Of my many trips to South America, I’ve never had the occasion to visit you. Most were to the Andes Mountains, to observe the magnificent southern skies via an international consortium of high-tech telescopes. But I’ve nonetheless thought about you quite often.
As a native of the United States of America, I know what we casually think about you. In no particular order, you’ve got the world’s largest, and most important rain forest. You’ve got the world’s most massive river, every minute, draining into the Atlantic Ocean a volume of water that would fill a football stadium. And yes, we knew about your river and rain forest long before Amazon.com borrowed the name.
Want more? Nobody doesn’t love Brazil nuts. In fact, in the USA, we have to spring for the “premium” package to get them in our mixed nuts. And even those among us who barely follow soccer know of your famous football teams, fully expecting to see you in the final rounds of the World Cup every four years. We also know about your stunning beaches because they’ve appeared in song—“The Girl/Boy from Ipanema” among them. We know about your religious festivals, Mardi Gras especially, as we attempt to imitate the intensity and joy of those celebrations—in dance and in music—on our side of the hemisphere. We know about your coffee. And I, for one, love your flag. It’s got a slice of the night sky on it; no fewer than two-dozen stars, each retrace authentic constellations, the Southern Cross included.
So, if you asked any of us in the USA what we think when your name gets mentioned, we typically draw from that list.
You know what we don’t notice? Half the time we fly a regional jet between cities, on American Airlines and other carriers, we board an Embraer to do so. Sure, the safety card says Embraer on it. We might even find the name in small print somewhere on the fuselage. But hardly any of us knows that the airplane is designed and built in Brazil. You could boast “Brazilian Engineering” but you don’t. Why not? Germany has no hesitation embracing that claim. But, of course, they’ve earned it. Everyone knows the quality of German-engineered products, which happens to infuse their aerospace economy, the third largest in the world.
But wait. One of the greatest pioneers in early aviation was Brazilian. A brilliant and inventive engineer who was highly decorated in his time, Alberto Santos-Dumont guided the world’s transition from lighter-than-air to heavier-than-air transportation. The value of such cultural seeds, planted at the birth of an industry, may be incalculable. A century later, you have become a leader in biofuel technologies—a key step towards a green economy where our harmony with nature will determine whether we thrive, survive, or go extinct. You also have an ambitious space agency, and you are the sixth largest aerospace industry in the world. In Latin America, you are also a leader in IT. And in a country famous for its agriculture, nearly a third of your economy rides on the back of a tech-infused manufacturing sector.
So maybe it’s time the world knew more about this. Maybe it’s time Brazilians knew more about this. Maybe you are overdue for displaying products that declare: “Engineered in Brazil.”
Whatever else is, or is not, true in the world, tomorrow’s growth economies—even those that may be purely agricultural—will pivot on today’s investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In a democracy, these investments flow from a scientifically literate electorate that chooses enlightened leaders who know and understand the value of education, of exploration, and discovery. Without these perspectives, we’d all still be living in caves, with fellow dwellers grunting: “You can’t explore outside. First you must solve our cave problems.”
Lest anyone forget, the first (and only) South American astronaut, an aeronautical engineer, was Brazilian. And when did he launch? In 2006, the centennial year of Santos-Dumont’s first successful airplane. And what did he bring to space with him? The Brazilian Flag, and a jersey from your national football team.
Countries that struggle the most in the world tend to be those with low education levels and an absence of STEM in their culture. You have the resources and the legacy to lead all of Latin America, if not the world, in what a country of tomorrow should be—in what a country of tomorrow should aspire to.
If you embrace and bolster your STEM industries—and the entire tech sector—then the dreams of students in the educational pipeline will have no limit, as they enter a world where rockets are what fuel people’s ambitions as they exit the cave door.