Within hours of the US Presidential Election’s results becoming known on 9 November 2016, I gave a telephone interview to BBC Sinhala service. They asked me how almost all the opinion polls did not see Donald Trump winning the election, even though many polls said it was going to be a close contest.
On 24 October 2015, United Nations marks its 70th birthday. A few weeks later, on 15 December 2015, is the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) becoming a member state of this inter-governmental organisation.
Ceylon/Sri Lanka has thus had 60 years of fruitful engagement with the UN through its permanent mission that was set up in New York in early 1956. The country has played a key role in global debates at the General Assembly, Security Council and other bodies and specialized agencies of the UN family.
I quote from the first speech by a Lankan head of government at the General Assembly, made by Prime Minister Solomon W R D Bandaranaike on 22 Nov 1956. I refer to illustrious ambassadors of Ceylon/Sri Lanka who have served as Permanent Representative to the UN – among them scholars, eminent lawyers and career diplomats.
They not only articulated their country’s position at the UN, but also stood for larger ideals such as non-alignment, peaceful resolution of conflicts, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses of both outer space and the international seas beyond territorial waters of states.
I point out that, through intellectual contributions and principled positions, Sri Lanka has had an influence disproportionate to the size of its population and economy – a case of punching above its weight category.
So when occasional protesters demonstrate outside the UN office in Colombo, it only shows their gross ignorance of who actually heads the UN. Their own government is one of 193 members that determine the inter-governmental body’s policies and operations. Meanwhile we the citizens of Sri Lanka pay 0.025% of the UN’s annual budget.
Sadly, the UN Information Centre in Colombo has failed to promote such conceptual clarity among the Lankan politicians and media, some of who harbour serious misconceptions about the UN and its operations.
In it, Sir Arthur described the development of reliable psychological probes, using which any suspected individual could be ‘painlessly and accurately interrogated, by being asked to answer a series of questions’. While its original purpose is to keep the world safe from criminals and terrorists, the “Psi-probe” soon proves to be useful on another front: to weed out religious fanaticism – and all religions themselves – which is a greater threat to humanity.
A few weeks ago, with the concurrence of the Arthur C Clarke Estate, I invited S M Banduseela, the most prolific translator of Clarke’s work in Sri Lanka, to render this last story into Sinhala. Here it is, being published for the first time here:
My column on Einstein’s obscure visit to Ceylon in October 1922 was well received, and some appreciative readers asked me to look at the human being behind the intellectual. So, in this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala language), I explore Einstein the humanist, pacifist and supporter of civic rights all his life.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I look back at the world’s first President of the Television Age – John F Kennedy. How did he ride the airwaves to the hearts and minds of American voters? What combination of wits, looks and charisma made him an ideal icon for the Television Age in its Golden Age? And what lessons JFK holds for all image-conscious politicians who want to appear on television?
Since its 2007 release, the film has inspired discussion and debate. It had its global premiere at the UN Headquarters, and been screened at high level meetings of people who share this concern. It has also been broadcast on United Nations TV and various TV channels, and is available on DVD.
Synopsis: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that impacts with Earth do happen. “Planetary Defense” meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects). Who will save Earth?
How did you choose this topic for a scientific documentary?
I take a great interest in writing/filming subject matter which is so big, that it should shape the way we go about our daily lives, like if we contacted extra-terrestrials (ETs), or colonized Mars. Those big events would have major consequences on our re-thinking of our real place in the Cosmos.
The threat of being wiped out by an asteroid is similarly humbling. Most of us don’t think about Extinction Level Events on a day-to-day basis and what we might do about it.
How realistic are the prospects of a large enough asteroid colliding with our Earth?
David Morrison (former NASA Space Scientist) said in my film, Planetary Defense: “If we actually found an asteroid on a collision course, we could predict the impact decades in advance. And we believe we have the technology in our space program to deflect it, so that the event doesn’t even happen. I could study earthquakes all my life, and I might be able to improve my ability to predict them, but I could never develop a technology to stop an earthquake from happening. In studying asteroids, I not only have the potential to predict the next calamity, but actually to avoid it.”
Interview clip with NASA scientist David Morrison:
I like to present the options where we have the ability to change our destiny (or not act upon it at all). That’s a story that interests me. (Besides, it’s the ultimate literary conflict: Man vs. Nature!) It’s that ability to do something about possible calamity (as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director of the American Museum of Natural History, says in my film) that leaves the viewers “scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it”.
What was the most surprising element you uncovered during your information research for this documentary?
There were several surprising factoids:
• The fact that only a handful of people, a hundred or so around the Earth, are working on the NEO Mitigation Hazard issue.
• The fact that so few people think about something that is unlikely to happen in our lifetime — but the consequences of not doing something about it are too horrible.
• The fact that we COULD do something about it, unlike the dinosaurs, because we have a Space Programme!
• The fact that there is so little day-to-day concern or knowledge about it among ordinary (non-technical) people.
• The fact that so little (sustained or pulsing) force is required to move a big asteroid or comet (once it is de-spun) so that it misses the Earth entirely.
As Arthur C Clarke concluded in the last interview clip in Planetary Defense (before the Epilogue): “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme!”
What were the reactions to your film ‘Planetary Defense’ when it was first released in 2007?
Prior to the final edit, I sought out editorial reviews from the key participants. The scientists who participated in it also advised me as they each received advance copies. I listened to each expert and made appropriate changes so I knew the content would be spot-on.
The reaction, upon release, was spectacular! There are four major reviewers of educational content in the United States. To get a review from any one of them is not easy. “Planetary Defense” received two of the four with simultaneous reviews in both “Booklist” (Chicago) and “The Library Journal” (NYC).
