5th March 2000
Front Page
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine
The Sunday Times on the Web

Keeping an eye on the heavens

Oddly Occupied
By Udena R.Attygalle
Are you one of those obsessive individuals who heads for the hills every new moon, urged by a passion to scan the heavens? Unlikely, if you are in Sri Lanka.

But amateur astronomy does have a passionate, almost obsessive following worldwide, in which SETI or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, various comet hunts and astrophotography are addictive pursuits. 

So what of Sri Lanka? With no radio, gamma-ray, X-ray or infrared telescopes, the biggest optical telescope in the island, the 45cm GOTO Cassagrain atop the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies in Moratuwa is our main eye on the heavens.

Saraj Gunasekera and Indika Medagangoda, the two astronomers at the institute can unfortunately only be classified as amateurs. Like most of their breed, both had no formal training in astronomy until they joined the institute. Surprisingly for those in the forefront of this premier education institute, they describe themselves as 'self guided'. "Our main sources of information are the library and the Internet," says Saraj. 

Spending most of their day lecturing schoolchildren and answering letters (of which there were files and files), their lives seem ordinary and almost mundane. But when the big roof slowly slides back to reveal the night skies and the telescope turns toward the heavens, the work of these two becomes definitely unusual. For Saraj, it was the sight of the Orion nebula (a nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust between stars), for Indika it was the magnificent rings of Saturn; but for both the first peek through the GOTO was special. "It gave us a different feeling we hadn't experienced before," Indika tried to explain. 

A donation from Japan, the GOTO isn't exceptional or even unusually big as telescopes go. Yet even this instrument cannot be fully utilized due to unavoidable constraints. Says Saraj, "The telescope does not perform well because of light pollution in the city." Light pollution is basically stray lights that reduce the visibility of faint stars. And then there is the dust. In astronomical terms, even a thin layer of these tiny particles can drastically reduce visibility. "Add to this the cloud cover and you get around 20 working days for the whole year," laments Indika. The structure where the telescope is placed being ill-located also means that the horizon cannot be seen: no small handicap. 

In his article, "The search for potential observatory sites in Sri Lanka" written in August 1996, British astronomer S.M. Tulloch has suggested Karagahatenna, Kirimetiyakande and Aliyamalagala, all in dry and arid Dambulla as prospective places for an observatory. An observatory in a suitable place could be the catalyst to generating a greater interest in astronomy in Sri Lanka. As Saraj says, "There is tremendous interest in astronomy at school level but then the interest dies a natural death." 

According to them, introducing astronomy at university level and creating an environment suitable for a "research group into astronomy" are the obvious solutions to regaining lost ground.

The need for a better telescope is also evident from the fact that Pluto, the outermost planet in our solar system is invisible to the GOTO! The data available to the astronomers is also limited. Saraj says that many web surfers have questions about the latest findings of NASA, the European Space Agency and other bodies, but local astronomers are at a loss to provide answers. On a lighter note, Saraj recalled, "A caller once insisted that NASA has a branch base in Sri Lanka and reproached us for our ignorance!" Although many are impressed by their 'astronomer' tag, both Saraj and Indika would rather be in another field, mainly because their future in this country, is uncertain. 

But the two have had their days of glory. Well almost. Indika laughingly recalled how Saraj had spotted what he thought was a new comet while conducting a camp at Hambantota. "He called me in the dead of night and only then did I know he was slaving away trying to spot the comet from Colombo, but he never saw it again!" Indika laughed. The two also spend time mapping the local skies and creating star charts relevant to Sri Lanka. These they distribute free of charge. "As we are near the Equator, we can see both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres," said Saraj explaining our special view of the heavens. 

So if you enjoy looking at asteroid showers (the naked eye being the best way to view this heavenly spectacle) or the Hale-Bopp comet, here are a few web sites that might interest you: and

Meanwhile we leave Saraj and Indika among their 'fragile' labelled boxes, computers, telescopes and star charts and hope the future here would be bright for the study of this last great frontier: space.

'We do the caring'

By Ruhanie Perera
We know our doctors do much for the community, but not many of us know that their wives do as much. "They do the curing and we do the caring," is the catchy phrase that spurs the Doctors' Wives Association on the various projects they've been working on for the past fifteen years.

On March 12, the Doctors' Wives Association will have their annual meeting. A time for fellowship and fun, this meeting is looked forward to by every member. 

Yet this year there is all the more reason to celebrate, as it is the fifteenth anniversary of the association. To Mrs. Chrissie Aloysius, president of the association it is an event that brings her much happiness. 

Thinking back she says that she decided to form such an association because she felt the great need for fellowship among the doctors' wives. "We hardly knew each other, even though our husbands met on a regular basis," says Mrs. Aloysius who then decided that by coming together in such a manner they could work towards improving the quality of life of the community.

The Doctors' Wives Association, established in 1985 was initially a "gathering of ten close friends". Since then the association has grown in number and boasts of a membership of over 500. Over the past fifteen years the members of the Doctors' Wives Association, under the leadership of Mrs. Aloysius have dedicated their time and energy to serve the community they live in. 

According to Mrs. Aloysius, "It's easy to be in an air-conditioned office and sign cheques, the difficult thing is to step out into the slums and do something about the poverty that surrounds us." 

But that is exactly what they did. Despite the difficulties they faced they stepped out into the streets, experienced 'real life' and did in their own way what they could to help their community. Starting from their first project organised for the children of the leukaemia ward at Lady Ridgeway Hospital, much of their work was in the fields of health-care, health education, maternal and child welfare. 

Charged with a firm belief that "life is short and you have to bring as much happiness as possible into the lives of others during that time," the association has decided on a rather ambitious project for this year. 

The project will be the setting up of first-aid centres in the rural areas. Resident health workers will be trained and provided with the necessary medicines. That way the poor people in an area will have a place they can afford to go to when they are ill. An added benefit would be the fact that some school-leavers will find employment in these centres. The funds raised from the annual meeting will be used for the project.

Though it may seem a Herculean task, these dynamic ladies intend to see it through right to the end - just like all their other projects. 

"The advantage we have is that the doctors are close at hand," laughs Mrs. Aloysius. They are indeed a group of very committed ladies and it is heartening that there still are people intent on making the world a better place.

Index Page
Front Page
Sports Plus
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.
Hosted By LAcNet