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.

2016-5-7 : EVIDENCE OF LIFE OUTSIDE THE EARTH – UPDATE

May 1, 2016 : Churchill College, Cambridge University, UK .

The answer to this age-old question may be closer to answering now than it has been for centuries.

Life is Everywhere - Convergence to Panspermia

From time immemorial our ancestors would have gazed at the magnificent spectacle of the Milky Way arching across the night sky and asked the question “Are we alone in the vast cosmos?” The same question continues to be asked in the present day.

If it can be firmly established that we are not alone in the Universe the implications for humanity will be profound. It could be even more important if it is shown that alien life in the form of microorganisms exist in our midst, perhaps continuously raining down on our planet. In either case, whether as alien microbes at home or alien intelligence on distant planets, the realisation that we will mark an important turning point in human history.

The much publicised scientific developments recent months – the Rosetta Mission to comet 67P/C-G, the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, a Russian billionaire’s support for SETI, and the Kepler Mission discovery of an “Earth twin” orbiting a distant star – all spell out a single cosmic truth. Homo Sapiens as a sentient species appears to be hard-wired to seek out its cosmic origins, perhaps intuitively sensing that we cannot be alone.

First and foremost we must ask the question: How did life arise? Not just on the Earth, but anywhere in the Universe? Does life emerge spontaneously on every Earth-like planet by processes involving well-attested laws of physics and chemistry? Or did the first-ever origin of life involve an extraordinary, even miraculous intervention? These questions are beginning to acquire a new sense of urgency in recent times.

The first requirement for the emergence of creatures like ourselves would be for the existence of rocky planets with water and an atmosphere generally similar to Earth. In 1995 Cambridge-based astronomer Didier Queloz together with Michel Mayor discovered the first planets outside our solar system. The first of these so-called exoplanets orbited a star 50 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus; it was a giant planet with a mass similar to Jupiter located too close to its parent star for any life to be possible. In 2009 NASA launched its orbiting Kepler telescope, which was specifically designed to discover planets which are the size of Earth. The detection process involved tracking down minute blinks (dimming) in the star’s light when a planet transited periodically in front of it during its orbit.

Within a few months of its launch the Kepler project, with a team led by William Borucki discovered 5 new planets with sizes ranging from that of Jupiter to Neptune and slightly smaller. The tally of these so-called exoplanets has steadily increased including amongst the detections a few Earth-like planets on which life may be possible. The most recent to hit headlines is Kepler 452b, a planet slightly larger than the Earth and orbiting around a sun-like star within its habitable zone, a region where liquid water on the planet’s surface and an atmosphere is possible. This new discovery has sparked off a huge wave of popular interest in the possibility of life existing outside our Earth .

Extrapolating from the sample of present detections the estimated total number of habitable planets in the galaxy is reckoned to be in excess of 144 billion! Most of these planets orbit very long-lived red-dwarf stars that are nearly twice as old as the sun. On many of these planets one might speculate that life may have begun, evolved, and perhaps long since disappeared.

Another related enterprise that has captured the news recently is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using arrays of radio telescopes to scan the skies for evidence of intelligent signals. Over half a century ago Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi first drew attention to the possibility of searching the microwave spectrum of cosmic sources for intelligent signals and suggested particular frequencies as well as a set of potential targets. The SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) began tentatively in 1960 and was first supported by NASA, and later by a host of private or semi-private entrepreneurs. With the exception of a single brief and mysterious “Wow!” signal discovered in August 1977 there has been a deathly silence across all of the prospective sources that been scanned. There could be a case for saying that the lack of progress in this venture was the result of organisations like NASA backing off. This may have been the thinking behind Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s 100 billion dollar SETI initiative that has just been announced with much pomp. Buying more telescope time, increasing the range of wavelengths, enhancing detector sensitivity and extending sky coverage have been argued as prerequisites if a breakthrough within a decade is to be achieved. But a positive result from SETI would be contingent on the emergence and widespread dispersal of primitive life capable of evolving into intelligent creatures. How often does this happen?

