Prometheus Bound: Scientists and Heroes

by Giovanni Tapang, PhD

November 30 marked the birth anniversary of Andres Bonifacio, Filipino nationalist and revolutionary and Supremo of the Katipunan. His anniversary yesterday was marked by protests actions in the metropolis by workers and peasants due to the ever increasing costs of living nowadays. Pressed by current economic concerns, the celebration of his birth was also a time to reflect on the value of heroism in our time.

Last Monday, the College of Science of the University of the Philippines in Diliman held a forum entitled “Our Heroes and Science.

It featured various speakers who recounted how some of our heroes and past personalities were themselves men of science and that our national hero Rizal was well trained to do observational work. The discussion also dwelt on the continuing relevance of their work and their heroism in line with celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Rizal.

Gracing the program were various personalities, faculty and students from the University. Dr. Maris Diokno of the National Historical Insititute and professor of history in the University gave the opening remarks where she noted how Rizal used a medical analogy to expose the ills in our country in his The Indolence of the Filipinos. The main speakers were Dr. Benjamin Vallejo of the Institute of Environmental Science and Management of UP Diliman for Antonio Luna, Dr. Mercedes Planta of the UP Diliman History department for Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, and Dr. Perry Ong who discussed Rizal.

According to Dr. Vallejo, Antonio Luna, while popularly known in history as a military general in Aguinaldo’s army, is also one of our first post-docs from the Philippines. He gained a doctorate degree when he studied chemistry and pharmacy during his stay in Spain from 1894 to 1897. He then proceeded to his post-doc at the prestigious Institut Pasteur in Paris.

Luna returned to the Philippines with both his expertise in chemistry and public health and military tactics which he studied while doing his studies abroad. A man of his times, Luna read Darwin and Marx and carried home with him a strong sense for the nation that he wanted to
build. This was very clear during the Philippine-American war where he refused to yield to the new colonizers. His final orders were not to yield to the colonizers knowing that they will not give Filipinos the country that we deserve.

Luna’s contemporary in Europe was Rizal, his brother Juan (the painter), Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and a host of other Filipinos either studying or have been deported abroad due to the turbulent times in the country. These men and women were no different from those students and overseas workers that are living hard times abroad. Most of them were part of the Propaganda Movement that heralded the 1896 revolution in the country.

Dr. Blanca talked about the role in history of Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and his works in science. Trinidad, the model for the central figure in Juan Luna’s Blood Compact, was also a linguist, botanist and man of science during the late 1800s and well into the American occupation. He became the first director of the Department of Oriental Languages (now Linguistics) of the University of the Philippines in Diliman. A supporter of the American presence in the Philippines and member of the US Philippines commission, he also wrote 16 books and pamphlets in different aspects of science. The “Premier Filipino Filipinist”, as the Philippine Free Press called him when he died, is a man of science judged differently for his choices in history rather than his accomplishment in science.

Rizal on the other hand was more known for his heroism than his scientific bent. Dr. Ong noted that Rizal would have wanted to be a scientist and had the training for it, but was carried by the currents of history towards a different path. This scientific training and eye for detail surfaces from time to time. From the detailed naturalist backdrops of his poems and works to his specimen collecting during his incarceration in Dapitan. He corresponded with anthropologists, sent samples of animals and plants for which he requested books on mathematics and other topics in return.

An interesting question that was posed during the forum was what makes a hero? Should one be shot in order to become one? Does being extraordinary qualify oneself to the pantheon of heroes that we have? Trinidad Pardo de Tavera’s contribution to Philippine science is unquestionable yet we don’t consider him as large as Rizal. Yet in contrast, Bonifacio was not extraordinary in the sense of Antonio Luna but he definitely is celebrated by many as a hero of the revolution.

Being shot does not make one a hero but being extraordinary does not qualify you as one either. Looking at it, it is the service that you have done in nation building and to the people that counts. In our heroes we find that sense of contribution and service to the country and not just for oneself or other nations.

Science still has a lot of role in nation building. Andres Bonifacio has left us with his yet his uncompleted revolution. It is up to us, scientists and ordinary folk alike, to finish this task and set ourselves into a future of self determination and progress. From that, we know that there will be more heroes to come. (

Dr. Tapang is the Chairperson of AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the Philippines and is part of the Kalikasan PNE.

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