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The Aftermath of Empire – Reappraisal and Reconciliation – (Part 2)

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by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe*

Continued from last week

The author is an Honorary Professor at the University of Buckingham, UK, at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, and also at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka.

He was a former Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, Staff Member of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, and former Professor at Cardiff University. He is a pioneer of the discipline of Astrobiology and the author of over 450 scientific papers and some 35 books.

 

Several generations of British historians, archaeologists and naturalists devoted their entire lives to tirelessly exploring the multiplicity of wonders of India. Studies of the subcontinent’s natural history, archaeology and anthropology are just a few scientific disciplines that enormously benefited from the imperial encounter. The introduction of greenhouses, zoological and botanic gardens to the Western world and much else came directly as a result of the colonial venture.

One discovery of great importance is worthy of mention. A large number of stone pillars and columns bearing mysterious inscriptions in a hitherto undeciphered Brahmi script had been scattered across the length and breadth of India and, rather strangely, gone unnoticed for centuries. In the 1830’s it was an English Philologist and scholar James Prinsep (1799-1840) who successfully deciphered these inscriptions. The edicts written in the Bhrami language mentioned a King Devanampriya Piyadasi which Prinsep had initially assumed was a Sri Lankan king. He was later to discover a Pali text from Sri Lanka from which he was able to connect the title Piyadasi with Ashoka, and thus was revealed for a first time a long-hidden secret of Indian history – the life and times of Emperor Ashoka who had reigned between 268 and 232 BCE. Ashoka is famous as the Indian monarch who became a Buddhist and unified a vast part of the Indian subcontinent into a single empire ruling it according to Buddhist principles. H.G. Wells in his “Outline of World History” said of Ashoka that amid tens of thousands of names of monarchs, “Ashoka shines, shines almost alone, a star”.

In the 1920’s it was again thanks to British archaeologists that we owe the next major discovery – the unravelling of the great Indus valley civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which represents another long-hidden chapter in the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent stretching back to the third millennium BCE. We already had knowledge from Mesopotamian records of a vigorous trade in lapis lazuli that existed between empires in the Mesopotamia and India, but now we could link this precisely with the Indus valley civilizations.

 

Unravelling a Buddhist heritage

A few British Civil Servants who were posted in Ceylon in the 19th century became assiduous students of Buddhist texts and wrote extensively and enthusiastically about Buddhism. Thomas William Rhys David (1843-1922) was one such scholar who found himself posted as Government Agent near the historic ancient city of Anuradhapura. There he became actively involved in archaeological excavations that led to the discovery of a vast number of inscriptions and manuscripts relating to Buddhism and this triggered his interest. He soon became a formidable Pali scholar, translated many Buddhist Pali texts into English and also wrote extensive commentaries on Buddhism that are still being read today.

The colonial response to Buddhism on the whole had been positive throughout the time of the Empire. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in his “Outline of World History” writes of Buddhism thus:

“Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents of life are due, he (the Buddha) taught, to selfishness. Selfishness takes three forms – one, the desire to satisfy the senses; second, the craving for immortality; and the third the desire for prosperity and worldliness. Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a great being. Buddha in a different language called men to self-forgetfulness five hundred years before Christ. In some ways he was nearer to us and our needs. Buddha was more lucid on our individual importance in service than Christ, and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality.”

The amazing degree of concordance between Buddha’s view of consciousness and modern post-Jungian ideas in psychology were discussed by me and Daisaku Ikeda in our dialogue many years ago. The practice of Buddhist meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the West today because of its potential to yield mental and physical health benefits. Such practices, however, are looked upon with suspicion by many – now and in the past – as heathen primitive rituals that challenge the cannon of Christian faith. Such a narrow view cannot be interpreted as being any other than a component of racial thinking that prevailed throughout the period of British imperialism and filters down even into our post-colonial modern era.

 

Buddhist cosmology

In matters relating to cosmology and life in the Universe ideas from Buddhist as well as earlier Vedic traditions have run contrary to the canonical Western world-view. For instance, in the cosmology described in the Anguttara Nikaya (a Buddhist text dated at around the 1st century BCE) it is stated thus:

“As far as these suns and moons revolve, shedding their light in space, so far extends the thousand-fold world system. In it there are a thousand suns, a thousand moons, a thousand inhabited Earths and a thousand heavenly bodies. This is called the thousand-fold minor world system….”

