University of the Philippines Diliman
AsianScientist (Oct. 22, 2021) – Over three centuries ago, legend has it that a young Isaac Newton was sitting idly underneath an apple tree when a piece of fruit fell down and hit him on the head. This seemingly unremarkable incident prompted Newton to theorize that the force behind the apple’s fall was one and the same with the force that kept the moon and planets in their orbits.
That mysterious force, known today as gravity, was later revisited by another legendary scientist by the name of Albert Einstein in the early 21st century. Turning Newton’s theory on its head, Einstein redefined gravity as the warping of spacetime by mass—giving us general relativity, the modern theory of gravity.
Today, the study of gravity or gravitational physics and its adjacent fields like theoretical physics, astrophysics and geometry generally entail less fruit-related epiphanies and more lab work studying the cosmic corpses of dead stars.
Enter Professor Ian Vega—relativist, researcher, mentor and family man. As the head of the Gravity Group of the National Institute of Physics in the University of the Philippines Diliman, Vega and his team work to better understand gravity in all its facets and seek the answers to some of the universe’s biggest questions.
Speaking to Asian Scientist Magazine, Vega shares the motivations behind his research and challenges he faced along the way.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
We study gravitational phenomena in many of its astrophysical manifestations—in black holes, relativistic stars, gravitational waves and the Universe at large.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
It’s difficult to choose, but my first paper with a student from the Philippines carries some personal significance. Our project concerned this theoretical mechanism for ‘destroying’ a black hole by making it swallow a small amount of charge and exceed its allowed limit to remain a black hole. We were interested in how this process unfolds in a universe with more spatial dimensions than the three we are familiar with and discovered that this overcharging process becomes more difficult with more dimensions.
The idea itself wasn’t particularly impactful, but the circumstance made it special. Back then, I was reacclimating to Metro Manila life. I had no research money, no lab space and was struggling with self-doubt—but my student and I pulled through. The experience gave me confidence that I could do research here and it baptized my new role as scientific mentor.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope our research will encourage national support for gravitational physics and astrophysics so that these fields can start to flourish in the Philippines and more Filipinos can partake in the rapidly accelerating pace of discovery. I would like my group’s efforts to grow into an active research community that’s spread across the country and not just Metro Manila.
On a smaller scale, I hope for a more permanent home for gravitational physics and astrophysics within my institute. We also hope to gain membership to the Laser Space Interferometric Space Antenna (LISA) Consortium soon.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
In high school, my favorite teachers lured me into competitive math and most teachers encouraged a playfulness toward big ideas in general. I suppose the fusion of these influences predisposed me to physics. A special distinction belongs to Dr. Jerrold Garcia, a mathematical relativist who set me on my present path back when I was in college. His irreverent temperament strongly resonated with my own. The high bar he set, particularly in teaching, has been an aspiration I’ve been reaching for ever since.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
Starting a research group from scratch is always challenging, especially in a developing country. When I first returned, I had no one to talk shop with. Research meant showing students how to do calculations and teaching them how to analyze arguments when reading a paper. This can be fun, but only up to a point.
As in any relationship, research interactions shouldn’t be exclusively extractive—otherwise, they tend to get exhausting. They must eventually evolve into a give and take. It took some time for my group to gain real momentum. Now the group has excellent graduate students and a brilliant new colleague who are fantastic collaborators, often teaching me something new.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
Personally, I think the biggest challenge is just not having enough time. Treating research seriously means giving researchers precious time to think deeply and create something new.
Good research is difficult enough. But it is close to impossible when you also have to teach three to five classes a semester and render administrative service at the same time. Good ideas need a lot of time to simmer and they often can’t in an environment of constant distraction.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
Maybe a historian or a philosopher—but that’s a big ‘maybe’. Discovering rhyme and reason in stories and things is something I enjoy. My wife thinks I would be a singer. Maybe I’d be all three.
- What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?
I read. I buy way too many books. Apart from annoying my wife and kids, what little free time I have left is spent on attempting to trim my rampantly growing library.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Indifference. Science has a vast supply of beautiful ideas on which to channel one’s energies. If people were more attuned to its good ideas and more appreciative of the careful thinking these ideas demand, then I think this world would be a much better place.
To the extent that our adventures on black holes, gravitational waves, stars and the cosmos at large can help douse indifference, ignite passions and expand the space for imaginations to breathe, I hope our research will prove valuable.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Know that you belong. Speak up. Enjoy. Curiosity is for everyone.
Helmed by Professor Ian Vega, the Gravity Group of the National Institute of Physics at the University of the Philippines Diliman works to understand gravity in all its facets from gravitational waves to geometry. Photo credit: Ian Vega.
Professor Ian Vega spent the earlier portion of his career conducting research in the US, Canada and Italy, before returning to the Philippines to nurture the next generation of homegrown relativists. Photo credit: Ian Vega.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Oikeat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.