quinta-feira, 16 de junho de 2011

Brief history of Physics in Spain

During the 7th century, the Hispanic peninsula was conquered by the Arabs. While Europe was still immersed in the shadows of the medieval times, Al-Ándalus became one of the cultural and scientific centers of the world. The Arabs introduced our present numeration, trigonometry and geometry in Europe through Hispania. Astronomy was much studied at the time. Azarquiel (1029-1087), astronomer based in Toledo, started manufacturing astronomic instruments like astrolabes and finished elaborating the Astronomic Tables of Toledo, which were used to predict the position of the orbs in the sky at any moment. His greatest invention was the Azafea, a modified astrolabe that could be used on any latitude.

Until the creation of the first universities (Palencia and Salamanca) in the 13th century, Spanish science was isolated from the rest of the world and was giving only limited contributions. After the Reconquista and the discovery of America, the geographical expeditions oriented the scientific research towards navigation. That is one of the reasons why there was much interest in practical astronomy. Abraham Zacut (1452-1510), a Jew based in Salamanca, is known for his works in astronomy and mathematics until 1492, when he was expelled from the Hispanic peninsula and died in Tunez. As a curiosity, Joan Roget was a Catalan who many people believe to have invented the first telescope before the official inventor, Hans Lippershey. In 1582, Felipe II ordered the creation of the Academy of Mathematics of Madrid. The mathematicians Vicente Tosca and Vicente Mut tried to introduce modern European knowledge in Spain. Mut used Galileo’s mechanics to study projectiles and studied the 1665 comet of 1665, anticipated by Newton.

In the 18th century, known as the century of lights, Spanish science started to reactivate. The Borbones dynasty tried to impulse science as a way to modernize a country deeply sunk, which was a way back from European research. Having many difficulties in renovating the universities, they created academies protected by the court. We should name Tomas Vicente Tosca, author of a compendium for learning Descartes and Newton; Benito Vails, who introduced infinitesimal calculus, Jose Chaix, with worked on differential calculus; Agustin de Predrayes, who represented Spain in Paris in the establishment of the decimal metric system; and Jorge Juan de Santacilia and Antonio de Ulloa, who participated in a expedition to Ecuador to measure the length of one degree of meridian along the equator, trying to resolve the controversies on the Earth’s shape.

In the 19th century, Spain was very unstable and convulsed. Wars, crisis and political revolts explain why almost till the end of that century the political situation never normalized. In 1875 the Institución de Libre Enseñanza was created, where scientific research had an important role. Even so, the physics investigation was still huge leaps back of the European level. We have to add the extremely deficient industrialization of the country.

Already in the 20th century, the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios (JAE) was created in 1907. Until then there was no ministry dedicated to education. In this institution the best Spanish physicists of the time were active, like Blas Cabrera, Julio Rey Pastor, Julio Palacios, Arturo Duperier, etc. One of the objectives of the JAE was to impulse Spanish scientists to move abroad to break the isolation and acquire international practice. In 1910 Manuel Martinez-Risco travelled to Amsterdam to study with Pieter Zeeman, in 1912 Blas Cabrera went to Zurich, where Enrique Moes was already working with Pierre Weiss on the magneton and magneto-chemistry of the ferric components, an area where Cabrera became renown internationally. After the first world war travels by Spanish physicists allowed them to make contacts with the most prestigious physics centers in the world. In Spain, the National Physics and Chemistry Institute opened in 1932, with the financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation. This looked like the final touch to a brighter time.

But this modest but constant resurgence crashed against the Spanish civil which took place from 1936 until 1939. Apart from the material destruction, many scientists were killed, politically expelled or thrown in exile. In 1939 the JAE changed to become the actual Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) During the Franco regime, physics started to regain importance but, in 1950, the situation was still very much as before the civil war. In Madrid, Garcia-Santesmases built a big computer. In Valencia, Catalá de Alemany started the study of nuclear reactions with emulsions. In Zaragoza, Cases investigated mass spectroscopy and termodiffusion. An experimental nuclear reactor and a particle accelerator were constructed in the Junta de Energía Nuclear in Madrid. There, many scientists gained knowledge in nuclear physics, like fusion, fission, and detectors.

In the 1970's, being the dictatorship over, Spain had 14 universities, in which only three Physics courses were offered. Today it can be studied in almost half of the 49 universities.

Alejandro Pazó de la Sota

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