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!
Perth, Western Australia
9 November 2015