Dr E W Adikaram: Debunking the Delusion of Nationalism

Dr.E.W Adikaram Stamp issued in 1988

Dr E W Adikaram stamp issued in 1988

I met the Lankan scholar, science writer and social activist Dr E W Adikaram (1905-1985) only twice, during the last few weeks of his life, but those encounters left a lasting impression.

Trained in both sciences and the humanities, he was a rare public intellectual with the courage of his convictions to speak out on matters of public interest — even when such views challenged widely held dogmas or went against populist trends. As a sceptical inquirer as well as a spiritualist, he always ‘walked his talk’.

A versatile communicator in Sinhala and English, Adikaram conducted regular radio programmes, delivered thousands of talks across the island, and wrote dozens of pamphlets and booklets on practical as well as spiritual topics – all delivered in simple and lucid language.

As a pioneering science writer in Sinhala, he edited and published popular science magazines. In all this, his hallmark was the spirit of inquiry and courteous engagement.

Among his most memorable pieces was an essay titled “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?” Its original Sinhala version was published in the Sunday newspaper Silumina in 1958. As he recalled many years later, “It was a strange coincidence that this article first appeared in print just a couple of days before the outbreak of the sad conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in 1958.”

I have just shared this important essay online, with a new annotation.

Groundviews.org: Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient by E W Adikaram

It was also printed in Ceylon Today newspaper on 15 Oct 2013:

Isn't the Nationalist a Mental Patient by Dr E W Adikaram, Ceylon Today 15 Oct 2013

Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient by Dr E W Adikaram, Ceylon Today 15 Oct 2013

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Waiting for My Own Mandela…not any longer!

President Nelson Mandela at UN General Assembly Oct 1995 - UNDPI Photo by G  Kinch

President Nelson Mandela at UN General Assembly Oct 1995 – UNDPI Photo by G Kinch

Updated: 6 Dec 2013 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – 2013): Thank You and Goodbye!

In a wistful essay titled ‘Memories of War, Dreams of Peace, hurriedly put together in mid May 2009 as Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war ended, I wrote: “Our political leaders, in whom we entrust our collective destiny, now face a historic choice… African analogies can go only so far in Asia, but at this juncture, it is tempting to ask: would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?”

Four years on, that now reads rather naïve. In hindsight, I should have known better — and not pinned any hopes on political leaders again.

I say “again” because, just once before in my life, I did so: In mid 1994, six months after Nelson Mandela became the first majority elected President of South Africa, we Lankans elected Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as our own President, with the largest ever electoral mandate (62% of votes).

Like many others at the time, I expected Chandrika to usher in a more pluralistic, accountable and caring form of government. Little did we know that it would all be squandered after her first 1,000 days…

I touch on this briefly in a 95th birthday tribute to Nelson Mandela, published in Ceylon Today newspaper as well as on Groundviews.org website.

The essay draws on my own memorable experience of listening to Mandela speak at the UN Headquarters in New York, in October 1995, and my three brief visits to post-apartheid South Africa over the past dozen years.

Oh, President Chandrika also came to the UN in New York on that occasion, accompanied by her astute foreign minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar — who came closest to being Lanka’s moral and intellectual colossus of global stature.

My South African room mate in New York, Dante Mashile, and I lined up hours ahead of the event to get through the intense UN security. On that chNelson-Mandela-ta-intilly and windswept October morning in uptown Manhattan, we were two bright-eyed, idealistic young men fired by the audacity of hope.

In the end, my own leader didn’t walk her talk. But Dante’s did. That made all the difference for our two nations…

The Rainbow Nation had a troubled birth, and nearly two decades on, it’s still a work in progress. There are huge imperfections, and the reality falls short of aspirations. But without Mandela’s statesmanship, things could have been far worse.

As I note in this new essay:

“I have finally realized the futility of waiting for my own Mandela. There won’t be one, and there’s no time to waste.

“We must carry the flame ourselves — even if it’s only a candle in the wind.”

Read full text on Groundviews.org and join the conversation: Waiting for my Own Mandela…

Waiting for My Own Mandela - Ceylon Today, 18 July 2013

Waiting for My Own Mandela – Ceylon Today, 18 July 2013

Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope: What’s to be done?

Rays of Hope - or just Nature painting colours in the sky? It's in the eye of the beholder...

