PCB contributed immensely to develop Vidyodaya
Professor P. C. B. Fernando memorial oration delivered by Professor P. W. Epasinghe, Professor Emeritus, University of Colombo, on July 16, 2004 at SLAAS auditorium.
“It is a great honour and privilege that has been conferred upon me by the organisers of this function by inviting me to deliver this first P. C. B. Fernando Memorial Oration.
I knew him as my Lecturer in Physics fifty years ago in the Faculty of Science at the then University of Ceylon, was his junior colleague in the staff there, had the audacity of sitting at a selection committee meeting which selected him as the Founder Professor of Physics at the then Vidyodaya University of Ceylon, was his counterpart in the Department of Mathematics at Vidyodaya, was his colleague in its Faculty of Science, his Dean at one time, Acting President (as the Head of the Campus was known at the time) at another and remained his friend and admirer ever since.
My association with him thus begins with the making of a University Don and has lasted until his demise. Out of the four Professors who were there in Nineteen Sixty Seven, and the one who joined a little while before him, I am also the one who is still alive. Thus, my credentials for this oration need no more justification.
It was fifty years ago in Nineteen Fifty Four when I was admitted to the University of Ceylon as an Engineering student. The academic year began on the first Tuesday of July as usual.
If my memory serves me right, lectures in Physics were scheduled for 10 to 11 in the mornings in the Physics Lecture Theatre. As usual, the Department of Mathematics had already started their lectures at 8 a.m.
When I sat the University Preliminary and the Higher School Certificate Examination in December 1953 at the Examination Centre at St. Joseph’s College, we were exposed, for the first time, to some of the giants of the then University of Ceylon.
They were the Supervisors and Invigilators at the Examination. Then again, I had to appear for the Scholarship Examination, and the Practical Examination in Physics and Chemistry of the University and these two were supervised by University Dons.
Thereafter, I had to face an interview in connection with the Scholarship Examination and another in connection with admission to the Faculty of Engineering. Among the notables at these University events, as far as my memory serves me right, were the then Vice-Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings, Professor G. P. Malalasekera, Professor E. O. E. Perera, Professor C. J. Elizer, Professor A. W. Mailvaganam and Professor T. de S. Muthukumarana.
When we walked into the Physics Lecture Theatre, we saw a handsome young man, immaculately dressed in a spotless white sateen drill suit with tie and wearing a cloak. This was the first time when we had been addressed at a lecture theatre by a lecturer wearing a cloak.
That was the first time that I saw him. I had known that he is a son of Mrs. P. B. Fernando, the founder Principal of Anula Vidyalaya, at which institution, my eldest sister had got an appointment as an assistant teacher in January Nineteen Fifty Four.
He lectured to us in Electricity and Magnetism. The lectures were extremely inspiring, and some of the material in the subject area which I had not properly understood at school were carefully explained by him to my satisfaction.
In my own mind, a University Don had to be an extraordinary person. The mere opportunity to speak to a University Don as an equal, was a great honour and privilege. Here, for the first time, we were provided with that opportunity. This is an experience which I will never forget.
I understood later on that after his results at the Degree Examination where he had obtained the Special Degree in Physics with a Second Class (described by Professor Mailvaganam on a later occasion to be as good as a First Class), he had proceeded to the University of Cambridge for research for a Ph.D degree.
After successfully completing his research Degree, he came back to the staff of the Department of Physics, by which time, I had joined the academic staff of the Department of Mathematics.
I used to meet him at various university functions and he took a great deal of interest in speaking to me as an equal, although I was a very junior colleague. His field of interest was Nuclear Physics and mine was Quantum Field Theory. It is not surprising, therefore, that he showed a keen interest in my field of research.
Vidyodaya University of Ceylon appointed me as the Professor and the Head of the Department of Mathematics and I took up my appointment in August 1967. Rev. Walpola Rahula was the Vice-Chancellor of the University while Professor G. C. N. Jayasuriya was the Professor of Chemistry and the Dean of the Faculty of Science. Professor A. C. J. Weerakoon was the only other Professor in the Faculty of Science, and he was the Professor of Biology.
The first major innovation in the Faculty of Science had already been carried out by then by the combination of Botany and Zoology to be under the single umbrella of Biology.
PCB or Chandra as he was known at that time joined Vidyodaya a few days after me, and the delay was due to the fact that he waited until he received his promotion as a Lecturer Grade I (presently designated Senior Lecturer Grade I).
