[Marxism] Cuban Physics

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Fri Sep 8 09:14:02 MDT 2006

a brief history of Cuban physics from this month's Physics Today.
snippets only, but honk if you are interested in full.


A look at physics in Cuba

Some people might believe that the history of physics in Cuba is like
that of many other countries, except for the Soviet influence on a
socialist country during the cold war. The full story is very different.

Angelo Baracca, Víctor Fajer, and Carlos Rodríguez
September 2006, page 42

The history of physics in Cuba is intimately connected to Cuba's
relationships with the Soviet Union, other socialist countries, and
other parts of Latin America and Europe. But the history also reflects
the strength, character, and resilience of the Cuban people.

A Spanish colony until 1898, Cuba formally gained independence in 1902.
Growing social ferment resulted in the revolution that overthrew
Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The new government promoted deep and
ambitious changes in every aspect of society and encouraged
modernization and the development of science and industry. In 1961, a
general campaign of widespread mobilization eliminated illiteracy from
the country. An advanced system of research and higher education was
built up in the following decades.

That growth was an extremely difficult task. Since 1960, collaboration
with socialist countries—particularly the Soviet Union—played an
increasing role, one whose relevance can hardly be overestimated. But
many scientists invited from nonsocialist countries also visited Cuba on
an individual, voluntary basis and helped enormously in building a
modern system of higher education and in promoting scientific research.
The construction of Cuban science grew through the interplay between
high-level government authorities and the scientific community. Students
also played an active role.

The Cuban government and Cuban scientists have tried to build a balanced
and cross-disciplinary system of sciences. The guiding principle has
been connecting the development of science to the concrete needs of the
country. A typical example is the close collaboration between
meteorological institutes and civil defense; such ties make it possible
to avoid the worst consequences of hurricanes and other natural
catastrophes. Another example is the collaboration between
biotechnological research and the public health system. Not only have
applied fields been developed, but also the fundamental fields of pure
physics and other basic sciences.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s presented a serious
challenge to Cuban science and education, but in those areas—and
particularly in physics—Cuba has survived and even made some progress.


Starting in 1959, Cuba's new government assumed the explicit goal of
developing science as a fundamental factor in the creation of a modern
and equitable society. The social situation was characterized by new
forms of participation. The student movement, which had actively taken
part in the revolution, was particularly involved in the renovation of
university structure and curriculum and in teaching. The teaching staff
was, in fact, largely depleted, as many left for economic or political
reasons following the overthrow of Batista, US sanctions, and the Bay of
Pigs invasion. An early effort of profound modernization took place in
1960 in UH's faculty of electrical engineering, as students took
autonomous action and, with the help of a few teachers, copied the most
advanced physics textbooks from the US to overcome serious shortages.

The 1960s saw a radical transformation of education, science, and
culture. The 1962 university reform, developed by a commission composed
of professors and students, paved the way for the development of a
modern system of higher education in which scientific research, both
pure and applied, played a fundamental role. A faculty of sciences with
seven independent schools—physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology,
pharmacy, geography, and psychology—was created at UH in 1961. Soon
thereafter, a solid output of qualified graduates began to provide the
human resources for the development of a modern research system.


Ernesto "Che" Guevara himself, at the time the minister of industry,
seized an early opportunity in 1961 and sent a first group of Cuban
students to the Soviet Union for their higher education; six of them
graduated in physics and returned to join the EF faculty. A substantial
and steadily growing flow of students to the Soviet Union developed in
subsequent years.

In 1962, a small number of physicists from the Soviet Union began
visiting Cuba, contributing mainly to the organization of the teaching
program. In addition, a number of visiting professors from nonsocialist
countries—the UK, Israel, France, Argentina, Italy, Mexico, and the
US—came to Cuba during the 1960s for periods ranging from one to several
years. They taught courses in modern physics; promoted the creation of
new laboratories in acoustics, electronics, and solid-state physics; and
set up workshops in electronics, mechanics, and glass manufacturing for
the construction of scientific instruments. They were a deciding factor
in Cuba's choice to support the development of experimental physics. In
memory of Italian physicist Andrea Levialdi, who died in Cuba in 1969,
the Levialdi Scholarship was created for Cuban physics graduates to
receive postgraduate training in Parma. A long-lasting collaboration
with the University of Parma and with Parma's MASPEC (Special Materials)
Institute (now part of the Institute of Materials for Electronics and
Magnetism) has since developed. Also during the decade, the best Soviet
and US physics textbooks were printed in Cuba in either English or Spanish.


