APS News

A Strike: The Hardest Way To Learn Physics

Editor's Note: This article was written for APS News by Javier Cr#z Mena, science editor of the Mexican newspaper Reforma, and a member of UNAM's Engineering faculty.

Some 100,000 striking students of Mexico's National University
Some 100,000 striking students of Mexico's National University and supporters march May 21 in defense of free public education. AP/Jose Luis Magana; image from: http://www.internationalist.org/mexunamleaflet0699.html

When Physics 101 is finally in session at the School of Science of UNAM, Mexico's National University, some unexpected analogies will be available to help understand a few bizarre concepts of modern physics.

Take the case of Schr"dinger's cat. If told that a system may, at any given time, exist in two mutually exclusive states, these students will not be quite as puzzled by the notion as they would have otherwise been, had they not lived through the perplexing nine months of a student strike triggered, back in April of 1999, by the Administration's attempt to raise tuition from US$0.02 to about US$140 a year.

The amount might seem low, but opposers argued that it was improper to charge even that much when the general income in Mexico has dropped steadily for two decades, as has the Government's contribution to higher education. To complicate matters further, the wording of the country's Constitution -"All education provided by the State shall be free of charge"-lends itself to controversy as to whether public colleges should be included.

During those 9 months, the University led the kind of uncertain day-to-day existence typical of split personality conditions-much like quantum cats, indeed. This being a student strike, all teaching stopped as schools were closed from day one. But research continued to get done, somehow, throughout UNAM's main campus in Mexico City. It was not business as usual, though. Long walks in the open had to be endured on those days when the strike's steering committee decided-rather haphazardly-to ban automobile access to campus facilities.

While research institutes were allowed to keep their doors open for most of the strike, teaching centers, such as the Schools of Science-home to Physics, Mathematics and Biology undergraduate studies, Chemistry, Medicine and Engineering-were not. Consequently, all experimental work there came to a halt.

But theoretical research wasn't spared either. "Getting new work done was much more difficult, because I had no access to the things I am used to-books, notes and article references," said Rodolfo Mart!nez, full time Professor at the School of Science, who works on high energy physics. "Three papers which are being refereed right now would have already been published had it not been for the strike."

Life was relatively easier at the Institute of Physics, a research center with close academic ties to the School of Science, although working days were shortened for security reasons, affecting such things as all-night runs at the institute's particle accelerators.

Nevertheless, the months of irregular life and high tension did leave a negative mark. According to Manuel Torres, Secretary of Academic Affairs at the institute, they used to have close to 100 graduate students and 150 undergrads. By the end of the strike, he estimates those numbers to have been reduced by 20% and 40% respectively.

"Some 30 research projects were slowed down," said Torres. Then there was the matter of personal and institutional relations. At least two meetings already scheduled had to be held elsewhere, and several visits by foreign scientists were cancelled.

All in all, though, Torres finds reasons to feel rather fortunate "thanks to the positive attitude of our faculty." Research on campus, limited indeed, showed signs of life during the strike. Thus, somehow, the University did look very much like Schr"dinger's cat-both dead and alive all at once.

At least until just before dawn on February 6th, when a recently created military police unit showed up on campus -to the strikers' surprise- and took nearly one thousand prisoners, mostly students, with and without orders of arrest. For all practical purposes, that was the end of the full-scale student strike.

One might argue that the police action was tantamount to the human measurement of the quantum puma-the university's feline mascot-ending the indeterminacy of its state. Classes are being resumed, most strikers -but not all-have been released, and the puma seems to have been alive after all.

Or was it? The core of the strike's steering committee is still in jail -accused of "social dangerousness," an obscure offense just recently added to the Criminal Code, and held on US$5,000 to US$10,000 bonds-but there is considerable support for their release. The longer their imprisonment, the stronger the student protests seem to be getting. Already the School of Science is under threat of being closed again.

"The strike has proven highly destructive of all academic activity," said Mart!nez, "regardless of which facilities were closed. Whether the University will recover is not at all clear."


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette