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Dr. P A J Ratnasiri

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Appreciation

 

The rather sudden demise of Dr.P A J Ratnasiri, or Janaka Ratnasiri, as he preferred to be called, leaves a great void among the scientific literati of Sri Lanka. He was an avid reader who kept up-to-date in his field, and always expressed his views, without fear or favour, on controversial national issues, which he felt the public should be informed of. We will sorely miss his rather erudite articles.

Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri passed away on 24th March, 2021, aged 80. He is survived by his wife, Professor Nalini Ratnasiri.

Dr Ratnasiri graduated from the University of Ceylon, joined the CISIR, (Ceylon Institute of Scientific & Industrial Research) which was the premier scientific research institute at the time, and worked alongside the renowned Dr. Gnanalingam on his pioneering research on Ionospheric Absorption. He subsequently proceeded to the University of Illinois, USA, where he obtained his PhD on Ionospheric Absorption as well. He then returned to the CISIR and joined Dr. S Gnanalingam to continue their work where they made much headway, where both he and Dr. Gnanalingam were internationally recognised experts in this field. In addition to their research work, they provided calibration and repair services to Sri Lankan institutions, such as hospitals, universities, industries and other R&D organisations that use sophisticated electrical and electronic equipment. On his return, he took a lead role in continuing and expanding these services. This service was not provided by any other recognized institution. On Dr. Gnanalingam’s retirement, in 1983, Dr. Ratnasiri became the Head of the Applied Physics and Electronics (AP&E) Section, and in 1985 became the Deputy Director for Physical Sciences.

I first met Dr. Ratnasiri when I joined the CISIR AP&E Section, in 1975, along with two others. He was the person who provided guidance and supervision to us and moulded our careers. He was always approachable, very helpful and pleasant. When I proceeded on my post graduate studies, he encouraged me to continue for a Ph.D and did everything in his power to get the required clearances and approvals. When I returned, he had the foresight to point out that I could use my knowledge to study the Geuda Heat Treatment process, though my expertise was in electrical properties of materials. This project went on to provide the CISIR with a patent as well as income from commercialisation of the process, demonstrating his lateral thinking ability. His guidance and assistance, not only on technical matters, but also on staff management and getting round the bureaucracy, stood me in good stead right through my CISIR career, as well as while developing a new career in Australia. I am forever grateful to him for that.

He was always interested in the wellbeing of the CISIR staff and held positions in many of its associations and even after retirement was instrumental in setting up the Association of Ex CISIR/ITI Staff, to keep together the staff after their retirement. He was the Founder President and active member of this Association.

In addition to his work within the CISIR, he was very much involved with the scientific and industrial community. He played a very active role in the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) and, in 2002, he was inaugurated as the General President of the SLAAS. He was a founder member of the Institute of Physics Sri Lanka (IPSL) and played a key role in developing it to the recognized organisation it is today and in recognition of his contribution, was elected the President of the IPSL in 1983. He provided his expertise to a number of other major scientific and industrial organisations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF).

On retirement, he served as the Chief Technical Advisor to the Environment Ministry where he worked on the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Reduction and was a key Sri Lankan delegate at Geneva. He also served as a Consultant to the Petroleum Resources Development Secretariat where he was instrumental in developing the LNG Policy for Sri Lanka. He was keenly interested in Sustainable Development, Environmental Protection and Energy Policy, and wrote regularly on these subjects, especially Energy Policy. His articles were based very much on facts and knowing the man, he would have checked and double checked these as well as all his calculations before sending them to print. Among all this, he was for a long time the Hon. Treasurer of the Ceylon Association for the Mentally Retarded.

Something he was very proud of towards the later part of his life was his sustainable cinnamon plantation with the environmentally friendly house that he built somewhere close to Ratnapura. He was also highly knowledgeable in Sri Lanka’s geography and history. Whichever part of Sri Lanka you visit with him, he could explain the lay of the land, point out landmarks as well as explain the history of the place. He was always willing to share his expertise and knowledge, with work colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and anybody else that he could help. On one occasion, one of my nieces contacted him, without knowing of any connection to me, for some information on Sri Lankan Energy Policy for an assignment she was doing. He had straight away provided her with the required information, additional documentation, as well as guided her in understanding some complex concepts and terms. That is the kind of man he was.

