Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Science Tour at University of São Paulo - São Paulo

Yesterday my husband and I went on the "Giro Cientifico" or Scientific Tour of University of São Paulo (USP, or as they pronounce the acronym in Portuguese - "oooh-spee"). USP is the largest university in São Paulo state, with 10 campi (campuses?) and 92,000 students. It is usually the highest ranked of all Brazilian universities and extremely difficult to get into. Full disclosure: my in-laws are retired professors at the campus in Ribeirão Preto, a city in the "interior" of the state.

The idea of the Giro Cientifico is to tour three museums/scientific sites around the USP - SP Pinheiros campus. The tour guide is a student of "Letras" (probably closest to our liberal arts) and was majoring in Arabic. Unusual. One of 20 students in her year.   I was particularly interested in the tour because I have twice gotten very lost on the USP campus--it is HUGE.  And filled with things that someone seems not to want us to know about. This is probably just my imagination.

When we got to the Info Center, the prescribed meeting place, we were the only guests on the tour.  Yet we got on board a huge empty USP bus that was just for us. First stop: Oceanographic Museum. Second stop would be the Physics Show and the third stop would be the Veterinary Museum. So excited. You see, I have had oceanography in my past. Exploding underwater lava pillows kept me awake after early morning crew. Physics got my husband perked up of course, and as most people know, I am a major lover of animals.  This should be good.

Each stop was preceded by careening an empty bus through traffic circles and up and down hilly driveways and around corners. I held on for dear life. At every stop our driver took a nice nap--we had to tap on the doors to have him let us in. We were at each stop for around 20 minutes, with the intervening time crossing the enormous campus. 

Oceanographic Museum. I admit it; it made me sad. A forlorn boat sat outside, large computer printed signs with tons of information. Our tour guide was clearly taken away from his day job of ??? since he told me later he had stayed on after his post-doc at USP. He was our most knowledgeable guide of the day, by far, if not the most excited about giving the tour.

He told us about the various instruments to get samples of water and sediment from the ocean floor. Most of them seemed so archaic and manual, it was hard to believe they are still used. Models of phosphorescent beasties, krill in a test tube, a skeleton of a whale found off of Brazil in 1972. And then a model of the Antarctic Station owned by Brazil that was mostly engulfed by fire last year.We spend a few moments in the aquarium room where there are twelve aquariums inhabited by five fish and 1 moray eel. He shows us one aquarium where a baggie containing two fish is being "introduced" to the environment. He says the fish are a gift from a friend of the museum. When I ask why there are so few fish, he pauses and says "here things are a bit...complicated...and bureaucratic." Read between the dots.

The last room we go to houses "The Sphere". Somehow I think I should put it in all caps. USP was given it a year ago by an American company and it is a huge white globe which has four video players faced towards it--on it they show land masses, ocean currents and cloud formations. Or they can switch it to be Mars or the Moon. It is cool--mobile phone or ipad or computer operated. It is by far the tour guide's favorite toy and the cause of a recent upswing in visitors (I noted on the sign-in sheet that this would sum to around 3 people a day).

Back on the bus and we were off to the Physics Show. After hoofing it a bit through the large physics buildings and labs, we enter an auditorium where the show has already started. About 50 middle school kids from a private school are there watching four physics students make jokes and show the fun of physics. I might have liked physics better if I had seen this show. They squished balloons in dry ice, showed how magnetism worked, and really interacted with the kids. It was wonderful. It's a 2-hour show put on every day by the physics students--and very popular with schools. It is the only "museum" that has a small charge to cover costs. It was interesting and moved quickly and the best part of the tour.

From the Physics show we board the bus and cross the campus again to the Veterinary School, which is well-known in the city. My dog has once been referred there for an oncology issue (we ended up pursuing another route, by the way, and he is fine and sitting by my feet). In 2010, they opened the Veterinary Anatomy Museum. It is, in a word, creepy. The possible site of a horror movie. 

Again we were "monitored" and toured by a current student. I am guessing this one was a first-year. She was not so rich in the details. First we wound through two rows of examples of how to preserve beasties. Formaldehyde, munching bugs, glycerine, taxidermy. Whoo, do you have a strong stomach? Well, save it for later. Then we look at some moth-eaten taxidermy birds and mammals. I ask the girl if they are all Brazilian natives (the animals) and she says "No". I wait for a few seconds looking at her and then she says "I don't know what to tell you about which ones are not." Okay. Then we look at lots of bird skulls, animal skulls and an orca skeleton. 

Around the corner is the WALL OF GUTS. Wait, no, there was no sign. Just a huge 15 foot by 20 foot wall with shelves containing every possible example of heart, kidney, lung, brain, joint, muscles etc in small jars and large jars. The tour guide mentions that they were all "gifts" and they don't ask where exactly they come from. Hmmmmm. Finally we walk through the military inspection of skeletons. There must by 100 animal skeletons, from elephants to dogs, all posed standing on dark wood platforms in long lines. Weird. She mentions that the elephant tusks disappeared in transit. Truly a surreal experience.  Ah, she mentions there is a small store to buy t-shirts and pencils. We don't.

We are then back on the bus towards the Info Center. It has been exactly a 2-hour tour. Alternately sad, interesting and funny, and weird. Everything a college campus should be.

Thank you, ooooh-spee. 

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