Rays of Hope – or just Nature painting colours in the sky? It’s in the eye of the beholder…

During the height of the Cold War, Soviet Communist Party chief (Leonid) Brezhnev and his deputy were having a one-on-one meeting.

Brezhnev says, “Maybe it’s time we opened our borders and allowed free emigration?”

The deputy retorts: “Don’t be ridiculous. If we did that, no one would be left in the country except you and me!”

To which Brezhnev replies, “Speak for yourself!”

That was a joke, of course — one of many examples of dark humour that helped communism’s oppressed millions to stay sane.

What might happen if we suddenly found ourselves in a borderless world? Or at least in a world where free movement across political borders was allowed? Which places would see a mass exodus, and to where might people be attracted the most?

I very nearly included the old Soviet joke in my latest op-ed essay titled ‘Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope’ that is published today by Groundviews.org.

It asks WHY many thousands of young men and women of Sri Lanka have been leaving their land — by hook or crook – for completely strange lands. This has been going on for over a generation.

Here’s an excerpt:

For three decades, such action was attributed to the long-drawn Lankan civil war. That certainly was one reason, but not the only one.

It doesn’t explain why, three and a half years after the war ended, the exodus continues. Every month, hordes of unskilled, semi-skilled and professionally qualified Lankans depart. Some risk life and limb and break the law in their haste.

It isn’t reckless adventurism or foolhardiness that sustains large scale human smuggling. That illicit trade caters to a massive demand.

Most people chasing their dreams on rickety old fishing boats are not criminals or terrorists, as some government officials contend. Nor are they ‘traitors’ or ‘ingrates’ as labelled by sections of our media.

These sons and daughters of the land are scrambling to get out because they have lost hope of achieving a better tomorrow in their own country.

I call it the Deficit of Hope. A nation ignores this gap at its peril.

As usual, I ask more questions than I can answer on my own. But I believe it’s important to raise these uncomfortable questions.

Towards the end, I ask: What can be done to enhance our nation’s Hope Quotient?

“Governments can’t legislate hope, nor can their spin doctors manufacture it. Just as well. Hope stems from a contented people — not those in denial or delusion — and in a society that is at ease with itself. We have a long way to go.”

Read the full essay and join the discussion on Groundviews.org:
Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope

Or read the compact version of the essay that appears in Ceylon Today newspaper:

Bridging Sri Lanka's Deficit of Hope by Nalaka Gunawardene - Ceylon Today, 2 Jan 2013

Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope by Nalaka Gunawardene – Ceylon Today, 2 Jan 2013

Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): Our Travel Guide to the Universe

Tribute published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 13 Dec 2012:

Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): A colourful journey fuelled by enthusiasm

Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): A colourful journey fuelled by enthusiasm

The first ever book on astronomy I owned as a kid, a pocket guide to the night sky, was written by an Englishman named Patrick Moore.

Armed with the tattered book, I joined night sky observation sessions of the Young Astronomers’ Association, formed in the mid 1980s.

Hormones-on-legs that we all were at the time, we were interested in ‘heavenly bodies’ at both ends of the telescope. But we couldn’t have had a better guide to the celestial wonders than the erudite yet eminently accessible Patrick Moore.

Indeed, Sir Patrick Moore, who died on December 9 aged 89, was the world’s best known public astronomer for nearly half a century.

Although he wrote over 70 books on astronomy and space, it was his television work that made him such a household name. He hosted a monthly TV show, called The Sky at Night, demystifying the night sky and space travel for ordinary people.

The show started on BBC Television in April 1957 – six months before the Space Age dawned. For 55 years, the low-budget show has chronicled highs and lows of the entire the Space Age and brought the wonders of the night sky into the living rooms of millions.

Sir Patrick presented it for 55 and six months, doing a total of 720 episodes. He missed it just once, in July 2004, when he was hospitalized for a few days with food poisoning.

The show has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running programme with the same presenter in TV history. It’s unlikely to be broken.

He was essentially an amateur astronomer, albeit a serious and passionate one. He did some original mapping of the Moon’s surface in his younger days (used later by the both American and Russian space programmes), and headed a planetarium in Northern Ireland for a while in the 1960s, but he was largely self taught in the subject, and did mostly optical observations with his own telescopes.

BBC Sky at Night - a long innings
Public Imagination

Sir Patrick’s practical knowledge of astronomical observations and his brand of humour – together with his lovable eccentricity — made the TV show interesting to people from all walks of life while also those engaging seriously pursuing amateur astronomy.

