical medicine stood out, led by researchers such as miners Carlos Chagas (1879-1934) and Vital Brazil (1865-1950), key figures in the development of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute (RJ )) or Instituto Butantan (SP).

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Chagas’ detailed work resulted in a full description of the complex disease that bears his name and is transmitted by insects known as barbers, from the causative microorganism to its effects on human health. Vital Brazil, in turn, has made important advances in the development of specific serums against snake venom and serums against infectious diseases such as tetanus and diphtheria.

Both institutions have seen many changes since then, but much of the legacy of the 1920s has remained, starting with the architectural legacy. In Rio de Janeiro, the so-called Castelo de Manguinhos, a building in the Moorish style (medieval Iberian Muslim) from 1918, still houses the administrative area of ​​Fiocruz, the current incarnation of the Carlos Chagas Institute, while buildings from the early 20th century. Century the butantane complexes still dominate. And the insights from studies on tropical medicine enabled Fiocruz and Butantan to become centers of biotechnology – an area whose existence was only dreamed of in 1921 – and help develop vaccines against Covid-19.

Science in 1921

The BCG vaccine against tuberculosis will be used for the first time this year. Today the vaccine is recommended for all children. The Canadian doctor Frederick Banting (1891-1941) discovered insulin in 1921. The British writer Marie Stopes (1880-1958), who fought for women’s rights, opened the world’s first family planning clinic this year.The German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for the so-called photoelectric effect although he did not receive the award until the following year, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer who made calculations about the expansion of the universe, died in 1921

Big names in science at work or at the height of this year

Max Planck (1858-1947) and Niels Bohr (1885-1962)
The German and the Dane, both at the height of their prestige in 1921, played key roles in the development of quantum physics

Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The Franco-Polish scientist was a pioneer in radioactivity studies and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice

Edwin Hubble (1889-1953)
He found out that galaxies were moving apart and formed the basis for the Big Bang theory

JBS Haldane (1892-1964)
The British biologist opened up new avenues for genetic and evolutionary research and popularization of science

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