Tom Gehrels: On the Glassy Sea: An Astronomer's Journey

American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988, IX+340 pp.

This book describes the life of an astronomer, beginning with his experiences as a teenager in the Dutch Underground during World War II, his service in Indonesia after the war, his education in the Netherlands and the United States of America, and his work on the properties of asteroids and comets as well as his involvement in the US space program. Prof. Gehrels' work at observatories and universities in the United States of America, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere leads him to refelect on the research enterprise as well as more fundamental questions. He describes experiments in health and his success in healing himself of premature ventricular contractions. His lifelong questioning and search for the truth leads him to ask about the nature of God and atoms and the possible relationships between them. His experiences have led him to a holistic philosophy in which nature is an integrated whole whose aspects are intricately interwined.

With regard to the ongoing efforts of the United Nations, Japan, and Sri Lanka to establish a National Astronomical Observatory at Sri Lanka in 1995, the following is quoted from chapter 19. Sri Lanka's Telescope and Arthur C. Clarke of Tom Gehrels' book:

"From correspondence and through the work of the advisory committee (an Advisory Committee for Astronomy at the University of Sri Lanka had been established in the 1970's to look for possible telescope sites), the following information was gathered for astrophysics in Sri Lanka, as compared with Arizona (USA), for example.

The climate did not seem good enough for a large optical telescope. Data on night-time cloudiness were not available, but the days have about 70% of the sky covered on a yearly and of the sky covered on a yearly and national average. That is at least twice as cloudy as in Arizona, but there are variations that depend on the precise location. For teaching purposes a telescope of moderate size, say 30 inches in diameter, might be installed near a university, in addition to the 10- and 12-inch reflectors that exist in the Colombo area. Later, a telescope as large as a 70- inch might be considered. Radio astronomy is much less affected by clouds, and it therefore seemed more promising for Sri Lanka, especially if it could be done in cooperation with the existing radio observatory at Ootacamund ("Ooty") in south India. Theoretical studies were also recommended, although it was noted that in astrophysics, theory is never far removed from observations. The most interesting debate was on the question of how much should be done by Lankans and to what extent the support should be sought from elsewhere. We seemed to agree that the greatest desired benefit would be obtained if the people did everything themselves, except, perhaps, for the figuring of a large mirror, because the appropriate tooling and experience are difficult to come by. The Lankans' involvement in hardware and software would be good for training of students, and it might stimulate new industries in the country. Telescopes are computer controlled, as is much of the auxiliary instrumentation, and a telescope project would therefore require computer expertise and facilities. A telescope is not easy to install and put into operation; we had learned that lesson from a US-built 48 inch that had been sent to Hyderabad in India, where its operation had been delayed for the longest time. I had learned the same lesson in the engineering for the 28-inch balloon-borne Polariscope. It may be faster to obtain ready-made equipment, but it is better in the end to have it built by a local crew because their expertise is vital during the operation: The people who built the equipment should be available when something goes wrong and needs to be fixed immediately.

We discussed various possibilities for research topics and for observations that could be made from Sri Lanka. The geographical location -latitude near 7 defgrees north- is ideal for observations of objects in the solar system because the ecliptic, the plane of planetary orbits, is never far from the zenith. The situation is better than at Tucson's latitude of 32 degrees. Because the telescope would be of modest size, we suggested observing programs concentrating on bright planetary objects. The center of our Milky Way galaxy is, however, not far from the zenith either, and for giving students a broad training, one should also observe the stars and our galaxy. The Lankan telescope would primarily be a device for teaching and providing some experience with astronomical observing, after which graduate students would travel to lager facilities in better climates to carry out more extensive research. Japan, India, the Vatican, and the United States, among others, have offered cooperation and help in the training of students."


Further reading:


A.C. Clarke: Ascent to Orbit - A Scientific Autobiography. Wiley, New York, 1984.

C. Wickramasinghe (Ed.): Fundamental Studies and the Future of Science. University College Cardiff Press, Cardiff, 1984.