It has been a great privilege to have associated with Dr. Ratnasiri, a real gentlemen, true scientist and a tireless campaigner for the wellbeing of others. He will be truly missed.

We offer our sincere condolences to his wife and other family members. May he attain nibbana.

 

Dr. Rohana Ediriweera



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Opinion

Talangama Wetlands in danger due to highway sanctioned by CEA

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I read with great interest the following articles published in the Sunday Island and Daily Island, “Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar” by Randima Attygala and “De-gazetting and Re-gazetting Gazettes” by Jomo Uduman. Then I came across another article in the Sunday Island, “Some politicians, businessmen don’t understand value of wetlands -Amaraweera “.  The Minister of Environment said this while addressing the media on World Wetlands Day and also stated, “The government had taken legal action against those who destroyed wetlands. Anyone who destroys wetlands will be brought to justice,” Minister Amaraweera also stressed that it was the responsibility of everyone to protect the wetlands.

The Talangama Wetlands is a gazetted EPA as per 1487/10 of 2007 where permitted uses are only fishing, bird watching and paddy cultivation. Shockingly, this very same Minister of Environment  has on 15th July 2021 signed an amendment to this gazette to also permit a four lane elevated highway to be built over these wetlands! This has been done while there are three Writ Applications pending in the Appeal Court pleading for the preservation of these wetlands as per this gazette. Is this possible? Can he and the CEA be in contempt of court? Why are they not considering the practical alternate route proposed by Prof Sarath Kotagoda? Are we seeing mega skulduggery in action here?

We also hear that a Chinese Company will build this elevated highway over a period of four years. The eating habits of many people in China are driving endangered animals there to extinction. Their favourites include monitor lizards, snakes, owls, eagles, exotic plants and small mammals all of which are trapped, killed, skinned and eaten.  According to the National Wetland Directory of Sri Lanka, 41 plant species, 90 bird species (13 are migrants), 12 species of reptiles, 10 species of mammals and 15 freshwater fish species have been recorded from the Talangama tank and its environs. How can we ensure that all of these fauna and flora will be preserved and not consumed during the four years of construction and the 15 years of operations thereafter? Will there be any left thereafter?Ministers and other public officials never answer queries from lesser mortals like yours truly.  So I do hope Mr. Editor that your newspaper will ask the Minister of Environment how and why he signed such a damning amendment to gazette 1487/10 of 2007.  Both gazettes are attached for your reference.

As the appointed custodian of the country’s environment, particularly the Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs) the Minister is accountable not only to the present generations of  the country, but also, to the unborn future generations, including the living animal and plant  species who are  without a voice, concerning the protection and preservation of their habitat and  environment. 

Denver David Hokandara

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Disguises of belief and disbelief!

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A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.

The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.

The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.

Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.

Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”

Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.

Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!

Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.

However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.

Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.

Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.

So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.

Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

A tribute to Panadura hospital vaccination staff

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After many days of hesitations, reluctantly I joined the long queue of people to get the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccination for Covid-19 on Tuesday around 11.15 AM at the Panadura base hospital. It was not a very long queue comparatively as I had seen the queues on previous days.

The queue was along the pavement beside the parapet wall of the hospital. There was one security guard manning the queue. As we entered the hospital premises all were requested to fill a form each and those were collected and taken to another place by a staff member. Then we were asked to sit on the beds (no chairs) that were arranged inside a nicely built makeshift enclosure with a roof to protect all from the sun.

There a pleasant male staff member (may be a doctor) neatly clad in the official attire, briefed us about the process, the vaccine, it’s after-effects if any and other related facts. Although pressed for time, he addressed all aspects that we should know. It was truly informative and a pleasure to hear.

Within a few minutes, people in batches were asked to proceed to a close by building. While we were standing near the building a nurse brought cards which were filled by the hospital office staff accordingly with the data provided by us. Then we were asked to go inside the building where the vaccinations were given. I did not feel anything although the vaccine was given to me in a matter of a few seconds. I came out of the hospital around 12.20 pm.

The date of the next dose is also mentioned in the card given to me.

The entire hospital premises were very clean and the well-maintained garden was full of flowering trees.

On behalf of all I wish to thank the Medical Superintendent and the doctors of the planning department for a job well done giving enough convenience to the general public. Also. to all staff members that we came across as they added luster, honour, stature and dignity to their respective professions when treating all of us.

Lalith Fernando

Panadura

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