All posts by Chandra Wickramasinghe

Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe (born 20 January 1939) is a Sri Lankan-born British mathematician, astronomer and astrobiologist. He is currently Professor and Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham, a post he has held since 2011. Chandra Wickramasinghe has written 24 books about astrophysics and related topics; he has made frequent appearances on radio, television and film, and he writes extensive online blogs and articles.

2018-6-7 : But Wait! We’ve already Found Life on Mars!

The full length talk of Dr. Gilbert Levin, lead team member Viking LR 1976 as he discusses how we’ve already detected life on Mars with his experiment. Presented by Exolance an Explore Mars project.

What Has NASA Found On Mars? Space Agency To Make A Major Announcement On Thursday  June 7, 2018 About Life On The Red Planet

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But could this be true and is Thursday the day? @lesliekean #LENR @RealDonaldTrump

 

 

2018-6-4 : Cosmic Biology in Perspective

Abstract
A series of astronomical observations obtained over the period 1986 to 2018 supports the idea that life is a cosmic rather than a purely terrestrial or planetary phenomenon. These include (1) the detection of biologically relevant molecules in interstellar clouds and in comets, (2) mid-infrared spectra of inter-stellar grains and the dust from comets, (3) a diverse set of data from comets including the Rosetta mission showing consistency with biology and (4) the frequency of Earth-like or habitable planets in the Galaxy. We argue that the conjunction of all the available data suggests the operation of cometary biology and interstellar panspermia rather than the much weaker hypothesis of comets being only the source of the chemical building blocks of life. We conclude with specific  predictions on the properties expected of extra-terrestrial life if it is discovered on Enceladus, Europa or beyond. A radically different
biochemistry elsewhere can be considered as a falsification of the theory of interstellar panspermia.

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2018-5-20 : Invited to COSPAR 2018 : 14 – 22 July 2018, Pasadena, CA,

2018-5-20 : Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe invited to COSPAR 2018 – COSPAR 2018

Prof Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe
Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham, UK
24 Llwyn Y Pia Road Lisvane
CF14 0SY Cardi
United Kingdom
March 30, 2018

Notice of Acceptance and Schedule, 42nd COSPAR Scienti fic Assembly, 14 – 22 July 2018,
Pasadena, CA, United States of America

Speaking on July 18.  Presentation in scienti c event E1.9, Lecture Room SR 18 (PCC) on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, 14:30-15:00 (30 min).

2018-7-26: LIFE IS A COSMIC PHENOMENON: AN IMMINENT PARADIGM SHIFT OF MOMENTOUS SIGNIFICANCE

The first proposal of life being a cosmic phenomenon was made nearly 4 decades ago by myself, Chandra Wickramasinghe, and the late Sir Fred Hoyle.

As might have been expected the idea was controversial and bitterly contested at the time. However, in the intervening years a raft of evidence from astronomy, biology, and geology have all converged to support the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology and cometary panspermia.

Comets are the carriers and distributors of life in the cosmos and life on Earth arose and developed as a result of cometary inputs. Much of the physical and biological evidence for this point of view is multifactorial, and despite a continuing controversy, the trend of the data has been to consistently support the H-W thesis. In contrast, despite much effort and expense, little or no evidence has been discovered to support the standard theory that life originated in a purely Earth-based primordial soup.

A comprehensive review paper by over 30 international scientists, including Chandra Wickramasinghe and Edward Steele, now published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, presents the strongest evidence to date to support the case that life on Earth has cosmic origins.

One particular focus of the new paper is on the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex “retroviruses of vertebrate lines” at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ~ 500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes.

The many scientists authoring the paper believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the microorganism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space, most recently from a height of 400km. The conclusion is that the totality of available data,combined with critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s, leads to a very plausible and unique conclusion –life was seeded on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.

Some biologists, who do not like this trend,have argued that the case for cosmic life in their view is still not compelling enough to abandon the standard Earth-centred theories. The authors of the new review paper reply with the following statement:“Within an individual scientist a paradigm shift occurs in two stages:

(1). An instant personal decision to embrace the new global way of understanding reality. This happens within a blink of an eye, as in a Gestalt shift made famous by Thomas Kuhn. The individual confronting the data compares the available evidence for and against -a piece of evidence clicks into place which only makes sense under the new alternative paradigm, and is quite nonsensical under the old way of understanding the world.

