RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 44 - February 2005

The voice of the Eurogeneration

Café Babel
Why not drop in at Café Babel ? It certainly lives up to its name! Imagine somewhere warm and welcoming, with the daily papers on hand – the kind of place you would find in central Europe. It is also a place where it is easy to strike up a conversation, like in Mediterranean countries. Six European languages – German, English, Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan – are spoken in this European space in the form of a virtual magazine with the accent on the latest European news. Its promoters see Café Babel as a place to stimulate thought and analysis, an organ that “contributes to the emergence of a European public opinion.” 

It was developed by a network of 16 local editorial teams, located in 15 towns in a dozen countries, each one working in their mother tongue and backed up by a network of over 350 volunteers – including a large team of translators – who are all firm believers in the virtues of Europe and of communication. 

Café Babel  aims to be the symbol of an awakening Eurogeneration. Its enthusiastic team launches thought-provoking virtual debates on the major topics of the day: the European Constitution, cloning, elections in Ukraine, smaller countries and enlargement, and immigration are all recent examples. The contributions are penned in various locations – such as Padua, Paris, Barcelona and Warsaw – with the result that the opinions expressed often surprise and trigger a lively response. Sometimes, it is very much an individual opinion that is expressed, as in the case of Andrea Fialkova and her piece entitled “The myth of the hordes from the east”. A student in political science and international relations at Prague’s Charles University, she shines the spotlight on the paranoia sometimes felt by Western Europeans when it comes to jobs. Remember, it is only her opinion, so feel free to respond.

The site contains a wealth of information classified under the sections “Caffeine” or “Orient Espresso”. Also, for those who prefer more tangible meetings, Café Babel organises coffee stormings in the form of meetings and debates, in real time, in various European towns. Check out the site to find out what’s happening near you.

Kids in space

Kids in space
How do all these things work that begin with the prefix “tele” – telephone, television, telecommunications? Why are long-term weather forecasts becoming increasingly reliable? ESA Kids is a new European Space Agency site targeted at children and young adults (in six languages). Visitors begin their exploration by clicking on the various features: Our Universe, Life in Space, Liftoff, Useful Space, etc. For those who prefer to stay on Earth, there is the chance to explore the subjects of climate change, natural disasters and the importance of water. Aspiring space farers can find out about the daily routine of astronauts who work a 12-hour day, eat three meals, have at least two hours of physical exercise, do a little housework and set aside time for e-mail correspondences with their families.

The possibility of life on Jupiter’s moons, such as Titan, which is similar to Earth but colder, is explored. On a more serious note, there is information on how satellite pictures can guide humanitarian missions. For example, in Sudan’s Darfour province about 1.5 million people are living in refugee camps scattered over an area the size of France. Respond, a group supported by the ESA, uses satellite pictures to produce maps that allow such organisations as the Red Cross to intervene where it is most necessary and to monitor population movements. The maps provide valuable information on negotiable roads, flooded areas, the level of vegetation and timber resources – all of which are essential for survival. 

For the youngest visitors, interactive puzzles combine fun and learning. Teachers will also find the site a useful source of attractively presented and intelligent material that they can use in their lessons. Among the resources is a map of global air pollution based on 18 months of observation by the Envisat satellite which shows that – for those who still doubt it – the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is, indeed, related to human activity. 

The virtual reality of school

The virtual reality of school
To move from industrial age education to information age education: that is the aim of a course entitled ‘Science across the World’. Organised by the Educational Faculty of Amsterdam (NL), it is intended for future teachers. Students learn to work together, correspond by internet with pupils almost everywhere, unravel the mysteries of PowerPoint presentations, and even conceive convincing scenarios for persuading head teachers to try this new approach to teaching.

Google targets science

Logo Google "Scholar"
One of the world’s most popular search engines has just launched a tool designed specifically for access to scientific information. Aimed at researchers and students,   scholar.google.com/  is dedicated to the search for very specific documents, such as articles, theses, technical reports, abstracts, citations, etc. The content is drawn from research laboratories, universities and specialist journals and the results displayed give the author’s name, links, sources where accessible, and successive versions available on the Internet. 

