An article from The Island Online – Sri Lanka, June 20, 2015.
June 24, 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most illustrious figures of modern science – the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001). Hoyle’s discoveries straddled many branches of astronomy, but he is perhaps best remembered for his long and distinguished collaboration with Sri Lankan scientist Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe concerning the origin of life from comets.
They developed this theory over four decades and when first propounded in 1975 it sparked off a long and bitter scientific controversy. Over a period of several years evidence from various branches of sciences have converged to show that Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were right after all – we are indeed be creatures of the cosmos.
At the time of the first space mission to a comet in 1986 – the European Space Agency’s Giotto Mission to Comet Halley – the prevailing view was that comets were lifeless inorganic “snowballs”. Weeks before the Giotto encounter on March 13, 1986 Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe announced their prediction that the surface of this comet would be “darker than coal”. On the night of March 13 it turned out that their prediction was startlingly verified when, to the dismay of everyone, the comet did indeed appear to be so dark as to be virtually invisible.
The most recent ESA (European Space Agency) mission to a comet – the Rosetta Mission – arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet C-G) last year. A small lander called Philae equipped with scientific instruments arrived at the comet’s surface in November 2014, but its solar batteries went dead shortly after transmitting the first batch of data, These first results already confirmed the dark organic-rich nature of the comet’s surface. Science writers frequently reported that these results supported the idea that the building blocks of life came from comets but they rarely credited or recalled the names of the originators of this theory.
With the news this week that the Philae has “woken up”, with its batteries recharged, the expectation is that more data confirming our cosmic origins will come to light. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe may well find their theories vindicated in this auspicious centenary year of the birth of Fred Hoyle.