(2). This personal decision can then move into the public domain but there are many inhibitory processes as the scholar and scientist has to weigh up the socio-political costs, such as:

  • How will this affect my relationships with colleagues?
  • How will this affect my prospects for promotion?
  • How will this affect my future prospects for research funding? etc.

The more fundamental the shift the deeper is the problem for successfully moving to stage (2). However these shifts do happen regularly in Science and are largely accrued community decisions over time.The authors conclude with the assertion that the battle between rival paradigms on the origin and further evolution of life on Earth is underway and they look forward to more scientists engaging in it. The intellectual shift in the population of scientists to the cosmic perspective will, of course, be protracted particularly in the messy final stages – for example as occurred in the first Copernican revolution – which are likely to continue for some time. Thus to directly quote Kuhn: ……The state of Ptolemaic (Earth-centred) astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’ announcement. Given a particular discrepancy, astronomers were invariably able to eliminate it by making some particular adjustment in Ptolemy’s system of compounded circles. But as time went on, a man looking at the net result of the normal research effort of many astronomers could observe that astronomy’s complexity was increasing far more rapidly than its accuracy and that a discrepancy corrected in one place was likely to show up in another(Kuhn 1969).

The paper by Steele et al is linked to here.

2018-3-1 : MICROBES FROM SPACE:  IGNORING FACTS TO OUR PERIL

In 1981 when the most startling example of extremophilic microorganisms known was possibly M radiodurans Fred Hoyle and I wrote this in “Evolution from Space” :

“Bacteria are found occupying tiny specialised niches.  Thus J.G. Zeikus and R.S. Wolfe(3) isolated a highly thermophylic methanogenic bacterium which required conditions for replication that were very peculiar, namely an atmosphere with a 4 to 1 mixture of free hydrogen to carbon dioxide and a temperature of at least 40oC.  The optimum temperature for growth was 65oC and free oxygen had to be strictly absent.  It may be wondered where on the Earth such conditions exist.  The answer is in sewage sludge, a product of modern industrial society.

Such cases fit well with our picture.  The cycle of (Fig 1) contains bacteria with the ability to exist in a range of environments much wider than anything found on the Earth.  Bacteria arrive here from space with the full range of cosmic properties, and terrestrial conditions simply filter out the restricted subset that can survive when they arrive at ground-level.  The subset depends on available chemical – rocks, soils, ocean water with its dissolved contents, mine tailing, sewage sludge, volcanic hot springs, birds nest and so on.  Whenever any new environment, however specialised or small it may be, arises either from natural or manmade causes, new bacteria from the wide spectrum of cosmic possibilities are available to take advantage of it.”

My full comments can be seen by clicking on the PDF  here : READ MORE

PS This PDF was written by me today, as a 2018 comment on this recent piece : http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/microbes-found-one-earth-s-most-hostile-places-giving-hope-life-mars

 

2018-2-14 : Prof Chandra Talks on Cruise Ships

I have given this talk (recording below) as part of my series of talks on cruise ships for at least 10 years, the last time being 2017 last year.  I do not know who recorded it but it appeared on an email sent to me, and I think it is an interesting clip to use.  Of course the recording was done without my permission, but the copyright is mine!

“This extract is part of a lecture series on the cosmic origins of life delivered by Chandra Wickramasinghe.  The place of humans in the evolution of life appears to be utterly trivial in relation to the time during which we have existed on this planet.  The overwhelming dominance is of far humbler lifeforms is most striking and our emergence seems like an afterthought that occupied scarcely the twinkling of the eye!”

2017-12-16: Celebration of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s 100th Birthday

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe’s Letter to the Times of London.

Arthur C. Clarke, whose birth centenary fell on Saturday, was trained in physics and mathematics at Kings College London. In 1945 he published a technical calculation to demonstrate the feasibility of satellites that orbited the Earth at the equator to be in sync with the Earth’s spin if the orbit was at a height of some 35,786 km – now called the Clarke orbit. This was essentially his proposal for communication satellites, which was published in the magazine Wireless World.

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My friendship with Arthur C. Clarke: the scientific prophet who made the modern world possible, born 100 years ago

CHANDRA WICKRAMASINGHE

17 DECEMBER 2017 • 6:58AM

Arthur C. Clark at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2002 CREDIT: ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

A visionary like Arthur C. Clarke only comes along so often, and it was my privilege to know and learn from him

Predicting the future, if it is to be done, sensibly demands deep knowledge of present-day science, a vivid imagination and what could only be described as bold and unfettered genius. The great prophets and futurists, HG Wells and Arthur C. Clarke amongst them, combined these attributes.

