By Senuri De Silva
Q: How did your parents and your earlier experiences in school foster your interest in this field at a young age?
There was a culture of science in my home and lots of books on astronomy to which I had access from an early age. Also my father was a Cambridge-educated mathematician and he specialised in astronomy, so conversations with him provided an early stimulus. I soon realised that a good grounding in mathematics was required for astronomy, so I went on to study mathematics at university. I also had an early interest in stargazing and spotting stars and constellations, which was easier in the 1940s when night skies were unpolluted and particularly spectacular.
Q: What can be done in local schools and universities to cultivate scientific thinking among students and create a new generation of scientists capable of making notable contributions to the international research community?
I think a greater emphasis on project-based instruction with scope for hands on-exploration of various topics should help. Also the availability of books should be expanded beyond a few texts translated into Sinhala and Tamil as it happens today. I think learning from books written by experts in a field is more beneficial than didactic class room instruction by teachers.
Q: What do you think of the potential of local scientists to make notable contributions to the international scientific community?
There is certainly no shortage of potential or talent. More opportunities would help, and more encouragement to realise the creative potential that is already available.
Q: How can Sri Lanka create more individuals like you?
I think they already create such individuals, well not necessarily like me, but very creative individuals. I think they should be given encouragement to do the sort of creative things that they are destined to do without impediment and that is something we need to focus on. We need to give them the freedom to express themselves and realise their full potential and give such opportunities to as many people as possible because I think that the endowment of talent in Sri Lanka is not trivial. There is a huge amount of talent that needs to be tapped into and utilised for the benefit of the country as well as the benefit of humanity.
Q: What plans do you have to make a direct contribution to Sri Lankan science and innovation?
I have come here regularly over the past few years and carried out collaborative research, particularly in connection with the recent meteorite falls in the island. Now I am working with Peradeniya University to set up a Centre for Astrobiology there.
Q: What can be done by the Government and the private sector to foster new innovation?
Innovation of any kind should be encouraged because ultimately it is innovations that create wealth in the real sense and create business opportunities as well. I think the private sector as well as the government in countries such as Sri Lanka should be actively engaged in promoting research, particularly research in areas that do not appear to be productive at first sight.
Doing things that have immediate applications or when they can see the result almost immediately is what people tend to do but it’s important to give scope to innovation that could happen not immediately but over a longer period of time. This is essentially the giving scope to the dreamers because it’s the dreamers who determine what’s going to happen in the future. If we didn’t have such people, science and civilisation would have come to a grinding halt a long time ago. It’s because there are a small number of people at any given time who have the vision to go beyond the immediate weeks or months and think very far ahead that we have had progress. Unfortunately these people have often been in conflict with administrations and authorities and governments and so on.
For example, Aristarchus of Samos who said the sun was a red hot stone and the moon was made of a lump of earth was banished from Athens because everybody ‘knew’ that the earth was a god and the moon was a goddess and if that was challenged the person who challenged that position would be punished. We have a similar form of conflict today in a more subtle way.
Q: What is your assessment on Sri Lanka’s current state of development?
After the end of a long-drawn-out and debilitating war, Sri Lanka has made enormous strides of progress. This is clearly visible everywhere one looks. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bold initiatives are all paying enormous dividends
Q: What other areas of research are you working on these days?
I have been working on firming up the ideas that we have been developing in the last 30-40 years and the evidence in support of this is flooding in at a very rapid rate at the moment. The implication of life being a cosmic phenomenon and life coming into the earth in the form of viruses and bacteria are quite profound from a scientific and technical point of view.
There is a major revision of conventional wisdom on biology that needs to be rethought and the possibility that life in the form of viruses essentially coming in continuously would also lead to possibility of potential pathogens cause epidemics and pandemics. So the need to carry out continuous surveillance of upper stratosphere for incoming pathogens would be a priority for future science and technology and the philosophical discovery and the realisation that we’re not alone would have an important implication on psychology and religious perspectives.
Q: How does the focus on such research impact the economic and social landscapes of a country?
Illnesses like flu and the common cold result in huge economic losses so understanding the sources causative pathogens and putting in place stratospheric sampling protocols would be important if we could collect new pathogens before they descend to ground level. That way we could avert a devastating future pandemic by perhaps preparing appropriate vaccines Also the firm discovery of extraterrestrial life may change the direction of ongoing space research at very great cost for instance to plan for manned exploration of neighbouring planetary systems.
Q: What has been the outcome of discovering extraterrestrial life and how will this knowledge be utilised in the next wave of scientific experiments?
