He studies stars. She investigates genes and disease. But the brainy union of two distinguished Toronto researchers -- John and Maire Percy -- has now been immortalized in space and in stone.
Two asteroids, large hunks of rock orbiting the sun, have been named in honour of their marriage and their careers: He's an astronomer at the University of Toronto; she is the director of the Neurogenetics Laboratory at Surrey Place Centre.
The mini-planets Johnpercy and Mairepercy come close to each once every 220 years. This may be a reflection on how rarely their real-life orbits cross, says Maire Percy, also a U of T professor emeritus.
"We tend to be very busy people," she said.
Naming rights for asteroids go to whoever spots them first. These two were discovered by amateur astronomers in 2000. They gave the privilege of naming them to the Toronto chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the amateur astronomers' group John Percy has worked with for much of his career studying variable stars, which change in brightness.
The International Astronomical Union made it official a few hours before their 44th wedding anniversary on Friday.
It is a first. Asteroids have been named for husbands and wives before, like Russian astronomers Grigory Abramovich Shajn and Pelageya Fedorovna Shajn. But co-orbital asteroids have never been named for a married couple. These are similar but not identical space rocks, mini-planets with a relationship.
"It is exciting to think that somewhere we will be made permanent," Maire Percy said.
Their paths first crossed in French class when they were undergraduates studying for science degrees. They had to take a number of arts courses to graduate. They were also in English class together, but John sat up at the front, while Maire sat with a group of students at the back who spent their time solving physics problems. They got to chatting in French class, and he asked her out.
"What have I got to lose?" Maire Percy remembers thinking. But after their first date she says she realized what a really fine person he was.
They married shortly after graduation.
He is a linear thinker and has published more than 200 scientific papers on the evolution and nature of stars and related topics. He also takes a keen interest in science education.
She describes her own brain as working more by free association. Her work involves the genetic and environmental risk factors of complicated diseases, such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and hemochromatosis. Why for example, do people with Down syndrome tend to get dementia similar to that of Alzheimer's patients far earlier in their lives?
Maire Percy is also interested in astronomy, but says she tends to talk about her work, not his. That may be because early in the marriage they'd end up arguing about astronomy at the dinner table, she says.
He is 64, almost 65. She is a year-and-a-half older and retired from U of T almost a year ago.
Tens of thousands of asteroids have been discovered, he points out, so having one named for you is not the huge honour it once was.
Astronomers have named asteroids for their wives, children and mistresses. Space rocks with a Canadian connection include Glenngould, Niagara Falls, Cabot and Klondike.
The Percys are joining some famous and illustrious names in space: Beethoven, Bach, Monet, Balzac, Picasso, Matisse have had asteroids named in their honour. Martinluther, Lewis Carroll, Mozartia, Evita, Freud, Dimaggio, Jacklondon are also in orbit. Rocker space rocks include Clapton, Garcia, Harrison, Lennon, McCartney.
John Percy is proud of the honour. "I think it is neat."
Mixing a marriage and two careers in science hasn't always been easy, he says. They both established international reputations while raising a daughter, Carol. She also became a professor at the University of Toronto, in the English department, and investigates how the English language developed.
Says John Percy: "I wish there was a third asteroid to name after my daughter."