FRONTLINE: Profile

Star Man
Villanova University astronomer Ed Guinan negotiates the heavens—and earth.



Star Man
Villanova University astronomer Ed Guinan negotiates the heavens—and earth.


Whether it’s planets or plants, Ed Guinan is always under them, physically, or on top of them, figuratively—studying them, nurturing their existence. That’s clear even in his narrow office on the top floor of the Mendel Science Building at Villanova University. A former men’s room before its conversion a decade ago, it’s stuffed with astronomic amounts of academia—books and file folders in unwieldy piles—and leafy plants.

“If they’d have left the sink and at least one urinal, this office would actually be useful,” he says.

Raised in Upper Darby, Guinan landed at Villanova as an undergraduate physics major. In 1970, he earned his Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Villanova to teach astronomy—and he hasn’t left. Nor is there a visible exit sign—not with how technology has reinvented the astronomer’s wheel. “You could never leave,” he says. “Every day there’s something. I’m trying to cut back. I say I’m not going to start anything new, then we find something.”

In what NASA bills as the golden age of astronomy, the rate of telescopic discoveries is extraordinary. In 1995, the first extra-solar planet (one outside the solar system) was discovered.

Since then, 220 have been found. By 2009, Guinan predicts some 50 earth-sized planets will be visible after the Planet Quest Kepler (named after scientist Johannes Kepler) is launched in the fall of 2008. It will stare at the same section of sky, measuring dimmings, brightness and eclipses.

A French space mission (COROT) already works to find new planets. If there are 5,000 to 6,000 known binary stars now, Guinan believes there could be as many as a million detected in the future.

“Technology has expanded our vision,” says Guinan, who was one of the first to discover the rings surrounding Neptune. “Adaptive lenses see clearer and farther. We’ve made small telescopes big.”

Years ago, astronomers recorded data by hand. Now, computers are so fast and capacious that the Hubble Space Telescope and other generated data is kept in the terabytes (soon petabytes). “There aren’t enough people to handle all the data we’re getting,” says Guinan.

From 1998 until earlier this year, Guinan was vice chair of the International School for Young Astronomers run by the 9,000-member Paris-based International Astronomical Union. As part of the traveling three-week program that targets developing nations, he organized ISYA schools in Iran, Romania, Thailand, Morocco, Argentina, Mexico and, most recently, Malaysia.

Guinan also was appointed co-chair of the IAU’s Teaching Astronomy Development, another educational program designed to improve astronomy in developing countries. With TAD, he leaves for Hanoi in mid-August. The last time he was in Vietnam, he was in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a civilian during the Vietnam War. “That wasn’t good,” Guinan admits. “I shouldn’t have been there as a civilian.”

Saying he was looking for an ancient temple site, he talked his way into Cambodia; he was determined to check certain astronomical alignments. Instead, he evaded machine gun fire, was robbed, and then held six days in the jungle. “I survived it,” Guinan says. “It gave me hope that I could make it through anything. Now, there’s been a complete turn-around. We’ve fixed relations with Vietnam.”

That’s one of the goals of the structured international missions—peace and harmony, at least under the stars. “What lasts are valued friendships,” Guinan says. “It’s emotional when you leave. You cry.” At the ISYA in Malaysia, there were 38 students from 12 countries, including—for the first time—three graduate students from North Korea. Now Guinan is using those contacts in controversial North Korea to bridge relations—even if only in the shared galaxy.


ED GUINAN'S international track record is extensive, and in a changing post-9-11 world, his involvement is also increasingly controversial. Those who don’t know suggest he’s long been consorting with the enemy.

In 1975, he was first asked by Iran’s Shiraz University—located about 250 miles southwest of Tehran and 60 miles from the Persian Gulf—to set up a telescope there. He stayed for 2 1/2 years on a combined sabbatical, a leave of absence and a summer, leaving in 1978 before the country’s revolution. In 1997, Guinan returned on an ISYA trip and was appointed as an advisor to the Iran national telescope project. He’s been back three times since.

“They’re pretty nice people,” he concludes. “Those in the government are psychotic, and as an American you occasionally run into militant guard. But Iran is a good place for astronomy. You’re in the desert, in high mountains.”

As for the Main Line, it isn’t ideal. “Here we get one clear night a week (one reason why Villanova shares time on two telescopes in Arizona),” he says.