It then goes on to define a hierarchy of world systems, referring to the entire universe as “this sphere of million, million world systems”. Similar views do not dominate scientific thinking in Europe until after the Copernican revolution in the 17th century of the common era. Today, with the recent discoveries of exoplanets in the past decade, the total number of exoplanetary systems in our Milky Way galaxy alone is estimated to exceed 100 billion.

As far back as the first millennium BCE a school of atomism similar to that of Democritus was founded in India, the most important proponent of this school being a philosopher named Kanada (600 BCE). The idea was that atoms are point-sized, indivisible and eternal, each possessing a distinct property and individuality. These concepts were developed further by a burgeoning Buddhist school of atomism that flourished in the 7th century CE.

Aryabhata (476-550CE) was perhaps the first Indian astronomer in the modern mould who discovered an approximation of pi to six significant figures and also correctly maintained that the planets and the Moon shine by reflected sunlight. He also correctly inferred from observations that the daily motion of the stars in the celestial sphere is due to Earth’s rotation about its axis.

From both archaeological and later historical evidence there is no doubt that high levels of advancement in science and technology had been achieved in India long before Aryabhata going back to at least the second millennium before the common era. Vedic Sanskrit texts dated at the 8th century BCE refer to Pythagorean triples (eg. (3,4,5 (5,12,13), (8,15,17)) and display a knowledge of Pythagoras theorem. One of the earliest Indian astronomical texts (Vedānga Jyotiṣa) dates from 1400–1200 BCE, with the currently extant form dating possibly from 700–600 BCE. This latter timespan also corresponds to the dating of the most ancient known “university” in the world, Takshashila in India, which was a centre first of Hindu and later Buddhist scholarship.

 

Ayurveda and plant-based pharmaceuticals

Developments in the field of ayurvedic plant-based medicine, and including reports of surgical interventions, have been recorded in a variety of sources from the earliest times. In one of the Ashokan pillars (272-231BCE), to which I have already referred, an edict reads: “Everywhere King Piyadasi (Ashoka) erected two kinds of hospitals, hospitals for people and hospitals for animals. Where there were no healing herbs for people and animals, he ordered that they be bought and planted.” There also exist many thousands of ayurvedic texts both in India and Sri Lanka with extensive lists of medicinal herbs and their alleged benefits for curing various ailments. The result of four centuries of colonial rule has unfortunately been to relegate this vast legacy to the “archive of curiosity”.

The few ayurvedic physicians who now practice in India and Sri Lanka still rely on time-hallowed anecdotal accounts of the efficacy of their plant-based medicines. The correct procedure will be for western science to fully explore these claims with chemical analysis and trials, but this has not yet been done. It should be recalled in this context that many drugs currently used in western medicine are indeed derived from plants – aspirin, quinine, digitalis, morphine, codeine – are just a few. It is hard to imagine the medical legacy that would follow from a complete investigation of the thousands of claimed herbal remedies that still remain unexamined.

 

Transition from ancient to modern science

I have already mentioned the knowledge of land surveying technologies and irrigation schemes that was evident in the Indus valley civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa; and these and other technological developments have also been found elsewhere in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka throughout the period from the beginning of the common era until the time of the arrival of the British in 1600CE.

When the British arrived in India the difference in technological development between Britain and the subcontinent was arguably marginal. Handlooms and weaving technology that were developed and used in Bengal made India (run by the Moghuls) one of the richest countries of the world at this time. In a real sense it could be maintained that the technological advancement of the West took place at the cost of the continued impoverishment of India.

From the beginning of the 20th century many Indian scientists who were trained in British Universities and laboratories made highly significant contributions to the progress of science furthering the dominant scientific paradigms of Western science. A common feature of all these scientists is that their corpus of work supported and did not in any way challenge the major accepted paradigms of the day. Their achievements were thus thought to be a continuing tribute to the prevailing and predominant traditions of western science, and so were readily acknowledged and rewarded. However serious difficulties can arise whenever an ethnically non-European scientist hailing from an ex-colony dares to challenge a reigning paradigm of Western science.

