Luczon: 25 years later, astronomy in PH still tangled in the stars

"They're beautiful, aren't they? The stars. I never really look at them anymore, but they actually are quite... beautiful." - Agent K in "Men In Black (1997)" film, as written by Lowell Cunningham and Ed Solomon.

A week ago, out of boredom, I opened an online streaming platform to watch films. I was not in a mood to explore new ones, so I decided to re-watch the Men in Black trilogy.

Consistent with its themes about extraterrestrial relations and diplomacy, it manifested some fascination and wonderment of what could lie beyond the stars as seen by the major characters’ gazing in the night sky.

Coincidentally, it was the 25th year that the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) would celebrate the “The National Astronomy Week (NAW).”

This was an annual event being observed every third week of February as mandated by Presidential Proclamation No. 130 series of 1993. This year’s theme was, “Astronomy Modernization: A Great Leap for Collaborative Astronomy Community in the Philippines”

In the United Kingdom, NAW is being celebrated since 1981, although it was not a yearly event but instead in every four to seven-year gap. Its last celebration was in 2014. In the United States, an “Astronomy Day” is observed twice in every year since 1973.

It was quite a shame, really, that had the NAW celebrations did not make activities outside Metro Manila, only few - perhaps less than a thousand - in the country would know about it, including myself.

Last week, the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines became host, at least in Northern Mindanao, to accommodate at least three out of six highlighted by Pagasa as main events for the celebration.

There were mobile planetarium shows put up in the USTP Cagayan de Oro campus, seminars and other information dissemination drives, and stargazing activities at night.

Although nearing at the end of the week, the weather was cloudy; I hope the high school and senior high school students in the region were able to get a glimpse of how astronomy can be a “cool thing on the bling,” and how they would further research that astronomy and the Filipinos also share a rich connection, something that most of us might have not known… even, perhaps, in our entire life.

The human curiosity of seeing what is beyond the constellations is not new at all, as ancient civilizations already have gazed them and made their own interpretations. Our Filipino ancestors also did that.

One Filipino scientist, Dante Ambrosio, traced the Filipino culture and understanding of astronomy, through “ethnoastronomy,” and through his 2005 journal article in the University of the Philippine, "Balatik: Katutubong Bituin ng mga Pilipino" (Balatik: the Native Star of the Filipino).

Prominent of these constellations are called the “Balatik,” and the “Moroporo,” which in international astronomical terms referring to the constellations of Orion and Pleiades, respectively.

Ambrosio’s research dates back from citing earlier researches made by foreign scientists that focused on Philippine anthro-astronomical studies as early as 1950s and ‘80s. And indeed, coming from ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippine archipelago, our Filipino ancestors already had names of the star constellations, and along it, its cultural and traditional beliefs embedded with the names of these star formations in the night sky.

Imagine the richness of the Filipino’s astronomical traditions, and creative researchers will translate and utilize this as references to popular cultures on film, television, and even in the new media.

The Japanese anime genre many times used traditional views on astronomy and sciences, and thanks to the recently successful “Black Panther,” African culture and its long history, is now being celebrated worldwide.

It is only a matter of time that a science fiction genre focusing the African values and traditions on how they see the stars and other sciences may become the next golden era in Hollywood.

But for now, how do we as a country, can keep up with other nations in the advancement of sciences like astronomy, if the public is not even aware that NAW had come and go, without much fanfare in the media? Still, story on politics remain the main dish our media is serving to the public, unfortunately. Though it is also necessary, but we have forgotten that we should also focus our interest on other dimensions of how our country can progress.

And going back: how do we modernize astronomy, let alone encourage a constructive, non-political conversation, in our country?

In 2001, the article written by Pagasa Weather Bureau specialists Cynthia Celebre, and Bernardo Soriano, “Revitalizing Astronomy in the Philippines,” they documented how Pagasa is gearing towards modernization since the ‘90s. There were activities which were grouped into five categories for the promotion of astronomy in the country, and at the same time project proposals have been made.

Their paper was presented in the International Astronomical Union’s Special Session in its 24th General Session. Interestingly, its published proceedings highlighted Celebre as speaking before other foreign scientists, saying that there were lessons in primary schools about stories and legends from indigenous traditions about astronomy but thought that “it would be difficult to relate them to a modern scientific approach.”

Back then, Martinez said that there were no astronomy degree programs offered in any Philippine colleges or universities, and suggested that astrophysics can be introduced in existing physics degrees. But in 2005, the Rizal Technological University began offering a master’s degree in Astronomy that would later followed by an undergraduate program. Until now, it is the still the only institution that offers such program.

Twenty five years later, there are still a lot of things to do in promoting astronomy in the Philippines. Public literacy is a major challenge for young people to get interested on this field of science, and the “brain drain” of Filipino astronomers that instead working for the country and promote astronomy, they leave and work overseas. That is just a tip of an iceberg, appreciating the stars is only a surface.

(nefluczon@gmail.com)
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