Argentinian research centre outpost

Don't dismiss Argentina's scientists and engineers

Fast cars, space exploration and other achievements of Argentine technology.

'What a disgraceful way for a country to treat its leading scientists'. My parents always remember this short line I emailed to them nearly ten years ago.

I had just arrived in London to try my luck as a journalist and the first piece of online news from Argentina that I came across, as I sat in that now-defunct EasyEverything Internet cafe on Tottenham Court Road, was that Rene Favaloro had committed suicide.

For Argentineans, Dr Rene Favaloro was - as the Spanish saying goes - 'toda una institución'. Millions of people from many other nations who may never have heard of him would surely also regard Favaloro as 'an institution in himself'. All they would need to know is that they, literally, owe their lives to him.

In 1967, Dr Favaloro became the first surgeon to use a blood vessel from the leg of a patient to go around blocked blood vessels in their heart. He was effectively pioneering a surgical procedure (coronary artery bypass grafting, or heart bypass for the rest of us) that would forever change the history of cardiovascular disease. In the US alone, over 500,000 surgeries using this technique will be performed this year.

As is usually the case with Argentina's scientific community, Favaloro graduated from a public university. As is also usually the case with our top scientists, he needed to travel abroad to further his education. Favaloro's initial bypass grafts were carried out while he was working and studying at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where he had access to the most complete collection of coronary angiograms in the States.

After achieving international recognition, in 1971 he decided to go back to his country. His ambition was to establish a centre of excellence similar to the Cleveland Clinic, where coronary research and education could be combined with medical care. In 1975 he founded the Favaloro Foundation, which would soon become one of the largest and most prestigious cardiology institutions in the Americas.

An active, corresponding, honorary and academic member of more than 100 of the world's most prominent medical institutions, there were several occasions when Favaloro would use money from his own pocket to finance some of the Foundation's activities, such as the establishment of the centre's Basic Research Laboratory.

At the time of his death, the Favaloro Foundation was $75m in debt. That's not entirely surprising considering that, after a lasting recession that was entering its fourth consecutive year, Argentina was on the verge of economic, political and social meltdown. He repeatedly asked the government for a bailout so that he could concentrate on what he did best: training surgeons and saving people's lives. In a letter he sent to the then President of the nation, Fernando de la Rua, Favaloro wrote: 'I'm tired of being a beggar in my own country.'

The help never came. And on 29 July, 2000, the doctor who had ensured so many hearts could keep on beating tragically put a bullet in his own heart. Days later it was discovered that the letter he had sent had not even been opened.

This and other political decisions De la Rua made (or, rather, didn't make) have gained him a reputation as one of the blandest presidents Argentina has ever had in its relatively short - and frequently interrupted - democratic history. When the socio-economic situation turned really desperate at the end of 2001, De la Rua fled the presidential palace in a helicopter.

It took a couple of years but, eventually, economic growth and political stability returned. And with them, the prospects for Argentina's scientists to make a valuable contribution to their respective fields of engineering and technology improved.

Cosmic rays tracking

In the foothills of the Andes in western Argentina (more precisely, in Malargue, province of Mendoza), one of the most exciting astronomical experiments of our time is beginning to take shape.

Occupying 3,000km2 (about twice the size of Greater London), the Pierre Auger Observatory, inaugurated at the end of 2008, is not only the world's largest cosmic rays observatory but also the largest scientific experiment in human history.

Cosmic rays are tiny, but highly relativistic, charged particles (usually a proton or a heavy nucleus) that constantly bombard the Earth from outer space. As each of these enters the atmosphere, it collides with a nucleus, generating several secondary particles. These in turn collide with other atmospheric nuclei, initiating a cascade effect which will eventually see billions of particles penetrating the ground over an area that can extend for up to 10km2.

Over the years, astronomers have learned a great deal about cosmic rays with low to moderate energies. They know for example that these originate within our own Milky Way Galaxy. However, mystery still surrounds ultra-high energy cosmic rays. No energy known within our galaxy is powerful enough to accelerate these particles so much. And no one knows what exactly is powering them or where this is happening.

It is hoped the Auger observatory in Mendoza will help answer these and other questions. An international collaboration involving more than 250 scientists from 18 different nations, the observatory has been specifically conceived to study the highest-energy rays (those with energies of over 1020 electron volts).

The first challenge in monitoring the arrival of these particles is posed by how rare they are: only one of them will hit every 100km2 of the Earth's surface per year. So, on average, only 30 will hit the Auger observatory every year.