The idea that microbial life springs up de novo on billions of Earth-like habitable planets is an unproven, and most likely erroneous proposition. Such a belief is an extension of the canonical “primordial soup theory” for life’s beginnings on the Earth, which is a dogma with no hard evidence to support it. If there was a deep principle of nature that drove inorganic systems towards the emergence of primitive life, the evidence for this would have long since been discovered in the laboratory. With a whole raft of calculations showing grotesquely small a priori probabilities for the transition from non-life to life only two options remain. The origin of life was an extremely improbable event that certainly occurred on Earth (because we are here!) but will effectively not be reproduced elsewhere. In that case we would indeed be hopelessly alone. Or, a very much vaster cosmic system than was available on Earth, and a longer timescale was involved in an initial origination event, after which life was transferred to Earth and elsewhere by processes that present writer and the late Sir Fred Hoyle discussed many years ago – panspermia.

The discovery of microorganisms occupying the harshest environments on Earth continues to provide support for this point of view. Transfers of microbial life from one cosmic habitat to another requires endurance to space conditions for millions of years. The closest terrestrial analogue to this latter situation exists for microbes exposed to the natural radioactivity of the Earth. Quite remarkably microbial survival under such conditions is now well documented. Dormant microorganisms in the guts of insects trapped in amber have been revived after 25-40 million years. More direct experiments exposing bacteria and viruses to space conditions and discovering high rates of survival continue. Viruses mounted on the outer surface of a Russian sounding rocket and fired through the atmosphere were recently found to survive. All this goes to show that arguments used in the past to ‘disprove’ panspermia on the grounds of survivability during interstellar transport are seriously flawed.

Another lead in this story has come from the study of interstellar dust clouds that has been conducted over several decades. The list of organic molecules present in interstellar clouds has increased dramatically in number since their first discovery in the 1970’s and so also has their degree of complexity. Decisive evidence for complex aromatic and aliphatic carbon-based molecules (ring molecules and long chain molecules) exists everywhere in our galaxy, and even beyond in galaxies as far away as 8 billion light years. Whilst all such data still tends to be interpreted cautiously avoiding “biology” with the suggestion that we may be witnessing “primordial soup-type events” on a cosmic scale, it is cosmic biology that remains by far the most attractive logical option. This is further evidence of panspermia in action – the complex organic molecules in interstellar space being degradation produces of iterant bacteria and viruses.

Comets in our solar system have been the target of several space missions since 1986 following ESA’s Giotto successful mission to Halley’s comet. The Giotto mission showed clearly that the prevailing theory that comets are dirty snowballs had to be abandoned in favour of comets rich in organic molecules, and most likely also containing viable bacteria and viruses. More recent explorations of comets, culminating in the Rosetta Mission to Comet 67P/C-G, have yielded a formidable body of evidence all showing consistency with the existence in comets of the seeds of life. Interestingly a comet called Lovejoy has recently been found to be releasing methyl alcohol at the rate of some 300 bottles of wine every second. Undoubtedly the product of bacterial fermentation.

The reluctance of some scientists to endorse these discoveries lies not in the quality of the data but in a desire to maintain a conservative position in relation to life on Earth and its purely terrestrial origins. It is perhaps only in this way that public funding of their research projects (and livelihoods!) can be assured. Although the Earth was demoted from its privileged position physical centrality in the Universe over 500 years ago (and not without anguish) the trend to regard life as being centred on our home planet has persisted almost to the present day. But a paradigm shift with far-reaching consequences is imminent now and public support seems also to be growing.

During the past decade tantalising evidence of microorganisms currently entering Earth has accumulated, but has been largely ignored and not pursued. The currently available data was acquired from relatively inexpensive projects that involve balloon flights to the stratosphere and recovery of infalling cometary dust. The first in a series of such experiments was conducted by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2001 and 2006 with staggering results – indicating an inflow of microorganisms at the rate of a tenth of tonne per year. Some years later a team of investigators in the University of Sheffield led by Milton Wainwright obtained very similar results. It is obviously of the utmost importance that these experiments are repeated by independent bodies but this has not happened so far. More expensive and sophisticated investigations need to be carried out even on the samples collected so far, if we are to prove beyond doubt that these microbes are unequivocally alien. The sad truth is that funding for such vitally important experiments is well nigh impossible to secure. Compared with other Space Projects for solar system exploration the budgets involved here are trivial and the scientific and societal pay-off could be huge. Our ultimate goal must be to confirm that Darwinian evolution takes place not just within a closed biosphere on our minuscule planet Earth but extends over a vast and connected volume of the cosmos.