Following that, the United Nations TV premiered it understanding immediately how this is a global issue. It has aired in Canada a few years running.
The infamy was not comparable to the effect of Orson Welles’ (1938) CBS radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” (1898) elicited on the public; but I was happy with the appreciation from both the scientific and educational communities.
Spaceguard is a scientifically credible concept, yet it has not received too much political support. Why?
For two reasons. One, policy makers have limited budgets. They ask: “Who was the last person to die from an asteroid impact? After the laughing subsides, the vote is taken (if any) that this issue can be kicked down the line for a few more years, to the next administrations’ budget.
Two, the second reason is also sad. Humans have very little memory for horrible events unless it happened to them, as a people or a country.
For example, outside Indian Ocean rim countries and Pacific island nations (that are exposed to tsunami hazard), how many westerners really empathize and think regularly about tsunamis? About 250,000 people perished in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and yet it’s a bygone memory outside those affected areas.
Can the Siberian meteorite on 15 February 2013 change this?
Siberia just experienced an actual airburst, a one in a 100 year event. This time around, unlike the 1908 Tunguska event, there were plenty of video cameras to record the event from all angles. After going viral for not even a week, the story has died down from the news (not enough devastation or death?) and people are going about their daily business.
Although the Russian government is now calling for Space-faring nations to cooperate and work on a Space Defense or Planetary Defense, it might take a few more near-misses, on a regular basis, to make any real ‘impact’ in human beings acquiescence to this threat!
What, in your imagination, is the best thing that can happen for political leaders to take NEO impact threat more seriously?
Well, it almost happened with the airburst over Siberia. As I said, we have short attention spans (when not enough death and destruction) or when it doesn’t happen to “us”. So either more regular, deadly impacts are required — or hopefully, films like mine can wake up a few more policy makers before all that death and destruction occurs. I’m doing my part…
‘Planetary Defense’ sounds a bit Utopian on a highly divided planet?
Well, that’s an excellent question. But at the risk of repeating myself, people have short attention spans — and shorter memories when it doesn’t affect them directly.
What’s odd is it does affect all of us directly — and we can do something about it! It is not cost-prohibitive either to search for NEOs, test deflection mechanisms or actually engage in a defensive mission.
Currently, NEO searches are being done on minimal budgets. The how-to’s are being thought out by some of the greatest minds on the planet. The military is (also) awakening to the threat.
The recent airburst over Siberia has fueled Russian interest in Space Defense technology. Decades of planning, command and control, NEO characterizations and deflection techniques — all these are critical in mitigating impacts with the Earth. All these aspects are covered in my film (aside from an overview of the subject). The road map is in place!
For all these reasons and more, my film is still very timely! So yes, we can all come together to work on this because it’s not cost-prohibitive (and the cost of doing nothing is simply…unthinkable).
Perhaps it won’t take a deadly impact nor a Utopian dream. Perhaps knowledge of the threat from ‘out there’ might finally imbue logic upon the denizens of Earth and we can act as one world (or at least one people) in the cause of self-preservation and the continuation of ‘life as we know it’. There is no “Plan B for Planet Earth”.
An invisible compound threatens Earth’s life-support systems, with effects so pervasive that scientists sound the alarm, businesses must innovate, politicians are forced to take action—and American leadership is absolutely vital. Climate change? No…the hole in the ozone layer. For the first time in film, Shattered Sky tells the story of how—during geopolitical turmoil, a recession, and two consecutive Republican administrations— America led the world to solve the biggest environmental crisis ever seen. Today, will we dare to do the same on energy and climate?
A film by Steve Dorst and Dan Evans. The story of how America led the world to solve the biggest environmental crisis ever seen. Today, will we dare to do the same on energy and climate?
In her debut novel The Moon in the Water (2009), Lankan author Ameena Hussein uses a memorable line to describe her protagonist’s many dilemmas: “Her generation had the burden of being the link between the old world and the new. Between pre-man in the moon and post. Between letters and email.”
I’m as much a part of that in-between generation as her character Khadeeja. Rather than being a burden, however, I find it an extremely privileged vantage point to have been. There will never be another generation like ours that straddled two worlds…
For many of us who experienced it, the Apollo 11 ‘Moon shot’ will be among our most indelible memories. Among the various labels I can choose from those tumultuous times, I consider myself a Child of Apollo.
And the boyish, blue-eyed Neil Armstrong (already 39 when he went to the Moon) was my first hero.
These are excerpts from my personalised tribute to Armstrong, who signed off for good on 25 August 2012. In it, I reflect on how the first Moon Landing influenced me personally at the tender age of 3, and recall the very different times in which we lived our lives on the other side of the planet from where Apollo missions were taking off.
It’s a light-hearted, nostalgic and essentially personal tribute, not at all an academic or polemical discussion of the Cold War politics that inspired the Great Space Race. But I do touch on what it meant to be part of history’s first Big Media Moment that was shared in real time by 600 million TV viewers and another few dozen million radio listeners worldwide.
If Neil was originally a hero to me for riding atop the world’s greatest fireworks machine and taking that Giant Leap for Mankind, he is a hero for me now for what he chose to do with his life upon his return.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.”
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
This is the Sinhala text of my Ravaya newspaper column published on 11 March 2012. Today I write about How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon. I wrote an English article in July 2009 covering the same ground, but this is NOT a translation. I don’t do translations.
In particular, I look at how a Sinhala language greeting was included on it, and thank Cornell University and project leader astronomer Carl Sagan for keeping it entirely a scholarly effort with nothing official about it. Thank you, Carl, for keeping the babus out of humanity’s ‘message in a bottle’ sent adrift to the depths of space.