Otherwise, he would have joined well before me. Both PCB and I were recruited as Probationary Assistant Lecturers by the University of Ceylon and this designation has now been abolished and the recruitment grade is Probationary Lecturer. My respect and admiration of this great man was so high that it was only many years later that I felt comfortable in addressing him as PCB or Chandra.
The Vision and Mission of the then Faculty of Science was to firstly produce Graduates who could be as good as the best whether they go in to Further Research right at the beginning or in to employment as scientists who have to eventually be involved in Research and Development.
The second was to encourage Graduates to go in to Post-Graduate Studies and Research. The main requirement was that the Degree in Science had to be relevant to the needs of a developing country such as ours.
The path was obvious. The courses had to be redesigned so that the so-called Queen of Sciences had to be made available even to Bio-Science Graduates passing out of Vidyodaya. Physics which was available only to the Physical Science students at University level had to be made available even to the Bio-Science students.
After all, every Bio-Science student offered Physics as a subject for the University entrance examination until recent times, and there would have been quite a number of such students who had the inherent aptitude for both Physics and Mathematics.
In fact, our experience at Vidyodaya showed that there were many students who felt more comfortable in Physics than in Biology.
Many students who felt comfortable in Mathematics and Physics had chosen to join the Bio-science stream at schools, not because of their desire to become doctors of Medicine, but because of parental pressure. They had to be provided with an avenue for further development of their natural talents and aptitudes.
It is only then that such students blossom out, achieve individual satisfaction and excellence, and make the highest contribution whether it is for the local community or to the world at large. It was a big challenge. Both Mathematics and Physics had to be made available to Bio-Science students up to Degree level.
The courses also had to be redesigned so that they were of an applied nature, applicable to the solution of our local problems by using the Scientific Method.
The language policy of the Faculty had to recognise and accept certain realities. Extremely bright students came from rural backgrounds, and their weakness in the use of the English Language, well-known as the Kaduwa nowadays, was no fault of theirs.
If the inherent abilities and capabilities of our bright young University entrants were to be used for national benefit, they have to be provided with the opportunity of blossoming out. If weakness in the use of English was the problem, they had to be provided with the opportunity to improve upon it.
We believed that, since they were bright to begin with, they should be able to improve their English, provided that the opportunity was created. Lectures and practical classes were conducted in Sinhala during the first three years in all subjects.
In certain instances, lectures beyond the second year were conducted in English also at different times, but generally after the Sinhala medium lecture. The assumption was that a student would use the Sinhala lecture to understand the subject matter and the English lecture to learn some English. In certain instances, lectures were delivered in both languages. The experiment was a complete success.
Special Degrees (four year degrees) were begun soon thereafter. It is a fact that a large number of our products, both three year degree holders and four year degree holders, are serving outside Sri Lanka in a number of prestigious Universities and Institutes of Research. Some are leaders in their professions. It is unfortunate that only a very few are in the staff of the Faculty.
Every inch of land in this country, except on a rock, has some kind of vegetation. Some regions are very fertile and with proper water Management, we should be able to produce, at least, all the rice and other cereals, vegetables, fruit, onions and chilies and other items of food items needed by us.
The water can be managed only if there is water to begin with. With the destruction of the forest cover in our country, less due to natural reasons and more due to the greed of timber racketeers and others, there is a severe threat to the availability of the water requirements even for drinking purposes. It is thus natural that the Faculty of Science at Vidyodaya and its successors thought about Forestry.
Ours is an island with very large inland reservoirs, some man-made, with a very high potential for Inland Fisheries.
We have the sea right round us. Is it not strange that we import a large fraction of the fish requirements of our people while a number of countries are poaching within our territorial waters? The founding fathers of the Faculty of Science were alive to this reality. It was therefore natural that Fisheries Biology and Fisheries Science found a strong place in the courses of the Faculty.
It is a well known fact that there is a fair amount of wastage in the food that we produce due to improper storage, transport and packaging. The Faculty was alive to this problem and Food Chemistry and Food Science were made available both at Undergraduate level and Post-Graduate level to address itself to some aspects of this problem.
The age of electronics was just emerging. The transistor and printed circuits followed by micro-chips had revolutionized the world of electrical appliances, whether they were needed for domestic purposes or other more sophisticated ones. PCB had the foresight to see this revolution and he took early steps to ensure that electronics, both theoretical and applied, had a very secure place in the Physics Curriculum.
