“Creativity depends primarily on knowledge”

Publicado em 10/07/2011

Com Ciência em 10/07/2011
Por Andreia Hisi

Nanotechnology is changing the way we see and interact with the world. The control of materials at increasingly smaller scales leads to the miniaturization of various devices such as computers and mobile phones. But advances in recent decades show that the control achieved allows us to go much further. In a world difficult to imagine, and until recently inaccessible, new unexpected phenomena have been discovered, fundamentally altering how we understand nature. The chemist Fernando Galembeck, an expert in nanotechnology, with 18 patents and numerous awards, took over in June the direction of the Brazilian National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano). In this interview he talks about his perspectives on the development of this area and shows “some ways to think about this issue.”

ComCiência – You have won several awards, including the one that was recently granted by the American Society of Electrostatics. This year, you will move away from Unicamp to take over the LNNano. Tell us a little about this award, the institutional change and about your current interests as a researcher.

Fernando Galembeck – The awards I have received show that many people give importance to the results of my work. The President’s Appreciation Award from the Electrostatic Society of America, is very special because it comes from people I only knew through literature and that only knew me through publications too. I was invited to present a “Keynote Lecture” at the annual congress of the society and it was awarded. The moving to LNNano is a great and unexpected opportunity, but also meets my need for scientific survival, since I’m coming to compulsory retirement, which ultimately restrict my activities at Unicamp. My research interests today are very broad, ranging from use of biomass – for over ten years I have been working with natural rubber – to the mechanisms of solids and liquids electrification, going through several issues of colloids and surfaces, materials and nanotechnology.

ComCiência – What is your opinion about the importance of projects in the area of chemistry that are challenging and risky, but can result in knowledge for development?

Galembeck – Projects little bit risky and challenging are not encouraging. I do not see much interest in doing research to find redundancies. On the other hand, we should not exaggerate the impact of major scientific discoveries for the development of the country: they can take a long time to generate products with economic or strategic value. Some major scientific discoveries made ​​in one country ended up benefiting many other countries. The transistor was at the base of the sudden growth of the Japanese electronics industry, for example. So, I think, rather than focusing discoveries, we must focus on the development and exploration of major discoveries, wherever they are made.

ComCiência – The understanding of multidisciplinary subjects such as chemistry, physics and materials science is now essential to the scientist? How does it affect our society?

Galembeck – The most important advances depend on contributions from various disciplines at the same time. Working with a discipline without considering what goes on in others and their contributions can belittle the research and its results. The society is not very interested in whether a new discovery is “chemistry”, “biochemistry” or “biology”. People want the benefits that the discovery brings to their welfare. Some people also want cultural enrichment sponsored by a discovery, contributing to their world view.

ComCiência –  What is the role of multidisciplinarity in the training of young scientists? If you were now starting a chemistry course, which path would you see as promising?

Galembeck – A young scientist with narrow view and culturally poor is doomed to early obsolescence, or to become a mere follower of trends. The richness of the scientific culture  of a researcher has an important role in the inclusion of his work in large and rich settings, increasing its significance. If I was studying chemistry today, I would try to learn the fundamental language of chemistry – substances, formulas, equations – their connections with the world, its risks and its possibilities. If I was a student, my discipline from heart would be  the classical physicochemical. Thus, I would have a solid foundation for navigating unknown oceans in search of an continuous and better understanding of the material world and of the many possibilities of products and processes creation.

ComCiência – How do you evaluate the training of students in the departments of chemistry in Brazil? And what is your vision of the Brazilian university as a whole?

Galembeck – I’m very critical of the current training of students, not just the chemistry ones. Some ideas that prevail in Brazilian education affect the education in Brazil. First, many students believe that it is unnecessary to master content and that they will be able to understand about things that they do not know. This belief has tragic consequences. Many students confuse the meaning of understanding with memorizing a text. And end up not having a minimal understanding of the content needed to build up his speeches. A fact that strikes any observer of lectures, seminars, conferences and thesis defense, in Brazil, is the absence of questions and doubts that reveal the existence of restless minds and a spirit of criticism, that  is an essential requirement of the scientific method.

