Life from Space Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe look for Life from Space


My Image

Halley Comet Multicolor Camera Team, Giotto Project, ESA

June of 1977 was a particularly inclement month in Wales, and Chandra had succumbed to one of the worst bouts of flu that he could remember. Fred and Chandra were in a phase of brisk telephone and fax communication trying to fit a swathe of new astronomical data to their prebiotic dust models. Although Fred was well and truly immersed in these calculations he still resisted Chandra’s attempts to make him take seriously the idea that the dust in space was either freeze-dried or degraded bacteria. The “bugs from space” idea still fell on deaf ears as far as Fred was concerned.
My Image

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft on September 29, 2016, when Rosetta was at an altitude of 14 miles (23 kilometers).

A pall of silence descended on the phone line. Fred had listened to all that was said and replied “I shall think about it and phone you back.” On returning the call Fred acknowledged that what Chandra was proposing could well be so! Fred was reminded of conversations he had had many years ago with an Australian physicist E.G (Taffy) Bowen in which he had pointed out the amazing connection between freezing nuclei in rain clouds and meteor showers.
My Image
In 1977 Chandra decided to have a look at the visual extinction curve of starlight, the way starlight is extinguished by dust at visual wavelengths. It was during this work that Chandra discovered that there was a graphical fit between the interstellar extinction observations over the visible waveband compared with the theoretical extinction curve calculated for hollow freeze dried bacteria. More astronomical observations followed as did laboratory experiments that provided matching data.

All this was good news for their theory but as with every good theory they had to be able to demonstrate its predictive capabilities. They had to make predictions that could be verified or falsified by future experiment or observation.

Fred and Chandra’s new theory took a real hammering at a conference in October 1980 at the University of Maryland. The opposing camp of scientists included Cyril Ponnamperuma, J. Oro and J. Mayo Greenburg. Almost everybody at that meeting delivered a polemic denying any possibility of comets carrying life, or even life’s building blocks in some instances.

This conference in Maryland gave Chandra a direct taste of the power of opposition that was stacked against them. He formed the impression that nothing would be spared in an attempt to denigrate their work or to stifle it's further progress. The hostility grew as the evidence grew in strength.

Fred pointed out in their joint book, From Grains to Bacteria (1984):

“It is necessary to come now to a curious situation that we think will eventually be of interest to students of scientific methodology. The more precise the correspondences we calculated between our models and the observations, the greater was the measure of opposition we received from individuals, from journals and from funding agencies like SERC. The introduction of polysaccharides, because of their biological association apparently, became a signal for papers to be turned down by journals, and even for the most modest grant applications to be thrown back in our faces by SERC, an organisation which in a time span of no more that a decade and a half managed to go from a beginning of rich promise to one of the outstanding Gilbert-and-Sullivan operattas of the twentieth century …”

The vilification of their ideas continued for a number of years with one line disproofs. An example of a paper by W.W.Duley and D.A. Williams published in Nature at the beginning of January 1977 illustrates this mind set:

“We conclude that no spectroscopic evidence exists to support the contention that much of interstellar dust consists of organic materials. While the presence of trace quantities of organic compounds on grains inside very dense clouds cannot be excluded by available data, the absence of any observation of a 3.3-3.4um absorption band even in objects with Av=50 mag strongly suggests that organic grains constitute at most a minor component in interstellar dust…”

How wrong this paper was. By 2004 there is not the slightest dissent from the view that the bulk of interstellar dust is organic.
My Image

H1N1 swine flu virus

This incident was followed by another serendipitous event. A variety of flu (H1N1) that had not been in circulation for many decades was causing an epidemic that apparently started in Russia (Red Flu Pandemic). This was a godsend for testing the hypothesis of flu from space. School children younger than 21 years of age would not have encountered this virus and would in principle be all equally susceptible. It was Fred’s idea to use such children as “detectors” of the virus. They set about the mammoth task of conducting a survey of schools in Wales and England.

The outcome of the survey confirmed their suspicions. The way in which cases of influenza were distributed amongst the boarding houses at Howell’s School Cardiff and Eton College could not be explained on the basis of person to person spread. The indications were that a component at least of the causative agent fell from the skies and was distributed at ground level in accord with the vagaries of swirling air currents.

Historical data on influenza, particularly in the 1918-1919 pandemic that led to over 30 million deaths worldwide, provided added confirmation. Dr. Louis Wienstein reviewed this data in the New England Journal of Medicine of 6 May 1976:

“The influenza pandemic of 1918 occurred in three waves. The first appeared in the winter and spring of 1917-1918….. The lethal second wave, which started at Ford Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1918, involved almost the entire world over a very short time…..Its epidemiological behaviour was most unusual. Although person-to-person spread occurred in local areas, the disease appeared on the same day in widely separated parts of the world on the one hand, but, on the other, took days to weeks to spread relatively short distances. It was detected in Boston and Bombay on the same day, but took three weeks before it reached New York City, despite the fact that there was considerable travel between the two cities. It was present for the first time at Joliet in the State of Illinois four weeks after it was detected in Chicago, the distance between those areas being only 38 miles……”

With no air travel in 1918 simultaneous first strikes in Boston and Bombay is strong evidence of a component of the virus falling in from space.

The idea that comets were the delivery mechanism for the transportation of virus and other matter slowly grew in their minds. Fred wasn’t wholly convinced. More research, visits to leading viral research establishments finally convinced them that viruses like flu came from outside the earth. One of the most striking features in this whole story is that the technology of human travel has had no effect whatsoever on the way that influenza spreads.

Their ideas on the emergence of life on comets and a possible connection with plagues and pestilence had now advanced to a stage when it was decided that Fred should try them out on an academic audience. This started with a lecture from Fred delivered in Cardiff on January 18 1978 entitled “Diseases from Outer Space”. The auditorium was packed solid and the lecture created an atmosphere of controversy and hostility.

At this stage in their collaboration Chandra wondered for a while what astronomical discovery would encourage Fred to take the step from life emerging on a comet out of interstellar probiotics to fully-fledged microbial life distributed throughout interstellar space. Fred had now been expounding the former for nearly two years with conviction and much eloquence. If he had stayed with that their fortunes may have turned out differently. Their position of 1977 was after all the standard point of view of the scientific community in 2004.