|Astronomy in Cuba
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
and Julieta Fierro
National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)
Early in January 2005 we visited Cuba on behalf of IAU Commission 46 and the Program Group for the World-wide Development of Astronomy. The host institution was the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy (IGA) in Havana. Professor Jorge Pérez Doval at IGA, who is head of the astronomy department there, made the arrangements for our week-long visit. We are very grateful to him for his putting in place a busy schedule for both of us during our time in Cuba. We visited the solar radio and optical observatories at La Lisa and Cacahual, and also a 60-cm Cassegrain reflector at the Arroyo Naranjo Observatory (all operated by IGA).
Our stay was limited to Havana and its immediate surroundings. However most visits were in different venues, and transport, mainly in an IGA minibus, was provided to transport us from place to place, and take us to and from the hotel in Habana Vieja, the old city. Our main base was at IGA, some 12 km west of the city centre in a pleasant leafy suburban area known as La Lisa, close to several other scientific institutes. We each gave four lectures during the week. Lectures by John Hearnshaw were in English, with running translations into Spanish by Julieta Fierro or Ramón Rodríguez. Lectures by Julieta were in Spanish.
Cuba has a highly integrated but ethnically mixed population of 11.2 million. Historically Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American war, but was then ruled from the USA until full independence in 1902. This was much later than most Latin American countries (e.g. Argentina in 1816, Mexico and Venezuela in 1821).
It is interesting that Cuba has put much emphasis on excellence of education and health care. Both are free for all citizens. The result is that Cubans are outstandingly healthy and the life expectancy of the population (74 men, 78 women) is similar to that of the United States or western Europe. Also the literacy rate is very high at 96.7 per cent, comparable to that of many developed nations.
Whatever the case might be to try and justify the US embargo of Cuba, the fact is that it has made Cuba one of the world’s most isolated countries. The embargo is a political act, and our visit to Cuba was largely motivated by the fact that scientists believe in the free exchange of ideas and scientists between nations as one of the basic principles of the International Council of Scientific Unions (of which the IAU is a member). For these reasons we went to Cuba to explore whether contacts and communication between Cuban astronomers and those elsewhere in the international community could be improved through the auspices of the IAU, especially with the assistance of IAU Commission 46 (Astronomy Education and Development).
2. Current situation of Cuban astronomy
The Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy (IGA) is the main institute for astronomy in Cuba. It is an institute under the umbrella of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA). IGA was formed in 1974 after merging formerly independent departments of geophysics and of astronomy which had been founded in 1964. It is situated in suburban Havana, some 12 km west of the city centre in La Lisa. It has quite a large and attractive tree-studded campus, with several mainly single story buildings.
At present some 120 people are employed at IGA, including 76 technical staff. The institute is divided into four departments, of which astronomy (with some 20 staff members) is one. The others are space geophysics (including ionospheric physics), the physical environment (includes studies of soil, water, pollution etc), and regional geophysics (studies of the Earth’s gravity field, magnetic field, electrical conductivity etc). The astronomy department is led by Professor Doval and there are nine astronomers; the remaining 11 in this department are engineers and technicians.
Their work is strongly focussed towards areas of astronomy introduced in the era of Soviet collaboration. These have been solar radio-astronomy, optical solar spectroscopy, satellite observations and also various problems in computational astronomy. From time to time solar system objects such as comets and asteroids are observed. Instrumentation used has largely been supplied by the Russians, notably for the solar radio and solar optical work. However the era of Russian collaboration ended abruptly in 1989, and consequently the infrastructure for Cuban astronomy has not been upgraded in the last decade and a half. Understandably in the austerity period of the 1990s, astronomy did not receive a high priority from the government. On the other hand, Cuba has put many resources into the biotechnology area, and we saw (in passing) several of the ten high-tech biotechnology institutes that the Ministry of Science and Technology (CITMA) operates. Some of these are world-leaders in vaccine research and development.
Astronomy has not in the past figured prominently in any of Cuba’s universities. This is perhaps surprising, as science education at all levels has been vigorously promoted in Cuba, and physics is certainly one of the subjects which is widely taught at university level. Many universities around the world with strong physics departments have come to regard astronomy as an excellent vehicle for attracting able students into the physical sciences. That connection appears not to have been widely promoted in Cuba, even at the pre-eminent Universidad de Habana.
This lack of training in astronomy at tertiary level also has the consequence that few new young astronomers are being trained to PhD level in Cuba, and this may have consequences for future staffing at institutes like IGA. However one young astronomer at IGA is currently doing a PhD in stellar astrophysics at the Astronomical Institute of the Canaries in Spain. He is studying symbiotic stars, and is the only Cuban astronomer we met doing research on stars.
In recent years a new theoretical gravitation and cosmology group has been founded in the Physics Department at the Universidad Central de las Villas in the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba. This group is headed by Dr Rolando Cárdenas, who came to Havana to meet us. This group has published recently in the Physical Review and its members have an excellent reputation for their work. They organized an international workshop on gravitation and cosmology in Santa Clara in 2004 and plan another such meeting in 2006.
