The green flash

Big green flash

Photo credit: by Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons and used via licence  (CC-BY-SA-3.0 / CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0)

In the history of human affairs, occasions of importance are sometimes signaled by natural events of unusual and unexpected providence. Think of the blood moon of a lunar eclipse, a flood of biblical proportion, comets raining from the sky, or an anomalously bright star shining high and constant above a shepherd’s field. These can signal the death of a King, the end of an empire, or the birth of a God.

This year, I made my tenth annual visit to McGill’s Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados. I go for the annual meeting of the Board which runs the Institute – this year marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of Bellairs – and, more prosaically, I go as the Dean to monitor the annual audit. My three criteria for running an off-site program, such as the Bellairs Institute, are: (i) it must serve an academic purpose for McGill, (ii) it must run in the black, and (iii) it must run in the black. This was my last visit to Barbados, at least my last as Dean.

On my first visit to Bellairs, shortly before Christmas, my wife and I stood on the roof of Seabourne House, the former waterfront home of Commander Carlyon Bellairs who donated the property to McGill in 1954. We looked westward to where the cloudless sky met the calm light blue sea. At about 5:30pm, the sun set. Then, ever so briefly, the sun flashed green before sinking below the waves of the distant sea.

I had never seen the green flash before or since. Perhaps I can think of this flash as a natural event of unusual and unexpected providence, as the last ten years have gone well for Bellairs. Of course the reasons for this success are not actually due to my observation of refracted light from the setting sun in December of 2005 – I recognize the leadership of two Directors of the Institute who have made a huge difference, Bruce Downey, who was the Director when my wife and I saw the green flash, and Susan Mahon who is the Director now. Other people have contributed as well, but let me describe briefly some of the things Bruce and then Susan have done.

I met Bruce shortly after I started as Dean. Bruce came to my office and took a pen, and drew a renovation plan for Bellairs, which would be financed by a large mortgage. It was ambitious and audacious, delivered in Bruce’s low-key easy-going manner. This was the first I had ever heard of Bellairs, and I was suspicious (or more precisely, confused). A few months later I was standing on the roof of Seabourne house, watching the monkeys go from tree to tree in the early morning, and seeing the green flash at dusk. A few years later, Bruce’s proposed renovations were done. They were a huge success. They served students taking the Barbados Field Studies Semester, and also international scientific workshops in, particularly, computer science.

Susan shepherded the expansion of the Fields Studies Semester at Bellairs, building on Bruce’s work, so that now there are two annual Field Studies Semesters taking place at Bellairs. As well, Susan has a passion for sustainability and for Barbados. Hence, environmental sustainability, and connection to the local community are emergent strengths of the Institute. When I visited this December for the 60th anniversary, there was representation from government officials of Barbados, from the Canadian High Commissioner, and many local dignitaries. At the beginning of the annual meeting, the last I will attend, Susan said, here is something you will like to see Martin. It turns out the Institute has increasing and major academic weight from the two Field Studies Semesters, and expanded workshops in computer science, robotics and health sciences – plus, from the audit, the Bellairs Research Institute is running in the black.

After the speeches this December, the full moon shone over the 60th anniversary celebrations. An impossibly tall man cavorted with another dressed in flames, while a monkey-man mingled with the guests, as drums and a flute played. Or perhaps it was just three guys in stilts and costumes. In any case, my wife and I left shortly before the disco ball was lowered. Walking back to our room in the hot humid night, with the full moon above, I thought about the time years ago we saw the green flash.

I hope the next Dean sees the green flash in 2015, and that it signals a further ten years of success for our Institute in Barbados.

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