Researchers / Scientists / Writers

Dr. R.O.B Wijesekera: ‘Clouds are not spheres, nor mountains cones’

“When one reaches the 80th year, one enters the realm of the legendary octogenarian,” writes Dr. R.O.B. Wijesekera. “There is little to look forward to, save the antics, memorable as they are, of grandkids; and then there looms the danger of ill-health, incapacitation and the manifestations of infirmity. In compensation, however, there is a world of experience to look back on, before one’s faculties, become sacrificial to the passage of residual time.”

The lines serve as the opening salvo in an autobiography written by one of Sri Lanka’s finest scientists. Still, to call it an autobiography isn’t entirely accurate – in part because it only covers the years from 1977 to 1991 (beginning when the author was in his late forties) but also because it is equally a diary and a travelogue.

Filled with quirky anecdotes, piercing character sketches and observations on the politics of survival in organizations like WHO, UNIDO and CISIR, the book incorporates both professional accomplishments and personal details. In these pages, Dr. Wijesekera recounts science and research ‘missions’ that took him to Guyana, Geneva, Vietnam and Vienna and also details trips to London, Madagascar, Hawaii, Seoul, Hong Kong, Chambesy, Mali, Carabelligasse, Mulund, Budalalasz, Budapest, Kathmandu, Hanghou, Bonn, Prague, New York, Delhi, Portofino, Barbados and Chicago.

He observes each country through the eyes of a seasoned traveller and his prose combines both the poetic and scientific. In Guyana, for instance, he describes trips down creeks where the water was like ‘light tea,’ and then explains that the colour tones came from the ‘tannins and the polyphenols from fallen leaves.’ Waxing lyrical about the ‘striking array of colours’ on display in a Viennese autumn, he then attributes them ‘to the changes in a single class of compounds known as “carotenoids.” As a frequent traveller, he finds his sense of humour invaluable: in Vietnam, I slept with the radio on all night,” he says, explaining that this was his strategy for keeping the rats away from his bed.

However, having slipped off his travelling shoes, in recent years Dr. Wijesekera has called Sri Lanka home. He is famously a key player in the success enjoyed by LINK Natural where he is a Director and Consultant, having helped the company create its range of natural medicines and cosmetics. When we first meet him he tells us that he and his delightful wife Marina Wijesekera are still recovering from moving house this April.

Dr. Wijesekera : Two other
projects lined up

Their new apartment is smaller and easier to manage, even if the sound from the traffic on the street below is occasionally irritating. On a table beside us is a copy of his book ‘Clouds are not spheres, nor mountains cones’ – the title an allusion to a certain Prof. Benoit Mandelbrot’s ‘Science of Roughness’ and the idea that ‘nothing is perfect and everything could be understood as approximations and compromises, striving to fit into the shape of the real things.’

The book opens with Dr. Wijesekera hearing of his Guinness Award win, honouring his research on spices and essential oils, via telegram. An unfortunate but hilarious error in syntax conveys to him that he has won but that his wife has stopped loving him. It begins a rollercoaster of touring that has him travelling first to Guyana – where he finds the living is “easy but not satisfying” – and then to Geneva. In the latter, he is styled as the ‘Manager of the Task Force for Research on Indigenous plants for Fertility Regulation’ for a special WHO research programme. It proved to be one of the most challenging of his career. As one of the very first managers from a third world country Dr. Wijesekera writes that he faced some ‘well-disguised hostility.’ But beyond that, the logistics were taxing.

The sprawling project demanded cooperation between several centres scattered across the globe. “You can’t imagine how slow communications were then,” he says, remembering a world run on the telex network

The third section of the book, one of four large chapters, begins with a description of their move to Vienna where Dr. Wijesekera would work with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). Here his boss was the “incomparable” ‘Atchuk’ Tcheknavorian, a woman alternately described as the most hated or most influential female on the premises. It was she who designed the foundation for a project which Dr. Wijesekera would later develop – the ‘Industrial Utilisation of Medicinal Plants and Essential Oils’. He would later work on developing essential oils for LINK as well, and says he flew down often in the company’s early years. Today he is pleased with their progress – having re-popularised Ayurveda for the 21st century; the company prides itself on its production standards and quality control.

Dr. Wijesekera with wife Marina ready to bid au revoir to Chambesy – destined for Vienna – 1981

The range of his professional experiences are quite extraordinary, but in between describing them, Dr. Wijesekera manages to devote a considerable chunk of the book to his family –from births to weddings and funerals. As you’d expect, raising five children is a considerable challenge, but even today Dr. Wijesekera’s pride and pleasure in them is evident. He takes the same approach to Marina’s accomplishments, noting with particular pride her successes as the first the Vice-President and then the President of the United Nations Women’s Guild in Vienna.

The book has been two years in the writing – the process expedited by the gift of a laptop from his children on his eightieth birthday. The incredible detail in there owes its preservation to 36 notebooks in which he noted down the minutiae of his many missions. He says that his ambition for the book was twofold – “one is you have to share your experiences with the world, and my experiences have been unique.” The second he sees as both a defence and a plea – as a scientist working with WHO and UNIDO, Dr. Wijesekera went hands on, interacting with a wide spectrum of people and putting his knowledge to practical use, quite unlike the popular conception of what such postings entail. He hopes that the decisions of who gets such jobs will continue to be made on the basis of qualifications rather than political connections.

Having finished the book, Dr. Wijesekera says he already has two other projects lined up – compilations of his speeches and his published essays. A one-time Chairman of the National Science and Technology Commission and a past President of the Institute of Chemistry of Ceylon and the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Wijesekera was awarded the Vidya Jyothi by the President of Sri Lanka and a honorary D.Sc from the University of Sheffield. Today, he continues to be a passionate advocate of nurturing research and scientific development in Sri Lanka, leading the way by example.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 8, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara.

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