 

Clash of Orthodoxy and Heresy

It should occasion no surprise to find that most important advances in science with regard to fundamental of issues concerning the Universe and Life have always been subject to cultural and religious constraints. Thus, in the 19th century the unfolding facts of geology that yielded an age of the Earth of some 4 billon years came into sharp conflict with Biblical chronologies of mere thousands of years, and this had initially caused great angst in some circles. Likewise, the facts of biological evolution that were unravelled after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 continued to disturb conventional beliefs for several decades.

As already mentioned Buddhist and earlier Vedic cosmologies can be interpreted as being consistent with many aspects of modern and post-modern scientific thought. There are also fundamental differences that can cause consternation in a Western scientific context. In Vedic cosmology the universe is thought to be infinite in spatial extent and cyclic in time– strikingly reminiscent of the modern versions of oscillating universe models. In this context it is worth noting that the currently favoured Big-Bang theory of the Universe with an age of 13.8 billion years is by no means absolutely proved. The very recent discovery of a galaxy designated GN-z11 located at a distance of 13.4 billion light years (implying its formation just 420 million years after the posited Big Bang origin of the Universe) poses serious problems for the current consensus view of cosmology.

Recently Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose has come in among the select band of dissenters from the standard view of a unique Big Bang origin of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago. In a theory called the “conformal cyclic cosmology” Penrose postulates that the universe undergoes an infinite number of cycles in which the Big Bang event 13.8 billion years ago is the most recent cycle of which we are a part – a result strikingly in accord with ancient Vedic and Indian cosmology.

 

The inescapable fact of Panspermia

Finally, I turn to the age-old problem of our own origins – how we, humans and indeed all of life, came to be. This question has been approached in a multitude of different ways, embracing superstition, religion, philosophy and eventually science. The ideas that prevailed throughout ancient India involved the concept of life being an integral part of the structure of the universe – a view closely aligned to the ideas of panspermia discussed in the West by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxoragas of Clazomenae who lived around 500BCE. Panspermia implies that “seeds of life” are eternally present in the cosmos and take root whenever and wherever the condition permit.

This concept was vigorously rejected in the Western tradition in favour of the ideas of the more influential Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 3rd century BCE. Aristotle proposed instead that life must arise from non-living inorganic matter whenever the right conditions prevailed, and he cited many instances that were incorrectly regarded as supportive evidence, the most graphic being the statement of “fireflies emerging from a mixture of warm earth and morning dew”. Over a millennium and a half later Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1272) essentially co-opted Aristotelian philosophy into church doctrine, so that dissent from any component of it thereafter was effectively construed as heresy. The Aristotlean doctrine of “Spontaneous Generation” was transformed into “Abiogenesis” in modern terms and continues to dominate Western science almost to the present day.

Attempts to re-examine panspermia in the West began in earnest with the French biologist Louis Pasteur in the early 1860’s. Pasteur showed in the laboratory what was already known for larger visible life forms – that life is always derived from pre-existing life of a similar kind. This casual chain of events – life-from-life – is true not only for lifeforms existing today but it is also true throughout the entire record of fossilised life on the Earth. The question that next arises is: when and where this connection cease to operate. The answer could be never – so this then naturally leads to panspermia.

Following the experiments of Pasteur, panspermia came at last to be championed by many contemporary physicists in the late 19th century.

Lord Kelvin declared: “Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me to be as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation….”

And the German physicist Herman von Helmholtz wrote in 1874:

“It appears to me a fully correct scientific procedure, if all our attempts fail to cause the production of organisms from non-living matter, to raise the question whether life has ever arisen, whether seeds have not been carried from one planet to another…”.

A similar position was also championed a few years later by the Nobel prize-winning Chemist Svante Arrhenius in his 1908 book Worlds in the Making. But all this enthusiasm was transient. On the basis of poorly designed experiments concerning limits to the viability of microbes in space, the situation soon reverted, and spontaneous generation and abiogenesis came back into vogue.

