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Sri Lankan Skies
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March 19-24, 2001

The magic year is almost here. The year of Hal. The year of the Monolith. The year of the Odyssey. The year of the film that changed the world. The year that once was oh so far in the future. But now it is almost here.

You remember the film. Perhaps you saw it in 1968 when Clarke and Kubrick forever changed what a science fiction film should be. Perhaps you saw it later. But whenever it was that you saw it, the film was a masterwork of art. It redefined a standard, and all the future films have followed in its wake.

When the Space Odyssey first lit up the cinema screens, Sri Lanka was still called Ceylon, IPS had not been born, Apollo 8 had not circled the Moon, and most of us were not yet planetarians, and perhaps not even dreaming about it. But the film asked us who we were, and in its soaring mix of art and action, it inspired a new generation of spacefarers. Perhaps you were among them.

Stanley Kubrick the director is gone, but the brilliant writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke is alive and well and living in paradise. Paradise means Sri Lanka-"beautiful island!"-and Sir Arthur, now in his 80s, is an honored icon in his adopted home.

I had the high honor of meeting Sir Arthur in February during a visit to Sri Lanka. Though I didn't quite muster up the courage to ask him, I'd bet he didn't really expect to see the film's magic year for himself. But that year is almost here, and with it you'll have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Sir Arthur in the magic year itself.

What's the occasion? A unique international conference-"Sri Lankan Skies and Sir Arthur: a 2001 Odyssey"-will convene in Sri Lanka next March. Sir Arthur himself will deliver the keynote address. Paper sessions and panel discussions will center on the theme "Teaching the Universe in the 21st century," a subject that's important to us all. Three days in the island's interior will feature night sky observing under truly dark skies, day and evening visits with enthusiastic astronomy students and their teachers, and time to see the landscape that bestows the island's name which means "resplendent land!". Yes, it's a long airplane flight to get there, but if the week I spent in February is any indication, you are in for a real treat if you attend this special conference.

A Day to Remember in Sri Lanka's Planetarium

Sri Lanka is served by a single planetarium in the capital city of Colombo. Directed by T. C. Samaranayaka, the 23-meter, 570-seat facility carries a busy schedule of school and public shows (many in English) that serve Colombo and other nearby cities. Recently equipped computer rooms provide internet resources to many students and a new suite of video, slide, and effects projectors join the Zeiss under the dome. "Sam" also has established a traveling telescope program that has by now served nearly half the students in all of Sri Lanka(!)-and so it should come as no surprise that he is planning the conference agenda to include real night observing under ink-black skies.

My visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the annual awards ceremony honoring top-notch astronomy students and the winners in the year 2000 national astronomy exhibition sponsored by the Planetarium. En route to the planetarium, the driver kept reiterating that we needed to arrive at exactly 10:15 am. Soon enough, I saw why. Sir Arthur was waiting for the IPS President, and we were introduced and shook hands. But the conversation was brief, for an honor guard attired in brilliant red awaited our attention. They sounded the call with their sea horns, they beat out the step with their drums, and then to our front and sides, they led the way to the dome. It was really a moment of honor for all planetarians.

Sacred space, someone called our domes. Perhaps. But even if not, this processional moment was a reminder to me that the work we do is significant, that it affects lives, and that we are indeed a global profession. In my remarks to the assembled students, I spoke of the common thread-our passion for the universe-that unites us and brings us together across the lands and languages. I really did feel very much at home in another dome nearly ten thousand miles and a dozen time zones away from the one I work in-at home because the room was filled with kindred spirits, from my gracious host to the throng of students.

My gaze stole across the room to the 400 students and teachers who had assembled there. We came from different nations, different cultures, different languages almost, different generations, different faiths, different economies. But the thread we shared in common was the greater one and after the formal ceremonies, we could have spent all day talking. As Sam, Sir Arthur, and I alternated in handing out prizes, I stood in awe of the talent that walked before me. Even though I was handing prizes to them, the real flow of inspiration came from them to me. Look at what they have done already, I thought. Look at the enthusiasm that flows from their shy smiles. What will they be doing in ten years, I wondered? Will they maintain this interest as adults, I both hoped and expected. Might some go into the sciences as a career? The late Cyril Ponnamperuma, an early leader in exobiology, was a son of Sri Lanka. At least one future scientist was among the award winners, a young man named Jagath, and the next morning Sam and I visited him at his jungle home to see his self-made nature museum, observatory, and other projects. I hope I can see his work again in another ten or twenty years. Again, Sam and I agreed that it was the student who, quite unknowingly, had inspired us. Is it not often so? I will long remember this day as a highlight of my career as a planetarian and member of IPS.

