Viva La Ciencia
At first, peas served as particles in Ernesto Altshuler's experiment.
A mechanical dispenser would drop the chícharos one
by one into the space between two glass plates, forming a tidy
two–dimensional approximation of a sandpile. Lattice structure
appeared, then vanished, as the pile self-organized and went critical--avalanche!
But Havana's insects soon found the peas in Altshuler's physics lab.
"I began to have too many degrees of freedom," he recalled
with a smile.
For a physicist working under the harsh economic conditions of Cuba
in the early 1990s, options were few. Yet Altshuler's solution came
as a byproduct of the crisis: Because of fuel shortages, the country
had begun importing Chinese bicycles, and ball bearings were
available in abundance. Thus the peas have been replaced by steel
beads, but Altshuler and his students still call their machine the chicharotron.
Forty-five years after Cuba's revolution, and a decade after the
loss of economic support from the U.S.S.R., Altshuler and other
scientists of his generation stubbornly and inventively carry on
basic and applied science as well as the education of students from
Cuba and neighboring countries. Their work is constrained by
continuing personal hardship, the whims and troubles of a
dictatorship, and a U.S. embargo that impedes access to computer
software and laboratory equipment and supplies as well as meetings,
fellowships, collaborations and opportunities to publish research.
Just before the latest tightening of the U.S. embargo this summer,
American Scientist visited Havana to talk with some
Cuban scientists about their work, which because of these barriers
is less well known in the U.S. than it might be.
In proportion to the size of its national economy, Cuba invests more
in science and engineering than its Latin American neighbors, except
Brazil, and far more than developing countries in general, according
to 2002 statistics from the Network on Science and Technology
Indicators. A 2001 RAND report for the World Bank rated Cuba
"scientifically proficient" on the basis of its high
relative investment and number of scientists and engineers. Despite
the economic and political constraints under which it operates,
Cuban science has an unusual vibrancy. The country's high literacy
rate and the Castro government's emphasis on science and investment
in training feed bright students into a research-and-development
enterprise that remained a source of pride during the island
nation's worst years.
"The important thing is to have the people," said Sergio
Jorge Pastrana, who oversees international relations for the Cuban
Academy of Sciences. "Money comes afterward."
Altshuler is one of the human assets Cuba has succeeded in keeping. A
decade ago, he was working on superconducting materials, studying
"avalanches" of vortices moving through a crystal lattice. But
experiments on superconductivity were impractical in Havana. (For one
thing, there was no liquid helium for refrigeration.) To continue in the
same line of work would have entailed spending much of his time abroad,
or else confining himself to theoretical studies.
He chose instead
to make a career out of "experiments doable in Cuba,"
whatever they might be. Avalanches of various kinds remain a central
theme, investigated not only with peas and ball bearings but also
with Cuba's considerable variety of beach sands. (He has recently
discovered a new phenomenon in sandpile physics, in which
"rivers" of sand rotate around the pile.) He also has a
long-running experiment on seismic instability, in which the
apparatus consists of a salvaged strip–chart recorder and a
handful of tiny magnets from Radio Shack. Even the local abundance
of insect wildlife, which plagued the chicharotron, has
been turned to good effect: Altshuler has been looking into the
"physics" of panicked ants in a Petri dish.
Osvaldo de Melo and Maria Sánchez are husband and wife as
well as dean and vice–dean of the Havana physics faculty.
Their interests lie in condensed–matter physics, in
fabricating semiconductor devices, magnetic materials and the
like—the kind of work often done in a gleaming white cleanroom
by technicians in lint–free bunny suits. The laboratories in
Havana never approached that standard, but through the 1980s it was
still possible to do competitive solid–state research. Much of
the apparatus was Russian–made, including the department's
prize possession: a molecular–beam epitaxy (MBE) machine for
depositing thin layers under precise control. The MBE device is
still there in a basement room, its stainless steel vacuum vessel
cradled amid ducts and tubes and wires, but inoperable without spare
parts and supplies. Much other equipment is kept in working order
only through improvisation.
Improvisation, in fact, is a theme of Cuban science and life.
Sánchez has completed crucial steps in some of her
experiments during visits to better–equipped laboratories
overseas. She has also resorted to computer simulation in lieu of
the lab bench. de Melo has adopted the "mother of
invention" approach: Lacking access to MBE equipment for making
thin–film devices, he has turned to research on low-tech,
low-cost ways of accomplishing the same thing. He reports promising
results using sublimation in a simple quartz-lined oven. These
varied strategies have kept Sánchez and de Melo active and
publishing, but they have also limited the scope of their work.
Studies of material properties are feasible, but not fabrication of
In the U.S., debates about the level of support for science tend to
focus on research grants and departmental budgets, but in Cuba it
gets more personal. Sánchez points out that the monthly
salary of a senior member of the faculty is 600 pesos, equivalent to
about $23. Although many basic services are supplied at little or no
cost, this is not nearly enough to support a family. Thus the issue
for many Cuban scientists is how to keep teaching and doing research
while also scrambling to make a living in some other way.