In the past five decades abiogenesis was confronted with a formidable array of new facts from astronomy, geology, space science and molecular biology, all of which challenged its validity. On the other hand, an ever-increasing number of predictions of panspermia has come to be verified to an astounding degree of precision. Wrong theories do not perform in this way, so it soon became amply clear that panspermia’s star was on the ascendant! The sociology of science now took over: the triumphs of panspermia over rival models began to irritate an ever-increasing body of scientists. This was aggravated by the fact that all attempts to demonstrate the validity of abiogenesis in the most advanced laboratories in the world consistently led to dismal failure.

The trajectory of panspermia from its early roots in the Vedas through to Anaxoragas in the 5th century BCE and into modern times is sketched in Fig.4. The last phase following on from Pasteur led up to the work of the present writer, Fred Hoyle and many collaborators. This unfolding scientific drama is well-documented in a very large number of scientific papers and recent books.

What I would like to reiterate by way of conclusion is that the body of objective scientific evidence in favour of cometary panspermia and against abiogenesis is now compelling and overwhelming. The main reason that this new world view has yet to enter mainstream thinking, and even become more widely known, may be simply because its principal proponent (the present writer) is seen as a heathen and a former colonial subject. In what could be seen as the most egregious travesty of justice serious attempts are being made to “steal” our well-documented priority on these ideas in recent publication of similar ideas but with a deliberate omission of any reference to pioneering work over the past 40 years. In my view overt racism including antagonism for what is seen to be an alien concept is the only conceivable explanation for this conduct. This explanation also provides the only reason for why a long-overdue paradigm shift from planet-centred life to cosmic-centred life – a paradigm shift which is potentially of the most profound importance across the whole of science – is being delayed.

The long colonial encounter between “West” and “East” that began in the 15th and 16th centuries ending barely seven decades ago has in every sense shaped the modern world. Many scars have been left, however, and a priority of the ongoing decolonisation process must not only be to expand on the legacy of this long experience but also to heal its wounds.



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Features

An air of discontent prevails

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We have had a series of “Avurudhu parties” here in Aotearoa. No shortage of Kavum, Kokis, Athiraha, and even Wali Thalapa. Buffalo curd available locally and of course imported treacle in abundance. Yours truly has assumed the role of a fly on the wall during these festivities and gleaned much information, worth talking about.

First to get on to the Pearl, the talk of the botched-up vaccination plan and running out of the second dose of vaccine. Bizarre permutations as to what would happen if the second dose was not available on time and to who would be press-ganged into getting the “dodgier” types of vaccine from China and Russia, etc. The possible repercussions of getting a second dose of another type of vaccine to the original, the speculations of which left me rather glad that the general populace of Aotearoa has not been vaccinated to date. The talk moved on to the Easter bombings and the recent comments by leaders of the Roman Catholic church as to the possible perpetrators of the attack. Some increasingly obvious conclusions as to those responsible for the planning and funding of same are being reached by those other than some of us who dared to voice our opinions over a year ago! This combined with the increasing and very rapid unpopularity of the person they elected to high office hoping he was genie of the magic lamp type, and the possible reverse of Hong Kong that could take shape on the reclaimed land near the Colombo port, does not bode well for an already dubious future. By reverse of Hong Kong, I mean Hong Kong is trying to hold out as a bastion for democracy, whilst the proposed port city seems to be modeled on the opposite!

Moving on to Aotearoa, the rest of the world seems to be praying for a leader such as our own Jacinda Ardern, but the fat cats of Aotearoa are getting rather sick of her. Those who own multiple houses and have been setting off their interest payments against their taxes due to a loophole in the law that has now been plugged are grumbling. The fact that most young people can’t afford to buy their first houses due to rich people and property developers snapping up all available property, happily funded by banks who are only interested in the bottom line, is of no consequence to them. The fact that this could lead to so much discontent that it could even lead to armed insurrection doesn’t bother them. They seem to have forgotten that we have had almost no deaths and hardly any Covid 19 cases in our community when they say that the lockdowns, we underwent were too excessive and how the economy and business sector has suffered. These very people throng the stadia during the rugby and cricket games and enjoy music concerts with gay abandon. Megacorporations are not happy about the restrictions that are coming on with regard to the use of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) due to environmental concerns. To top it all off I had a lecture from my 13-year-old daughter about how I am being “led by the nose” by Jacinda Ardern and her propaganda! Where she got that from could only be from her elder brothers whose get rich quick schemes have seen a setback due to certain leftist policies coming in from the Labour government that is in power with an absolute majority.