Over the past few years there has been a gradual realisation that life must be a truly cosmic phenomenon; and many people who were antagonistic to this idea in the past are beginning to voice contrary opinions about what should be done to cope with the realisation that life exists outside the Earth. In Davos, Switzerland in 2013, the world’s business leaders and politicians met to discuss global risks and challenges that would confront humanity in the next 10 years. One of the top 5 global “risks” to be identified was the discovery of extraterrestrial life. This discovery it is reckoned would profoundly influence the entire future of humankind. The prevalence of life of any kind outside our cosy Earth raises issues connected not only with science, but with psychology, sociology and even religion. To some religious groups the realisation that the site of our “creation” was located outside the Earth may cause conflicts with theology. Earth-centred theologies and philosophies may need to be revised.

The discovery of intelligent life outside Earth, if that happens, poses the most serious problems of all, calling for fundamental revisions and readjustments of our perceptions about ourselves. Even the mere proof that such extraterrestrial intelligence exists will seriously erode our perceived position of unrivalled supremacy in the world. And if extraterrestrial intelligence is indeed found to be resident nearby, and contact thought imminent, the situation might become analogous to the fear that primitive tribes may have had regarding the prospect of encounters with more civilised conquerors.

There is, however, a practical application that follows if ongoing input of viruses and bacteria is confirmed. In the near future it will become clear that bacteria and viruses coming to the Earth from outside could sometimes pose serious threats of pandemic disease, not only to humans, but also to plants and animals. This is connected with an idea Fred Hoyle and I explored as early as 1979 – that most of the pandemics throughout history were driven from space with the arrival of new viruses and bacteria. With all the data that is currently available across a wide spectrum of disciplines, I believe there is an urgent need for the possibility of bacterial and viral ingress from space to be taken seriously.

PS  In the 5 days since this article was written,  the following article will be of interest to the reader :

“An Ames Research Center scientist, David J. Smith, will be responsible for developing the air sampler that will be utilized for capturing microbes.

Already, LLNL scientists have been using the LLMDA and DNA sequencing to study previously collected air filter and dust samples from the International Space Station in preparation for the research.

Developed in 2008, the LLMDA permits the detection of any virus, bacteria or other microbe that has been sequenced and included among the technology’s 400,000 probes – on a one-inch wide, three-inch long glass slide – within 24 hours.

The LLMDA version to be used for the space station analysis can detect 12,609 species, including 6,906 bacteria, 4,776 viruses, 414 fungi, 143 protozoa and 370 archaea.

space_station

After the study is completed, NASA could potentially consider miniaturizing the LLMDA or a similar instrument to use on deep space missions with human habitation, Venkateswaran said”.

2016-04-19 : Welsh Branch of the ESU (English Speaking Union)

EnglishSpeakingUnion

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, a pioneer of the emerging paradigm of life from space, spoke at a luncheon organised by the Welsh branch of the ESU (English Speaking Union) the Cardiff City Stadium on Tuesday 19th April.  The lecture was entitled “Evidence of Life Beyond Earth”.  The Chief Guest was Her Majesty the Queen’s representative in Wales, Lord Lieutenant Dr. Peter Beck.

The event was reported in the Telegraph on 20th April.

Attendees described the talk as “mind-boggling”.

2016-02-25 : The Japanese Tanpopo Project

The Tanpopo project will hopefully confirm the survival of bacteria in the near-Earth environment at the distance of the ISS orbit and thus verify earlier results of Cockell et al (1). More importantly, perhaps it will sample the environment outside the ISS for ambient or in-falling microbes that may be of extraterrestrial origin. In this latter respect it would significantly extend earlier attempts to detect and isolate microbes in the stratosphere at heights of 41km (2-5). The relevance of this work towards confirming the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe theory of life as a cosmic phenomenon cannot be overlooked (6).

