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Civil Service Newsletter
February 2010 Issue No.77
Persioners' corner
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  Starry, starry night inspires lifelong career
   
FOR former Director of Hong Kong Observatory, Lam Chiu-ying, a boyhood curiosity about the stars above inspired a lifelong career that also witnessed major technological developments and a greater understanding of our place in the universe
Starry, starry night inspires lifelong career
Civil Service Newsletter Editorial Board
 
 
FOR former Director of Hong Kong Observatory, Lam Chiu-ying, a boyhood curiosity about the stars above inspired a lifelong career that also witnessed major technological developments and a greater understanding of our place in the universe.
 
 
 
Mr Lam (first right, front row) joined the Observatory in 1975
Mr Lam (first right, front row) joined the Observatory in 1975.

 

“I can still remember my first lesson about the solar system when I was in Primary Six,” laughs Mr Lam. “In my opinion, primary school back in those days was more interesting as we had a subject called Nature that covered all sorts of wonderful topics and I still remember how fascinated I was listening to the lesson about the solar system, the sun and the stars. The teacher admitted that he really did not know a lot about the stars and the solar system, but it was interesting enough to fascinate me.”

Starry, starry night

So fascinated was Mr Lam, that he applied what he had learnt about solar and lunar eclipses at home. Making use of light bulbs and table tennis balls, he was able to create homemade mini eclipses. However, it was as a Boy Scout that he realised that his knowledge about the planets and the stars could also be used to help promote him through the ranks.

“I was in Secondary Two and had recently joined the Boy Scouts,” states Mr Lam. “Now, as most people know, Boy Scouts like earning and receiving badges for specific subjects. As something of a latecomer to the Scout troop, I wondered how I could earn more badges to bring my total in line with the other boys. I soon discovered that none of the other boys had the Starman Badge, so this was the obvious badge for me to try to earn.

“I bought some special books from the Scout Shop and went to Victoria Park. Now remember, prior to the construction of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers in Causeway Bay, Victoria Park was a very dark place at night — perfect for stargazing. There was a small knoll that was the darkest place in the park and I headed there and started trying to find the constellations. It was a funny thing though. In books, the stars are connected by lines, but when you look up at the sky there are no lines to guide you from one star to the next. Eventually I found and identified the stars and constellations, but this was not the most memorable thing that happened that night. What impacted upon me much more than identifying stars was my own sudden realisation that I was not looking at darkness per se between the stars, but space with no end. It was quite a revelation or epiphany. I was looking up at vast space and this was the moment I realised that I was a very small speck in this seemingly infinite universe.

“The Scout Association had no specialised examiner to test me for the Starman Badge, so they got someone from the Royal Observatory, Hong Kong (now the Hong Kong Observatory; the Observatory) to test me. Amusingly, many years later the same examiner told me he was not really an expert in stargazing at the time although he was expert in calculating sunrise and sunset. Needless to say I passed the test and was awarded my much-coveted Starman Badge, but I wanted more! So, I asked him just what I would have to do to be able to work at the Observatory after finishing school. He told me that if I passed my School Certificate, worked hard, studied hard and went to university, then I could come and work at the Observatory as a Scientific Officer. So, even in Secondary Two at the young age of 14, I was already determined to join the Observatory.”

When Mr Lam finished secondary school at School Certificate level, his results in humanities subjects were better. He got only one distinction in Physics among the science subjects. When he then sat for his A-level examinations the reverse happened. He gained distinctions in every subject, except Physics, which he needed.

“I knew the Observatory was a very small place. I realised very early the chances of me working at the Observatory were now small,” explains Mr Lam. “So working at the Observatory had not been the only career option I had given myself. In fact, when I finished secondary school I never imagined that I would go to university because I had never known anyone who had gone to university. I was the first one in many families I knew to go to university. I actually thought that after leaving secondary school I could be a tradesman or surveyor or other possibilities.”

Mr Lam states that he knew that when he finished university he could probably get a scholarship for even higher studies, but he had major concerns about studying physics.

 

Mr Lam (centre) was the vice-president of Regional Association II (Asia) of the World Meteorological Organisation which held its 13th session in Hong Kong in 2004
Mr Lam (centre) was the vice-president of Regional Association II (Asia) of the World Meteorological Organisation which held its 13th session in Hong Kong in 2004.

 

Imperial College beckons

“At that time, people like me went into high energy physics,” states Mr Lam. “I was very concerned that I might be involved in working on a nuclear bomb as some people studying physics ended up going to the United States (US) and I was scared whatever I worked on would end up being used in a war. So I ended up choosing meteorology instead and headed for the Imperial College in London on a Commonwealth Scholarship.

“I had a scholarship for three years at the Imperial College, but after a few months I decided I might go to US anyway and my lecturers very nicely wrote me glowing recommendations. One day, I was in a lecturer’s office and saw a letter of recommendation that stated that I was the best student they had had since the war. Sometimes I imagined that I might have been a Nobel Laureate if I had studied high energy physics. In the end, I only stayed in US at Princeton for three weeks. When I said I was going to leave they jumped up and down and said no one ever ‘dumped’ Princeton. However, I knew it was not right for me and had realised that I was a practical person, not a theoretical one.”