Fellowships and visiting professorships in Europe and Latin America
have become increasingly important not just as opportunities to
collaborate with foreign colleagues but simply as a means of
acquiring hard currency.
Things are rather different out at the "Scientific Pole"
on Havana's western edge, where modern facilities house the
research, development and pilot-production facilities that fuel
Cuba's biotechnology effort. Here Ernesto Moreno welcomes his
visitors to the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) with a
marketing video that touts the monoclonal antibodies, vaccines and
other products developed at the Pole.
Educated in Moscow as a nuclear physicist when the country was
attempting to launch a nuclear power program, Moreno was ready to
apply his quantitative skills to genetics when the nuclear project
was abandoned in 1992. He went to Sweden for a Ph.D. in structural
biology and today works in molecular modeling at the CIM, where
cleanrooms and bunny suits are indeed standard. Three decades into
Cuba's ambitious biotechnology push, biomedical product sales fund
national health care, Moreno notes; additional revenues, Pastrana
said, are invested in education and the research effort itself.
Joint ventures have been negotiated with China, India, Malaysia,
Vietnam, Germany and other countries possessing the capital to build
plants and license production techniques and distribution rights
from Cuba—or the ability to conduct clinical trials that will
win acceptance for Cuban drugs in affluent nations.
Biology, Pastrana points out, can be done with more limited
resources than physics. Among Cuba's available assets are its
natural resources, not just sugar cane and tobacco but an array of
wildlife said by some to be unusually well preserved because of the
Twenty–five kilometers south of central Havana, botanist
Rosalina Berazain has had the run of a grand laboratory since her
student days more than 30 years ago. The National Botanical Garden
has specimens of much of the nation's 6,500 vascular flora (half the
species of the entire Caribbean). Berazain is one of 10 professors
from the university who train young conservationists at the National
Botanical Garden for work in regional protected areas around the
island. Although Berazain lacks facilities to do the genetic
analysis that undergirds taxonomy and conservation today, she has
field laboratories to offer to overseas collaborators. In return, a
botanical garden in Berlin performs molecular analysis on her specimens.
Much of Cuban science has the strongly pragmatic emphasis typical of
developing–country research programs. For some years talented
students have been steered toward the biotechnology sector, and now
they are being enticed by a new initiative in informatics.
(Still more young people are lured away by the tourist industry,
which has the important inducement of offering dollars rather than pesos.)
But basic science has survived in Cuba, and recently it has been
singled out for encouragement and new financial support. Last
January, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment
announced a new series of competitive grants for research in basic
sciences and mathematics. Although the amount of money is small--20
million pesos, or about $750,000, spread over five years--it
represents "official recognition at the highest level," as
one mathematician remarked, a phrase that all Cubans recognize as
referring to Fidel. At least eight of the new grants will go to
workers at the Institute for Cybernetics, Mathematics and Physics,
which occupies several large, colonial–era houses scattered
around a neighborhood near the university. The institute has
programs in quantum physics, cosmology, linear algebra, statistics
and geometry, among other areas.
American visitors tend to see Cuban affairs through the lens of
American foreign policy. The long trade embargo and travel
restrictions surely have had profound effects on everyday life in
Havana, and yet the event seared most deeply into the memories of
Cubans is the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the subsequent withdrawal
of Soviet support and the collapse of living standards that followed.
Still, the embargo does give an edge to the stories Cuban scientists
tell visiting U.S. journalists. When Pastrana, a historian of
science, received a shipment of journal issues on CDs from an
American publisher, every disk had been broken. Maria Sánchez
was the president of the Havana chapter of the Institute for
Electrical and Electronic Engineers; in 2002 she received a letter
from the IEEE severing connections with the chapter and denying
support, services and privileges to individual members. The letter
said the actions were taken to "comply with U.S. government
restrictions." Altshuler had been planning to visit the Santa
Fe Institute--his third trip to the U.S.--but his visa application
Science goes on regardless. On a Friday afternoon toward the end of
the academic term, students filed into the lecture hall of the
physics department for presentations of undergraduate research,
followed by an awards ceremony. In many respects, the scene could
have been at any American university. Students in the audience
cheered friends and classmates; departmental rivalries flared up; at
one point the computer running the PowerPoint presentations had to
But there was also an intensity to the proceedings that seemed
distinctly Cuban. The young speakers were cross–examined, and
a debate erupted in the audience, bouncing back and forth between
students and faculty. Subtleties of quantum mechanics were argued
with the same urgency and passion as the merits of contending
baseball teams. These young men and women, already zealously engaged
in the rituals and traditions of the scientific community, face
uncertain career prospects. But for a moment it seemed possible to
be optimistic about a vision of Sergio Pastrana's: "Eventually,
Cuba could live off knowledge instead of sugar."