I think evidence that extraterrestrial life exists on a vast scale in the universe has become close to compelling in recent months and years. There is still a resistance on the part of scientists to accept this data It is too uncomfortable to believe that the Earth is not the supreme centre of life in the universe. But the avalanche of facts we have witnessed would change this situation in a short time. The implications of the change would I think be far reaching not just for astronomy but for biology, medicine as well. When we accept that our genetic makeup is space derived, and also that epidemics are sometimes derived from space, many changes of strategies for dealing with pandemics would follow
Q: When you speak of extraterrestrial life, it’s not what people might immediately picture from pop culture and science fiction stories. Can you give us an idea about what you mean by extraterrestrial life?
What I mean by extraterrestrial life are the basic units of our life which are sort of genetic units like viruses that get into our genes and get into our evolving lines and change the way that we evolve. That these units and these information units that are relevant to all life on earth, particularly to human beings and homo sapiens, these are not derived from a very small contributive terrestrial segment but has been the result of an extremely long process of evolution that took place over a vast span of time and over pretty much the entire universe. So the universe is essentially the breeding ground for everything that we have here on earth.
The universe is driving the whole life process and that is what I mean by extraterrestrial life. It’s entirely opposite to what people are thinking of. But very recently, in fact in the last few months, people have realised that the idea of bacteria evolving into major life forms such as ourselves could not have happened without the input of viruses. The viruses are by far the most important source of DNA on our planet. Something like 1x10 to the power of 30 is the total number of viruses on our planet. The viral content in our ocean and in our atmosphere are overwhelming to all other life forms, and these are falling from the sky.
In the last six months I have collaborated with groups in Sheffield and Japan and we have collected material from quite high up in the atmosphere. Microscopic life forms are still coming into our planet even at this very moment and these things will be interacting with the life that exists here, and they are going to affect the changing patterns of species.
Q: How has Ray Wijewardene contributed to scientific research in Sri Lanka as an aviator and an inventor of balloons and light aircrafts?
I think he was shining example of an innovative scientist who dedicated his life to inventions that helped farmers throughout the developing world. His two-wheeled tractor is one of his most important inventions
Q: At the lecture this Thursday you will be talking about utilising new knowledge and challenges that arise. Apart from its technical aspects, what do you hope people will take away from it?
I think it would give people a wider perspective of in the universe. From very early times in the history of humanity we have extended the social unit to which we have allegiance starting from the nuclear family to the extended family and then the nation. Now we have an almost global perspective of where we sort of have sympathy right through the entire planet with other human beings, other nations, other races and so on and also to some extent empathy with all life on this planet. As soon as we realise that life on this earth is just a minor facet of a much bigger cosmic life system, this feeling of connection would extend to the entire universe.
Q: You have spoken of how your idea of life as a cosmic phenomenon is inspired by Buddhist as well as Vedic philosophy. Such philosophies are an inherent part of Sri Lankan culture, but may seem strange to outsiders. In what way do you think your Sri Lankan roots help set your ideas apart from other foreign scientists?
I think it has helped me very much. I am very greatly influenced by the fact that I grew up in Sri Lanka. I was able to take on the new paradigm of sort of moving away from earth-centred philosophies to universal philosophies much more easily than it would have been otherwise possible if I had been educated and brought up in a Western country. It’s definitely been an advantage. I think the resistance we had in the outset – not so much now – but in the beginning the resistance was quite intense and that was partly due to cultural impediments that other people had to face because it was something new. Human beings after the industrial revolution thought that they were basically in control of everything and human beings could do anything. So the human centre of doing anthropocentric things was very deeply engrained in the western civilisations and that was a handicap for them which I didn’t have.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the Rosetta project and what it aims to discover?
I was a team member of one of the Rosetta mission projects at the beginning but I have not played an active role because the failed to include a life detection experiment which I considered to be of paramount importance. In the event only indirect evidence of life in the comet will be discovered. Such indirect evidence of life may already have been discovered in the form of steam escaping at a prodigious rate. This happens in my view because bacteria that are frozen a few centimetres below the surface are warmed by the sun as the comet approaches perihelion and they begin to metabolise. A few days ago the comet was photographed and found to possess a double structure. I am sure there will be more surprised to come
Q: What is significant about the comet landing that is to take place in 2015?
This will be the first-ever landing of a probe carrying sensitive equipment on a comet. The Deep Impact Mission of 2005 also had a lander but that crashed at a speed of 25,000 miles per hour!
Pix by Shehan Gunaratne