Our main impression of Cuban astronomy is that they have excellent people at IGA, although they are trained in just a few areas of astronomy which may no longer be at the forefront of the most exciting research. The basic infrastructure for doing science in Cuba is actually excellent, and the conditions which prevail in many sciences are far from typical of many developing countries. However astronomy has been somewhat neglected since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the main needs for Cuban astronomy now are new equipment, new areas of research and the training of new young astronomers who have opportunities for overseas work experience.
The development of a flourishing theoretical gravitation and cosmology school at the university in Santa Clara is a new and welcome development which we did not get to see at first hand.
Cuba has a number of planetariums for astronomy education at school level. The one we saw in La Lisa, across the road from IGA, was quite impressive with an older model Zeiss projector. However a much better one, with a Goto projector, was being planned for central Havana by Oscar Álvarez at CITMA with help from the Japanese. We were told about other planetariums. Apparently one in Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba is now in poor repair and is not operational. It also has a Zeiss projector from the 1960s.
As mentioned, IGA is an institution run by the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, CITMA. Dr Oscar Álvarez at CITMA commented to us that
‘The astronomical education in Cuba is not widespread in the educational system; nevertheless the public interest in astronomy is very high as has become reflected by the attention paid to educational and scientific program broadcasts by the national television channels.’
CITMA also operates the Humboldt University in Havana. The formal title of this institution is the Instituto Superior de Tecnologías y Ciencias Aplicadas and during our visits there we learnt that they are contemplating introducing astrophysics courses into the curriculum. This could be a welcome development, as the training of new young astronomers in the universities appears not to be very widespread in Cuba at present.
3. Recommendations for the IAU
The problems facing Cuban astronomy are by no means typical of developing countries. Cuba’s problem is almost entirely a political one which arose from being the meat in the sandwich during the cold war era. With the end of the cold war, Cuba has found itself unwillingly cast aside by their former Russian allies and ostracized by the United States. The political blockade of Cuba has caused enormous economic hardship. But in spite of that, they are a surprisingly happy people, and even optimistic about the future.
In spite of the problems, the basic infrastructure for science and education in Cuba is very good, and Cuba would almost certainly be a thriving first world nation if these political impediments were absent. It could resume this status quite quickly, perhaps in a few years, if the economic blockade were to end.
Since the problems of Cuban astronomy, in common with the problems in all facets of the Cuban economy, society and life in general, so obviously stem from this one imposed political cause, it is hard to recommend meaningful solutions without engaging in politics. However, the IAU is a non-political organization, and fortunately there are tangible ways it can help Cuba while staying true to its non-political ideals. This is especially so, because many countries welcome contacts with Cuba, notably Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Our recommendations for the IAU are as follows:
The biggest help the IAU could give to Cuba now is probably to give every encouragement to Cubans, especially in senior positions in the Ministry, for Cuba to resume financial membership of the IAU (Cuba is currently an interim member only as dues have not been paid in recent years).
The next most important step for the IAU to take is for the Commission 46 Program Group for the Exchange of Astronomers to look sympathetically on any applications for young Cuban astronomers to travel abroad for research or study visits. This program group should actively solicit and encourage applications from Cubans, and bring the opportunities available to the attention of the astronomers at IGA and at the university in Santa Clara.
Cuba would benefit from further international contacts, and if the TAD program group of Commission 46 could send astronomy lecturers or teachers in future, they would be very warmly received and help encourage young Cuban astronomers.
IAU Commission 46 may be able to help Cuba with access to some printed journals. For example astronomers at IGA cannot subscribe to the US edition of Sky and Telescope, because of the economic embargo from the US. From 2005 there is a new Australian edition of the same magazine, and it may be that a way can be found for the IAU to contribute to IGA’s subscription from Australia.
Cuba has developed a unique society with much emphasis on science education, universal healthcare and the development of biotechnology industries. But in the current political and economic climate, astronomy has not been seen as a high priority. As a result, astronomers in Cuba have been under-resourced and largely isolated from the international community over the last 15 years.
The IAU can take steps to alleviate this situation until such time as the political situation changes, as inevitably one day it will. Encouraging Cuba to resume membership of the IAU would certainly help. Encouraging exchange visits of Cuban astronomers to other friendly developed nations would be of much benefit to astronomy in Cuba, especially if young Cubans could return home with new and up-to-date skills. The IAU Exchange of Astronomers program could play a vital role here in promoting contacts which are so greatly needed.
Acknowledgements and thanks
Our visit to Cuba was hosted by the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy in Havana. IGA is an institute of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA). We thank the director of IGA, Dr Lourdes Palacio Suárez for her kind hospitality in receiving us at her institution, and we thank especially Professor Jorge Pérez Doval, the Head of the Astronomy Department at IGA, for the detailed program of appointments throughout our stay, and for arranging the transport to get us to so many interesting venues. We also wish to thank Dr Oscar Álvarez, an astronomer attached to CITMA, for our initial contact with Cuba and for his helpful advice on many matters, including his assistance in making a hotel reservation for us in Havana. We also thank all the astronomers at IGA for their friendly interactions during our visit.