In order to maximise the chances of registering these cosmic events, the facility has been equipped with two independent detection systems. The first one operates at ground level. An array of 1,600 sealed water tanks (separated from each other by 1.5km) can sense the Cherenkov light produced by the electromagnetic shock waves of particles passing through the tanks faster than the speed of light in water.

The trajectory of incoming cosmic rays can then be determined by measuring slight differences in detection times at various tank positions.

The second detection system consists of 24 ultraviolet telescopes pointing to the sky in different directions. On a pitch-black, moonless night, they can observe the fluorescent trail generated by air shower particles interacting with nitrogen in the atmosphere.

Apart from being the host country for Auger's southern hemisphere site (a mirror facility will now be built in the state of Colorado in the US to cover the northern hemisphere), Argentina has several R&D institutions playing an active role in the project.

The state-owned Atomic Energy National Commission (CNEA) is in charge of the project management, as well as the operation and maintenance of the observatory.

Heading the Pierre Auger team of physicians, electronic and mechanical engineers at CNEA is physician Alberto Etchegoyen. I visited the Buenos Aires laboratory and discovered that - not content with designing much of the technology behind the Cherenkov tanks deployed in Mendoza - they are well advanced in the design of an innovative third detection mechanism for Auger.

AMIGAs forever

Called AMIGA (Auger Muons and Infill for the Ground Array), this new particle detection system will extend the range of energies that can be studied at the observatory to include cosmic rays with energies between 1017 eV and 1018 eV.

Specifically, AMIGA will give the astro-physicians operating the observatory a tool to count muons - an elementary particle with negative electric charge, similar to the electron but 211 times heavier than it. This will provide clues as to the chemical composition of the original cosmic rays which trigger the air showers.

Deployed in a smaller, 25km2 area of the site, 85 AMIGA detector pairs will be buried three metres underground. Each detector will be composed of four large rectangular modules totaling 30m2 of detection surface. Each of the modules will have an array of 64 scintillator strips with optical fibres ending on a 64-pixel photo multiplier tube (PMT). The PMTs will convert the pulse of light generated by passing muons into a measurable electric pulse.

'We need to test each PMT to ensure that it meets all the requirements of the system,' says an engineer working with Etchegoyen. 'Most tests are to control the electronic properties of the device. What we're doing right now is developing a fully-automated test-bed, which, when completed, should be able to test one PMT a day.'

Oscar Wainberg, another engineer of the CNEA team working on the electronics system that will drive the AMIGA detectors, says: 'We're using FPGA (field-programmable gate array) silicon on the electronic modules that will be fitted to each of the detectors. This, together with the design that we've created, will let engineers re-programme the electronics remotely via a radio link once the detectors are out in the field.'

The fact that these two young engineers have previous experience in the design of sophisticated particle detector systems (as most of their colleagues do from the time they worked on the Auger water tanks) gives Etchegoyen something he says is virtually impossible to find in Argentina.

'When it comes to the development of high-technology equipment, this country simply does not have postgraduates with the required experience in experimental physics,' the veteran physician laments.

The team he has put together for the Auger project has already accumulated, on average, nearly six years of experience. His ambition is to make them all permanent members of staff at CNEA once the engineering phase of Auger is over, 'so that we don't have to start training a new group from scratch for the next project', he says.

Tall towers and fast cars

What else can Argentine innovators do? Generally, they thrive in creative industries.

Architect Cesar Pelli, born in the province of Tucuman, is renowned for designing some of the world's tallest buildings, including the famous Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia.

Car designer Horacio Pagani, born in a small rural town of Santa Fe province, is the founder and president of Pagani Automobili, maker of some of the world's most exclusive sports cars. A new Pagani Zonda, a supercar made of carbon fibre that the company has been designing and manufacturing since 1999, can sell for £1m.

Entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, born in Buenos Aires, is the founder and chief executive officer of FON, the world's largest network of Wi-Fi hotspots (thanks to Varsavsky's idea of exploiting user-generated infrastructure).

Interestingly, Pelli lives and plies his trade in the US; Pagani and his company are based in Italy; and Varsavsky in Spain.

Don't get me wrong. There are of course many companies (both domestic and multinational), that have successful R&D departments in Argentina. Low-power nuclear reactors using Argentinean expertise in uranium enrichment have been exported to countries such as Australia. Biotechnology and nanotechnology Argentinean-based research is also said to be making significant progress. There are researchers working on the development of hydrogen fuel cells and new materials. Nobel prizes have been won in Argentina.

Yet many scientists and innovators whose research and ideas have the potential to change the way people live, use technology and get cured, think it's best to head north.

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