Universiteit Leiden

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International astronomers come to the aid of secluded Cuban scientists

An international collaboration of astronomers is organising a special online lecture series for physicists and astronomers in Cuba. The reason for this is the tightening of measures against this country, as a result of which researchers can hardly get any information from outside the island. ‘Everyone has the right to free information,’ says participant and Leiden professor Simon Portegies Zwart.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration put Cuba back on the terrorism list. The accompanying sanctions and the fact that the only internet provider is in the hands of the Cuban government, means that Cubans hardly have any contact with the outside world. ‘It is very difficult for young academics to keep abreast of what is happening in their field,’ says astronomer Simon Portegies Zwart. ‘That's why they often don't know what direction they want to take in their research.’ 

The need to help people

Initiator Pau Amaro-Seoane of the Technical University of València finds it more than natural to offer Cuban researchers a helping hand. ‘The question should actually be how you can not feel this need to help people there in the first place, no matter how small the effect of our lecture series on the knowledge in Cuba.’ 

Paralysed without internet

When Portegies Zwart was asked for the initiative, he was surprised by the situation in Cuba. ‘That is perhaps the worst. I thought to myself, this can't be happening. I can't even imagine not having access to the internet when I'm working. You can't even look up scientific papers! It seems like a paralysing situation as a researcher.’

All participants shut down their camera to save data

Zoom discussion with black screens 

Besides Portegies Zwart, twenty other astronomers are taking part in the initiative, including Nobel Prize winners Rainhard Genzel and Jim Peebles. Started on 17 May, two researchers per day will give an interactive mini-lecture of one hour each via Zoom. Portegies Zwart: ‘You only see black screens, because everyone has turned off their camera. The internet is so expensive there that we have to save a lot of bandwidth this way.’ 

With this initiative, the Leiden astronomer hopes to make a difference, however small. ‘Curiosity-driven research is fundamentally woven into our humanity. Astronomy is about the human astonishment at the world around us, not about politics.’

The lecture series runs until 29 May. More information can be found on the Astro-GR

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