By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
No surprise whatsoever, if the tongue- in-cheek question I posed, as the heading for this piece, would be answered in the affirmative by the majority of Sri Lankans. Perhaps, some may get that impression because the ‘hot-topic’ of cosmology, at the moment, is the origin of the universe. Maybe, I am cynical because I never had the reassurance of any astrologer or palmist predicting that I would become a doctor, leave alone being a Cardiologist who would practise in two countries. Nobody would have imagined I would do so, as there was no family precedence or pressure. In fact, the opposite was true. Though, from the time I heard stories about my unexpected survival following a premature birth, I wanted to be a doctor, my father objected and tried to persuade me to join the Ceylon Civil Service instead! If the astrologer who cast my horoscope at birth, or any others who looked at it afterwards, had predicted that I would take to medicine, perhaps, my father would not have raised any objections.
In spite of the lack of such predictions, I have kept an open mind, may be at least in part due to the lingering memory of an incident that happened in June 1976, while I was working in the Cardiology Unit. I was contacted by the daughter of a general practitioner who worked in my hometown, Matara. She inquired whether I could drop in at her place in Nugegoda to have a look at her father and I readily agreed because I could return the favour, as he had treated me occasionally in my childhood. After seeing him and having had a long chat about ‘good old days’, as I was about to leave, she said “Upul, you did a big favour. Can I show my appreciation by reading your cards?” Although I was not aware that she was a well-known card-reader, much in demand in Colombo high-society, I agreed, more out of courtesy and curiosity. She looked at the cards I picked and said “A friend of yours is to have surgery and is in grave danger” and suggested he gets surgery done after a particular date.
It took me a little while to recollect that my good friend George Rajapaksa, Minister of Health, was in Glasgow awaiting Coronary by-pass surgery. The following day, with the help of his Permanent Secretary, Vincent Panditha, I was able to contact Lalitha, George’s wife and I related this episode. Although I requested her to get the surgery postponed, she was not keen as surgery had already been scheduled for the following day. George had successful surgery but died after a prolonged stay in the Intensive Care, due to lung complications, most likely precipitated by heavy smoking. Whether the outcome would have been different had surgery been postponed, I do not know.
Perhaps, I was wise to keep an open mind, rather than declaring myself a rationalist, as recently, and unexpectedly, some of my esteemed colleagues have declared their belief in the supernatural. My interest was stirred by the interesting contributions on the supernatural and the paranormal by Prof S N Arsecularatne, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology of the Peradeniya University, made over a period of time. Prof Sanath Lamabadasuriya, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, in an interesting piece in The Island of 02 September titled ‘Palmistry, a personal experience’ described in detail how a palmist predicted, not only his becoming a professor before the age of 40 but also how his marriage would take place. This was repeated in ‘The Sunday Island’ of 12th September, provoking a response by Bodhi Dhanapala, retired head of the science department of the Quebec Ecole Polytechnic, titled “Palmistry – personal experiences and occult nonsense” (The Sunday Island, 26 September).
Interestingly, Bodhi did not comment on another article, “My personal experience and perspective of Astrology and Palmistry” by Dr Nihal D Amarasekara, Retired Consultant Radiologist in the UK (The Sunday Island, 19 September) who was stimulated to express his views after reading the experiences of his batchmate, Sanath. Interestingly, both of them had family connections to medicine. Maybe, Nihal escaped criticism from Bodhi Dhanapala because, while describing the interest generated and the correct predictions made by his maternal grandparents, Nihal ended his piece with a tinge of scepticism typical of a scientist.
In a well-reasoned piece, Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda Astrology, Astronomy and Reason: (The Sunday Island, 3rd October) argues against the possibility of astrological predictions. What struck me most were his concluding paragraph: “It is not my intention to stir discord but to stimulate discussion (or even demolition) by a reasoned debate, in addition to falsification or ignorance displayed by this plunge into an unfamiliar area. In any event, I stand to be corrected (hopefully) in civil language.” Is he referring to our excelling in argument and confrontation than discussion and deliberation, even amongst the intelligentsia?
For me, the most difficult concept to grasp is how anyone could foretell the future; something that has not happened yet and the course of which could be changed by many unforeseen circumstances unless, of course, our future is already pre-determined. If so, at what stage was this future written? Was the future of the universe already decided at the time of the Big Bang? If so, who made that decision? Was it the Almighty? I doubt, as I do not believe in Him or Her!
Those who believe in astrology consider ‘Nadi Vakyam’ or Nadi Astrology to be the ultimate. According to this system, originating in South India, it is believed that one’s future is dictated by the Brahma using the Navagraha’s and the Siddars as channels. As the Brahma cannot do everything in this realm directly, 84,000 Siddars have been created to perform duties on his behalf. Siddars are public servants in the cosmos, who have the capabilities and energies many would consider supernatural. Nadi Vakyams written by them in ola leaves are read by a select group of astrologers who identify horoscopes by comparison with palm prints. Some, who have had readings done, have commented that the past detailed in these readings are more accurate than the predictions for the future! However, many questions arise. Have they written the horoscopes of all the inhabitants in the world and do they continue to do so? Or, are they meant for a select few? If so, how are they chosen?