One of his first products joined the staff soon after and has continued to serve the Faculty with utmost dedication and excellence. He, I believe, is the second oldest product of the Faculty to serve the Faculty. PCB was also instrumental in starting a Post-Graduate Diploma Course in Optometry.
Most people who had problems with eye sight went to see an Optician and only a very few would have consulted an eye specialist or Ophthalmologist. He realized that the Opticians could serve the patients better if they had better scientific training rather than only the on-the-job training which they had until then.
I do not know the actual reasons why the Course was discontinued later. It may be that the profession of providing spectacles for those who had defective eye-sight was a very lucrative one irrespective of whether the practitioners had any training beyond on the job-training or not.
In any event, it is natural to expect resistance when ‘outsiders’ attempt to invade a well established and lucrative profession. PCB never attempted to tell us why his programme did not take off. I believe that it was his magnanimity and large heartedness which made him remain silent. If he felt that any comment, however rational, could hurt the feelings of anybody, he preferred to remain silent.
Decision making at that time was rather unusual. The four Professors used to discuss all matters of importance at various places, not necessarily the Board Rooms of the Faculty or the University.
Thus, it was a continuous process not limited to a particular venue or a time slot. However, in fairness to those who are not here, I must confess that all such plans were discussed in detail at informal meetings over tea or at meetings of the Faculty so that the other members of the Academic Staff could openly express their views. Decisions were made collectively by all and the implementation was by everybody.
The younger Academics were very receptive to new ideas and they also contributed with their might. I am very pleased to say here that, the younger staff rallied round with great enthusiasm to deliver the goods and some of them even had to change their fields of Post-Graduate studies and Research to fit in to the requirements of the Vision and Mission of the Faculty. I am confident that none of them is a disappointed person today.
At the level of the Senate, the path was easier. Professors Weerakoon and Fernando had long years of experience as academics at the University of Ceylon. Most of the other members of the Senate, except for the Vice-chancellor, had little or no experience of having worked for a well established University.
Thus, getting new plans pushed through the Senate was no problem at all. It was the same with the Council.
The Dean of the Faculty, Professor G. C. N. Jayasuriya, was a very dynamic person who also commanded the respect and admiration, not only of his other colleagues from the University, but also the other members from outside the University. As far as I can remember, no proposal presented by the Faculty of Science was ever even modified by the Senate or the Council.
The first crisis faced by the Faculty was an attempt by the now defunct National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) to close the Faculty down. It is true that the Faculty had hardly any building space.
The laboratories were housed in the ground floor, earmarked for garages and parking spaces within the Sumangala Building. ‘Small is beautiful’, was our living slogan and optimization of resources was resorted to at every step forward.
The NCHE felt that, the Faculty had to be closed down, because the Undergraduate output at the time was small. They completely ignored two vital factors from the equation. The first was the fact that the Faculty had hardly any buildings.
The second was probably because the NCHE would have thought that Post-graduate education could wait but the thinking of the Faculty of Science at Vidyodaya was just the opposite.
We had already started a number of Post-graduate courses and there were several others waiting in the pipeline to be begun. Except possibly for Post-graduate Diploma programmes in Education, there were no Post-graduate Programmes in any University in the country other than at Vidyodaya, even though, the University of Ceylon had been established 15 years earlier.
What we felt at Vidyodaya at the time was very much in accordance with a maxim attributed to Cardinal Newman, which in my own words would read ‘No man would even begin anything if he waits until he can do it perfectly well’.
We accepted the challenge that certain things had to be done and they were begun, with little fanfare, but by making use of the meagre resources which were available in the University system as well as a number of State Organizations such as the Central Bank, the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, the Coconut Research Institute, the Medical Research Institute and the Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research to name a few which come to my mind.
The inauguration in 1967 of the Post-graduate Diploma in Statistics, the first ever self supporting Post-graduate Course in any University in Sri Lanka was confined to the lecturer walking in at 5 pm to deliver the first lecture. The inaugurations of the other programmes were no different.
At that time, there used to be regular power failures in Nugegoda. Vidyodaya was a hive of activity after 5pm. In addition to our own programme, the first degree courses in Business and Public Administration were also begun at 5 pm. The number of students in this programme was quite large. We could hear the din created by those restless students, each time a power failure occurred.
