Campus and Community

“My entire career is motivated by intellectual curiosity”

The recent academic jubilee of professor Luiz Braga Campos but, above all, his 50-year career, is the motto of a long conversation. The Técnico professor (Department of Mechanical Engineering) spoke about the past and his vision for the future. The professor recalled his passion for technology that led him to study engineering and how his ideas were important for the Aerospace Engineering course design.

Let’s travel a little back in time and remember when your passion for aeronautics started.

Professor Luiz Braga Campos (B.C): I started to become interested in aeronautics at an early age. I should have been 10 years old when my curiosity for geostrategic issues and global political issues aroused. I started trying to find out more about military technologies and then, at a certain point, I focused on aeronautics. It was then that I realised how much technology excited me.

You were a brilliant student, so you could have studied whatever you wanted. Did your passion for technology led you to choose engineering?

B.C: In some ways yes. I chose an engineering course because I have both technical and humanistic interests. I always wanted to have a professional career that would be valid in any part of the world, and during the Portuguese dictatorship it was even clearer. I could work abroad. Technology is universal and aeronautics is the most advanced and interdisciplinary technology.

At the time, you were unable to take the Aeronautical engineering course because it did not exist in Portugal. Later on, you played a major role in filling this gap …

B.C: It’s true and it’s also curious! I gave valuable input to the course I would like to have taken. We tried to create a course that gave a global vision for the future.

Do you have good memories of your student days?

B.C: Good and bad, depending on the professors. At that time Técnico was a part-time school. There was no concern about school success. The students came to classes and since they had no place to study, they left. The vast majority of the professors had another job, so they came to Técnico, hastened their classes and left. But there were exceptions and I have good memories. Prodessor António Falcão, professor Gouvêa Portela dedicated themselves to their students.

“I have always been a very independent person”

Did this lack of concern with teaching discourage you or upset you?

B.C: No. I have always been a very independent person. I act in accordance with my beliefs and I’m not susceptible to pressure. I studied from the books recommended by the professors, but I I also studied from reference books. This was not always well accepted by some professors, but fortunately there were some others who valued interested students.

Did these professors inspired you to become a professor or teaching was something you always saw yourself doing?

B.C: I chose a technological career.  I could have got a job in a company or followed an academic career. But yes, there may have been some influence from professor Gouvêa Portela and professor Sir James Lighthill, two of the most exceptional people I have met in my life.

“Throughout my life I have learnt that the most capable people were also the most deeply human beings”

Professor Gouvêa Portela invited you to become his assistant…

B.C: I was already monitoring the physics class, and one day professor Gouvêa Portela challenged me to monitor applied mechanics. He gave me things to study and he used to say: “the happiest moment in our relationship is when you do something that I don’t know how to do, or when you challenge my expertise”. And this was the great example. People often think that great scientists are people who live on the moon, but that is not the case at all, great scientists are deeply human persons, because the willingness to go further involves great sacrifice and personal dedication. Throughout my life I have learnt that the most capable people were also the most deeply human beings.

It was also professor Gouvêa Portela who challenged you to go to Cambridge.

B.C: Exactly, he told me that I had nothing more to learn here and he challenged me to apply for a PhD. Professor António Falcão, who had done his PhD in Cambridge, wrote me a letter of recommendation, to which I added the letter from professor Gouvêa Portela.

So your academic career turned out to be the result of the path that you took and your academic success?

B.C: I followed an academic career because I really liked research, it satiated my scientific curiosity. On the other hand, it turns out to be one of the most independent careers that exists, allowing me to be useful through teaching and research.

When you finished your PhD, the political and social situation in Portugal was hardly any better. You could have stayed in Cambridge, but you decided to return …

B.C: Yes, as a matter of principle. My PhD in Cambridge was a little expensive, and I thought that Portugal, not being a rich country and having made a big investment in my training, I should repay. I got a scholarship from the Instituto de Alta Cultura that imposed me to return to Portugal and teach for 10 years, but there was no punishment for those who did not return. In fact, a few hundred never returned. There are those who even think that our best scientists are the ones who didn’t return… (he smiles).

“The research conditions were neither good nor bad, they simply did not exist”

You were one of those who came back in spite of the expected difficulties and the lack of conditions. Staying abroad would have been easier …

B.C: Yes, of course, but I had the duty to return to my country, even though the prospects were not very good. The research conditions were neither good nor bad, they simply did not exist. Furthermore, I knew that I was going to have a lot of problems when I returned: I simply would not follow the teaching method that existed because I did not agree with it.

And was your willingness to change well received?

B.C: For many people I was a strange object. What I did back then is common today, but at that time it was the opposite of everything. I was often criticised and even sabotaged. But no one has ever managed to put my research work at risk and that has always prevailed.

Did the situation at Técnico change a little in the 90s?

B.C: The change at Técnico happened when the statute of the university teaching career changed, which gave professors incentives to stay at the University on a permanent basis. It was a considerable change and a new dynamic was created at Técnico: offices for professors, laboratories, research projects. Many research centres that exist at Técnico today were created by some of those who decided to return and came to Técnico.

In addition, some of those who returned to Portugal helped to create successful courses, as you did. How did the idea of creating the Aerospace Engineering course come up?

B.C: As I told you, aeronautics has always been my passion. The idea of creating the course itself came from professor Otto Gerlach, who was simultaneously professor of flight mechanics in Delft and NLR director. After visiting Técnico, he said that we had hundreds of engineers who could help build aircrafts, operate aircrafts and satellites, and pointed out that this was reason enough to create a course in this field of engineering. He was absolutely right.

“I realised that it was an idea with potential, but I was seen as an aviation maniac”

But you managed to open the course.

