Reflections on a teacher and humanist Valentine Joseph Prof. Valentine Joseph left us on March 15, last year. I last met Prof. Joseph at his home in 2001. To my enquiry about his wellbeing, he replied, “growing very old, gracefully, I hope”. Gracefulness, indeed, was his hallmark that readily comes to mind whenever I remember, [...]




Reflections on a teacher and humanist

Valentine Joseph

Prof. Valentine Joseph left us on March 15, last year. I last met Prof. Joseph at his home in 2001. To my enquiry about his wellbeing, he replied, “growing very old, gracefully, I hope”. Gracefulness, indeed, was his hallmark that readily comes to mind whenever I remember, with gratitude, this great teacher and humanist.

It was seven years prior, the year I entered the University of Colombo as an undergraduate, that I believe Prof. Joseph retired from its Mathematics Department. I vividly remember him taking a miniature traditional oil lamp and a small bottle of oil from his worn-out black leather briefcase and lighting it to signify wisdom, which he hoped would illuminate those who were present in a small lecture room that day. The specifics of what he said on that occasion of his retirement have faded from my memory; he certainly talked about Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity, which he reflected on deeply throughout his life.

What remains with me is the awe I felt about the depth of knowledge he possessed and the continuing struggle to understand the deep mysteries of the universe while not abandoning the humanity in that endeavour.

In a world where the individual is inseparable from titles and labels they wear, Prof. Valentine Joseph, though technically an applied mathematician and  theoretical physicist identified himself most humbly as a teacher. I believe that this again emanates from his attempt to carve out a consistent path, which blended both science and humanism seamlessly at his core. True to his being as a teacher, on request from several of us fourth-year students who were keen to learn relativity theory from him, Prof. Joseph came out of retirement to teach that course, just for a few of us. There is a story that he once gave ten rupees to a beggar, an unheard amount of money to be given away to a beggar at that time in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it is all the money he had with him at that moment. When asked about the gesture he had said, “how can one say no to someone in need?” I believe he did the same for us, the begging students, to come out of retirement to teach relativity!

The special relativity course that Prof. Joseph taught us was not relativity in the traditional sense. The emphasis was not on the Michelson-Morley experiment (important as it is) or on the paradoxes of clocks running slow and of the shrinking meter sticks. The emphasis was on the space-time geometry, its symmetries, and the invariants, out of which the common results just blossomed. Looking back, it seems to me that in spirit, his course in relativity was presented to us as a leisurely walk in the garden of Einstein and Minkowski, so that each one may pick a bouquet to his or her liking. Needless to say, as first-timers encountering relativity, the walk in the garden was no walk in the park. Here, again, Prof. Joseph’s humanism shone. He was keenly aware, both from an intellectual as well as from a social standpoint, the challenges students faced in learning the complex and subtle concepts in relativity. He approached the problem of some of the students having to support their families through working part time or having to allocate time for certification courses aimed at employment with ingenuity and empathy.

Those students who weren’t so interested in learning relativity would still be able to pass the course minimally by demonstrating some basic understanding, but to obtain higher grades would require greater dedication and understanding, both conceptual and computational, and there were specific ways in which students’ efforts and understanding correlated with their grades. He used to say that the man on the street does not have to care about relativity but only about the rice and the dhal. His approach helped both the serious students and those whose primary interests were not in the advanced sciences.

Prof. Joseph had a deep understanding and appreciation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, both in its special and general relativistic forms. Moreover, he was able to internalize the relativity theory himself in all its technical, historical, social, and cultural perspectives and we were indeed fortunate to learn relativity from such an eminent scholar.

A recurring theme that emerged during my conversations with Prof. Joseph, both in and out of the classroom, was how physicists such as Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and especially Einstein, were able to glimpse a reality beyond our immediate senses. Once at a discussion on a counterintuitive result from relativity he moved his palm under his nose and said, “look for the reality under your nose”. In this way he wanted to make us feel at home with the difficult non-intuitive phenomena like the reality of space-time revelation.

In a lecture in December 1996, titled “Understanding Relativity in its Cultural Context” he said that “Man is searching for ultimate reality by revising, from time to time, his understanding of the external world, which is represented by the mathematical concepts”. In that lecture he likened the leap made from the physics of Galileo, Newton, Lagrange, and Hamilton to the physics of Maxwell, Einstein, Minkowski, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg to the efforts of Arahants (those who freed themselves of all worldly fetters) who crossed the river of perception and of senses to arrive at the shores of a greater reality. The following passage from his lecture is particularly apt for the current polarized world in turmoil:

“The theory of relativity is a turning point in the history of mankind, largely because it raises serious questions about human perception of the world, especially the very language we employ to describe our experience. Human society will stand or fall depending on the coherence of this perception among its members. Tragically, there exists today an abyss between scientists and laymen, between science and technology. Bertolt Brecht has portrayed this crisis in his famous play “Life of Galileo”. The only way of bridging this abysmal gap is by means of an education which incorporates not only skills but also values, the burden of which lies squarely on the shoulders of the teachers”.