The Cuban Academy of Sciences (ACC), revitalized in 1962 and assigned
new tasks, played an important part in promoting scientific development
in several fundamental branches. Meteorology, geophysics, astrophysics,
and electronics were soon established as work groups or departments in
the ACC and were consolidated as institutes during the 1970s. The
Institute of Nuclear Physics was inaugurated in 1969, and in the 1970s
new physics faculties were created at Oriente University and the Central
University of Las Villas. Meanwhile, collaboration with and support from
leading scientists and institutions in the Soviet Union and other
socialist countries led to the development of important facilities and
services, such as the artificial satellite tracking and monitoring
system (connected with the Moscow Cosmos Center) and the Cuban
meteorological service (crucial in a tropical country), and improvements
in communications and seismic, magnetic, and gravimetric detection.


The growth of microelectronics is a good example of the development of
research in Cuba. After French physicists introduced silicon planar
technology in a 1969 summer school, Cuban physicists quickly began
developing it. Metal oxide semiconductor and other integrated circuits
and silicon solar cells were fabricated, and basic studies advanced. By
the mid-1970s, a pilot plant for producing semiconductor devices had
been built, and in the area of microelectronics at an intermediate
integration scale, Cuba had reached high proficiency relative to other
Latin American countries.


Meanwhile, radiotherapy services were becoming available all over the
country, starting in the 1960s with a group of physicists working at the
Havana Oncological Institute and, by the end of the 1970s, reaching a
total of about 30 medical physicists, a considerable number for a small
developing country.

The Center for the Development of Scientific Equipment and Instruments
was created in 1978 out of previously existing entities to realize a
complete cycle in the design and production of optical and scientific
equipment—electronic devices, lasers for physiotherapy, and analytical
and other instruments ordinarily produced in developed countries—and to
reinforce the impact of physics and technology on society. In the second
half of the 1970s, government consolidation led to the
institutionalization of higher education and research and to the
establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education. The result was a new
phase of greater opportunities and resources, although in some sense it
brought to a close the "romantic" period of lofty goals unfettered by
limited resources and organization.

Growth in the 1980s

Building on the level achieved by Cuban science in the previous decade,
the 1980s brought a substantial increase in physics research activities,
due in part to the foundation of new research centers. There were also
further renovation and greater incentives, including better
infrastructure for doing physics and organized collaboration possibilities.

The government's decision in 1976 to build the country's first nuclear
power plant, in Juraguá under a contract signed with the Soviet Union,
reflected a special effort to promote nuclear physics and technology.
The choice to develop that field with some independence from the whole
of Cuban science, and the huge human and economic resources the effort
absorbed, created some tension with other fields of research. In 1980
the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission was created. Construction of the
Juraguá plant began in 1983. The Higher Institute of Nuclear Sciences
and Technologies (ISCTN), devoted to the training of high-level nuclear
physicists and engineers, and the Center of Applied Technologies and
Nuclear Development were created in 1986–87 from previously existing
institutions. A network of centers—one for production, two for research,
one for information, and one for radiological-waste management—was
created as part of Cuba's Atomic Energy Commission.

>From 1978 to 1988, the Soviet Union's Intercosmos Program provided
socialist countries with opportunities to participate in space
exploration. As part of that program, Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo
Méndez participated in the flight of Soyuz 38 on 18–26 September 1980.
Out of the 20 or so experiments performed on that mission, 3 had been
designed by Cuban physicists and engineers, who had worked for nearly
three years in collaboration with Soviet scientists. One of the
experiments was designed to obtain new semiconductor materials under
microgravity. The other two studied the effects of microgravity on the
crystallization of an organic crystal (sucrose); those experiments,
which included looking at the molecular kinetics and crystal
microtopography, had applications in the sugar industry. Other Cuban
experiments in space, prepared in collaboration with the Ioffe
Institute, included taking three-dimensional holographic picture
sequences of the dissolution of a salt in a liquid.

After the decline of microelectronics activity due to the rise of
large-scale integration, Cuban research in solid-state physics was
reoriented toward optoelectronic devices, photovoltaic sensors, and new


A research center on solar energy, devoted to research in energy saving,
was created in 1982 in Santiago de Cuba, as an arm of the ACC. At
Oriente University, activities were reoriented toward the nickel
industry, and interesting work in nuclear magnetic resonance led to the
creation of the Center of Medical Biophysics, an independent institute4
that has designed and constructed several magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) facilities.

Another arm of the ACC—the Institute of Cybernetics, Mathematics, and
Physics—hosts a theoretical physics group devoted to research in
problems of quantum field theory, high-energy physics, and condensed
matter and is supported with help from the International Centre for
Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. The group has organized
four Caribbean workshops on quantum mechanics, particles, and fields,
and has hosted a school on string theory.


