Commoner's scientist passes away

Cyril Ponnamperuma's death leaves a void in the world's scientific community

By Nalaka Gunawardene
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- CYRIL Ponnamperuma, a luminary in the field of science and technology, spent most of his life delving into the mysteries of Earth's past. When he died in Washington on December 20, 1994, at the age of 71, the world lost a rare scientist: one who believed in the ability of science to transform the lives of people at the bottom of the social barrel.

He was an internationally recognised researcher, working on the origins of life, and a leading promoter of science in the developing world. Born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1923, he had his early education in Sri Lanka and India, where he received a baccalaureate in philosophy. He went on to obtain a bachelors in chemistry from London's Birkbeck College in 1959, and a doctorate in chemistry from Berkeley in 1962. At the time of his death, he was professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Maryland at College Park, US, and headed its laboratory of chemical evolution.

As one of the world's leaders in his field, Ponnamperuma spent more than 30 years trying to solve the riddle of the "spontaneous creation" of life on earth. He followed the theory of chemical evolution, and demonstrated in laboratory experiments that the chemicals present in the primordial seas on Earth could have given rise to complex molecules which serve as the basic building blocks of life.

In 1983, he and his team discovered a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite in Australia, containing 5 chemicals that combine to form DNA and RNA which make up the genetic material that leads human life by the nose. "We have found the precursors of life, and with this our expectations of life in the universe have got a tremendous boost," Ponnamperuma said.

He spent 9 years in the Exobiology Division of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), where he became chief of its Chemical Evolution Branch. He was NASA's obvious choice as the main investigator to carry out organic analysis of lunar soil samples returned to Earth by the Apollo missions that began in 1969.

Ponnamperuma was convinced about the contribution that science and technology could make for the betterment of human life in the developing world. "Science and technology is the prime area in which the developing nations have to invest their resources to achieve economic development," he explained. He often used an adaptation of C V Raman's words: "What the developing world needs is science, more science, and still more science."

He worked with organisations like CHEMRAWN (Chemical Research Applied to World Needs), and was the was chairperson of the Third World Foundation of North America, which sought to promote the use of science and technology for economic development in developing countries. He was recently appointed the head of his University's North-South Centre for Sustainable Development.

Ponnamperuma's activism transcended his own discipline. Elected a fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences in 1985, he worked closely with the organisation to promote science and infrastructural facilities in developing countries. He firmly believed that the only viable way to sustain the spirit and momentum of science was to make people understand and appreciate the processes of science. He often said that most scientific research and institutions were supported by public funds, and hence people had a right to know what scientists were doing. He held that if the citizens were unaware, the government would also be negligent.

Ponnamperuma served his nation as the presidential science and technology advisor for 10 years. He was also director of the Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Sri Lanka's premier research institute in Kandy. He helped found the Arthur C Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies in Moratuwa, and served as its first director. His many honours included several honorary doctorates from universities around the world: the first, AI OparinGold Medal for the "best sustained programme" on the origin of life (1980), and UMCP's first Distinguished International Service Award (1991). He was nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and was elected to the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences only 2 months before his death.

Rajendra K Pachauri, director of the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), one of Ponnamperuma's many admirers and associates in India, described him as a man with vision. "I don't know of another single Third World scientist who has done so much for developing science and technology capacity in developing countries," he says.

---Nalaka Gunawardene is a Sri Lankan science and environmental writer.

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