I laugh to myself and think about other examples I have seen of self-proclaimed pundits never being content with their lot. My education was in a very large Government school. As a perfect and a member of some sports teams we handled the administration and some of the governance of this school. Later in life when my children were attending a private school I got involved in the Executive committee of the PTA of that school. The “problems” faced by the private school and the vast dramas that were involved in trying to solve those problems were laughable when compared to those faced by even us, senior students (a much lower level in the administration) of the Government school.

It led me to believe that people always grumble. They are never content with their lot and there is always someone plugging their case and trying to sow the seeds of discontent among the populace. If those living in Aotearoa, in the present situation and well aware of the chaos and mayhem that is prevailing in the rest of the world are dissatisfied, when will anyone be satisfied? Everything is relative and one should try to step outside the confines of one’s own situation and look at the broad picture. In the words of learned barristers, I rest my case!

This week’s missive will not be complete without a tribute to the memory of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He lived through some of the best and worst times of human existence on this planet and conducted himself impeccably. He showed his humanity and his failings, with a few bloopers down the line but most of those had an undercurrent of humor and couldn’t really be construed as offensive, despite the best efforts of the media and others to make them so. He served as consort to her Majesty the Queen with loyalty and aplomb and he leaves behind an enviable legacy in the world of conservation and youth affairs. It is hoped that his heirs will be up to the task for they face a task which in cricketing terms could be classed as coming into bat after the great Sir Vivian Richards had just scored a century, in his prime. Something very difficult to surpass in skill and entertainment value. Unfortunately, the Duke made just 99. May he rest in peace!

 

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We have much to learn; and emulation is no disgrace

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“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” said Oscar Wilde who, through sharply ironic wit, often proclaimed the absolute truth.

Cassandra quotes him today as she wants to point out how much we in Sri Lanka can benefit by reaping some ideas from the recent royal funeral in Windsor. And she does not excuse herself for placing stress on our mediocrity as juxtaposed with greatness. Nationalists may shout themselves hoarse and bring down a few more majestic trees by decrying the comparison. They can justifiably claim we have a cultural heritage of two and a half millennia but have we remained cultured, following faithfully and correctly the four great religions of the world? A loud NO from Cass, echoed by millions of others. Though Britain’s development of the English language, culture, arts and science was later than our civilization, they outstripped all countries at one time and are again elevated, while we are poised on bankruptcy, with the begging bowl in hand and thugs and thieves as legislators. We in Sri Lanka are mediocre if not degraded against the greatness shown by the Brits in many spheres. This is no Anglophile speaking but a dame who was born when the Brits were leaving us to govern ourselves and grew up with our statesmen doing a jolly good job of it; Sinhalese, Tamil, Burgher, and a few Muslims taking the lead graciously and effectively with complete honesty, to serve the people. They maintained and improved our country so it was admired by others and even some desiring to imitate Ceylon as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew admitted. And where are we now? Except the Rajapaksa family from Medamulana, wearing rose tinted glasses or with eyes shut by arrogance, and their followers and throngs of sycophants, others see our country and our people for what it, and the people, really are. No need to elaborate.

 

The funeral of Prince Philip juxtaposed against customs here

The low-key funeral observing all Covid-19 restrictions was noteworthy for being utterly devoid of bombast and vainglory. It was dignified and moving. Cass wonders how many of her readers watched the funeral on Saturday 17, late evening here. Prince Philip had detailed all arrangements from the Navy being prominent and other Forces joining in plus the substitution of the gun carriage with a jeep he had helped design. The horse carriage he was adept at racing was stationed close by the entrance to the chapel. He has bequeathed it to the daughter of his youngest son and Sophie; the Wessexes having been very close to him and the Queen.

