Will We Stop at Nothing?
When it comes to the popularization of science, you already know
the answer for some of us. This is a story of a most unusual
intersection of science and popular culture in Brazil, in which I
was fortunate enough to play a tiny part. It is also a personal
The Carnaval of Carnivals
Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval is days of raucous celebration before
Lent. The highlight is a ritualized competition between
neighborhood-based "samba schools" that spend a whole year
and a multi-million-dollar budget preparing for a gargantuan,
one-time musical production. Massed 3,000-5,000 strong, the vividly
plumed members of the school dance through the
Sambódromo, an 800-meter-long coliseum devoted to
just this purpose. Each group parades for 90 minutes in a
choreographed fusion of story, song, dance and dress, tied together
by a theme, punctuated with floats, animated by the thunder and
syncopated variety of the bateria ("drum corps"
is an impoverished translation). Sambaing down the central
avenida, the cultural fault lines between favelas
(shantytowns) and affluent districts are momentarily forgotten. All
dancers dress in costumes called fantasias, coordinated
with the theme and the floats, and sing at the top of their voices
the thematic samba of the school, the samba de enredo.
Fourteen schools compete in the top league; the lowest-ranking can
be demoted to the minors.
A Carnavalesque Collaboration
I know you are wondering where the science comes in. Well, in 2003,
a talented young carnavalesco (the designer of a carnaval
parade; yes that's a profession in Brazil) named Paulo Barros
proposed to one of the less affluent samba schools, the Unidos da
Tijuca, a science theme for the February 22, 2004 parade. No one had
gone down this road before—typical Carnaval themes are
Amazonia, African or Portuguese heritage, sex, the sea, television
stars et cetera. Unidos da Tijuca agreed to the plan, and
began preparing for "The Dream of Creation and the Creation of
the Dream: Art and Science in the Age of the Impossible."
Paulo Barros then approached the science-outreach group, called Casa
da Ciência, at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
(UFRJ). The enthusiastic Casa da Ciência crowd loved the idea,
and worked with the samba school for a year to get ready. The
results showed, from the words of the theme samba to the costumes.
So What Was Roald Doing There?
The vast majority of Brazilian scientists, even some who usually
left town during Carnaval, were supportive of this incredible
opportunity for science to interact with popular culture. The United
States equivalent might be a science-themed halftime show at the
Yet Barros's show was assuredly carnivalesque—not only in its
traditional suspension of everyday prohibitions, but also in
Bahktin's sense, in its mocking of authority. In some instances,
scientific authority was the butt of the joke: The parade included
floats and dancers that played to the worst stereotypes, such as a
troop of Frankenstein's monsters and a bevy of reanimated mummies.
A month before the festival, the press found a critic who said what
you'd expect—that there was a real risk of reinforcing
misguided stereotypes in the floats. At the same time, some Carnaval
mavens were criticizing the Unidos da Tijuca for their choice of a
"difficult" theme. I suspect that the Casa da
Ciência people sat down for a strategy session and decided
that it might help if a well-known scientist from outside the
country would give them needed support. Richard Feynman, who played
in a bateria 50 years ago, was unavailable, having died in 1988. I
can imagine one of them saying "Who would be crazy enough to so
this?" And my friend Antonio Carlos Pavão from Recife
probably said "I know, Roald!"
So they asked me, three weeks before Carnaval. As you can tell from
the sleek blue denizens of one of the floats (and these are the tame
images), Unidos da Tijuca didn't want me for my body. Not for my
mind either. True, I thought that the shapes around the bottom of
the alchemy and chemistry float were atomic orbitals (the subjects
of my research), but they were pills.
The samba school wanted me for the publicity I would generate and
the good things I would say about the science in the parade. I knew
that, and it was fine—I agreed to be used for a good purpose.
And I would be in Carnaval: The other scientists and I were all
dressed as Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont was the revered
Brazilian aviator who, in Paris, pioneered dirigible airships and
lay claim to the first sustained, heavier-than-air flight (his
biography was reviewed in American Scientist,
September-October 2003). The assertion is arguable—everywhere
except the U.S., of course, which unconditionally deifies the Wright
brothers. The costuming choice made for good newspaper questions for
me, the American.
And the Winner Is…
The star of the parade was one of Barros's floats called
Criação da Vida, or Creation of Life. One hundred
twenty-three young people, spray-painted blue-black, were strapped
onto this pyramid, and they performed a spectacular choreographed
dance as it moved through the Sambódromo. At times their arms
and bodies evoked the helices of DNA and proteins; at times they
just celebrated life.
To the surprise of the Carnaval, Unidos da Tijuca won second place.
It had never ranked higher than fifth in the top league. Much of the
credit goes to Paulo Barros's theme and the Casa da Ciência's
efforts. Science will be back at Carnaval in the years to come.
I am grateful to the Casa da Ciência of UFRJ,
including Fátima Brito and her dedicated gang, to Unidos
da Tijuca (Fernando Horta, president), to Antonio Carlos
Pavão of Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife, for
getting me to Rio, and to Cornell University for paying for the trip.
© Roald Hoffmann