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Friday, 30th October 2008

Rationalism and history

People ask me why the blog articles have been rather infrequent. The answer is that I took leave in the second half of September and spent two weeks travelling in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Furthermore, the Director of the Hong Kong Observatory could be rather busy from time to time, and writing blog articles is in the final analysis a task in the periphery.

The focus of the September trip was the historical city of Samarkand. It was a major node in the Silk Road and was long seen by the Europeans as the Pearl of the Orient. To me, Samarkand is the Hong Kong of Central Asia. The two cities share much in common such as the lack of natural resources and the dependence of prosperity on the flow of information and goods.

As a scientist, the high point in the trip was the visit to the remains of the great observatory built 600 years ago by Ulug Beg, the third ruler of the Timur Empire. There I stood in silence paying respect to a great man keen for knowledge. Ulug Beg said, "Kingdoms vanish, but the work of scientist persists forever." Although Ulug Beg was a ruler, he respected rational discussions, in stark contrast with the aristocracy and over-zealous religious people of his time. He was killed soon after becoming ruler. His observatory, then the greatest of the world, was razed to the ground by the anti-knowledge ruling class. But as he predicted, 500 years after the Timur Empire vanished, the wise Ulug Beg is still being remembered for the great scientific work he did.

Through the mirror of history, I could see that knowledge and rationalism constitute important components of human culture. I always remind myself and my Observatory colleagues that we must stick to science and rationalism when delivering public service. Should we deviate from this foundation, we would have nowhere to stand on.

The 16th century marked the start of the decline of Samarkand from the peak of its prosperity. The magnificent buildings decayed into rubbles rapidly. The decline was due to the establishment of the sea route between China and Europe, which led to the disuse of the Silk Road. Without trade, prosperity had nothing to feed on. Nowadays, the world is going through drastic changes and Hong Kong is facing similar fundamental problems. Such things are outside the purview of the Observatory. But as a common citizen I could not resist contemplating what the implications are for Hong Kong.

Back to the microcosm of the Observatory, all the time we have to take cognizance of changes in the world and adjust the way we conduct business in response. Only by doing so would we ensure that the department deserves being kept alive. Occasionally, a couple of colleagues still wish that everything would remain unchanged. Unfortunately, time stops for nobody.

Paying respect to Ulug Beg at the site of his great observatory. A segment of the graduated arc is preserved underground
Paying respect to Ulug Beg at the site of his great observatory.
A segment of the graduated arc is preserved underground .

C Y Lam

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>