1. Exposure of phototrophs to 548 days in low Earth orbit: microbial selection pressures in outer space and on early earth
Charles S Cockell, Petra Rettberg, Elke Rabbow and Karen Olsson-Francis
The ISME Journal, 5, 1671–1682
(2011)

2. The detection of living cells in stratospheric samples
M.J. Harris, N.C. Wickramasinghe, D.Lloyd, J.V. Narlikar, P. Rajaratnam, M.P. Turner, S. Al-Mufti, M.K. Wallis, and F. Hoyle
Proceedings of the SPIE Conference, 4495, 192 (2002)

3. Microorganisms cultured from stratospheric air samples obtained at 41 km M. Wainwright, N.C. Wickramasinghe, J.V. Narlikar and P. Rajaratnam FEMS Microbiology Letters, 218, 1, 161 (2003)

4. Did silicon aid in the establishment of the first bacterium?
M. Wainwright, K. Al-Wajeeh, N.C. Wickramasinghe and J.V. Narlikar International Journal of Astrobiology, 2, 3, 227 (2003)

5. Progress towards the vindication of panspermia
N.C. Wickramasinghe, M. Wainwright, J.V. Narlikar, P. Rajaratnam, M.H. Harris and D. Lloyd Astrophysics and Space Science, 283, 403 (2003)

6. Astronomical Origins of Life: Steps towards Panspermia
F. Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000)

2015-11-08 : Is this “ET Disclosure” from ESA and NASA?

ESA/NASA Important Video.

The truth is finally being disclosed but in a concealed form.  The discoveries of life-related organics on Comet 67P/C-G must be taken together with the recently reported venting of molecular oxygen and water in equal quantity as pointing to the possible action of cyanobacteria.

Also of interest is the discovery of ethyl alcohol in Comet Lovejoy, a fermentation product of microorganisms.  Most relevantly perhaps is the discovery that the first life on Earth (from carbon in zircons) is now pushed back to 4.1 billion years ago, a time when the first rocks on Earth were forming.

It is time surely to come clean and conclude that “Life is a cosmic phenomenon”.

Thank you ESA for pushing NASA to admit, albeit obtusely, what they should have known for a very long time. How could they hold back the truth that all your Rosetta/67P results are consistent with the hypothesis that Comet 67P did or does contain life. I believe DOES. Small steps.

Oct 9, 2015 : A celebration of Sir Fred Hoyle at the Royal Astronomical Society

2015-10-14 : “The birth centenary of the noted British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle was celebrated on Friday at the Royal Astronomical Society with a one-day meeting of talks describing Sir Fred’s many contributions to 20th century physics”.  This post takes you to a fine report of the whole day’s event. I am honoured the writer, Cormac O’Rafferty, spoke highly of my own contribution.

Here is the report.

June 21-24, 2015 : INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE TO MARK THE CENTENARY OF EINSTEIN’S THEORY OF GENERAL RELATIVITY AND THE BIRTH OF SIR FRED HOYLE

Report by Chandra Wickramasinghe

A sleepy little Indian town called Changa in the district of Anand in the State of Gujarat came alive from 21st-24th June with the descent of scores of astronomers and physicists from across in India and abroad.  The publication of the very first paper by Albert Einstein on the General Theory of Relativity in 1915 and the centenary of Fred Hoyle’s birth on 24 June 1915 were the dual reason for this noteworthy event.  The venue was a modern, well-appointed campus of the Charusat University of Science and Technology, located some 40 minutes drive away from a 3-star hotel in which all the participants were housed.

Charusat

The conference was convened by Dr. J.J. Rawal under the auspices of the Indian Planetary Society and chaired by the eminent industrialist and sponsor Dr.Mohanbhal Patel.  Following the opening ceremony on 21 June, with the traditional lighting of oil lamps to signify a new awakening, the meeting was launched.

The first two days of formal sessions on 22nd and 23rd June were largely devoted to matters connected with Relativity and Cosmology.  Jayant Narlikar’s father V.V. Narlikar, who was a student at Cambridge in the 1930’s and a pupil of Sir Arthur Eddington, was the trail blazer for Relativity research in India and he had inspired two generations of young Indians to explore ideas in this field.