But Sir Patrick insisted that it was the subject, not his style. When the show reached 50 years and over 650 episodes in early 2007, Sir Patrick explained its enduring appeal: “Astronomy’s a fascinating subject. You look up… you can’t help getting interested and it’s there. We’ve tried to bring it to the people…it’s not me, it’s the appeal of the subject.”

Over the years, the show has had some stellar guests. It included famous astronomers like Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Bernard Lovell and Martin Rees, rocket builder Wernher von Braun, and Moon landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Sir Patrick was centrally involved in the BBC’s coverage of the Moon Landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is remembered as an excellent interviewer who brought out the best in his guests. It was mind-stimulating TV that was entertaining but not dumbed down.

One repeat guest was his long-standing friend Sir Arthur C Clarke, whom he first met through the British Interplanetary Society in the 1940s. They were both ‘space cadets’ when few people took space travel seriously.

In a tribute to the world’s most enduring astronomy show, Sir Arthur said in 2007: “Sky at Night has not been just a gee-whiz show of rockets, satellites and other expensive toys deployed by rich nations trying to outsmart each other. At its most basic, it’s a show about exploring that great laboratory within easy access to anyone, anywhere on the planet: the night sky.”

He added: “By the time the Space Age dawned, Patrick was well on his way to becoming the best known public astronomer in the world. The Sky at Night only consolidated a reputation that was well earned through endless nights of star-gazing, and many hours of relentlessly typing an astonishing volume of books, papers and popular science articles.”

In the 50th anniversary programme, broadcast in April 2007, Sir Patrick travelled back in time to see their first recording. He talked to his earlier self about astronomy back in 1957, and discussed how things have changed in half a century.

He then time travelled to 2057 where the ‘virtual’ Patrick, saved in the BBC computer, is celebrating 100 years of making The Sky at Night and talked to Dr Brian May about the discovery of life on Mars.

That same month, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the professional body that has sole authority to name celestial bodies –designated an asteroid as “57424 Caelumnoctu” in honour of the show. The number refers to the first broadcast date, and the name is Latin for “The Sky at Night”.

Earlier, the IAU had named asteroid No 2602 as “Moore” in his honour.

In 2001, the year he was knighted by the Queen for “services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting”, he became the only amateur astronomer ever to be inducted as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He also received a BAFTA Award (the British Oscar) for his broadcasting accomplishments.

Many of the world’s leading professional astronomers have acknowledged being inspired by Patrick Moore’s books and TV shows.

That includes the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, FRS, who said in 2005: “I’m one of multitudes who owe their enthusiasm for astronomy to Patrick Moore. As a schoolboy I viewed, on the flickering screen of our family’s newly acquired black and white TV, his commentaries on the first Sputnik. I was transfixed…”

Sir Patrick’s influence extended well beyond the western world. Tributes have come in from everywhere.

Dr Nalin Samarasinha, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, USA – and one of the very few Lankans to have an asteroid named after himself — said: “Certainly, I read some of his early books in the mid 1970s when I was an A/L student at Nalanda College, Colombo. They could be classified as an inspiration as well as a source of knowledge. This was in the era when there was no Internet and one needed to read books to learn about the field!”

Thilina Heenatigala, Project Coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) that popularises astronomy, said: “He was a true ambassador of astronomy, bringing the Universe to the public. His work inspired me both as a kid and as an adult.”

Countering Pseudoscience

Sir Patrick used his show also to counter pseudoscience beliefs such as the popular association of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) with alien beings. He sometimes investigated what he called ‘Flying Saucerers’ – people who were genuinely confused by natural or man-made objects in the sky that were unfamiliar and, therefore, presumed mysterious.

He showed how UFOs had nothing to do with alien creatures. Yet he believed in the prospects of life elsewhere in the universe.

He was once asked what he might say if a real Flying Saucer landed on his front lawn, and a little green man emerged. His reply: “I know exactly what I would say: ‘Good afternoon. Tea or coffee? Then do please come with me to the nearest television studio…’”.

He noted in his 2003 autobiography: “There is nothing I would like better than to interview a Martian, a Venusian or even a Saturnian, but somehow I don’t think that it is likely to happen.”

If that particular wish didn’t come to pass, Sir Patrick couldn’t complain. On and off the screen, he met an extraordinary array of famous Earthlings. Among them were Orville Wright, the very first man to fly a heavier-than-air machine, Albert Einstein (whose violin playing he accompanied on the piano), and Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, respectively the first man and women to travel to space.

