10th October 1999

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Honouring this mighty man

By Professor R. Kumaravadivel

Emeritus Professor Velupillai Appapillai is one of themost eminent physicists Sri Lanka has ever produced. His contributions to University education in the fields of teaching, research and administration are well remembered by scholars in all the Universities in Sri Lanka. His contributions to University education in this country was recognised and honoured by the University of Jaffna at its Silver Jubilee Convocation when he was conferred the Degree of Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa on October 6.

Prof. Velupillai Appapillai was born on November 13, 1913 in Batticaloa. He matriculated from Jaffna Central College in 1931 and entered the University College, Colombo in the same year. He was in the very first batch of students to be presented by the Ceylon University College for the B.Sc. Special Degree Examination in Physics of the University of London.

After graduation he was appointed a Demonstrator in Physics at the University College, Colombo in 1936 and as a Lecturer in Physics in 1938. He quickly earned the reputation as the ablest experimental physicist in the country. Professor Appapillai carried out all the research for his Ph.D. in Colombo and went to Manchester in 1946 to work under Professor P.M.S. Blackett, Langworthy Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, who was later a Nobel Laureate, a peer and the President of the Royal Society. The Ph.D. degree of the University of London was conferred on him in 1946 for his pioneering work on the composition and origin of cosmic rays at sea level in Colombo.

Back in Ceylon, he worked with undiminished vigour setting up a counter-controlled cloud chamber in a strong magnetic field to photograph cosmic rays. Under the direction of Professor Blackett and in collaboration with Dr. A.W. Wolfendale of the University of Manchester (later Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS, Professor of Physics at the University of Durham) and Prof. A.W. Mailvaganam he investigated the existence of the so-called Associated Penetrating Particles (known at the time as APP). They established conclusively that the elusive APP did not exist within the limits of measurement.

In 1963 Professor Appapillai was entrusted with the task of organising and developing the Department of Physics at Peradeniya. With sound method and discipline he organised a good Department of Physics at Peradeniya. He was unanimously elected the Dean of the Faculty of Science in that University in 1970 and he retained this position until his retirement in 1979.

Professor Appapillai was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (London) and named a Chartered Physicist in 1961. Besides his academic achievements he has held several important positions in scientific and industrial bodies such as the CAAS (now SLAAS), Pan Indian Ocean Science Association, the UNESCO National Commission, the Ceylon Standards Advisory Council and the National Science Council of Ceylon Standards. He gave much time and energy to all these bodies.

He served with great acceptance as leader of the PIOSA delegation to Australia in 1953, and as a delegate to the Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva in 1958, Commonwealth Scientific Conference in London, 1958, International Atomic Energy Agency Conference in Vienna, 1958, Nuclear Scientists' Conference in India, 1960 and Commonwealth Scientists' Conference in Oxford, 1967. In 1958, he was appointed an Observer at the Nuclear H-bomb Tests carried out by the British Government in Australia.

He served as the Chairman of a high level committee to report on the establishment of a University Campus in the Eastern Province.

Professor Appapillai commanded respect and admiration in the Scientific Community of Sri Lanka. Simplicity has been the keynote of his life.

He has always been forthright and frank. With the courage of his convictions he fought fearlessly for just causes. His mature judgment, wisdom and wiser counsel aremuch sought after.

The University of Peradeniya conferred on him the title of Professor Emeritus in 1979 and the degree of D.Sc. (Honoris Causa) in 1984. Professor Appapillai who is 86 years old now is living in the USA with his daughter. May he live longer to be a source of inspiration for all of us. The writer is a senior Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Jaffna

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