Popular writer on the origin and diversity of planetary systems and the formation of stars and brown dwarfs.
"Where do we fit in? How does our solar system stack up against others? It’s a question broader than science, and yet almost within our reach scientifically. The times we live in just happen to be the time in which I can go out and get some partial answers. The frontier is open and you can go out and play."
Ray Jayawardhana is part of a new breed of Canadian scientists. This new breed comes from around the world, collaborates with worldwide partners, and believes that science outreach goes well beyond press releases.
The associate professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto has had a long journey from his native Sri Lanka to Canada. He first became interested in astronomy and space as a young boy longing to fly to the Moon. That soon progressed into a love of the stars, and in 1985 with the return of Halley’s comet he joined a newly formed amateur astronomy club in Sri Lanka. “I had a lot of fun making friends and doing activities,” said Jayawardhana, “plus it kept the interest alive.”
In fact his interest led him to learn impeccable English. “I learned English in school but never had a great incentive to master the language, until at age 13 or 14 when I finished reading all the astronomy books in Sinhala,” said Jayawardhana. “I then realized that there was a huge amount of English literature, so looking up each word with a dictionary I signifcantly improved my English.”
From Sri Lanka he leapt around the world for his undergraduate degree at Yale and a Ph.D. at Harvard and got interested in star formation. In particular, Jayawardhana studies how brown dwarfs form.
If it sounds like Jayawardhana is busy, he is. But, that’s just how he likes it. “In science even the fastest things take a while, so early on I did projects that got quick results,” said Jayawardhana. “Since then, I’ve started a few longer projects, but do the parts that give quick results. I’m quite impatient and like to get things done.”
Perhaps that need to see things done quickly was why he was a science journalist for several Sri Lankan newspapers, the Yale Scientific magazine, as well as the Economist before deciding to pursue research.
“Working at the Economist in London in the science & technology section was great,” said Jayawardhana. “It was neat to talk to to people and lots of fun writing science stories, but in the end research grabbed my interest.”
Yet, he hasn’t given up communicating science to the public. Far from it. Jayawardhana is a contributing editor for Astronomy magazine and writes regular features for the magazine. As well, he is a very active public speaker, talking about his research and astronomy for various scientific and general audiences.
Jayawardhana even organized a series of sold-out talks at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. The Cosmic Frontiers lecture series was held on Friday evenings in the Fall of 2005 and had nearly 1500 attendees each night. “Canadians talk a lot about film and art, but not science,” said Jayawardhana. “It’s not part of culture and heritage, but it should be.”
And, there are signs that Jayawardhana’s outreach efforts are bearing fruit. “I got these letters from little kids who had to pick their favourite planet and do a project. Some of them picked exosolar planets and wrote to me to tell about their project.”
If inspiring grade school kids to do projects on exoplanets is any indication, then this new breed of engaged international scientists will usher in some tremendous successes.
By Graeme Stemp-Morlock
“The earliest memory of science I can remember was when I was four years old, and my father told me about moon landings, which I thought were really cool. When I was really young, I wanted to be a pilot. But, I thought, forget being a pilot I will go to the moon. It was hard to imagine that people had been there. Space is hard for a kid to understand, whereas the moon was a real place and made a real impression. The adventure side of space, being an astronaut and space, led to an interest in astronomy, archaeology, neuroscience, etc.”