Anurag Acharya – the engineer of Indian origin who promoted the project – says he was motivated by an awareness of the problems encountered by students looking for particular information and whose attempts to track it down locally come up with obsolete documents at best. Scholar should provide access to scientific literature at global level, thanks to the co-operation of academic and scientific circles, as well as publishers such as Nature, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or the Online Computer Library Center.

While we are on the subject, what in fact is the origin of this strange name “Google”? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, its two founders, named it thus in homage to the number googol, that is 1 X 10100(10 to the power of 100 – the figure 1 followed by 100 zeros). And why googol? The number was concocted by the mathematician Edward Kasner who, not knowing what to call it, asked his nine-year-old nephew to find a name for him. So there you have it. Googol is symbolic of the number of results Google may one day display.

The world of (and according to) Franquin

The Marsupilami
Who, you might ask, is Franquin? The Marsupilami, Spirou and Frantasio, the mad scientist Professor Champignac, and Gaston Lagaffe, the daily paper’s frustrated inventor. The heroes of André Franquin, the celebrated Belgian comic strip author, are on display until the end of the summer at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie (Paris). Hare-brained schemes, impossible machines and innovative technologies that did not always go according to plan… all that and more are to be found in the work of Franquin. An avid reader of popular science magazines, this creator of a slightly crazy world was always searching for new ideas to fuel his imagination. 

The trilingual exhibition (French, English, Spanish) takes the visitor on a journey through six areas devoted to six explicitly named themes: the life of an artist, publishing, the dark room, the workshop, the scientific enigma, and the saga of inventions. It includes hundreds of original drawings, symbolic objects (Gaston’s study, scene of the ‘gaffes’, where you can see the cap-and-ball game, a tricycle robot and motor-powered lamp, all in working order) and the gaffaphone (an instrument inspired by an African harp exhibited at the Ethnographic Museum in Tervueren, near Brussels). No Franquin exhibition could really be complete without it – the visitor is invited to penetrate the Forest of Palonmia, nesting place of the marvellous Marsupilami, half marsupial and half cat, whose famous cry (Houba…) borrows, for the occasion, the voice of its creator.

Franquin died in 1997. He began his career in 1944, at the CBA comic strip studio in Liége (BE), where he met other young talents, such as the creator of the Schtroumpfs (Pierre Culliford, aka Peyo) and Lucky Luke (Maurice de Bevere, aka Morris). In 1957, Gaston and the Marsupilami made their appearance.

This interactive and dynamic exhibition is something the whole family can enjoy as it traces the author’s career from his very earliest days. The “visitor’s guide for non-reading children” – in the form of a booklet that takes the young visitor on a fun trip through the exhibition on the basis of observation, creation and the association of ideas – is also likely to interest adults. The series of lesser-known albums entitled Idées noires (dark thoughts) that the author described as “Gaston covered in soot” is also likely to make the adults pause for thought. This work in pen and ink offers dark humour that is not without its ambiguities. “I believe it was always done to make people laugh, but it was not without a certain wickedness: some are clearly very wicked, and some are without hope.” 

In fact, Franquin was not a man who was much inclined to optimism.

The exhibition that pays him posthumous homage is accompanied by a range of events, including an on-line presentation that explores the world of the comic strip far beyond Franquin’s characters. 

The world of Franquin - Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie – Paris – Until 31 August

Showcasing and performing science

Showcasing and performing science
Science museums fulfil the dual role of both presenting and conducting science. They are simultaneously a place for scientific research, with laboratories where researchers work, and a museum, presenting and explaining science. Europe is also home to many science centres that focus on national discoveries and ecosystems. The National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid employs 52 researchers and 24 specialist technicians, for example, divided into five departments: biodiversity and biology, ecology, paleobiology, geology and volcanology. The museum, where pre- and post-doctoral students work, reflects these fields of knowledge. Permanent exhibitions, including ‘The museum’s museum’ and ‘At nature’s rhythm’, present some magnificent fossils and other artefacts. These can also be viewed in the open air in a very special “rock garden”. Temporary exhibitions, including one on dinosaurs, are open until 20 March. 

The Madrid museum is a member of a group of 20 natural history museums and botanical gardens that form the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities. This initiative promotes, in particular, broader access to collections and to knowledge. The project is supported by the EU (under the Synthesys label) as an integrated infrastructure initiative.

National Museum of Natural Sciences  – Madrid