Sky at Night
Being confined to home, thanks to the pandemic, has given me time for thought and research as well as learning through television documentaries. Couple of weeks ago, whilst channel-hopping I came across, on BBC4, an extremely interesting episode of “Sky at Night”, long-standing BBC monthly programme on Astronomy, broadcast since April 1957. This episode titled “Question Time” was a special programme celebrating British Science week with a question-and-answer session. When the compere introduced the first expert, Professor of Astrophysics in University College, London, Hiranya Peiris, my ageing heart swelled with pride as I knew she must be of Sri Lankan origin! A quick Google search, whilst watching the programme, confirmed that she was born in Sri Lanka in 1974, completed the Natural Sciences Tripos at University of Cambridge in 1998, and earned a PhD at Princeton University from the department of Astrophysical Sciences. The compere asked her whether the many ‘Medals of honour’ she has received are actual medals. When Hiranya replied that they are real and quite big, he commented that she is “The Four-star General of Cosmology”. What a wonderful achievement! The contrast cannot be starker; whilst the majority of Sri Lankans are steeped in superstition, one of our own is a shining star in the field of Cosmology, exploring the origin of the universe!
In the website of her former Cambridge College, New Hall, now called Murray Edwards College, Hiranya explains her main interests as follows:
“I am a cosmologist. In my research, I am contributing to an international effort to understand the origin and the evolution of the Universe. It is amazing that this is even possible, because it involves extreme physics that we cannot replicate in the laboratory. However, at the Big Bang, the Universe itself performed the ultimate physics experiment. The clues to this physics are imprinted upon the oldest light we can see in the Universe, the so-called cosmic microwave background, and the large-scale distribution of galaxies. Because the ultimate experiment was done once, and we can’t repeat it, cosmologists have to become detectives. Different theories of the universe produce different fingerprints in these data, and we sift through the fingerprints looking for which one matches what we observe. We are trying to piece together the clues to figure out the narrative about how our Universe began, and how it is evolving. In the past decade we have been able to precisely answer age-old questions such as how old is the Universe, what does it contain, and what is its destiny. Along with these answers have also come many exciting new questions.
A modern cosmological research is a very collaborative and international enterprise. My work involves a lot of mathematics and high-performance computing, the development of advanced algorithms and highly specialized databases to store and sift through the massive amounts data returned by cosmological sky surveys. Some of this work requires me to work in small groups with two or three other researchers, but I also contribute to large global projects with several hundred people in many countries. Since cosmology is very international, I travel extensively, discussing research findings, giving talks, and running workshops and seminars. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with my undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university.”
Hiranya and country of birth
Reading this, what passed through my mind is why Hiranya is not known in the country of her birth? Perhaps, unlike some others who do very little and advertise a lot, she shuns self-glorification. It is to reflect the work she does in understanding the origin of the universe that I referred to, in the title, Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology exploring the past. In addition to the Chair she holds in University College, London, she is also the Director of the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics in Stockholm.
Hiranya was a member of the 27-person team awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This US$3 million award was given for the detailed maps of the early universe generated from Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a NASA explorer mission launched in 2001, which has transformed modern cosmology. Other awards include Kavli Frontiers Fellow (National Academy of Sciences) 2007, Halliday Prize (Science and Technology Facilities Council) 2007, Philip Leverhulme Prize (Leverhulme Trust) 2009, Fowler Prize (Royal Astronomical Society) 2012, Gruber Prize for Cosmology (Gruber Foundation) 2012, Buchalter Cosmology Prize 2014, Fred Hoyle Medal and Prize (Institute of Physics) 2018, Göran Gustafsson Prize in Physics (Göran Gustafsson Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) 2020, – Max Born Medal and Prize (The Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society) 2021 and Eddington Medal (Royal Astronomical Society) 2021. The only thing missing seems to be the Nobel Prize!
Hiranya’s lecture “Cosmology: Galileo to Gravitational Waves”, delivered at the Royal Institution in London, explains in simple terms complex issues of the cosmos and can be watched on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HXOfIwl9Jo)
Apparently, Hiranya migrated to the UK with her parents when she was 16 years old. Therefore, she ought to be conversant with our practices of astrology, horoscopes and palmistry. If ever I have the fortune of meeting her, the first question I would ask her is whether any astrologer or palmist predicted that one day she would become an authority on the origin of the universe. Whether I meet her or not, my fervent hope and wish is that she will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and it would be an added bonus if I live to see it. She is our best hope!