Securing the desired job

Mr Lam finally joined the Observatory in 1975 and with the benefit of hindsight says that it really was a completely different world back then.

“When I first joined the Observatory, we spent a lot of time analysing charts,” states Mr Lam. “We did not even know whether it was raining in the New Territories until rainfall reports arrived by mail at the beginning of the next month informing us as to whether our forecasts had been accurate or not. I like to describe that era as one where we had little data, but lots of artistic liberty. Back in those days most people in Hong Kong lived on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon, so weather forecasts for the New Territories were not as crucial as they are now.

   

“In the mid-1980s we started setting up weather stations in the New Territories and it took until the 1990s to learn more about the weather variations that occurred in the New Territories and accurately predict the weather. Nowadays, satellite pictures come in every hour, but back in those days computing the weather was not possible as the computers were too slow, e.g. our first computer at the Observatory had a total memory capacity of 8 kilobytes. This was nothing, especially when compared to even the most basic computer used nowadays, but at the time we thought it was fantastic!”

Mr Lam elaborates further, stating that despite the lack of today’s modern technology, in 1975 the Observatory had a direct link to Beijing and was the first government department to be connected to a national level organisation, the National Meteorological Centre, which was groundbreaking at the time.

In relation to his own position as the Director of Hong Kong Observatory, Mr Lam states that while he was a scientist, his emphasis was always on the people working there and how best to motivate them.

“Unless you have happy people working in the organisation, you will not get people with initiative and creating new ideas,” says Mr Lam. “Organisations have to be organic and evolve, but I see the organism in the people and the potential they have when happy, inspired and motivated. My attitude is if you have an idea and you know the result will be positive and successful, just go ahead and do it, because when it is a success no one will refer back to the rules as they will be revelling in the success. However, if the result is undesirable, then you will have to prepare for the criticism that you have failed to observe the rules.”

A lesson in priorities

Information about our universe is not the most important lesson Mr Lam learnt through while at the Observatory. In fact, his biggest lesson relates to the importance of finding the right balance between work and family.

“Back in 1983, Typhoon Ellen was fast approaching Hong Kong,” explains Mr Lam. “The Gale or Storm Signal, No. 8 was hoisted and we knew that there was a good chance of the Hurricane Signal, No. 10 within a few hours. Like other colleagues, I fancied to be in the forecasting office to witness this historic moment. But I remembered my wife and young children at home and I was worried that they would not stand up well to a full-force typhoon. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to decide to go home to be with them and I was very glad I did. No sooner had I arrived home than the announcement came over the radio that the Increasing Gale or Storm Signal, No. 9 was hoisted and not long after that it was replaced by the Hurricane Signal, No. 10. As we all know in Hong Kong, typhoons and the damage they cause can be very frightening, especially for young children.

 

Mr Lam asking children questions when they visited the Observatory
Mr Lam asking children questions when they visited the Observatory.

 

“I learnt that day that regardless of how much emphasis you put on your job and doing it well, there also comes a time when consideration for your family must take priority and come first. You can always find another job. You can never replace family members or the comfort you are to young children when you are there at home to comfort and reassure them.”

Maximising retirement

As a recent retiree, Mr Lam states that he is still going through the transition from work to retirement and he thinks this takes a period of adjustment for anyone who has worked their whole life.

“I am still giving lots of interviews and lectures,” states Mr Lam. “To date I have presented 75 lectures and given 25 interviews since leaving my job. I also do volunteer work with a charitable organisation promoting Putonghua and other charity work as well, so this keeps me very busy. And I am passionate about the issue of climate change and continue to lecture about this as I view this as one of the most crucial and urgent issues to face us all into the future.”

Regarding retirement, Mr Lam elaborates that he also made certain preparations for pre-retirement, including widening his social circle, engaging with various organisations which represent issues he is concerned with, and creating and strengthening his own network of friends and colleagues.

“I am also passionate about bird watching,” states Mr Lam. “The world of birds was another revelation to me. I went on my first bird watching trip back in 1976 to the then Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery and realised I had previously been ‘blind’ to the natural world. It is another world out there, one that is fascinating and one that has also helped me identify the similarities between humans and birds. We are very different in look but also very similar in our daily life as we work, secure a home and try to feed and tend our families. In 1997, I became the Chairman of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and have been fortunate enough to have travelled to many places and met many wonderful people in this capacity.”

Mr Lam advises anyone contemplating retirement to plan and prepare for it before they finish working.

“Do not retire and then sit at home and wait for things to happen,” states Mr Lam. “You can be retired for many years, yet still be active, fit and healthy if you take the time to plan what you want to do.

“Many people, like me, are actually hyperactive and have led very busy and full professional lives, so laying the foundation for your retirement is very important. Have a vision, mission and personal mandate for your retirement and you will discover a whole world of wonderful things to see and do now that you have the time.”

 

Mr Lam advises anyone contemplating retirement to plan and prepare for it before they finish working