For a long time, I thought this was due to shyness or politeness of Brazilian students and teachers. Today, I am sure that it is simple ignorance. I have always tried to tell the students that, for a great poet like Rilke  “create may be nothing more than to remember deeply” and experts in creativity, as Runco and Pritzker, note that creativity depends primarily on knowledge. In English, who learns “by heart” actually learn. In French, learning “par coeur” is also worthy. In our language, the corresponding word is “decorating”, which has a pejorative sense. Too bad for us! We must learn from Comte-Sponville:”

“The spirit is memory, and perhaps it is just that … But what would be an invention without memory? And a decision without memory?” I conclude: a teaching without memory is a tragedy. I observe in many chemistry students a surprising lack of knowledge of the language of chemistry, their characters – the substances, their names and formulas, solubility, volatility, toxicity, environmental risks and impacts, sources, strategic importance, prices, production technologies and use – and the events of chemical – the chemical reactions, the emergence and decline of substances and technologies, the roles played by chemicals in our lives.

 Obviously, all this is linked to devaluation of memory among students and teachers. On the other hand, it remains a widespread reductionist and positivist ideology according to which the chemistry is reducible to physics. This idea, like most scientific reductionism, has been widely denied in recent decades, but it has being still propagated among our students. Many teachers and Brazilian experts in science and pedagogy play a role extremely damaging to spread notions completely overcome.

ComCiência – In what way could be more effective partnerships between academies and industry?

Galembeck – It’s simple: just meet people with good will and with power decision , set goals, encourage mutual respect and make an effort to understand the different circumstances, its interests, possibilities and limitations. Building partnerships fed only by the checkbook, as suggested by some public policies, is counterproductive.

ComCiência –  Could you comment on the influence and importance of reducing the size of the materials and how this control can enable us to build new devices?

Galembeck – In the early nineteenth century, Faraday – English chemist and physicist who made ​​important contributions to electromagnetism – noticed that gold, reduced to very small particles or thin films, could become red, blue or green.

In the early twentieth century, W. Ostwald (German chemist, considered the father ofphysicochemical ) showed that the properties of systems with particles smaller than 100 nanometers differ greatly from systems consisting of coarser particles, which he called “colloids.” It’s very interesting to see how this definition is closer to the definitions of nanotechnology, such as the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office), for example. To reduce sizes is essential to the miniaturization of machines, instruments and devices. Therefore, microelectronics has become nanoelectronics for over a decade. On the other hand, when size is reduced, there may be drastic changes in the properties of material systems and kany of them can be exploited successfully.


 Another perspective: When you cut sizes, surfaces and interfaces between the components of a material increase, creating new properties. An emulsion of micrometrics oil particles, in the water, is milky, opaque. An emulsion of nanometrics oil particles, in the water, is translucent or transparent, depending on the size of the particles.

ComCiência – Over the past decade, nanotechnology was used to develop sensors, solar cells, transistors and memories. May these innovations turn into real devices?


Galembeck – Solar cells are very real and can be seen on the margins of some Brazilian highways, generating electricity for safety equipments of the roads. Many transistors circuits with nanoscale structures are already in our pockets and homes. We are already living with the products of nanotechnology. The new electric cars already incorporate nanotechnology products at the batteries, tires and bodywork.


ComCiência – Regarding specifically the nanowires, we have seen numerous studies of quasi-one-dimensional elements. How close to a truly one-dimensional nanowire can be reached, since the atom has three dimensions?

Galembeck – Euclidean geometry has too radical abstractions to be really useful in the examination of material structures. Therefore, we can not be rigorous  in transfering  its understanding to the analysis of materials. In these, fractal geometry (geometric shapes can be fragmented into separate parts that contain approximately a reduced-size copy of the original form) is more appropriate. In the context of nanotechnology, a nanowire is a succession of atoms with  connectivity  two, which means, each atom is only in contact or connection with two others.

ComCiência –  What is your view on the development of nanotechnology over the past ten years, having seen your own work and its contributions? What is the prospect of development in this area for the next decade?

Galembeck –  The products are on the market. In many cases, they are radical innovations, and most often are incremental. Nobody wants a nanoautomóvel, but new cars and the “concept cars” today incorporate a slew of nanotechnology. The rule applies to clothes, houses, cosmetics, drugs and everything that we use every day. Today it is clear that the notion that nanotechnology is a synonym for manipulation of matter with nanometer tools, widespread at the turn of the century, is wrong.

It could be correct if the Avogadro’s number was not so great, but the products that come out are in the overwhelming majority of cases, the result of self-organization and chemical synthesis. There have been many successes and mistakes. Some characters have become very visible and important, and a few years later, they became irrelevant. Today, I am amazed, every day, with some reports that show a new possibility, unique and with a high impact potential.