Life in the galaxy | Sunday Observer

Life in the galaxy

Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe
Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe

When Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe started his research in Astronomy at Cambridge in 1960, under the guidance of the iconic astronomer of the 20th century Sir Fred Hoyle,the composition of cosmic dust was regarded as a “done deal”. Astronomers accepted without dissent that this dust was comprised of trillions of microscopic ice grains that condensed in the gas clouds of interstellar space.

Sri Lankan born, Chandra Wickramasinghe, soon came into the firing line by showing in a seminal paper in 1962, that the element carbon had to be the main constituent of cosmic dust. So the vast clouds of cosmic dust in the galaxy was shown to be made up mainly of the chemical element carbon that is the key element of life. This idea was intensely controversial at the time, but it slowly gained acceptance over the years.

Next, in 1974, Chandra Wickramasinghe delivered another bombshell. He showed in a publication in the journal Nature that the cosmic dust was not just carbon (like soot) but was comprised of long-chain carbonaceos molecules known as polymers. He and Sir Fred Hoyle spent the next decade developing their theory of cosmic biology, arguing that the organic dust in space was an indication that biology – life itself – is present everywhere in the galaxy and in the Universe. Their theory of cometary panspermia, expounded in hundreds of technical scientific papers in learned journals and more than a dozen books, made clear that ideas, dating back to Aristotle in the third century before the Common Era, of life starting on the Earth in a so-called primordial soup (spontaneous generation) had to be abandoned forthwith. Comets and icy asteroids carry the cosmic legacy of life everywhere across the galaxy and the Universe. In no way can life be confined to our planet Earth.

Life on the Earth started over four billion years ago with the arrival of a life-bearing comet or asteroid.

All subsequent evolution leading to plants, animals and humans involved the arrival of genetic packages from the Universe. The entire universe is one connected biosphere, and the Earth is just one trivial and insignificant location on which this comic jig-saw came to be assembled. Over the decades this idea, which we owe to Chandra Wickramsinghe and Fred Hoyle, has been proved almost beyond a shadow of doubt.

Chandra Wickramasinghe, holds the highest degrees from Cambridge (ScD) as well as honorary degrees from other Universities including Tokyo (Soka) and Sri Lanka (Ruhuna). Throughout a long and distinguished working life he has held senior academic positions in the UK where he was a Fellow of Jesus College (1962-1973), and a founder member of Fred Hoyle’s Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, and later Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy at Cardiff. He has been a Visiting Professor at many Universities in the US, Canada and Japan.

Chandra and Fred Hoyle effectively invented the new scientific discipline called astrobiology. He started the first Centre for Astrobiology in the world in Cardiff in 2000 and became its Director; but sadly this Centre was closed in 2010 due to lack of financial support.

From the time of his formal retirement in 2010 he has continued more actively than ever before to push forward the frontiers of astrobiology and to spearhead perhaps the most important scientific revolution since Copernicus in 1543. He has been attached in an Honorary capacity to the University of Buckingham and University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

He has a group of distinguished international collaborators in the fields of biology and astronomy with whom he continues to collaborate and to pursue more actively than ever his work on the cosmic origins of life.

Chandra continues to publish research papers in the general area of the burgeoning discipline of astrobiology and he also extends his activities to science outreach by publishing popular books.