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Physics in Cuba: Partnerships And A Personal Perspective

Engaging Cuban Physicists Through the APS/CPS Partnership

By Irving Lerch

Irving Lerch
Irving Lerch
In his reflections on Cuban physics below, Marcelo Alonso urges APS to take steps to promote interactions between Cuban and US physicists. As an introduction to Marcelo's essay, this note will summarize past and current activities.

After a prolonged period of political estrangement, we have actively engaged colleagues in Cuba in a number of collaborations over the past two years. In many ways, this joint effort mirrors the APS policy of engagement pursued during the Cold War with the physics communities of the USSR and China. But scientific communications with the Soviet Union and China were not hampered by extraordinary legal impediments such as the economic embargo levied against Cuba in 1960. Nonetheless, this past April, more than 30 US medical physicists participated in an international congress in Havana (International Conference in Medical Physics, April 8-10, 2002) and many more are expected to attend the VIII Inter- American Conference on Physics Education to be convened July 7-11, 2003, in Havana.

The policy that underlies this relationship was enunciated by the APS Council in 1989 with a "Statement on the International Nature of Physics and International Cooperation," which, while advocating the rights of physicists, strongly promoted open international exchange.

With not much more than 11 million people on an island smaller than Pennsylvania, Cuban physicists were little in number, known to colleagues in Latin America and the Soviet Bloc, but practically unnoticed in the US.

In the early '90s, during Ernest Henley's Presidency, the APS made a commitment to invigorate its ties with colleagues in Latin America and embarked on a series of initiatives to include the organization of joint Canadian-Mexican-US physics meetings called CAM(Canadian Association of Physicists, American Physical Society, Sociedad Mexicana de F!sica). These, in turn, led to regular meetings with the Federation of Latin American Physical Societies, a consortium of 17 national physical societies.

It rapidly became clear that notwithstanding Cuba's size, the island's intellectual community was a major presence in Latin American science. Cuban physicists often took up residence in the universities and labs of the larger countries of Latin America, Spain, France and Russia. And gradually, growing numbers of Cuban students and scholars began coming to the US.

At the April, 2000, APS meeting in Long Beach, California, the President of the Cuban Physical Society, Victor Luis Fajer Avila, was invited to attend a discussion on future APS/CPS collaborations with the officers of the Society and an agreement was made to organize joint meetings in Cuba. In May, a Reciprocal Member Agreement was signed by the two societies exchanging some privileges. By the following year, the two societies had agreed to hold joint meetings on medical physics and physics education and both Bernd Crasemann (then Chair of the Committee on International Scientific Affairs), and I participated in an international conference in Havana in early June, 2000, and met with the Board of CPS and officers of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. At these meetings we finalized the procedures to be used to facilitate accelerated contacts between the two communities.

To limit the impact of the embargo, we agreed to exploit that portion of US law that promoted intellectual and cultural exchange sponsored by international organizations of which both Cuba and the US were members (although the law specifies that the organization may not have its headquarters in either country). Thus IUPAP sponsorship-to include the sponsorship of most of the other international disciplinary unions-was a viable means for promoting scientific relationships.

The success of the medical physics conference (supported by the International Union of Physics and Engineering Sciences in Medicine and the International Organization for Medical Physics) prompted the Brazilian physics community to offer to host a second meeting and it is likely that the series will continue. Since the Inter-American Conference was due to be convened in 2003, the Council of the conference readily accepted Cuba's offer to hold the next meeting in Havana (and the organizers have applied to IUPAP for sponsorship). But we have not been nearly as successful in meeting Marcelo's other demand that a way be found to increase Cuban participation in APS meetings. Funding continues to be a significant obstacle.

I was first scheduled to arrive in Cuba on October 28, 1962, by parachute from a C123 troop transport. History intervened and made me wait almost 4 decades.

It was well worth the wait.

Irving Lerch is Director of International for the APS.


The Current State of Physics in Cuba: A Personal Perspective

By Marcelo Alonso

Marcelo Alonso
Marcelo Alonso
After 40 years of absence I returned twice to Cuba, in January and December of 2000, to participate as a guest lecturer in two international scientific meetings. The first dealt with Physics Education, and the second with current issues related to Quantum Mechanics. In addition to a few participants from Europe, US and Latin America, the two meetings were well attended by Cuban physicists.

International meetings are very useful for Cuban physicists, whose travel possibilities are limited unless financed by foreign sources, and thus offer them the opportunity to interact with foreign colleagues. For me the meetings were very helpful because I could talk at length with several Cuban physicists, allowing me to get first-hand information about physics education and research. Both have changed during my absence. Prior to 1959 there were three official universities, Habana, Central and Oriente, and one private, Villanueva. Now there are several official universities, polytechnic institutes and pedagogical institutes, so higher education is much more diversified. Only two universities in Cuba offer a degree in physics: the University of Habana, in Habana, and the University of Oriente, in Santiago, although other universities offer physics courses for students of Chemistry, Engineering, Biology, etc.

