Colombo Telegraph

Films, Eclipses, Sperm Counts & More: In A Lighter Vein, For A Change

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

In 1949 a little known playback singer catapulted to iconic status never equalled by a playback singer, before or after, anywhere in the world. It was an insignificant Hindi film called Mahal, the song Aayega Aane Wala (What Will Be Will Be), the singer Lata Mangeshkar. A digitally improved slower paced rendition has just been released (August 2017); hence this short comment. Want to her it?

In 1956 the phrase was used in Spanish as Que Sera, Sera by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in a popular song for Doris Day. It was adapted later the same year in English for Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.

If you go to trendy sites and high-brow film magazines and ask people who know how to hold their glasses of champagne and smoke their cigarettes from slim holders, “what are the best films of all time?” The answer would invariably include Battleship Potemkin, Rashomon, City Lights, Citizen Kane and Vertigo. Usually Bicycle Thieves, Tokyo Story, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Godfather creep in next. The Indian film that most frequently makes it near the top in the view of the snotty lot is Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, the first in the Apu Trilogy. But I think Aparajito, the second, was much superior.

An official committee in 1997 identified Lanka’s best films, in order: Nidhanaya, Gamperaliya, Viragaya, Babbaru Awith and Sath Samudra. Vimukthi Jayasundara was the first Lankan director to win the best-first-film award at Cannes (2005) for Sulanga Enu Pinisa. The first two in the 1997 list are Lester James Peries films. What a shame that instead of letting his fame rest on his laurels, he wanted Dickman’s Road renamed after him. Where will this paltry street name changing charade stop? Petty nationalists have now changed Havelock Road to a jaw breaking Something-Thero Mawatha.

The biggest gag is Baseline Road, renamed Danister de Silva Mawatha by the ignoramuses of the Colombo Municipal Council. These illiterates were not aware that this was the dead-straight Grandpass to Narahempita base-line used in the first terrestrial survey of the Island in 1857. By the way, the Survey Department was Ceylon’s first government department formed in 1796 by Fredrick North. The British abolished common land holding and established title deeds as a prelude to forming vast estates; for this land surveying was essential. The estates were set up after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815 and the 1840 Waste Lands Ordinance (officially Crown Lands Ordinance, in truth a repeat of the ‘tragedy of the commons’) opened the way for the Raj to appropriate the people’s common lands.


At 10.14 on the morning of 21 August I stood with more than a million people in Oregon (many tens of millions all across the USA) to see the first total solar eclipse in 99 years to cross the entire continental US. The word awesome is hackneyed, a stock in trade of people with poor vocabularies, but there are occasions when it fits. The wire services have had a lot to say about the ‘Great American Eclipse of 2017’ so no more from me. I want to give you snippets about other total solar eclipses. On 16 July 2186 the earth will see the longest solar eclipse in 12,000 years (4000BC to 8000AD). Totality at greatest eclipse – just out to sea – will persist for an unbelievable 7 minutes and 29 seconds and the best locations are in northern South America – Venezuela and Guiana – where there will be over seven minutes of totality. So hurry, book your great grandchildren’s air-tickets. The second longest known eclipse was 7 minutes and 28 seconds in 744BC; I am unable to find out the location. The first solar eclipse historically recorded was on 4 June 781BC in China.

There will be an annular eclipse visible in Sri Lanka in December 2019. An annular eclipse is where the distance between the earth and the moon is such that instead of complete cover of the sun, a ring of fire is visible round the rim. It is not as spectacular as a total eclipse.

Eclipse of 29 May 1919
(Stars seem to have moved away from sun)
[From the Thought-Stach website; prepared by Kash Farooq]

The key eclipse for modern science was on 29 May 1919 when Arthur Eddington performed the first tests of Einstein’s general relativity theory. The expedition was led by Astronomer Royal (boss of the Greenwich Observatory) Frank Watson Dyson. In a dramatic departure from Newtonian cosmology, general relativity spoke not of attraction between bodies (gravity, falling apples) but said that space-time was curved in the vicinity of large masses. This is the popular way of describing a rather complicated bit of mathematics. If you look at far, far away stars just next to the sun (you can see them only during an eclipse – or at night but what’s the use of that since their light is not grazing the sun) it appears that their positions have moved a tiny bit away from the sun. I hope the little arrows in the picture can be seen and that you notice those closest (starlight passing close to the sun) have moved the most.

This is what Edington set out to measure. He took photographs during the eclipse and compared their apparent positions with the actual positions at which they should be, which of course were well known to astronomers. The movement expected, if theory is correct, is very small – 1.7 seconds of arc. An arc-second is 1/360 degrees of arc. A degree is one those tiny markings – 360 in all – on the semi-circular protractor you carried to geometry class in your short-pants days. Eddington confirmed that starlight had bent. (Yarn: When the cable from Eddington arrived confirming the finding, Einstein is said to have remarked “I would have been sorry for the Lord if it had been otherwise”. En passant, Eddington was not a Lord, only a Sir). There were serious allegations of bias and measurement inaccuracy over the next decade. Bias because Eddington was a pacifist and a great personal admirer of Einstein; error because compared with later day measurements his instruments and methods were crude. But all’s well that ends well; thousands of experiments over time have confirmed that the general relativity is spot on.

While I am about it I may as well let you in on another secret. Eddington got into a spat with Subramanyam Chandrasekhar who was then a Cambridge student. The latter predicted black-holes (long before Stephen Hawking) purely mathematically from general relativity but Eddington refused to accept purely mathematical “proofs”. This despite Eddington being the first ever Cambridge second year student to be made Senior Wrangler. Eventually, cosmology proved Chandrasekhar right and Eddington wrong. One more story which witnesses swear is true: After a Royal Society talk a member of the audience approached Eddington and referred to him as one of only three men who understood general relativity. Eddington paused for a moment. When pressed he mused “Oh, I was wondering who the third might be!” Science joke, not funny, ok sorry.

Moral relativism

The question of moral relativism has come up quite forcefully recently both in Lanka and internationally. I have been grumbling bitterly during the last six months that Sirisena and Ranil are impotent to take firm and decisive action against political racists, religious bigots in the Sangha and internal forces in the government obstructing legal action against Rajapaksa era rouges. The two of them have also not shown any spunk in bringing saboteurs like the GMOA and student hooligans to book. Perhaps the ejection of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe will improve things – fingers crossed!

Recent research has shown that male sperm count is falling all over the world and as a result political leaders are on the run. President Trump is one of the worst since the consequences for the world far outweigh Ranil and Sirisena. He swings spiritedly hither and thither, encourages white supremacists and neo-Nazis, threatens global war and attempts to scuttle health care for the poor. As a result his business councils abandon him in embarrassment, people in his party distance themselves and even a Christian leader resigns from Trump’s council of religious advisors. The last straw must have been when four out of five Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military issued a statement, not naming the President but reiterating a commitment that eschews all forms of racism and discrimination in the service. This was as close as the American military has come to mutiny since the Civil War. The President is trapped in a moral dilemma, while neo-populism as an answer to the ills of capitalism is failing and his personal idiosyncrasies becomes unbearable. He is all over the place; at one moment inciting neo-Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, at another condemning white supremacists. On Tuesday he beat a retreat to Phoenix, Arizona to rally the remnants of his troops. A low sperm count evokes extraordinary results!

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