Conference Activities

Conference host T. C. Samaranayaka is passionately concerned with the issues of education and that focus has shaped the conference theme-"Teaching the Universe in the 21st century"-which centers on education. So this conference on Asian soil provides a chance for a special set of planetarians and astronomy educators to meet and share insights on this topic that lies at the heart of all that we do in the planetarium. Depending somewhat on the mix of registrants, the formal sessions will be a mixture of papers and panel discussions. And what more appropriate time and place than in the year 2001 in the adopted homeland and presence of the man whose "2001: A Space Odyssey" inspired so many of us.

So the conference will open with two days of formal sessions at the conference hotel in Colombo. These days will also include a visit to the Planetarium and the address by Sir Arthur.

Then the conference will leave Colombo and move to the island's cooler interior. These subsequent days will provide ample time for those invaluable informal discussions that follow the formal sessions. To help plan this more mobile part of the itinerary, Sam and I departed Colombo after the awards ceremony described above and we drove northeast up to the village of Habarane which lies just north of the island's center. Here I exchanged the 5-star Lanka Oberoi Hotel of Colombo for a delightful chalet at the Habarane Lodge, a very pleasant lakeside resort. It would have been easy to spend the day lounging around the lawns and open-air dining areas. But we were scouting out potential night-sky observing sites for the conference and found a prime site a few minutes' walk from the Lodge. Free of both intrusive and indirect lighting, this generous rock outcrop provides an accessible and spacious area with a clear 360¡ horizon. At about 8¡ north of the Equator, the site will provide a clear view of the southern sky for us boreals starved for the sight of the Southern Cross and a clear view of the northern sky for australs begging for the Big Dipper. Conference plans call for two nights at the Habarane Lodge with observing on both nights, weather permitting, or alternate activities in the unlikely event of clouds.

Another unique feature of this conference will be the opportunity to meet local students and teachers. Tentative plans call for a visit to a school near Habarane on the afternoon we arrive and the chance to spend time with students chosen for their good work and active interest in astronomy. Later, they will also join us for night-sky observing. We'll have some time to see the skies ourselves first, and then we'll help share these skies with the students. We are teachers, aren't we, in our various ways, and don't we learn best by sharing our newfound knowledge with others? While the larger scales of an IPS conference tend to hinder opportunities like this, the more intimate scale of "Sri Lankan SkiesÉ" will encourage this type of activity.

From my own time spent with students at the awards ceremony described above, I can assure you that this will be a real treat, though I realize that most readers need no such persuasion. While I enjoyed giving my formal remarks and a solar system talk at the ceremony, it was much more fun answering questions and enjoying the give-and-take of the informal conversation afterwards where the "expert" has as much to learn as the "student."

You can also reach for the stars in a quite different way at Habarane, for it is only a short drive to the world heritage site of Sigiriya. This 5th century fortress sits atop a stunning rock outcrop that presses skyward 600 feet (200 meters) from the surrounding plains. You can work off all that tasty seafood and rice you had for lunch by climbing to the top. It is only 1000 safe steps up, and even the acrophobic prez managed to conquer them. You are a wee bit nearer (half of) the stars when you reach the top, the view is incredible, you earn a spell in the King's Seat (with no danger of a head-lopping to follow), and the walk down is easier, thanks to both gravity and exhilaration. Conference plans call for an afternoon visit to Sigiriya with a chance for the adventurous to climb it. Earlier in the day there will likely be time for an elephant ride or a jeep safari to look for wildlife.

From Habarane, the conference bus will wend its way south into the central highlands, and exchange low-lying rice paddies for tea fields that cling to hillsides once you're above a few hundred meters elevation. The route will climb to the former capital of Kandy in a scenic mountain setting and twist on up to Nuwara Eliya, clinging to the slopes that crown the island's 2000-meter crest. A few switchbacks more, and then the bus will descend into Bandarawela, a pleasant town perched in the southern highlands, and graced by a classic 1890s colonial style hotel. Here will be the final observing site, most likely at an outlying school, where again we'll meet the local students and share skywatching together.

Along the way from Habarane to Bandarawela, Sam and I scouted out a variety of other observing sites but in the end preferred the two mentioned here as providing the best combination of dark skies and ease of accessibility. One stunning site we checked was called Lipton's Seat (this is tea country, after all). Hidden at the end of a precipitous heart-stopping jeep trail twisting above the tea fields in the middle of nowhere, it was a thrilling site that few visitors ever see (we walked in the last 2 km), but we feared the trail would be too risky after dark and the ride too far after a full day already on the road. If you are ever in Sri Lanka with a full day to spare, try to get there-regretfully, there's not enough time in the conference schedule to make it.