The distinguished cosmologist, Professor Thanu Padmanabhan, who was one time Sackler Distinguished Professor at Cambridge University and is now a Professor at the Inter-Universities Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pune India, gave a stimulating opening talk on 22 June in which he described his new ideas about the geometry of space-time and gravity being an emergent property from some deeper thermodynamic principle.  J.V. Narlikar next talked about his collaboration with Fred Hoyle on C-field (creation field) cosmology which was an attempt to formulate rigorously the Steady-State Theory of the Universe.  This was followed by other speakers who covered a variety of more conventional aspects of cosmology and general relativity.

The Fred Hoyle day on 24th June 2015 (Hoyle’s birth centenary) started with a brilliant presentation by Hoyle’s oldest living student Professor Leon Mestel (92).  Leon Mestel was unable to attend in person, but his contribution was read out by Jayant Narlikar.  Then came a talk by Peter Eggleton who had collaborated on stellar structure with Fred Hoyle in the 1960’s.   The session included a talk by Fred Hoyle’s daughter Elizabeth Butler who gave some of her personal reminiscences.  This presentation also peered beyond Fred Hoyle’s relatively impoverished childhood to a more distant lineage that included one noted poet (Ben Preston) and members of the British aristocracy and intellectual elite.

The meeting closed with my 50-minute talk on “Convergence to Cosmic Biology”.   Here I traced the steps in my 40-year-long collaboration with Hoyle that had led us from studies of carbonaceous interstellar dust to the theory that life is a cosmic phenomenon.

The Hoyle-Wickramasinghe Model of Panspermia is now globally acknowledged as the most likely hypothesis of how life spread throughout our Solar System, Galaxy and even Universe.

Since Fred Hoyle’s death in 2001 new results from astronomy, geology and biology, including DNA sequence studies, have shown our theory to be amply vindicated.  A major scientific paradigm shift with far-reaching societal implications appears to loom large on the horizon.

June 20, 2015 : Vindication of the theory of our cometary origins

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.

A MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD – The Centenary of Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2015) by Kamala Wickramasinghe

He strode the scientific stage of the 20th century like a colossus inspiring a whole generation of scientists but also reaching out to millions with his lectures and his science fiction works. Throughout a career spanning six decades, he sought answers to some of the biggest questions posed by physics and astronomy and was a tireless and creative pioneer, the latter often leading him to being at odds with the mainstream of science. He invented the Steady State theory, was the founder of astrobiology and he discovered how the chemical elements, which are the basis of all life, are formed. His legacy to modern science is arguably unparalleled and his more radical theories about the origin of life are finally on the brink of being accepted.

Sir Fred Hoyle was a regular guest at my family home during my childhood and early adulthood. His visits were owed to his long scientific collaboration with my father on the cosmic origins of life. Yet Hoyle’s pursuits were not confined to this area. Not only did he have a knowledge of astronomy that seemed encyclopaedic but he was also able to apply his intelligence and creative thinking to a wide array of disciplines. During his visits, he used to engage myself and my siblings in various discussions ranging from Shakespeare to politics to food and of course science. He had a passion for music and walking and used them as tools to aid his creativity. His mother had studied piano at the Royal College of Music and had imbued in him a deep love for the piano. I myself had studied the piano to a high level and Hoyle would often ask me to play whilst he and my father were attempting to unravel the unanswered questions posed by the Universe.

In 1983, prior to one of Hoyle’s visits to our home, I overheard my parents discussing the fact that a Nobel prize had been awarded to Hoyle’s friend, the scientist Willy Fowler, for work in nuclear physics that had been led and essentially carried out by Hoyle. Hoyle had been the originator of a theory of the natural history of our known chemical elements and went on to lead the team that resulted in its proof in the 1950s.

For many hundreds of years philosophers and alchemists had puzzled about how the different chemical elements in the world came to be. The elements that all life depends on seemed to have an origin which eluded discovery until Hoyle led an investigation which unlocked this great mystery of the natural world.

By the 1940s, it was already known that the process by which energy is generated in stars involved nuclear fusion – the conversion at very high temperatures of the simplest element hydrogen to helium. But the precise link between such processes to the evolution of stars, and the formation of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other elements was yet to be discovered.