Once, when Tereshkova was visiting London, Sir Patrick chaired a major meeting in the Festival Hall. A tough journalist asked her: “What qualities would you look for in a man going to the Moon?” The cosmonaut, who spoke good English, answered with a charming smile: “Do you mean if I was going too?”

A younger Patrick Moore presenting BBC Sky at Night show around 1960

A younger Patrick Moore presenting BBC Sky at Night show around 1960

Terrestrial Pursuits

As an active astronomer, TV host and public speaker, Sir Patrick travelled the world for over half a century, visiting all seven continents including Antarctica. He was especially fond of chasing total eclipses of the sun, one of the most spectacular events in Nature.

When not star gazing, he pursued many other interests. He freely admitted to being unathletic and uncoordinated, but was an avid cricketer, turning up for his home town Selsey’s Cricket Club well into his seventies.

Once, when asked on TV about his definition of Hell, he replied: “Bowling to a left-hander, on a dead wicket, with a Pakistani umpire.”

He also played the piano and xylophone until arthritis ruled it out. He never married because his fiancée was killed by a bomb during World War II, and lived in a rural house with his pet cats. He was fond of making home-made wine, for which he said “you can use almost anything, within reason” as raw material. Rose petal was his favourite.

Thank you, Sir Patrick, for being our genial guide to the night sky and space travel for over half a century.

Happy cosmic journeys!

Sir Patrick Moore tribute by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today, 13 Dec 2012

Sir Patrick Moore tribute by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today, 13 Dec 2012

March of Printer’s Ink: From Colombo Journal to Ceylon Today

Newsstand Sri Lanka – image courtesy WSJ.com

“Sri Lanka’s newspaper history dates back to Colombo Journal (1832) which apparently had a short but feisty life before it invoked the ire of the British Raj. Nearly two centuries and hundreds of titles later, the long march of printer’s ink — laced with courage and passion – continues.

“How long can this last?

Print journalism’s business models are crumbling in many parts of the world, with decades old publications closing down or going entirely online. This trend is less pronounced in Asia, which industry analysts say is enjoying history’s last newspaper boom. Yet, as I speculated three years ago when talking to a group of press barons, we’ll be lucky to have a decade to prepare for the inevitable…”

These are excerpts from a short essay I originally wrote last week to mark the first anniversary of Ceylon Today newspaper, where I’m a Sunday columnist. It was printed in their first anniversary supplement on 18 Nov 2012.

Groundviews.org has just republished it today, making it easily available to a much wider audience. Read full essay:

March of Printer’s Ink: From Colombo Journal to Ceylon Today, by Nalaka Gunawardene

Another excerpt: “In the coming years, waves of technology, demographics and economics can sweep away some venerable old media along with much of the deadwood that deserves extinction. The adaptive and nimble players who win audience trust will be the ones left to write tomorrow’s first drafts of history.”

Image courtesy Reuters

Ceylon Today profiles ‘Sivu Mansala Kolu Getaya’ book

Nalaka Gunawardene, photo by Sarath Kumara

“Question, When At Crossroads”

With that title, Ceylon Today on Sunday 23 September 2012 carries a profile of my new Sinhala language book, Sivu Mansala Kolu Getaya (SMKG for short).

The article is written by Yashasvi Kannangara based on an interview with myself, and her reading of the book that came out last week.

A recurrent theme in SMKG is my interest in Sri Lanka’s ‘Children of ’77’ — the generation who were born after the economy was liberalised in 1977 which, in turn, ushered in radical changes in our society, culture and media. So I’m intrigued to be profiled by a member of that very generation, @YashasviK!

Here’s an excerpt, where she quotes me directly:

“I studied in the Sinhala medium, but with effort became bilingual and began writing in English. For the past 20 years, I have written in English, so it was not easy to begin writing in Sinhala again. Even though I have training and an educational background in Sinhala, when I made a comeback in 2011, I had to find my feet in a world of Sinhala writing and communication, my style of writing is essentially conversational Sinhala. In a sense, with this column, I have come back home. The last time I wrote in Sinhala was in another century and in what now feels like another country!”

Read full article here

Disclosure: I’m also a columnist for Ceylon Today, where I write When Worlds Collide every Sunday.

Question, when at crossroads: Ceylon Today, 23 September 2012