On both occasions I was able to visit the University of Habana, where I had been professor of Theoretical Physics until 1960. The main campus, on a hill, with neoclassical architecture, remains the same except that the use of some buildings has changed because the academic structure of the University has also changed. Unfortunately the buildings are not well maintained, but that is a general problem in Cuba.

I found that since my time the physics curriculum in the University of Habana has been reorganized substantially and the academic staff expanded considerably. The Faculty of Physics, headed by a Dean, consists of three Departments: General Physics, Theoretical Physics, and Applied Physics, with a total academic staff of 69 persons with about 40 holding a PhD. The Faculty offers a 5-year "licenciado" which has a level between bachelors and masters degrees in the US. Beginning with the third year, students must work in some laboratory, and at the end of the 5th year students must submit a thesis in order to obtain their diploma. Masters and PhD. degrees are also offered, that are to a great extent comparable to the US. At least a Masters degree is required to teach in a University. My general impression is that the physics students (currently about 100) and the staff are very well prepared, in spite of severe limitations in resources (equipment and library).

In many cases students can take graduate courses or do their Masters or PhD. thesis in some of the research institutes that operate under the Academy of Sciences, such as the Institute for Cybernetics, Applied Mathematics and Physics (ICIMAF) and the Advanced Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (ISCTN) that offers 5-years "licenciado" and PhD degrees in Nuclear Physics and in Nuclear Engineering.

In addition to the two universities and research centers offering advanced physics degrees, there are 16 Higher Pedagogical Institutes that offer a 5-years "licenciado" degree in Education with specialization in Physics Education. This degree is required to teach physics in secondary schools, although university physics students must take courses on the pedagogy of physics, just in case they decide to teach.

After graduation a student must work up to two years in some government research center or equivalent (social work). In addition to the physics courses, students must take courses with social and political content, a tradition inherited from former Soviet universities.

During the period of Soviet influence in Cuba, from the early 60's until the demise of the Soviet Union, many Cuban scientists were trained in Russian centers, mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), as well as in some East European countries, such as Hungary. The Cuban scientific establishment was patterned after the Soviet organization of science, with universities and technological institutes providing mainly scientific and engineering education, and most of research done in specialized governmental institutes operating under the Cuban Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, or other government agencies. This structure still exists.

In a centrally planned and operated economy as is the Cuban system, all job opportunities are in governmental institutions. To be considered for a position (research and teaching) in a university, the "licenciados" in Physics must have graduated with an average of at least 4.0 points out of 5.0, and must take advanced courses related to pedagogy in the areas in which they will teach. Cuban physicists work in research centers of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment and other government agencies, in hospitals and biomedical research centers, and in industrial and technical services. The main fields in which Cuban physicists work are (1) optics, lasers and spectroscopy, (2) condensed matter and materials physics, (3) electronics and computation, (4) non-conventional energies, mostly solar, (5) biophysics and medical physics, (6) geosciences, (7) theoretical physics (complex systems, cybernetics, particle physics, field theory, etc.) , (8 ) nuclear physics, (9) teaching, and (10) physics education research at all levels. In some instances it is a combination of fields.

Currently there are in Cuba about 1600 physicists, of which about 180 are PhD's, and about 700 are engaged in research. The Cuban Physical Society has about 500 members, and publishes the Cuban Journal of Physics, three issues per year. Other technical journals, some of popular nature as "Energy and You" (Energia y Tu) published by CubaSolar and "Nucleus" published by the ISCTN, are available. Beside research, physics education at all levels receives special attention and several semi-popular journals have that orientation.

An important difference with the US is that ALL students when they finish secondary (high) school have taken physics. In elementary school students start taking science courses, with some physics content, in the third grade. However physics as an "obligatory" course for secondary (high) school students is taught in grades 7 through 12. All physics teachers in secondary schools must be "licenciados" in Physics Education, graduated from a Higher Pedagogical Institute. Thus in spite of possible deficiencies in laboratory and computing equipment, secondary (high) school graduates are much better prepared in physics (as well as in mathematics and other subjects) than their counterparts in the US.

If I am asked what is the best way to help physicists in Cuba, I would recommend as the first priority to establish a modest fund to invite Cuban physicists to attend conferences and seminars in the US, and to teach one semester courses or work with a research group in US academic institutions. Considering how inexpensive travel is between Miami and Havana ($300 round trip) I assume that the amount needed per individual physicist would be of the order of $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the place and length of stay. Organizing seminars in Cuba, in which US physicists would participate, is my other priority. I hope very much that funds for these two purposes can be found.

Marcelo Alonso is Principal Research Scientist (retired) at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida. He has served as the Director of Science and Technology for the Organization of American States. A somewhat expanded version of this article will be published in the 2002 newsletter of the APS Forum on International Physics later this year.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette