Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Yes of course I do!" said Professor Mahalingam

(This is part 2 of an article written by Rasika Suriyaarachchi. Read Part 1:

Despite being there at Peradeniya for four years and despite being lectured by him in my second and fourth years, unfortunately, I have had only two opportunities of talking with Mahalingam.

The first of those instances was in the last few weeks of my final year of studies.

During out time, it was mandatory for final year students to study a set of five subjects. Industrial Engineering was the only common subject for all of engineering undergraduates and for those who were specialising in Mechanical Engineering and Production Engineering, there were about 30 of us, Mechanics of Machines lectured by Mahalingam was a compulsory subject.

In addition to the five mandatory subjects, those who wish to pass with honours in Engineering, ie, get a "class", were required to take up two minor subjects known as the B-course. As these were usually extensions of mandatory subjects, the lectures for these B-course subjects usually start once the course proper, ie, A-course, were over and done with towards the end of third term of the academic year.

Two subjects I picked were Production Cost Control offered by the Department of Production Engineering and Operational Research and Statistics offered by the Department of Engineering Mathematics.

Then, with just a week or so left in the academic year, Mahalingam announced one day that lectures for his A-course subject are over and he is offering a B-course subject on Mechanics of Machines from next week with probably a few extra lectures at the end. He wanted to know how many would be registering for this subject.

No one raised their hands.

As I said previously, even though there were perhaps a maximum of 15 students attending on a given day, there were about 30 students in the cohort for Mahalingam's A-course. Out of this group perhaps there were six or seven students who were interested in taking up two B-courses in order to pass with honours. Obviously, all of them had already picked their two subjects and were attending lecturers for a couple of weeks now.

Mahalingam looked annoyed to say the least. He announced that for the first time in his teaching career he sees a cohort of mechanical engineering students with none wanting to take his B-course. This means, in his mind that no one is aiming to graduate with a class.

At that point, a lone hand was raised. That was Sandhya, the only girl in the Mechanical Engineering group. There was one girl, Vajirapani, in the Production Engineering group as well. She and I already had Operations Research from the department of mathematics and production cost analysis from department of productions engineering selected as our B-course subjects, just like me.

Mahalingam who had already packed up his teaching paraphernalia, left the class room suddenly. Obviously in disgust!

I too rushed out to the corridor and rushed after him as I wanted to put the record straight.

“All of us who want to take up the B-course subjects have already done so a few weeks back Sir”, I told with his respect, “and we had no idea until today that you will be offering a subject as well.”

He appeared to understand the situation but again said that he has offered this B-course subject every year in the past and this is perhaps going to be the first year where it is not!

My second opportunity to interact with Mahalingam came up nearly seven years after the first instance.

I went to the Faculty premises on that day to see the Engineering Exhibition and saw a group of academics including Ranaweera and Mahalingam and some office bearers of the PEFAA in the middle of that famous corridor. Ranaweera saw me and said hello. He was the dean those days and knew me a bit because of my involvement with PEFAA as a committee member.

I stopped there for a brief chat. Ranaweera then introduced to me to Mahalingam asking "This is Rasika. He graduated a few years back. You remember him, right?"
"Yes of course I do!" said Mahalingam.

Now, whether he knew me as a student in his Mechanics of Machines class seven years back or he simply pretended that he remembers me with good intentions, I don’t know for sure.

But it does not matter at all.

Adios Professor, rest in peace!

-Rasika Suriyaarachchi [E/81/214]


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My distant memories about Professor S Mahalingam - Rasika Suriyaarachchi

"Don't go to Peradeniya", a friend of mine advised me strongly when he heard about my intention of studying Engineering at Peradeniya University, "the teaching staff there are BAD for students"!

Of course, I did not listen to him.

Peradeniya was my dream.

But, it was not a dream about engineering at all. My dreams were rather about Hanthana Mountains, Mahaweli River, Lover’s Lane and walking paths coved with Roberrosia petals. That colourful dream was painted in my mind by all those novels, short stories, poems and songs that I had devoured with enthusiasm while studying horrible chemistry, boring pure mathematics, a bit better physics and not-so-bad applied mathematics for the advanced level examination.

As I later found out, my friend was correct, well, at least to a certain extent.

We had some horrible lecturers during our first year with notable exceptions of witty and entertaining Ranatunga, can listen to Ranaweera, somewhat sleepy Maliyasena, neutral Samuel and the sleepy surveying lecturer whose name is not in my mind any longer.

Ours were the days when students at the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty who have definitely done very well at the extremely competitive advanced level examination to get selected to study engineering, were performing very poorly and failing miserably in their university examinations. At the end of our first year of studies, out of batch of 250, about 35 of my fellow batchmates failed to gain entry to the second year of study despite having two chances to pass five out of seven subjects.

However, more or less the same number of students from the batch a year senior to us, had already joined us by that time having had the same fate a year or so before. Therefore, there were still about 250 students at the end of our second year to sit the examinations.

Thirty five students (out of 250) failing to proceed to the second year of study may sound a disaster. However, that was a much better situation than the previous couple of years (before our entry into the faculty) where as many as sixty students have met with the same fate two years in a row.

I have heard some argue that language difficulties faced by students are the main reason for these mass scale failures. That may be just one contributing factor but not at all the end of the story.

We had Sinhala and Tamil lectures for Thermo Dynamics, Fluid Mechanics and Materials Science during most of our first year. That did not mean at all that students performed well in those subjects. Besides, Workshop Technology which was entirely taught in English was perhaps the subject that everyone fared well. Sanath Ranatunga who lectured Workshop Technology undoubtedly won the best lecturer trophy in our first year.

It was pretty obvious that the way knowledge is disseminated to the student by means of lectures was a critical factor in horribly poor performance by otherwise bright students in the faculty. Needless to say, lecturers had a lot to answer here, if they had any concerns about the plight of the students, that is!

I was with a group of senior students working on the one-man musical show of Cyril Galappathi when the news broke out that Thureirajah has been elected as the new dean of the faculty replacing Jayasekara. I very well remember how joyful our seniors became when they heard the news. They were of course still bitter with Jayasekara, having undergone a lengthy struggle during Jayasekara's Deanship to get a decent timetable for year-end examinations. Thureirajah was known as a kind hearted man and an excellent lecturer as well. But he was only teaching third and fourth year students who specialised in civil engineering.

Our second year was not any better when the lecturers are concerned. Needless to say, Gunawardena who lectured applied electricity (or electronics as it was better known) was the worst of the lot. He was more fearsome than Jayatilake and Sivasegaram who lectured us Physics II in the first year, put together.

Fortunately, Mahalingam who lectured us Mechanics of Machines was a dream-come-true for all of us. He was definitely from a different world than the world the most of the other lecturers came from. Mahalingam was extremely methodical in his teaching, neat and precise in his writing on the blackboard, courteous towards students and most of all he was very handsome and charming. He won the hearts of all of us within five minutes of his first lecture itself.

Lectures on Mechanics of Machines required a lot of geometrical diagrams and equations to explain the concepts. Mahalingam came to the lecture theatre equipped with a large wooden compass with a piece of chalk attached to one arm and he drew perfect circles and arcs on the blackboard using that. I think, he also carried a large wooden divider as well and used that wherever it was required to divide a line into equal segments. He also had a good collection of chalks of different colours and his teaching paraphernalia included his own duster as well to wipe out the board once it is needed to write on again.

With all that near perfect qualities as a lecturer, not only he was able to teach us the concepts of the subject effectively but also he did enable us to take good quality complete notes.

Mahalingam also carried a set of hand written notes with him in a file and he would refer to them while lecturing and drawing on the board. When he turned pages of those notes, if you are sitting in one of the front rows, you would notice that they are pretty old and fading in colour. It was an often cited joke that those notes he was using are from the 50s, when he started teaching the subject.

The other thing we noted was that being a mechanical engineer he was still using the mechanical slide ruler to work out the answers for examples he used in lectures. During the study leave period when we work the same examples out we see that the answers we get using our electronic calculators were always a few decimal places different from his answers.

There is no shame in saying that as undergraduates at the Faculty of Engineering at University of Peradeniya, most of us were quite afraid of lecturers such as Jayathilake, Sivasegaram, Gunawardena and to a certain extent Jayasekara. If we see them walking towards us in the faculty corridor, it was always advisable to avoid facing them or walk with your eyes set downwards. Often said story about Jayatilake that he would even keep his eyes on students walking on the road connecting the faculty building with Gampola Road with special rear-view mirrors in his car was not just an urban myth as we found out on 4 March 1985. Furthermore, who would ever forget the "heh, heh, heh, Kalu Banda!" freaky story about Gunawardena once you hear about it?

However, seeing Mahalingam walking along the corridor from the faculty car park close to the canteen towards his office in machine lab or walking along university roads close to Sangamitta was always a pleasant scene. In some of his evening walks, we have seen his wife joining him as well.

Despite being there at Peradeniya for four years and despite being lectured by him in my second and fourth years, unfortunately, I have had only two opportunities of talking with Mahalingam.

I will write about those two encounters in the second part of this article.

Link to part-II:

-Rasika Suriyaarachchi [E/81/214]


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rest in Peace Sir - In Memory of Professor Selvadurai Mahalingam

Engineering community of the world has lost a role model. It is hard to comprehend that a person of Professor Selvadurai Mahalingam’s quality ever walked on this planet. In order to come to terms with the grief of his passing away I thought I would pen down my thoughts on this great person.

My first impressions of Professor Mahalingam were his graceful and upright walk along the engineering faculty corridors in December 1970 during our first year. Sometimes he visited our engineering drawing classes for a quick walk through. Apart from that there was no other interaction with him in the first year. Before long I began to learn the credentials of this great person.

Professor Mahalingam was born in Jaffna on 16 January 1926 and at a very young age he moved to Malaya (present day Malaysia) with his parents. He had his primary and secondary education at Maxwell College and later at Victoria College of Kuala Lampur, Malaya. At the age of 20 (1946) Professor Mahalingam returned to Sri Lanka and joined the Technical College, Colombo for his tertiary studies which lead to his first engineering degree. In 1950 the Colombo Engineering Faculty was opened where Prof. Mahalingam joined as a lecturer.

Later he was awarded a research opportunity at Sheffield University through which he obtained his PhD in 1956. He continued his research work in the UK for a few more years and then he returned to Sri Lanka to continue as a lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering, Colombo. While serving as a lecturer he continued his research work on mechanical vibrations and published many papers. Among his many research publications ‘Forced Vibration of Systems with Nonlinear, Non-symmetrical Characteristics (Journal of Applied Mechanics, 1957)’ and ‘An Improvement of the Holzer Method (ASME, 1958)’ were considered ground breaking. In the 1960s London University awarded the highly prestigious accolade Doctor of Science (DSc) to professor Mahalingam for his pioneering work on vibrations. Prof. Mahalingam was the only Sri Lankan engineer to have obtained a Doctor of Science accolade until that time.

One of Professor Mahalingam’s important achievements was the resolution of torsional vibration problems of the Rolls Royce MK 101 turbo-jet engines that powered the Avro Vulcan Royal Airforce (RAF) aircraft. This finding was so significant to Avro aircraft manufacturing company (and to the RAF) that he was asked to name virtually anything as a token of appreciation for his contribution to the development of the engine. The aircraft company would have expected Professor Mahalingam to request something like a top of the range Rolls Royce car or similar but Professor Mahalingam opted for a cut away section of a Rolls Royce Mk II turbo jet engine so that the students of the Faculty of Engineering, Peradeniya could use it to study and understand the interior mechanics of a turbo-jet engine. The sectioned Rolls Royce MK II jet engine still stands at the entrance foyer of the Faculty of Engineering. This gesture alone epitomises the noble values that Professor Mahalingam stood for.