When asked what “time” is, he is said to have answered “it’s time for lunch!” I met Prof. Joseph from time to time at his home. He would walk to the Borella junction to get some short-eats beforehand if he knew that I was coming. I immensely cherished the hours I spent at his home discussing physics, philosophy, and about the physicists – their struggles, their intellectual courage, and also about their follies and foibles. These discussions left an indelible stamp on me in ways that are not possible to describe. I can still picture him at his desk in his study, writing in his meticulous handwriting, with a painting of Jesus hanging above his head, which read, “I am counting on you”. He was pulled out from retirement, on short notice, once again, when the famed mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah visited the Colombo campus.

In a letter I received in 1999, he remarked that the little angel on the Christmas card I sent him reminded him of the heavenly peace. I close this essay in his memory with his own words:

“What is it that I experience with my senses?

What is it that I abstract with my mind?

We hope a new vision will dawn on us in the course of time.

Happy journey on life’s way!”

 Rasil Warnakulasooriya

The motoring community, family and friends have lost a man with a golden heart

Freddie Alles

It is almost three months since our dear friend Freddie left us. Freddie left a little too early but his was a life well lived. A chartered accountant by profession, he was more a man of automobiles. He was a walking encyclopaedia on automobiles, be it vintage classics, sports or modern exotic cars.

His collection included the rarest models of Rolls Royces, Hopmobile, Bogward Isabella, DKWs, Fiats, Alfa Romeo, MGs, Daimler, Mercedes, Opel Recard, Opel Kapitan, Citroen, Jaguars, Jowett Japlin and many more.

His cas were not  for show, he used them regularly for private running all over the country and also at the many Sunday runs which he never missed. He used to talk fondly of how he started his collection with a Fiat 500, 4Sri 4080 for Rs 5,000 while working at Hayleys and how he used to race his MG.

Freddie was a gentleman to the core. He was one of the founder members of the Mercedes Benz Club of Sri Lanka founded in 1990. He was President of the club in 2017, having been president earlier too.  He was one of the strongest pillars of the Mercedes Benz Club and an active member of the Classic Car Club of Ceylon, a senior  member of the Vintage Car Club and also of several international car clubs. Freddie was an asset to any club and got involved in all aspects of club activities.

I first met Freddie long years ago in the Mercedes Benz Club and we gradually became close friends. In the last couple of years not a day passed where we had not contacted each other by phone, email or Whatsapp and I just cannot bring myself to erase those messages from my phone. We exchanged messages even as late as January and all those messages are still intact on my phone.

Freddie was always there for friends and many a time I had some little issue with an old car and phoned him to get his advice, he would be at my place sometimes within minutes to help me. He made time for people and his knowledge of automobiles was amazing. He helped car enthusiasts in every way possible, even those barely known to him.

He helped people and causes quietly. He was closely associated with the Sri Lanka Cancer Society and served in many capacities including as President.

Freddie was a warm, down to earth person. He would come up to the car to see you off and even in his last days, suffering acute pain, he would still walk us to the car to say goodbye.

His love for his family was intense and all-encompassing. He would often send us pictures of the frequent road trips he used to take with the family,  his visits to car museums and car shows from  all over the world, of his beloved children and grandchildren and pictures of him with Shanthi, his beloved  wife or with his children taken when they were young or photos from his racing days.

The motoring fraternity lost a true motoring enthusiast. The family, a much loved husband, father, brother and grandfather and we lost a true friend, a man with a golden heart.

May God bless his soul.

Harsha Cabral

A pillar of Richmond College Union and generous soul

 Nimal De Silva

Hailing from a respectable family from Batapola, Ambalangoda, Nimal came to Richmond College in the late 60’s. After completing his AL’s he proceeded to Japan for higher studies in Engineering.  There he met and married Saeko.

With two little daughters, after 18 years in Japan, he and Saeko,  decided to come back to Sri Lanka, to start a factory.  Starting with only 18 machines he developed his factory to 300 machines producing surgical  linen.  His company, Global Surgical Products Ltd, is now a leading manufacturer of surgical linen in Sri Lanka.  They mainly export to Japan. While in Japan, he along with his brother Sarath, established the Global Institute of English in Hamamatsu, which was a popular institute.

A pillar  of ‘The Richmond College Union’, (Colombo), especially the 60-70 Group, where he was the treasurer for three years, he helped the group in numerous ways, not only generously supporting it with financial grants, but hosting numerous get-togethers at his place for all his friends.  He was such a generous person to all  – his subordinates and colleagues, including friends, relations and even the caddies at the Royal Colombo Golf Club which he frequented.  Though he helped many, he kept this information very confidential.

At the age of 72, he left all of us due to complications after surgery. He leaves behind his beloved wife Saeko, daughters Nina and Rumi and three grandchildren. May he live peacefully in Sansara.

 Dr. Fredrick Abeyratne and  Bandula Weeraman

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