The entire proceedings proved first and foremost that the royal family observed strict pandemic restrictions like mask wearing and physical distancing. There was no one rule for them and another rule for us, thus proving beyond doubt that England (usually), and more so the Royal Family (definitely) are a country and an institution despising double standards. The monarch decreed and abided by the same regulations that have restricted everyone else in the UK, sharing their fate. An anecdote is relevant here. The Queen learned that lesson long ago. She was 14 when her mother said, after Buckingham Palace was bombed in September 1940, that she “could look the East End in the face now.”

Do all our people follow rules common to everyone? Oh! My heavens NO! There are differentiations according to layers in society. Shangri La would host a party for a hundred when only 30 are allowed to gather. During the height of the first wave when restrictions were strict, SLPP electioneering saw hordes thrust together and baby carrying, patting heads and hand clasping mostly by Mahinda Rajapaksha sans a mask. He has a charismatic bond with the masses but that needed to be curbed. Sajith Premadasa’s meetings were strict on physical distancing and mask wearing.

Only 30 were invited to the extremely solemn and yes, beautiful funeral service at Windsor Chapel. This meant eliminating even close relatives of the Family; but it was done. The Queen sat distanced from her daughter and sons and their spouses. Her now diminutive figure seated alone emphasized the loneliness she must be feeling after a close and successful marriage of 73 years.

This brings to mind our First Ladies. Cass steps out bravely to say that Elina Jayewardene was a gracious lady of restraint and dignity, the only perfect consort so far. Cass remembers Hema Premadasa beating her breast (true) and crying over the coffin of her late husband’s remains – in the true sense of the word – at the Prez’s funeral at Independence Square. There is dignity in restraint of even tears over a death in public. Among the women Heads of the country, the mother completely beat the daughter in dignity and ability.

We Sri Lankan women are now much more restrained in our mourning at funerals. Time was when widows even hoarsely wailed their sorrow, coiled and roiled with grief, and begged the dear departed “To look once more; say one word.” Cass in all the expressed grief of such funerals suppressed her laughter with difficulty. How would it be if the corpse obliged?

The choir at the funeral of Prince Philip was just four – one woman and three men. But their singing resounded in the high vaulted, completely majestic, centuries old church. The lone kilted piper within the Chapel evoked much. The service itself was short, just a Reading, prayers and listing of the multitude of honours bestowed on the Duke of Edinburgh, whose medals and decorations were on display beside the alter. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Dean of Windsor, David Conner conducted the service.

To conclude, the Duke of Edinburgh had advised and laid stipulations on a simple funeral with the necessary pomp and pageantry but low key and very unostentatious. The actual funeral was even more low-key with mourners requested not to be on the streets or place flowers. The latter they did in all the residencies of the Royal Family in appreciation of a man who faithfully stood by the Queen and in his own way gave service to the nation.

Coming back to Free Sri Lanka, we seem to stress on that first word Cass inserted to the country name, even in these dire times of no crowds. And the worst is milling crowds are apparently encouraged to boost popularity of certain VVIPs by sycophants and by the preference/orders of the VVIP himself.

Consider the funeral of Minister Thondaman: crowds in Colombo and all VIPs wishing to register their presence before the body, and then the commotion at the actual cremation Up Country. Consider this year’s Sinhala New Year celebrations which were very dignified at the President’s residence but were inclusive of all traditions and a large gathering in the PM’s home, even raban playing by the Second Lady, and milling crowds outside.

 

Roller coaster ride of the country continues

Cass is relieved she had a topic to write on; namely that we should emulate the manner in which the much admired Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was conducted, abiding by his stricture of it being low key and the country’s Covid restrictions. Our leaders especially must accept the saying I quoted at the beginning.

The country continues its roller coaster bumpy ride with some crying out the country is being sold to the Chinese, we will be a colony of theirs after they occupy the Port City; and others in remote areas sitting down for days on end, some near 100 days, drawing attention to the human elephant conflict. Much is touted about the Bill relating to the rules to govern the Port City.

Cassandra listens to all, and is somewhat warned and frightened, but cannot comment. However, one matter she speaks about loud and clear. The people must be told the status quo of the pandemic – daily numbers catching the infection and numbers dying. This is not for interest sake or ghoulish appetites; but to know how things are so we relax a wee bit or shut in more stringently. The Covid-19 Task Force, or the Health High Ups (not Pavithra please) should tell the country of the true situ of the pandemic as it holds the country in its grip. We want to know whether the grip is tightening or weakening. Please give us daily statistics. This newspaper announces total numbers. No help. Are we expected to jot down figures, subtract, and give ourselves daily infection and death statistics? No! It goes to prove that other matters – political slanted, ego boosting and economics – are more important than warning, containing the pandemic, and saving lives.