Arthur C. Clarke, whose birth centenary fell on Saturday, was trained in physics and mathematics at Kings College London. In 1945 he published a technical calculation to demonstrate the feasibility of satellites that orbited the Earth at the equator to be in sync with the Earth’s spin if the orbit was at a height of some 35,786 km – now called the Clarke orbit. This was essentially his proposal for communication satellites, which was published in the magazine Wireless World.

Scarcely two decades later communication satellites became a reality, and it is no exaggeration to say that we owe our entire 21st century lifestyle, including the internet, entirely to Arthur Clarke’s work. This is surely an example of an imaginative and informed prediction turning out to be a reality on a relatively short timescale.

In my time I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true.

Arthur C. Clarke

Of course Arthur Clarke’s predictions did not stop there. His passion for forecasting and peering into the distant future made him the most curious and inquisitive of humans. His ears pricked up whenever he heard of a new scientific breakthrough that could open the way to imaginative possibilities.

My personal recollection of one such development was in 1980 when I informed Arthur that we had found unequivocal evidence of organic molecules existing in great abundance in space.  At the time we had not made an explicit argument for life in comets or in space, but of course Arthur’s imagination instantly ran riot. To him, organic molecules must mean life, and life must in turn mean intelligent life, sentient super-human beings everywhere in the cosmos.

And there was of course no reason to think that we humans are anywhere near the top of the tree as far as intelligence was concerned. Arthur explored ideas of extraterrestrial beings in various situations, and their politics and conflicts throughout a long series of science fiction novels. The most famous of these was “2001: A Space Odyssey” which was made into the iconic blockbuster movie directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1968.

Arthur C. Clarke with space vehicles from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey CREDIT:MOVIESTORE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

No development in science escaped Arthur’s attention. When the new science of nanotechnology rose into ascendance, with new forms of carbon being discovered, he wrote his novel “Fountains of Paradise” in which the idea of a space elevator was introduced, sliding on super-strong cables to permit travel from ground to geostationary (Clarke) orbit.

That idea started as pure fiction but today, decades later, serious plans are afoot to construct precisely such an elevator using “diamond nano-threads” for constructing the elevator cable. Today a Japanese company expects to build a fully functioning space elevator by 2050. So science fiction will eventually turn into fact.

Arthur was a strong supporter of my own theory of panspermia and cosmic life, pioneered along with the late Sir Fred Hoyle. Clarke and I often talked about the societal resistance to new ideas such as ours. He remarked, judging from his own experience, that perhaps acceptance of any new idea goes through three stages. First, it is widely denounced as a ridiculous and impossible. In the second stage it is admitted that it may even be true but in that case it would be unimportant. In the third and final stage it is conceded that the idea is in fact correct, but then we knew that all the time! Throughout history the innovations of all great geniuses have followed the same trend.

One of Arthur’s own responses to the idea of panspermia and the Earth being seeded with life from comets was in the form of his short essay entitled “Toilets of the Gods or the Colon-isation of space”.  In this he wrote:

“Obviously, organised life-forms need have occurred only once in this Galaxy, if the very first space-faring civilisation was as careless about the environment as we are. Years ago, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggested that life had a cosmic, and not terrestrial, origin. They may be right, though not precisely in the way they imagined. It’s a humbling thought that we may have arisen from dumped sewage; the first chapter of Genesis would certainly require drastic revision….”

Proposing that careless human astronauts may be involved in a process reverse panspermia was perhaps intended as a joke. But we are constantly taking our own germs (not necessarily in faeces!) to other planets and into space. Even today we are sending Earth bacteria into space on the many spacecraft that are sent off to distant planets because complete sterilization is practically impossible. It is only in the last few years that this latter risk is being taken seriously by various Space authorities.

When Nasa’s Voyager probes returned dramatic close-up images of the Moons of Jupiter, particularly Europa, in the 1970s the enigmatic network of cracks triggered Arthur’s imagination.  I recall him telephoning me to explain that this was clear proof of his conjecture that there was a gigantic ocean of liquid water under a thick insulating crust of ice; and this ocean could be inhabited by intelligent dolphins, among other forms of marine life.