B.C: I realised that it was an idea with potential, but I was seen as an aviation maniac. This should be a forward-looking course. Aerospace engineering has many interdisciplinary branches, so students from 3rd year can choose the branch they like.

Is this one of the reasons that contributed to the success of the course?

B.C: Yes, but there are others. Aeronautics and space are fascinating subjects. When students get to the master’s degree, the course has wide applicability. There are also other important reasons that make this course a success: exchange programes, dual degree programes and the employability rates hit 100%. What more could you ask for? It’s a very demading course, but it isn’t inhuman. Most students manage to do it in 5 years because they are very good.

Do you think that this course was your great contribution to Técnico?

B.C: Yes, I think it turned out to be. It was the most rewarding experience for me, even though I have worked a lot in many other projects and done a lot of different things.

What is your greatest work, everything you have taught or the books you have written, which will allow others to continue teaching?

B.C: Both. These books are perhaps what has given me the most work throughout my life. But I did many other things. I published scientific articles, I participated in international commissions, I have been involved in several international projects and I represented Portugal in many institutions. I have a very varied career and I think that I work 16 hours a day, but I like it. That’s the most important. Books occupy a great part of my work.

If it were up to you, would you retire?

B.C: (Smiles). In certain countries it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, for example in England. It is an interesting principle. I find it curious that there is a mandatory retirement age. There is no option for a person who wants to continue working voluntarily after retirement. I sent a letter to the Prime Minister suggesting that people could work after retirement with two conditions: first, the retired person should be replaced, therefore nobody saw their careers being blocked; on the other hand, the salary was paid by the retirement fund and not by the institution. This way people would be active, nobody would lose anything and the workforce would be increased. Interestingly, I received a reply from the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister saying that my letter had been sent to the Minister of Labour. In the meantime, a decree-law was issued, but I don’t know if it had something to do with my letter or not. The decree-law says that people can work after retirement, but it seems to me that the essential clauses are missing, namely to ensure that no one is prejudiced.

“At the end of the day I wonder if I did something that might have any lasting value”

I had understood from our conversation that you are a dissatisfied person …

B.C: Yes, it’s true. Sometimes I have dinner with my high school colleagues from Liceu Pedro Nunes. Most of them are already retired for some years and I see that they are pleased with themselves but I am not (laughs). At the end of the day I wonder if I did something that might have any lasting value.

Is that what moves you, isn’t it?

B.C: Every day I try to do something that has intrinsic value. This is what makes me come to Técnico every day. I often feel that I work better when everyone else has finished work. My books are often the result of working after hours, on weekends, on holidays.

In your opinion, what can we expect of Aeronautics in the future?

B.C: Many things, most of them good, some can be bad, because there are always two sides. Some people say that technology is not neutral, I do not agree. Technology is neutral, we can use it in many ways. Drones, for example, can be a very good thing, they help us to detect fires and a lot of good things, but they can also be used for less positive purposes.

But is aeronautics a growing area?

B.C: Yes, unless humanity sets back. If we look at the evolution of aeronautics, we see that it is parallel to the evolution of economic growth practically since the beginning of the 20th century. Aeronautics typically grows 2 to 7% per year depending on the region of the world. And it will remain so.

Are we going to have more robotic aircrafts?

B.C: These aircrafts have a very big potential, but there are many risks. When these new technologies appear, people tend to look only at the benefits. In the case of magnetic levitation, for example, it is clear that it will end up happening, but it is not cheap and it will not happen in 5 years, nor will it replace everything suddenly. We must foresee and analyse several issues, several risks, and we must think before putting things into practice.

Will drones share the skies with airplanes?

B.C: Some people say that electric take-off airplanes will replace cars, they will be air taxis. But these electric planes have a range of 30 kilometers and a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. It’s not much, is it? A car has a much better performance. Currently, drones have 3 limitations: they can only fly within visual range, this means that they cannot fly neither at night nor in bad weather conditions. There are many things that have to be improved.

The other big evolution will come when microtechnologies emerge. The current airplane is a kind of large bird, bigger, with more speed and greater range, but in the future things may be different: airplanes can have the size of a fly. If we want to transport passengers and cargo, we use the “bird”, but if we want to transport a sensor or anything smaller, we can use the “fly”.

“The future of humanity is in space”

There will be a tremendous and unavoidable Space growth. Do you agree?

B.C: Yes, the growth potential is huge. Space exploration and its benefits for human life are great. There is also another issue: The long-term future of humanity . We are pushing Earth beyond its limits and space exploration is the solution for humanity. If we think about it, space technology is the future of mankind. In the long run, space exploration will require the ability to make large spaceships, but also to create conditions for the adaptation of the human body, as well as the ability to produce food and recycle space debris. This will be the big challenge. The future of humanity is in space.

And does Portugal have growth potential in this field?

B.C: There is immense potential in Portugal. We hear our politicians say that we are getting closer to the highly developed countries, but I wonder how we are going to do that without the ability to create and invest in cutting edge technology. As long as we buy airplanes, automobiles, trains, telecommunications, we will not be able to keep up with the developed countries.  We must build instead of buying.

What do you think we can do to move in that direction?

B.C: We can participate in major international programmes that allow us to make these businesses. This does not happen yet in Portugal because lobbies influence political decisions. If we buy things instead of producing them, we are not using our research. Portugal has engineers, knowledge, market, research; coordination is the only thing that it is missing.

What keeps you motivated after 50 years of service?

B.C: My entire career is motivated by intellectual curiosity. I like to truly understand things.

How do you want your students to remember you?

B.C: I don’t worry too much about it. A good thing about my life is that I often meet my former students in the most diverse places. Some of them hold political positions, others are engineers in large European companies and others work in research. And this is very pleasant. I received a great number of awards and distinctions throughout my life, but I was not  looking for them, it was always the result of my work. I don’t want anything I don’t deserve.