Brazil Science Meets ‘Beautiful Game.’

In the runup to the 2014 World Cup, Brazil is enjoying its place in the sunshine of global media attention – sometimes for not all of the right reasons, due to security issues, the country’s state of preparedness for mega events, and popular opposition at street-level.

But in the science and technology field, the attention has been welcomed by museum curators around the world as an opportunity to put the nation on the map in various sectors.

As the FIFA tournament gets into its monthlong stride, Science for Brazil will bring novelities from the science space and, wherever possible, show how Brazilian scientists are using the  presence of so many visitors to present innovations and breakthroughs.

Science and World Cup

So the ‘FIFA factor’ is being used to focus popular attention on Brazil. At MIT in Boston, science museum curators are staging a “science of soccer” exhibit. San Diego’s Museum of Man has a World Cup Celebration. And at London’s Science Museum, a planned pop-up exhibition in the visitor galleries during World Cup month will highlight accessible Brazilian science projects.

Elsewhere, “living legend” Stephen Hawking has weighed in with a  probability-based assessment  of how likely his England team is to lift the Jules Rimet trophy. Not to be outdone, statisticians and computer science geeks  at Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg News  have  tuned up their algorithms and weighed in with their own assessments — both of which  point to Brazil as the eventual winner. The New York Times  publishes statistical surveys of the “Luck Factor” which  shows  teams drawn in Groups A and H have better chances.  Brazil looks lucky – and Australia very unlucky!

Not to be outdone, exact sciences buffs working the field of probability have calculated just how many of the World Cup stickers any purchaser – or group of purchasers – need to buy to complete the album set.  The highly-addictive sticker craze has swept Brazil and  footballing nations.  Sylvain Sardy and Yvan Velenik, two mathematicians at the University of Geneva, have worked out a group of 10 fans needs to buy 1,435 sticker packs to complete 10 albums.

In the area of  human physiology and medical science, trainers and coaches of the  national teams arriving in Brazil have developed different stamina-inducing strategies to deal with the added  heat and humidity of Brazil’s northern venues such as tropical Manaus. Brazil’s own team, perhaps more accustomed to the searing  heat, has chosen the chilly  hill-resort of Teresopolis in which to train.

Meanwhile meteriologists are keeping a close eye on indication that the  southern hemisphere El Niño effect may  put in an appearance during the  World Cup period — bringing  dry conditions, sunny skies — and yet higher temperatures. Climate researchers at the UK’s University of Reading  predict soaring temperatures – and a corresponding wilting of hopes for the England  team – always an outsider. Some meteorological events, such as flooding in the Amazon city of Manaus, are being cited  as reasons for weakness in online ticket prices offered  by secondary-market websites. These indicate that  fans may be shunning  games outside Brazil’s cooler southern cities.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has been called the most “science-heavy” event ever. There will be aerodynamically designed footballs (humorously named ‘the Brazuca’ as you’ll see in the this tech-savvy video), sensors that will determine when balls cross goal-lines, and systems that will automatically track players and analyse their performances throughout matches. Sports drinks manufacturers  are using science as the headline that will help sell their  product at the World Cup.

Brazuca

It’s not simply that FIFA will be using goal-line “electronic eyes” made by the German company GoalControl for the first time – or that the inaugural match to be held June 12th in São Paulo’s new Itaquerão stadium will be the stage for what’s being billed as the “world’s most-watched scientific experiment.”

In front of one billion people, a paraplegic teenager will rise from his wheelchair and kick off the inaugural match, guiding his movements by means of a synthetic exoskeleton controlled with motors and servos by brain impulses. You can read about the high-stakes neurological “Walk Again” experiment by clicking here. The experiment’s author, systems neurophysiologist Dr. Miguel Angelo Laporta Nicolelis, has become a rockstar of science, attracting huge amounts of media attention.

Big Kickoff for  Brazilian Science

Big Kickoff for Brazilian Science

More than the 600,000 foreign visitors expected for the event, while Brazil is playing host to an audience of an estimated one billion people through the small army of reporters and TV cameramen descending on the country. Beyond the narrative of world soccer and its triumphs and disasters, these reporters need human interest stories that will take them far from the newly built (and in some cases still unfinished) stadia to search out Brazil’s social challenges and the tangible tokens of its economic progress.

Some, inevitably, will note progress in fields such as biofuels, with all modern Brazilian cars able to travel using either gasoline or ethanol. Still in the energy field, others will note Brazil’s reliance on renewables including hydropower. (Though here unseasonable droughts have drained reservoirs and threaten blackouts in some areas).

Reporters may also question why, although privately-owned medical analysis laboratories line the principal throughfares of Brazilian cities and the country has massive installed capacity in medical diagnostics for those who can afford it, the anti-doping blood samples of 2014  World Cup players will all be flown out to Switzerland for testing. This will, news reports say,  cause considerable delays in identifying anyone who has broken the doping rules, allowing soem to play on.

One public health issue of wider and more direct concern to  foreign visitors is Dengue Fever – and whether there will or will not be an outbreak among the 500,000 tourists coming to the World Cup.

Respected international epidemiologists (led by Professor Simon Hay of Oxford University) have issued stern warnings and foreign governments have included these in their travel advisories:

Meanwhile Brazilian scientists (not to mention the Brasilia government’s own health ministry) have played down the issue. One scientist, Eduardo Massad of University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Medicine has attacked Nature for carrying alarmist reports and says his evidence (plus the onset of the austral winter) shows no more than 100 foreigners are likely to contract the disease while in Brazil for the World Cup.

Obviously, there’s no smoke without fire. In 2013 a million people caught dengue and  New Scientist has been reporting on the success of a campaign by the UK’s Oxitec to control reproduction of  the disease-bearing Aedes aegypti through release of sterile male mosquitoes.

Those reporters who dig a little deeper  into Brazil’s social may find that, predictably enough, science and sport stand in opposition when it comes to competition for scarce government funding. Coincidence or not, it’s been noted that the cost overruns on the FIFA mega event come at exactly time when the nation’s premier university, University of São Paulo, is financially underwater following a damaging string of strikes by technical and support staff that have closed lecture rooms for weeks or months.

Prestige technology projects such as the Brazilian synchrotron “light laboratory” or the country’s participation in the Chilean “mega-observatories” have tended to be financed by regional, rather than federal agencies.

More opportunistically perhaps, Brazilian scientists have taken the opportunity to challenge FIFA over the championship mascot Fuelco – a three-banded armadillo that used to be ubiquitous across Brazil. No longer. Scientists say the creature is endangered and FIFA should do more to guarantee its sustainability. The mascot plays an essential part in driving the environmental awareness of the World Cup.

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