T (Tambiaiah) Sabaratnam: Fond farewell to a pathfinder science journalist

Tambiaiah Sabaratnam

I seem to be writing a few fond farewells to fellow travellers every year, becoming an obituarist of sorts in that process. I don’t go to funerals if I can help it (they’re too depressing), and instead I withdraw to a corner to write my memories. Some are published; others are privately circulated.

I’ve just published such a tribute on veteran Lankan journalist T (Tambiaiah) Sabaratnam, who died on March 5 aged 79. He was a senior colleague when I entered the world of journalism in the late 1980s. He retired (sort of) in 1997, but remained active in the world of media to the very end.

He was an outstanding journalistic story-teller. As I wrote in the tribute: “He was a pathfinder and leading light in Sri Lankan science journalism for over a generation. Throughout his long association with the English and Tamil press, he advocated the pursuit of public science: tax-payer funded scientific research for the benefit of the people and economy.”

Here’s another excerpt, more personalised:
“He was a source of inspiration and encouragement to me during my early years in science journalism. Our paths crossed often in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he and I covered many of the same scientific events. He was approachable and helpful, but I could never bring myself to call him ‘Saba’. When I knew him, he had already been in journalism for longer than I’d been alive. To me, he was always ‘Mr Sabaratnam’.

“He reached out despite our generational, media house and other divides. He was genuinely interested in my progress as a science journalist, and offered me advice on both style and substance. Occasionally, he also cautioned about on various ‘pitfalls’ in the local scientific scene — personal rivalries, exaggerated claims or oversized egos.”

Read the full tribute on Groundviews.org: Tambiaiah Sabaratnam (1932 – 2011): The Storyteller of Public Science

Read compact version in Daily News, 15 March 2011: Tambiaiah Sabaratnam (1932 – 2011): Storyteller of public science

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Wiz Quiz 5: Beware, the Fury of a Young Lady!

The current spell of heavy rainfall and resulting floods is being blamed on a phenomenon called La Niña. It involves both the ocean and atmosphere.

La Niña occurs when surface temperatures get cooler than normal (by 3 to 5 degrees Centigrade) in the western Pacific Ocean. During a La Niña, the cold water that pools near the coast of South America surges westwards across the mighty Pacific, the largest ocean in the world. This flow causes a greater build up of warmer water along the eastern coast of Australia and in the South East Asia region. The contrast in sea surface temperatures across the Pacific, as well as the contrast in air pressure, produces more rainfall.

La Niña is the Spanish term for “the girl child”. In that literal sense, the current weather extremes might be called the fury of a very formidable young lady! And it’s not the first time she has unleashed such havoc on us. This week in my quiz column, I started off with some questions on freaky weather, and then moved on to other topics.

Other ladies figure in the quiz: from Nobel Prize winning Marie Curie to Harry Potter creator J K Rowling. And we ask about the lady school teacher who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in February 1986.

Read Wiz Quiz 5: Fury of a Young Lady

Wiz Quiz 4: Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Oil prices going up, up and up...


The international selling price of unrefined petroleum (commonly referred to as the oil price) has once again gone up to US Dollars 100 per barrel, causing concerns worldwide.

The ‘oil barrel’ is an old measure that has survived from the early days of the petroleum industry that originated in the Pennsylvania oil fields.

In the early 1860s, when oil production began, there was no standard container for oil, so whiskey barrels were used. Although actual barrels are no longer used to transport crude oil — and most petroleum is now moved around in pipelines or oil tankers — the measure is still in use. Since it was standardized in 1872, how many US gallons are in one barrel of oil?

This is one of 15 questions I asked in this week’s Wiz Quiz column in the Daily News, titled Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Once again, my co-compiler Vindana Ariyawansa and I offer a ‘mixed bag’ of questions, covering subjects ranging from culture and sports to science and business. These take off from some recent news stories and current concerns. For example, we hear about world oil prices rising (again!), and extreme weather causing food shortage in some parts of the world. When news reports mention oil barrels and talk about Malthusian scenarios, do we know what they really mean?

Read this week’s Wiz Quiz to test your current affairs knowledge!

Wiz Quiz: Announcing the launch of a new weekly Quiz

By Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), American cartoonist and illustrator

Question: Who said: “All the world is a quiz, and all the men and women merely players”?
Answer: The late Magnús Magnússon, iconic host of BBC television’s long-running quiz Mastermind.

I am fond of quoting these words, which sum up what quizzing is all about. I’ve been involved in quizzing most of my life, now for over 30 years. I was an avid ‘quiz kid’ in my time and later became a quiz compiler and quizmaster – I’ve been hosting long-running quizzes on radio and television in both in English and Sinhala.

The latest venture in that quiz career was launched today, with a new weekly quiz column in Daily News, Sri Lanka. It’s called Wiz Quiz. The first installment is found here, a quick look at 2011.

Every week, we will present a new set of 15 questions, and publish the answers to the previous week’s questions. The newspaper is arranging for prizes for those who get all the answers right.

I am partnering on this with my friend and long-standing quiz enthusiast (and film buff) Vindana Ariyawansa. Vindana too started quizzing as a school boy aged 13, and was later a member of University of Kentucky quiz team for three years. In 2008, he published a Quiz Book in English containing 1,000 questions and answers on general knowledge.

As we say in today’s intro: “We don’t want to ask questions that elicit esoteric answers that nobody knows. Instead of such trivial pursuits, we want to keep this quiz focused on interesting insights and factoids related to our island and the wider world outside.”

And while on the subject, here’s a great new quizzing website I’ve just discovered: Quizzing.in