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Every year, samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, prepare for the fierce competition that is the city's annual carnival parade. Their main challenge is to find new and innovative themes and produce high-impact costumes and floats to illustrate them.

For the 2004 event, which kicks off later this week, the samba school Unidos da Tijuca has opted for a highly unusual theme — science. To develop the idea, it set up a partnership with Casa da Ciência, the science and technology cultural centre of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (see Science goes to the carnival in Brazil).

Preparations for the carnival are held throughout the year and involve people from all walks of society. Thousands of tourists, both from Brazil and abroad, visit Rio to participate in this, its most important festival, while a billion people around the world watch the procession unfold on television and the Internet.

In this interview, Fátima Brito, head of Casa da Ciência, speaks to Luisa Massarani about the challenges of using the carnival as a tool for popularising science.

How did the idea of using science as Unidos da Tijuca's theme for the 2004 carnival arise?

Last year, the samba school Paraíso do Tuiuti chose the centenary of the Brazilian painter, Candido Portinari as its carnival theme. Casa da Ciência prepared an exhibition on that initiative, and in the process met the carnival parade designer Paulo Barros, building up a good partnership both with him and the samba school's vice-president.

We became fascinated by the way Paulo works with the aesthetics of the carnival, daring to break with long-held traditions. The result is very different from the designs presented by other samba schools. We persuaded Paulo to put together some ideas on a scientific theme, exploring our view that the carnival offers a great opportunity to popularise science in Brazil. He loved the idea and we started to work together. 

Who was involved in the collaboration and how did the project develop?

Casa da Ciência established a strong partnership with Paulo and worked closely as a team. This was key to ensuring that we met the unique challenges presented by the collaboration, namely merging the world of carnival and science without breaking their 'protocols'. During the process of developing our theme, there was a fascinating interchange of knowledge as we all strived to present scientific information through the medium of carnival, telling its story through images, the floats, costumes and so on.

A number of scientists also played a key role, including Ildeu de Castro Moreira, a physicist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who has been fundamental to developing the theme. He acted as an excellent sounding board for all our doubts, insecurities and fears. He also helped to moderate Casa da Ciência's input so we weren't so demanding on the scientific front. Pavãozinho [Antonio Carlo Pavão, a physicist at Espaço Ciência in Pernambuco] also played a vital part, helping us to work on ideas regarding the transformation of matter, alchemy and chemistry. We would have liked more scientists to be involved, but some could not commit to the tight deadlines demanded by working on the carnival

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of the project is that it was a joint effort. We didn't present our ideas to please Paulo; instead we built the concept as a team, continually sharing our knowledge. Inevitably there were some moments of tension, and even occasional shock over our differing viewpoints! But this was all part of the process.

Why did you decide to make science a carnival theme?

The need to popularise science stems from the fact that most ordinary people do not enjoy their encounters with the subject. Society is divided into groups with distinct ways of acting and thinking. In some cases, these 'codes' have become so rigid, it's as though the groups inhabit different worlds — which obviously hinders interactions between them.

When we talk about popularising science, we are proposing a dialogue, and that demands an interchange between ordinary people and the scientific community. At Casa da Ciência, we are always looking for different ways to communicate science. We need to be brave about promoting such interchange, and not too concerned about the differences between the academic and popular worlds. In our view, any popular cultural event offers an opportunity to establish such a dialogue. And the Rio carnival is clearly an event with huge impact, both nationally and internationally. 

What were the main challenges you faced? 

We faced several challenges. The first was to persuade the president of Unidos da Tijuca to accept our proposal of adopting a scientific theme. This required long discussions, not least because Unidos da Tijuca belongs to a special group of high-profile samba schools — the 'major leaguers' — known for the magnificence of their displays. But although Paulo was relatively inexperienced, we were willing to bet that his daring and creativity would meet their expectations. 

It was also a constant challenge for the two partners — from the very different worlds of science and samba — to understand each other's codes or 'languages'. For example, although we came up with several ideas during our initial talks, the difficulty lay in agreeing on a focus. Then we thought about concentrating on how humans dream or invent, how we put these dreams into practice, and the role science plays in this process.

We settled on the title: The dream of creation and the creation of the dream the art of science in the impossible age. The central idea here is that even though we don't always accomplish our dreams, and sometimes fail to put them into practice, human restlessness and aspirations have led to great scientific achievements throughout history.

Expressing scientific information visually — through costumes and floats — was also extremely challenging. The different elements making up the parade need to tell a story both to the audience and to the jury panel, who judge a number of aspects of the performance including the theme itself, as well as the floats, props and participants.

When we decided to use carnival as a science popularisation tool we knew that we were experimenting, and in danger of missing the mark entirely. But this is part of the risk you take in trying out new ideas. Even if we don't succeed with this project, we feel that the entire process has been one of continual learning, and thus very worthwhile.

Several scientists expressed interest in participating in the parade. Was Unidos da Tijuca concerned about their involvement?

The parade is a fierce competition, with panels judging each samba school according to strict criteria. The school directors are therefore concerned that the performance is a success down to the smallest detail. It isn't enough to have a good plot, and beautiful costumes and floats; the harmony of the whole samba school is a key issue.

Unidos da Tijuca is unusual in that it distributes a large number of costumes for free among community members participating in the parade (other samba schools charge high prices). But it also requires participants to take part in all the rehearsals, to ensure that everyone is aware of how important they are to the overall assessment of the school's performance.

A number of costumes were given to Casa da Ciência, to be distributed among the team and other scientists and science communicators. However, it was often difficult for the scientists to find time for all the rehearsals, and this was Unidos da Tijucas' main concern. Nevertheless, there were no limits imposed on the number of scientists in the parade — on the contrary, it was felt that the more scientists that participated, the greater the importance and prestige of the theme.

If you're heading to the carnival this weekend or planning to watch it remotely, keep your eyes open for the Unidos da Tijuca / Casa da Ciência parade, and see if you think they've succeeded in their mission to popularise science!

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