Iraq had an observatory, but it was one of the first sites bombed in the Iran-Iraq War. An easy target, it sat atop a mountain near the border. “It had no military value, but the public perception is that an observatory does,” Guinan says. “All we’re building in Iran is a telescope that cannot be used as anything but a telescope.”

Safe in his office, with his feet propped on his desk, Guinan admits the FBI has contacted him before—but only on criminal checks for former students. “Everything I do is above-board,” he says.

Until he traveled to New Zealand as a graduate student in 1968, he hadn’t been outside a 90-mile radius from his home. New Zealand—where Penn shared an observatory—was only a starting point. He bought a $1,600 around-the-world ticket—a life-changing decision.

“On the way back, I was staying in 25-cent-a-night motel rooms,” Guinan says. “Going over, I was an American. I was eating French fries. Coming back, I was eating fish cooked under the sand. I was always adventurous, but I didn’t know it.”

It wasn’t the way he was raised. “I started out as a very fussy kid,” he says. “I ate out of a divided dish so my creamed corn wouldn’t touch my mashed potatoes.”

At 24, Guinan was a typical American—much like his Villanova students. “Our students are even afraid to eat at diners or to go to an ethnic place,” Guinan says. “It has to be a chain. Thai? Forget it. Diners? They’re afraid truckers ate there.”

When he flew to Indonesia, there were riots. In Iran, the revolution was starting. In Prague, the fireworks he thought he heard were invading Russian tanks.

In Russia, he sold his Penn jacket, which fetched $60, his American jeans and a Villanova T-shirt.

He won’t officially come clean on whether he parted with his underwear, but does say Fruit of the Loom was a big seller. The Russian clothes smelled like cat urine, but the money was inviting—much like the post-trade vodka shots he enjoyed.

All in all, Guinan had a surplus of funds before he returned home—and spent it before the currency exchange. His last two days in Paris, he survived on the U.S. equivalent of $5 before his last Pan-American flight home.

Now, outside his educational trips and other professional responsibilities, he’s settled in at Villanova, where there are typically 20-25 astronomy majors. Three to five graduate a year, although none this past spring. There aren’t any graduate courses, but that doesn’t keep alumni from returning for guidance.

Scott Engle, who’s enrolled in a doctoral distance-learning program at James Cook University in Australia, has been studying Polaris, the North Star, under Guinan’s guidance since 2003. Engle, 25, has discovered Polaris isn’t about to stop pulsating, or increasing and decreasing its size and temperature (which happens every 3.97 days), as was incorrectly reported in the past. In fact, Polaris is 2 1/2 times brighter than it was 2,000 years ago.

“It wasn’t supposed to keep changing,” says Engle, who has analyzed 2,000 years of data, including Persian sources dating to 964 A.D. “It’s changing too fast. We believe Polaris bottomed out in 2002-’03, but that its amplitude of pulsations is possibly increasing again. It’s evolving in our lifetime.”

Guinan’s own research remains primarily focused on stars and the effects of coronal X-ray and ultraviolet radiation and plasma outflows on possible host planets. Such data helps tell if a star is suitable for life.

One project supported by the NASA/National Science Foundation, “The Sun in Time,” is a 20-year study of stars like the sun only younger Its findings show that the young sun, some 4.5 billion years ago, must have been a ball of fire, spinning and radiating much stronger magnetically generated X-ray and ultraviolet emissions than it now does. The focus, then, is how the young, active sun affected the early Earth and other planets. The studies show its activity caused the loss of almost all the original water on Venus and a significant amount of water and atmosphere on Mars. Mars, however, still has water left frozen under its surface.

Guinan is also continuing his longtime focus on binary stars (meaning they orbit one another) to help determine how expansive the galaxy is. A postdoctoral student from Slovenia works with him at Villanova, using artificial intelligence to help study them.

“Ed has so many years of experience that he can work in any area,” Engle says. “He always shares a general excitement and an interest. No matter what the observation—a planet or whatever—he’s excited about it.”

Guinan’s excitement extends beyond planets to plants—like the 100-year-old exotic “ugly aloe” that belonged to an Aunt Tina. It wasn’t even his own aunt—but when she died, he became the plant’s caretaker.

“I just can’t kill them,” he says.
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