Magazine Art + Culture | 03 Mar 2016
A PUZZLE OF STARS
Its puzzle dimension was what first attracted Teresa Lago to astronomy and, later on, to studying recently formed stars. The guiding light responsible for the advancement, in Portugal, of astronomy, thanks to investment in the education sector, in research and in international collaboration, Teresa Lago has boosted, both in Portugal and abroad, the promotion of this branch of science. Recently appointed general secretary, for the 2018-2021 three-year period, of the International Astronomical Union, the organisation safeguarding astronomy on a global scale, Teresa Lago still studies stellar matter, the cosmic dust from which we are all made.
Q: You have said that astronomy has a greater puzzle dimension to it than other scientific areas. Is astronomy a cosmological conundrum?
A: Astronomy is different to other fields close to it, such as mathematics or physics, because, while these have a laboratory, in which experiments can be performed, in astronomy there is no way in which we can experiment. Our objects are extremely far away. We make observations, then measurements of these observations, attempts at creating a model that explains what has been measured and, then, the validation of this model. Astronomy is an intricate and fascinating puzzle, not just because the objects are unimaginable distances away, but also because they have extreme physical conditions.
Q: You have contributed immensely to the study and to the teaching of astronomy and, consequently, to its evolution. In academic terms, in 1983 you created the degree in astronomy at the University of Oporto and, 20 years later, the doctorate programme for this science. What has changed in how astronomy is taught in Portugal since your student days?
A: The main change is the integration of research at university. Scientific research until then was in its infancy and had nothing to do with teaching. The major change was the exposure to and involvement of students in the practice of scientific research and the creation of networks in collaboration with many other European and non European countries. Together, we have greater commitments and ambitions and we are able to go much further.
Q: When you proposed the creation of the Astrophysics Centre of the University of Oporto [CAUP] and then when you founded it, the project came about in a context where institutions of this type in Portugal were practically nonexistent. How did the project come into being and how has it developed?
A: José Mariano Gago, president at that time of the ‘JNICT’ [National Scientific and Technological Research Board], predecessor of the ‘FCT’ [Foundation for Science and Technology], the structure responsible for research in the country, organised the first scientific symposia, in 1986, to which he invited researchers from various fields to draw up proposals for developing their sectors. I was asked to make a proposal for developing astronomy in Portugal. I decided to approach it from various angles: training and research, both still hardly developed, and also the participation in international organisations, essential for internationalisation and for access to large telescopes of the world; in concrete terms our association with the European Astronomical Organisation, which is the ESO, the European Southern Observatory. So, this overall proposal led, in addition to the financing of research projects, to the creation of CAUP, the possibility to get recently graduated students to work with colleagues abroad in institutions with a great tradition in training and research, creating a network for future areas of CAUP. The simultaneous realisation of these various components has allowed us to advance greatly.(…)
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Text: Paula Monteiro
Photos: Orlando Fonseca
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