A few glimpses of Professor Mahalingam in our first year and the stories about his accolades prepared us for the rich wonder world of Mechanics of Machines in the following year. We all eagerly waited for our Mechanics of Machines lectures and we were never disappointed.

The punctuality of his arrival at the lecture theatre, his neat and tidy appearance, his stature, the clarity and the tone of his speech, his handwriting on the board, his drawing of the circle on the board with the wooden compass, illustration of the notes with different colour crayons were hallmarks of a great learning experience for us. Listening to his lectures was a pleasure and his lecture notes were so complete and needed no additional referencing or motivation to understand. He expected the students to be disciplined just like himself and no one dared to enter his lecture room a minute late. He once turned away a lady student arriving at the lecture a few minute late saying: ‘This is not a holiday camp’!

We cherished every moment of interaction with the teacher. Narration of his experience in the UK while researching into the failure of the rotor shaft of R-R Mk 101 turbo engines and the revelation that the torsional - gyroscopic forces were to be blamed for the failure, was his introduction to the topic of Torsional Vibrations.

Third year was special that Professor Mahalingam introduced us to the Theory of Vibrations and the matrix methods of computing solutions to vibration problems. What I learnt 41 years ago from Professor Mahalingam is still current today and applies equally well in engineering. One such example is the solution to the Eigen value problem in order to find the natural frequencies of an elastic structure. Professor Mahalingam demonstrated that the Eigen vectors of an elastic system would form the bases of vibration analysis and predicted that matrix methods of analysis would become common currency in future with the improving computational power.

Those who opted for the elective subject of Mechanics of Machines in the final year were treated to an integration of Strength of Materials and Theory of Elasticity, Mechanics of Machines and Theories of Mechanical Vibrations.

Several occasions I visited him at the Faculty of Engineering I made it a point to let him know how we were using his teachings to great advantage even after more than ten years of been introduced. I could see the sparkle in his eyes. I am glad that Professor Mahalingam lived long enough to experience his predictions coming true and to witness his techniques being used all over the world to resolve vibration related issues.

Out of the many countries that benefitted from Professor Mahalingam’s theories and techniques, New Zealand was one of the first countries to adopt them in structural design.

New Zealand needed these techniques to design earthquake resistant structures in the high seismic activity region as a priority.

After completing my four year course I had the opportunity to serve the faculty as an Assistant Lecturer until I found regular employment in industry. That appointment was to assist Professor Mahalingam with his laboratory, tutorial and drawing office work and I had one of the most enjoyable times of my life. Working closely with Professor Mahalingam I was able to appreciate the foresight and love he had for his work as an academic, a teacher and a mentor. After a few years in industry I visited the Professor to request him to be my sponsor for the IMechE membership, which he gladly agreed to.

I have been an enthusiastic user of the knowledge Professor Mahalingam imparted on me 40 years ago and I still appreciate and enjoy them. Professor Mahalingam’s influence on me probably would have been a reason that I took on static and dynamic stress analysis seriously early in my career. Many times when I performed a modal analysis as part of dynamic analysis, I often remembered the days I was taught by Professor Mahalingam and think of this great teacher with admiration and respect. I am sure many others will be able relate their achievements in life to Professor Mahalingam’s inspiration.

Reading his obituary notice revealed to me that most of his relatives lived in the UK and Canada, and Professor Mahalingam could have easily settled himself in either of the two countries and enjoyed a comfortable life. His choice to live among his fellow countrymen even through the most treacherous times the country had seen, until his death, is a sacrifice only the greatest of human beings can make.

Professor Mahalingam was a brilliant academic, a true gentleman and an inspirational teacher. Above all he was a champion of simplicity and selflessness.

May You Rest in Peace Sir!

Nimal Jayaratne
Perth, Western Australia
9 November 2015