Plus - Appreciations

The scientific community has lost a bright star

Professor Charles Dahanayake

It is the custom in the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), to commit a group of past-general presidents to select the oncoming general president. As some of us gathered this year for this task, we noticed an empty chair.

Said ex-general presidents Priyani Soysa and Swarna Jayaweera in unison to me, "Our Charles is sadly no more". Charles, a regular member of the panel usually occupied that chair, and the absence of the short man with the long silver hair was keenly felt.

I came to know of Charles's demise only when I returned from a month's holiday in Australia. He was well when I left, and I frequently troubled him with complaints regarding the school which occupied my former neighbours' bungalow and which showed scant respect for neighbours. Charles happened to be one of the directors of the school. He listened to my complaints in his usually dignified and courteous manner and promised to relay my feelings to the authorities. So I was understandably sad and felt the same way as colleagues Priyani and Swarna. We are all now in the category of "octogenarians". So we are an endangered species. It is not a surprise when one of our number is called away. But since we have known each other for so long it is hard to take too. This time it was worse for the manner in which Charles succumbed to a tragic accident was in contrast to the placid manner of the man.

I first came to know Charles in 1947 when we were both new entrants to the University of Ceylon. Charles entered with a scholarship in Physics. He did a special degree in Physics during the tenure of Professor. A.W. Mailvaganam as the Head. In those days there was only one professor, and "Myla" as he was affectionately known, was Physics itself for the University students. He was feared as Dean, and admired for the clear, lucid lectures he delivered without even a piece of paper in his hand. Charles matured in the Department of Physics in this milieu, which then included such high calibre individuals like V. Appapillai, Themi Mutucumarana, Lakshman Kannangara, Osmund Jayaratna and the inimitable and amiable Indian S.P. Baliga. In time, and this was 1951, Charles as expected netted a first class honours degree, and with it the scholarship to proceed to the U.K. for his Ph.D. Charles was also promptly appointed an assistant lecturer in Physics.

As was the tradition at the time, Charles too like his mentor Myla took to research on Cosmic Rays and was accepted in 1954, to research at the prestigious school in Bristol University headed by the Nobel laureate C.F. Powell FRS. It was indeed a privilege that Charles had gained by his own academic excellence, and his association with Mylvaganam, whose work on cosmic rays was one of the initial research initiatives at the then university.

It was my pleasure to keep in close touch with Charles and when I too went to England the following year for my own Ph.D. Charles came to London to welcome me. I was in Sheffield and although we were far apart, we met regularly in London at the then Ceylon Students Centre. Charles was a devotee of the London temple then headed by the Rev. Sadhatissa Thera. He was always a devout Buddhist and a most disciplined individual.

I recall asking Charles at the time what indeed was the importance of cosmic rays, and he as usual explained clearly to me what they were.

Coming from space and incident on the high atmosphere are a relatively thin layer of charged particles which are called cosmic rays. At the time there were two important reasons for studying them. These particles moved more than a million times faster than any particles delivered by the laboratory accelerators. Collisions with other particles produced effects that were fundamental to knowledge about the structure of matter.

Secondly the presence of these particles presented a cosmological problem as to from where they came. During this time there were no space explorations, and this kind of research was the forerunner to the space programmes we know of today.

So Charles was very much then at the frontiers of the exciting problems in fundamental particle physics.
He was well thought of as a researcher and that was saying alot.

In 1957, Charles and I together with my cousin Chandi Wijesekera then doing accountancy also at Bristol, ventured on our first trip to the continent. We had meagre resources, but we managed to go to France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy with our savings. We enjoyed the trip immensely. In Germany a Bristol colleague of Charles, Klaus Pincau, a German student also working with Powell, together with his fiancee arranged for us to lodge in a Hostel of the University of Hamburg. Klaus's fiancée Ursula, a charming girl was a student there; and the German authorities allowed us, as British University students good accommodation in their hostel in the charming village of Blankanese. We who were brought up in the colonial days to believe how cruel the Germans were, these were days after the war - were pleasantly surprised to find the contrary was true.

Soon Charles completed his Ph.D., and returned to Sri Lanka. The atmosphere in Sri Lanka in the year after his return virtually put paid to any research ambitions he may have nursed. Firstly, Physics is a fundamental subject; research in this area has to be endowed with investment in state-of-the-art equipment. In any event Universities at the time were saddled with the emotional thrust for teaching in the national languages, and the necessary priorities of nursing tertiary education, fell by the wayside.
This was the time I too had returned to Sri Lanka. It was a difficult time for research with support not forthcoming. We met together with other U.K.-returned contemporaries and literally "tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky."

Our respective entries into family life took us in different directions but I kept company with Charles in the scientific communities' affairs.

Charles played a leading role in enhancing the language in terms of education in Physics, and he was proficient to lecture in his subjects though the handicaps with the language were great. There was no systematic scientific terminology and all of it had to be coined and drafted. Charles also continued with his active support of the SLAAS, and was elected President of the Physical Sciences section in 1974, and finally elevated to general president in 1990. His interest in the organization was sustained till the end as was his interest in the teaching of Physics. He was the Head of Physics, at the Kelaniya University for more than two decades and laid the foundation for science education there with the late Professor J.K.P. Ariyaratne.

His presence will be sorely missed within the scientific community as well as his exemplary manner and ethics of conduct. Charles was above all a family man and to his wife and children go our heartfelt sympathies. They have lost a dear family head and the scientific community one of its most respected members.

May Nibbana be his just reward

R.O.B. Wijesekera

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