Fred Hoyle began to link the evolution of stars to the origin of the chemical elements heavier than helium. As the hydrogen fuel in a star like the sun becomes exhausted, its central core contracts to become hotter and this permits the helium to be transformed into carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

At this point in the chain of reasoning Fred made a profoundly important scientific discovery. Using the science of nuclear physics he calculated that in order for carbon to be produced in this way, the nucleus of carbon must possess an “excited state energy level” that was not known to exist at this time. Convinced that carbon in the cosmos had to be produced in this way, Hoyle thereupon approached Willy Fowler, Director of the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at Caltech and asked him to use his laboratory to look for carbon. It was found to be present.

In the early 1950’s Fred Hoyle entered into his historic collaboration with Willy Fowler, and astronomers Geoff and Margaret Burbidge which culminated in a game-changing B2FH paper in Physical Reviews. In this paper Fred and his team showed convincingly how stars evolve over time and in the process synthesise all the known chemical elements through nuclear processes (first fusion, and later addition of neutrons). These chemical elements are eventually scattered back into interstellar space in exploding stars called supernovae, so producing the raw materials of life.

The reason that Hoyle was excluded from the Nobel Prize for this work remains a topic of speculation but was not one which he himself talked about much. Interestingly Willy Fowler had, in the months preceding the award, been asked by Hoyle’s granddaughter to write an article for her school magazine. In the article, Fowler had stated that Fred was the pioneer of the work and its main driving force.

Despite holding prestigious posts – Hoyle was Plumian Professor at Cambridge and founder and Director of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge – he was often viewed as being anti-establishment. He did not allow himself to be confined to hypotheses which upheld the status quo of mainstream science, often looking for solutions in unsuspected places. Throughout our history all revolutionary advances in science have sprung from ideas that were outside the realm of conventional belief systems and, sadly, throughout our history the originators of these ideas have been viewed with suspicion.

Although Fred Hoyle’s contributions extend across most of astronomy, he is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Steady-State theory of the Universe. Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the Universe in the 1930’s had led to a widespread belief in the so-called Big-Bang theory of the cosmos which was readily assimilated into the establishment, not least perhaps for its fit with religious views of creation.

During the 1950’s Hoyle and his collaborators began to challenge this theory. They postulated that despite the observed expansion of the Universe – galaxies getting further apart with time – the Universe could be in a steady state if new matter and new galaxies formed continuously in the space vacated by the expansion. The theory led to many definite predictions. Supporters of the Big-Bang theory (a term coined by Hoyle as a disparaging appellation) were quick to devise experiments that sought to disprove the predictions of steady state cosmology, and by the early 1960’s such predictions appeared to be going against the Steady-State theory.

The fate of the Steady-State theory appeared to be finally sealed by the discovery in 1965 of the Cosmic Microwave Background which was interpreted as the relic energy of the Big Bang, now thought to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago. But the last word may yet to be said in relation to how it all began. Multiverses, eternal inflation, oscillating universes alternating between expansion and contractions still remain in currency – and in some of these models the mathematics of the Steady State universe appears to persist.

Perhaps Fred Hoyle’s most daring scientific exploit relates to his 40-year long collaboration with my father Chandra Wickramasinghe on the cosmic origins of life. After identifying the great profusion of complex organic molecules – which are the building blocks of life itself – in interstellar dust in the 1970’s, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe became gradually convinced that life is a truly cosmic phenomenon. Their ideas were viewed as being heretical at the time but Hoyle was never frightened of finding solutions outside the realm of orthodoxy. He turned accepted precepts on their head, stating that the cosmic nature of biology will seem as obvious to future generations as the Sun being the centre of the Universe seems obvious to the present generation.

Up to the time of his death in 2001 evidence in support of this point of view has accumulated from fields as diverse as space science, microbiology, geology and genetics. The holy grail of biology that life began on Earth is now under serious threat, and science is slowly beginning to admit this in various ways. The discovery of planets similar to Earth in great profusion in the Milky Way (an estimate of 140 billion has recently been mentioned) adds to the possibility that we live in vast connected biospheres. These views are only gradually and somewhat reluctantly being conceded at the present time. But the trend is clear. A major paradigm shift is in sight, and Fred Hoyle’s contribution in this area of science will perhaps shine as a guiding star.

Kamala Wickramasinghe

June 2015