The Cuban Physical Society, created in 1978, had about 500 associates in
1990; from 1981 on, it was publishing the Revista Cubana de Física and
holding a triennial symposium. International events were regularly
organized in the country, and Cuban physicists collaborated with Soviet,
European, and Latin American institutions. In addition, Cuba
participated in physics-related international organizations, such as the
Latin American Center for Physics, the Latin American Federation of
Physical Societies, ICTP, the International Union of Pure and Applied
Physics, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Intercosmos

The past 15 years

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban scientific
community suffered a tremendous decrease in financial and material
resources, and a dwindling of international exchange and scientific
information. Electronics and nuclear energy, the national programs with
the highest presence of physicists, were reduced, while priority shifted
during the 1990s to sectors such as tourism, food, biotechnology, and
medicine that were less related to physics. Many institutions, groups,
and activities had to be redirected and reformed. The government's
decision in 1998 to abandon the construction of the nuclear plant in
Juraguá, which had been interrupted after the Soviet Union collapsed,
prompted a redirection of research and teaching activities in nuclear
science and technology.7 Some research groups disappeared; others had to
abandon or reduce active research. Staffing levels at research centers
and universities were frozen, and the paralysis of industrial activities
brought the growing presence of physicists in that sector to a halt. As
a result, student enrollment in physics dropped


In 2000, contacts between the Cuban Physical Society and the American
Physical Society were reestablished. With the support of Nobel laureate
Leon Lederman and APS director of international affairs Irving Lerch,
exchange agreements between APS and the Cuban Physical Society were
adopted8 and two important meetings were organized in Havana: the
International Workshop of Medical Physics in 2002, with 30 North
American physicists participating, and the Inter-American Conference on
Physics Education in 2003, with 34 North American teachers
participating. Unfortunately, present American restrictions on academic
exchange with Cuba have dramatically reduced scientific cooperation in

Present and future

The new century began with stimulating signals for the recovery and
advancement of Cuban physics. In keeping with the importance given to
medicine in Cuba, medical physics is one of the branches with the
greatest prospects. Investments of approximately $400 million in medical
equipment are being made. At present, more than 75 physicists are
working in clinical environments: 32 in nuclear medicine, 28 in
radiotherapy, and the rest in diagnostic imaging and radiation
protection. New equipment for radiotherapy and nuclear medicine will
require at least another 20 physicists in those areas. Diagnostic
imaging will be reinforced with the installation of eight new MRI
facilities. An MSc degree program in medical physics at the Higher
Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences has started, with 25
students; an advanced degree program in radiation oncology is training
specialists in that field; and a new degree program in health
technology, offering specialization in medical radiophysics (equivalent
to dosimetry), has 100 students registered.

More than 24 excimer laser systems for refractive surgery and other
advanced optical instruments have been bought in an effort to provide
ophthalmologic services to Cubans in all areas of the country. Those
services are also being made available by Cubans in other parts of Latin
America. Safe operation and maintenance of the equipment will create new
jobs for physicists and engineers.

New instruments conceived and designed by teams led by Cuban physicists
are continuing to be introduced in Cuba and abroad. A network of medical
imaging systems, including MRI instruments, is being formed.
Improvements are also under way for clinical-analysis and
analytical-chemistry equipment, such as microfluorimeters and
spectrophotometers for the early detection of congenital diseases and
the diagnosis of hepatitis, AIDS, and other diseases. Medical
instruments employing lasers for physiotherapy and laserpuncture will be
incorporated in primary healthcare. New versions of automatic laser
polarimeters are being developed for the sugar, pharmaceutical, and food
industries and will also be included in chromatographic systems for

Condensed matter physics is still the field employing the largest number
of Cuban physicists (see figure 4). A national program for scientific
research and innovation on new and advanced materials, approved in 2003,
gives priority to research in that field, with emphasis on
nanotechnology and new materials.

In nuclear physics, radiation–matter interactions are being studied for
the modification of solid materials. Cuba has become the 29th member of
the ALICE high-energy physics project at CERN and is participating in
its experimental and theoretical work.

Physicists have played an important role in establishing and developing
meteorological services in Cuba. That sector is being strengthened with
investments in modern equipment, which will, in turn, produce a new
stimulus for physics. The field of renewable energies, in which
physicists have always made significant contributions, is also
expanding. A plan has been developed to install wind power stations in
the near future. (Figure 5 shows a wind map of Cuba.)


Compared with biotechnology and other branches of biomedical research,
physics is only a small sector of Cuban science. Nevertheless, Cuban
physicists are very active and their involvement in academic life and
technical development, publications, prizes, scientific meetings, and
popularization of science is relatively high. The celebration of the
International Year of Physics in 2005 gave a new push and increased
visibility to those efforts. Future progress will depend to a large
extent on the success in bringing new generations of students to physics
and applying the subject to the problems connected with Cuba's economic
and social development.


Angelo Baracca is an associate professor of physics at the University of
Florence, Italy. Víctor Fajer is a member of the Cuban Academy of
Sciences and heads the instrumentation development division of the
Center of Applied Technologies and Nuclear Development in Havana, Cuba.
Carlos Rodríguez, also a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, is
director of the University of Havana's Institute of Materials and Reagents.




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