If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run — and often in the short one — the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.Arthur C. Clarke

In 2016, Nasa announced a plan to send a robotic probe to Europa, and the funding for this appears now to be secure. The probe, to be launched in 2031, will search for life by drilling through the frozen crust into the oceans which scientists now believe must exist beneath the icy moon’s surface.

In 1992 the Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, hurtling in from the outer reaches of the solar system, was rounded up by the planet Jupiter and torn apart into many fragments.  Two years later all the fragments of the comet were seen to crash onto Jupiter.  This event alerted hitherto sceptical scientists to take seriously the prospect of comets colliding onto planets. On this occasion it was Jupiter that was hit, but in the past and in the future our own planet is not to be spared.

‘Scars’ in the ice of Jupiter’s moon, Europa CREDIT: AFP/NASA

 

I remember talking to Arthur in his home in Colombo some weeks after this event and he quipped: “This would not happen to us in the future if we have the wisdom to have in place a Spaceguard Project of the type described my 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama.” In his novel Spaceguard was the name given to an early warning system that was set up after a catastrophic asteroid impact.

Since 1992  a very modestly funded Spaceguard Project has indeed been put into operation. Here a network of small telescopes continually scans the skies for asteroids larger than 1 km in size that are pursuing potentially threatening orbits. So far the tally of such “Near Earth Objects” or NEO’s is close to a thousand. Monitoring these objects could well be the saving grace for humanity in the future.

In Arthur’s book “Greetings, carbon based bipeds” he makes several bold predictions of the future, some of which have already come to true. Others lie in waiting. In 2061, Halley’s comet will have returned, and on it we will have found life forms that vindicate “Wickramasinghe and Hoyle’s century-old hypothesis that life exists through space.”

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 torn into fragments (the so-called “string of pearls”) that collided with Jupiter in July 1994, showing the first direct evidence of a collision between a comet and a solar system planet CREDIT: NASA

 

It is indeed a remarkable coincidence that a 200-metre long cigar-shaped object named Oumuamua has now arrived in our vicinity from interstellar space and prompted some scientists to wonder whether it may indeed be an alien spacecraft, similar to the “cigar shaped” spacecraft described in “Rama”.  Even if this similarity turns out to be fortuitous, which I think is most likely, the coincidence is an appropriate celebration of Arthur’s 100th birthday.

Indeed, his obsession with space and in particular with alien intelligence is most prescient, particularly in light of recent developments in science. Today we are closer than we have ever been to accepting that we are by no means alone in the universe.

There is no better conclusion to my tribute to Arthur than his own statement to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York:

“Predicting the future is hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between two stools. If his predictions are at all reasonable you can predict in 20 or at least 50 years that the progress of science and technology would make him seem ridiculously conservative.

On the other hand if, by some miracle, a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his prediction will sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

This has proved to be true in the past and it will undoubtedly be true even more so in the century to come. The only thing we can be sure of the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic….”

Here’s to many more fantastic years of scientists and writers inspired by Arthur’s example.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe is director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology

2017-8-7 : A Community Grows around the Geysering World of Enceladus

“As Cassini’s extraordinary 13 years of exploration concludes, enjoy this up-to-the-minute, far-reaching, wide-ranging look at that little moon Enceladus, at Saturn with the big possibilities”,  Carolyn C. Porco, University of California, Berkeley, California.  Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“The four following papers in this collection address, in one form or another, the anticipated bioloads at Enceladus, and the detectable biosignatures that might be present in its plume. Steel et al. (2017) construct a thermal model that assumes 10% of the geothermal heat emerging from the moon’s core drives hot (90°C) hydrothermal fluid flow, which results, through water/rock interactions, in the production of H2. In their work, 100% of the molecular hydrogen thus produced is subsequently consumed by methanogens to produce biomass. They thus estimate, at the vents, 90 μM of biologically produced amino acids, and microbial concentrations as high as 109 cells/mL; 10% of the latter rise in the thermal plumes that originate at the vents and eventually reach the base of the ice shell. If these authors are correct, and Enceladus approaches this high-efficiency scenario, especially if the process of bubble-scrubbing (see below) is at work, then the search for biosignatures, even microbes, in the samples collected from Enceladus’ plume could be easily accomplished.”

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Chandra Wickramasinghe

PS “Convergence to Panspermia”?