Published on page A1 of the November 28, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
THEY HAVE been watching the skies for so long that they eventually became stars themselves, being observed by young astronomers all over the world.
Edwin L. Aguirre, 46, and his wife Imelda Joson, 41, the first Filipinos to have an asteroid (Edwelda) named after them by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), are back in the Philippines after 15 years of making their mark in the world, or in their terms, this small part of the vast universe.
The US-based Filipino astronomers, who carry the Philippine flag in all their expeditions, are here to inspire the young to pursue astronomy despite poverty and lack of government support.
The couple, who specialize in astrophotography, are only too aware of the plight of young astronomers especially in poor countries with little interest or resources to boost the science.
They can easily recall how hard it was for them to have the equipment to begin with, to convince newspapers and magazines to carry their photos, and to continue studying and working despite the little-known politics in the scientific community.
?We had to call every newspaper for our photos, but who would take them? We were so young then. We thank God for someone who picked it up,? said Joson, who now has her own company after working as photo editor of Sky Publishing in the United States for 11 years.
Time to repay
?We know how it feels to start with nothing. Now it?s time to repay,? she said at a forum with employees of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) yesterday.
Aguirre, now associate editor of the 65-year-old Sky and Telescope magazine, one of the most respected international publications among astronomers, recalls his own limitations as a teenager trying to get serious with astronomy.
?I started astrophotography without any equipment. I had to build my own telescope and camera because I could not afford them. I had to read many books and manuals so I could build these things,? he said.
Joson?s interest in astronomy started at age 7 after seeing her family huddled in a dark room waiting to see a comet. She took her curiosity further, to the Manila Observatory, and joined clubs like the Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS) where she met Aguirre. She was 13 and curious about the sky; he was 18 and had the same passion.
Book on Halley?s Comet
The two have worked together ever since and were the first Filipinos to author an astronomy book, the 335-page reference book on Halley?s Comet published by the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) in 1985.
Former PAGASA Director Roman Kintanar, who attended the couple?s lecture at the PAGASA weather forecasting center yesterday, was the one who read through the then young astronomers? work. Impressed, he endorsed the book to the NRCP for publication.
?One of my great honors was to write the foreword of that book,? Kintanar, now retired, said.
?Maybe that?s why I minded it a little when they left (for the United States). But now I don?t mind. I know they will always be Filipinos wherever they are. We?re all citizens of the universe,? he said.
Solar eclipse expeditions
The book earned for Aguirre and Joson the Padre Faura Award from the PAS in 1986, commendations from the California State Assembly in Sacramento, and in 1995, the honor of being the first Filipinos after whom an asteroid was named. Asteroid Edwelda is now among six asteroids named after noted Filipinos.
The couple organized eight solar eclipse expeditions: to Java, Indonesia in 1983; Mindanao in 1988; Baja California Sur in Mexico in 1991; Caribbean Sea in 1998; Harput, Turkey in 1999; Lusaka, Zambia in 2001; and Salloum, Egypt in March this year.
On all their trips since 1988, they brought a flag of the Philippines which they unfurled along with the flag of the United States, now their home.
They have also been invited to speak all over the world, including Italy, Argentina, Vatican and Korea, addressing mostly young astronomers. Later, these people would e-mail them to say how they were moved by their pursuit of the science.
?Sometimes, we think, have we really touched this many people? We all have small parts to play in this universe,? Joson said.
?Our role is to inspire people to excel in their fields. Making a difference in one?s life is the biggest reward of all,? Aguirre said.
Their work in the United States has sparked interest among the US media, but the couple, stung by criticisms in the Philippines that they were pursuing astronomy simply to get famous, refused to grant any interviews for 10 years.
Keys to success
Joson said it was only when she and Aguirre realized that they could share their photos and their passion with more people through the media that they began to open up.
?Dedication and perseverance are the keys to success,? Joson said.
The couple now have their own 10-inch Meade LX200 telescope in the backyard of their Boston home and some digital-SLR cameras they use to take pictures of heavenly bodies and other stunning changes in the sky.
Next big dream
Their next big dream, whose realization is on the horizon, given enough government and private sector support, is to pull together an Asia-Pacific Conference in the Philippines in 2009, declared by the IAU as the International Year of Astronomy.
It is also the 400th anniversary of Galileo?s first views from his telescope.
Even as they now rub elbows with the world?s famous astronomers and used to get Christmas cards from the discoverer of the now minor planet Pluto, the two Filipinos have kept their feet on the ground.
?In the study of astronomy, man realizes his insignificance and learns humility ? In humility, he finds wisdom, and from wisdom he learns survival,? Joson said.