SLAA: HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL
Astronomy in Sri Lanka undoubtedly dates back to ancient times. There is an archaeological map which denotes a supposed Universe dating back some 500 B.C. Recently there was quite a controversy about King Kasyapa and his "telescope" at Sigiriya. A Copernican type of concept with a central object (Sun?) and objects (planets) of lesser importance revolving round it were known to the ancient peoples of the Island.
Education in Sri Lanka was connected with Buddhism. Apart from the traditional methods of paddy cultivation and training in the arts and crafts, which knowledge was passed on from parents to children, all other forms of higher knowledge emanated from the temple. Such subjects included the study of languages, religion, history, ethics, philosophy & astrology.
Western or modern astronomy was probably introduced to the country toward the end of the 19th century. There had been an Astronomical Society in Ceylon in 1935 founded by some tea planters, journalists and educationists. But there are no records of this Society. The present Sri Lanka Astronomical Association was founded on June 11th, 1959,. The total Solar Eclipse in the country on June 15th, 1955, created quite a stir; the period of totality was more than 4 minutes. Dr. Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson had just finished exploring the "Great Barrier Reef" in Australia and settled down in Ceylon. The Space Age was just dawning; the Russians had launched "Sputnik" in 1957 and communications satellites were on the drawing boards. Interest in Astronomy & Space was "in the air".
In early 1959 there was a school Science Exhibition at which I met Dr. Clarke by chance; the idea of launching an Astronomical Association for Ceylon on the lines of the B.A.A., surfaced, though on a much smaller scale. Soon after the idea took flesh. The Association members met mainly in their own private homes and maintained their own records concerning its activities. We did not solicit funds from the Government nor had we a meeting place of our own. Institutions such as the C.I.S.I.R and the U.S.I.S., interested in popularizing Science, sometimes gave us their premises and facilities to conduct meetings. The U.S.I.S. Auditorium at Flower Road (Ernest de Silva Mawatha) was a congenial place for many years. Membership of the Association was open to any member of the public interested in Astronomy.
We had members from all walks of life; students, public servants, businessmen, medical Doctors, Engineers etc. A number of foreign "experts" working on development projects in the 60s and 70s became members, some of whom proved to be useful resource persons.
Arthur C. Clarke was the first President and myself the Hony. Secretary. A Council of 10 members was elected representing all communities of the country. Council meetings and monthly general meetings were held on the last Thursday of every month. Over the course of the years, our Association has had many outstanding members, eg., Rev. W. J. T. Small, a Methodist Missionary, an accomplished Cambridge Scholar, Principal of Richmond College, Galle since 1922; a number of leading Educationists in our Country were his pupils. He used to come to our meetings in Colombo all the way from Galle, by bus, up to his early 90s (of age).
Dr. V. S. Jayacodi was a versatile telescope maker. He built reflecting telescopes from 6 to 15 inches and observed the sky from his home in Gampola. Many Sri Lankans believe in Astrology. Dr. Abrahram Kavoor was a member who spared no pains to clarify the difference between Astrology and Astronomy. He was an ardent Rationalist.
Mr. Eric Rajapakse, proprietor of renowned Opticians of the same name, was a very active member in the 60s and 70s; his son Rohan is now the Secretary of the Association. Our Association published a quarterly journal named the EQUATORIAL from 1959. it carried contributions from Scientists from here & abroad. (Unfortunately it has been defunct for some time) The July/December issue of 1971 describes the planetary observations carried out by P. B. Molesworth F.R.A.S. (1867-1906); how he discovered the South Tropical Zone disturbance of Planet Jupiter using his 12.5 inch Newtonian reflector mounted at Fort Fredrick, Trincomalee, in 1901. Molesworth is remembered by a crater named after him on Planet Mars.
Mr. C. P. Siriwardane, a pioneer engineer from the Laxapana Electricity Scheme was the Association’s second President. Prof. Edward Earl Vezey from the Texas A. & M. University, who was a member of the Council, guided young members in making reflecting telescopes including silvering of the mirrors to observe the Moon and planets.
A very memorable event in the like of our Association was the visit of Astronaut Alan Bean in 1976 on our invitation through the USIS. He brought with him a mobile Exhibition complete with samples of Lunar soil.
Among very noteworthy initatives of the Association, mentioned must be made of the Astronomy Camp for students held at St. Peter's College in 1974 and the "Introduction to Astronomy" Courses held occasionally for the general public.
SUPPORT OF PROFESSIONALS
Prof. Tom Gehrels of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona at Tucson had been keenly interested in promoting both amateur & professional Astronomy in Sri Lanka since his first visit in the late 40s. His persevering efforts to get a good-sized telescope into the country over a number of years bore fruit, on a target was a 40'') with the donation of a 17'' telescope to Sri Lanka, by the Japanese Government. This is now located at the Arthur Clarke Institute in Moratuwa.
Among outstanding SL Scientists who have been very supportive of our Association, mention must be made of the late Prof. Cyril Ponnamperuma & Prof. Asoka Mendis presently at the University of California, San Diego. They often addressed the SLAA on their visits to Sri Lanka.
NURTURE OF ASTRONOMERS
Though our Association never had a large membership it can boast of nurturing quite a few young Astronomers who are plying the trade abroad. e.g. Tilak Hewagama at NASA & Kavan Ratnatunga at the Carnegie Mellon University. There are probably a few others with whom we have lost contact. Our Association was also involved in agitation in the late 70s and 80s to make the Colombo Planetarium more active & its programs available to a wider public & also to get Astronomy in the secondary school curriculum as an optional subject. Recent developments in both matters are, to a significant extent, the delayed results of that agitation.
Hopefully, the 40th Anniversary celebration will spur the Association to more active & determined efforts to achieve its objectives.
Founder Member & First Hony. Secretary
*This article was written by late Herschel Gunawardene for the 40th anniversary of the association in 1999.