It was Professor Fernando who came to our rescue. His solutions to the most formidable problems were simple and inexpensive. We bought a sufficient number of Motor car bulbs and the lecture hall was wired permanently to be used with a mobile power source consisting of a sufficient number of Motor car batteries.
Immediately prior to the beginning of the lecture, the battery would be plugged on. It had a relay which would get activated as soon as there is a power failure. The lights were, therefore, uninterrupted. At the end of the lecture, the battery would be moved back to the Physics laboratory to be charged so that it can be used again. We achieved with a few rupees, what would have required a Generator to accomplish.
The solution also had it hilarious side. Whenever the power failed for the large group of students reading for the first degree course in Business and Public Administration, they would start hooting and jeering, only to see that the Faculty of Science had no problem with the lights. Even at that time, light did travel in straight lines and even a faint light could be seen from a totally dark place.
The consequences were obvious. Those students came in delegation to find out why there is discrimination against them, only to find out that the Professor of Business and Public Administration had not sought the help of Professor Fernando.
He had solved the problem once and for all and there was no copyright on his solution. If only Professor Fernando was asked, he would have got his technicians to attend to the matter.
The attempt by the NCHE to close down the Faculty got aborted only because of the collective effort of everybody including the students.
Thereafter, we were able to get Government funding for a building programme. I had the honour of serving as the Acting Dean when Hon. Dudley Senanayake, the Prime Minister, laid the foundation stone for the new buildings of the Faculty.
The present Auditorium where we should have assembled today and the other buildings of the Department of Physics are living testimony to the thinking behind Professor Fernando who always accomplished his tasks with finesse and simplicity, but without sacrificing the grandeur whenever appropriate.
If we had this oration in the Auditorium, I have no doubt that its sounds would have mixed with the voice of PCB which, I believe, would still be reverberating there.
The second crisis which we faced was the April 1971 insurrection. Vidyodaya was converted to a rehabilitation centre and we were given hardly any notice to quit the premises. The amount of labour which went in to moving the Physics Laboratories and the others to the new premises, namely, the residential bungalow of the Principal of Royal Junior, was by no means, to be underestimated.
The first degree courses as well as the post-graduate programme were continued with hardly any interruptions. Some of his own students had got deeply involved, without our knowledge, in the uprising. I am happy that, they are now resident in the cradle of Capitalism and are leading tranquil lives.
The new Universities Act of 1978 was instrumental in changing the names of the Universities. The location of the University was used to name each University. There was a fear among some that Vidyodaya would be named ‘The University of Nugegoda’ or ‘The University of Gangodawila”.
It is well known that a Rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. However, in fairness to the realities which existed at the time, many believed that it should be named ‘The University of Sri Jayawardenepura”.
It has now been named so and a few would know the background behind the name. However, PCB was very hurt by the change of the name. He firmly believed that the name ‘Vidyodaya’ should have remained. On many an occasion, he has expressed his disappointment to me.
The contribution made by PCB for the development of the University was immense. He commanded the respect and admiration of all those who came in to contact with him. His colleagues and friends remember him with great honour. The distinguished gathering here is living testimony to that.
His great contribution to the development of Physics education at Vidyodaya and science in Sri Lanka in general were appreciated by those who matter. He was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka in 1981.
He was appointed Emeritus Professor by the University of Sri Jayawardenepura in 1996 and the Degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa was also conferred upon him in 1996 after his retirement in 1995. The esteem in which he had been held had been described by one of his colleagues in the following manner.
“Professor Fernando continued to visit the Physics department of Sri Jayewardenepura regularly even after his retirement. Later with age telling on him, these visits were limited” to once a week. Thursday of each week, the day on which he used to make the visit, was always a very special day for many in the Physics Department.
They eagerly waited for his arrival to seek his advice and guidance regarding various matters. Be it a problem related to research or choosing a suitable place for postgraduate studies or a problem of more personal nature, he had a solution to offer. Very often this happened to be the ideal solution.”
He was a devout Buddhist who practiced what he preached. Some people feel that he should be born among us again so that he could continue to serve this Buddhist Country and foremost among them would be the members of his family.
He led a very simple but dignified life. If his lifestyle is anything to go by, I believe that he would not enjoy clinging on to worldly desires, whatever his family members may feel. As a Buddhist, I have only one wish for him.
May this great son of Sri Lanka attain Nibbana.”