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Do you pump Octane 95 Petrol to your car to get better performance?

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If your answer is YES, this article is for you

Dr. Saliya Jayasekara.

Senior Lecturer Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Moratuwa

Many passenger vehicles, including three-wheelers and motorcycles are fueled by octane 95 gasoline when octane 92 gasoline (petrol) is available at a lower price. 

Otto engine (petrol engine) is an internal combustion spark ignition engine invented by a German engineer Nicolaus Otto in 1876 and used in most of the light weight vehicles including cars, three wheelers and motor bicycles. Otto engines can burn most of the hydrocarbon fuels (including hydrogen and ethanol) that can mix with air by evaporation (low boiling point). But the combustion characteristics of different hydrocarbons are not the same when burned inside an engine. If an Otto engine is designed for a particular fuel, it would not perform similarly with a fuel that has a different chemical composition.

In a well-tuned Otto engine run on gasoline for which the engine is designed, the combustion of the gasoline (petrol) / air mixture will continue smoothly from the spark plug to the piston head by igniting successive layers of the mixture as shown in Figure 1 (a).

If low grade gasolines are used, the combustion of some of the air/ fuel mixture in the cylinder does not result from propagation of the flame front initiated by the spark plug, but one or more pockets of air/fuel mixture explode (Detonate) outside the envelope of the normal combustion front as shown in Figure 1 (b). This detonation can cause severe damage to the piston and the head of the engine while deteriorating thermal performance of the engine (low efficiency)

Gasoline is a petroleum-derived product comprising a mixture of different hydrocarbons ranging from 4 to 12 carbon atoms in a carbon chain with the boiling point ranging of 30–225°C. It is predominantly a mixture of paraffins, naphthenes, aromatics and olefins. Additives and blending agents are added to improve the performance and stability of gasoline. The engine designers learned that straight-chain paraffin have a much higher tendency to detonate than do branched-chain paraffin.

The tendency of a particular gasoline to detonate is expressed by its octane number (ON). Arbitrarily, tri-methyl-pentane, C8H18 (iso-octane) is assigned an ON of 100, while the straight-chain paraffin n-heptane, C7H16 is given an ON of zero. Hence, a fuel sample with the same anti-detonation quality as that of a mixture containing 90% iso-octane and 10% n-heptane is said to have an ON of 90. Gasoline is made up of a mixture of mostly branched-chain paraffin with suitable additives to give an ON in the range 90 –100. It was also learned through experiments that the ON of a gasoline blends (e.g. gasoline and ethanol) can be calculated by using weighted average ON of each compound. Most importantly, the octane number has nothing to do with the heating value (Calorific value) or the purity of the fuel.

Engine thermodynamics show that engines with a high compression ratio offer higher thermal performance than engines with a low compression ratio. These engines having high compression ratio require high octane gasoline (for example octane 95) to avoid detonation. However, using gasoline having higher octane ratings for the engines designed for a low octane rating (for example, 92 octane) would not provide an additional benefit or loss, other than increased fuel cost.

Therefore, it is important to know the designed octane number of the engine before fueling (refer owner’s manual of the vehicle). For example: the minimum ON requirement for two and three wheelers in south Asia is 87 (The World Bank). Most of the Toyota, Honda and Nissan models including hybrid engines recommend 92 octane gasoline.

Dr. Saliya Jayasekara received the B. Sc. degree in mechanical engineering from university of Moratuwa in 2001, and the M.Sc. and PhD degrees in decentralized power generation systems from Royal institute of technology Sweden and the Melbourne University Australia in 2004 and 2013 respectively. He has well over 13 years of national and international experience in design and installation of centralised/decentralised power plants, boilers (utility/package) and heat exchangers. Currently he is serving as a senior lecture at University of Moratuwa, a visiting lecturer and fellow at Deakin University Australia.

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