After a final night in Bandarawela, the conference bus will return to Colombo, with a cultural stop or two en route if time permits, and depending on whether the preceding night was clear or cloudy. There will be a while to relax in Colombo before transfer to the airport to meet the flights departing for home.


So the tentative conference agenda is this:

Sunday, March 18:

  • late night arrival in Colombo
  • (or arrive one day earlier)
  • overnight at Lanka Oberoi
Monday, March 19:
  • conference begins early afternoon
  • paper sessions/panel discussion
  • visit to planetarium
  • overnight at Lanka Oberoi
Tuesday, March 20:
  • paper sessions/panel discussion
  • address by Sir Arthur C. Clarke
  • overnight at Lanka Oberoi
Wednesday, March 21:
  • bus to Habarane (morning)
  • visit to school (afternoon)
  • night-sky observing (evening)
  • overnight at Habarane Lodge
Thursday, March 22:
  • free time in morning, or
  • elephant or jeep safari (morning)
  • visit to Sigiriya fortress (afternoon)
  • night-sky observing (evening)
  • overnight at Habarane Lodge
Friday, March 23:
  • travel to Bandarawela (day)
  • night-sky observing (evening)
  • overnight at Bandarawela
Saturday, March 24:
  • return to Colombo (day)
  • late evening departure for home
Conference Arrangements

All flights to and from Sri Lanka use the Bandaranaike International Airport a half-hour drive from Colombo. I found that arrival formalities were easy and currency exchange was readily available at the airport. Most international flights tend to arrive and depart in the middle of the night due to the time zone Sri Lanka is located in. The conference will provide transfer between the airport and the conference hotel in Colombo on both arrival and departure.

Prices in Sri Lanka, including lodging, food, and transportation, will seem quite reasonable to most visitors. The conference registration fee will cover conference costs, all transportation within Sri Lanka, and most meals. The registration form will also include lines to reserve and pay for hotel accommodation.

The conference dates will be March 19-24, 2001, set to fall near a new moon late in the dry season, and chosen to give the best chance of clear, dark skies, moderate hotel rates, and (for most) low-season airfares. These dates are also chosen to allow all international travel to be completed on the weekends before and after the conference.

For most delegates, the most expensive item will be the international air travel, and the conference organizers expect to seek a special conference rate for a common flight from a European gateway to assist European and North American delegates. Final prices are not yet determined at the time I am writing this in mid-April.

I spent my two nights in Colombo at the Lanka Oberoi, which will be the conference hotel and site for most of the sessions in Colombo except for events at the Planetarium. The Oberoi, a 5-star hotel, is an excellent and comfortable facility that is a frequent conference site in Colombo, and in fact a small international meeting was being held there during my days in town.

The food was excellent both at the Oberoi and throughout my stay in Sri Lanka. The hotel buffets tend to offer both Western and Lankan foods, and the local restaurants serve a tasty Lankan menu. The native dishes are usually based on rice mixed with a tempting variety of seafood, veggies, or meat. It helps if you like it spicy and if you don't ask what everything is, and it's even better when you get to enjoy it at an open-air table.

Despite press reports that might have led me to expect otherwise, I felt quite safe at all times during my days in Sri Lanka, and found no cause to be worried about personal safety beyond the normal precautions I would take in any large city, and the countryside along the conference route is as peaceful as countryside anywhere. Though few Americans realize it (I did not), Sri Lanka's beaches and highlands draw many European vacationers seeking to escape the winter's dark and gloom. Colleagues who had previously spent time in Sri Lanka told me to expect a warm and gracious welcome, and that is exactly what I found, and it is what you can expect too.

You can find further details in the article by T. C. Samaranayaka that appears elsewhere in this issue. A conference web site will be opened soon; the URL is not determined at the time of this writing, but a link to it will be installed on the IPS web site. Look for a conference mailing in August or September.

So as you prepare to attend IPS 2000 in MontrŽal and start planning for IPS 2002 in Morelia, Mexico, here is a great way to observe that most special year in between-2001-in a unique way. I am looking forward to returning to Sri Lanka on this special occasion and hope that many of you will join me.

Dale W. Smith
Associate Professor & Planetarium Director
Department of Physics & Astronomy
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403

phone 1-419-372-8666
fax 1-419-372-9938

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