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

Interstellar Matter

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Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

Chandra Wickramasinghe came to Cambridge University in October 1960. He became, first Fred Hoyle’s PHD student, and then his colleague and collaborator in research to identify the composition of cosmic dust. This would eventually challenge the accepted theory that life originated on Earth in a warm primordial soup.

His arrival from Sri Lanka into the college environment of Trinity College must have seemed both awe-inspiring and lonely. Cambridge at that time was still immersed in hundreds of years of tradition. No staying out late at night unless you had permission from your tutor. The intellectual buzz of the University was there to hear. University departments were growing and their heads were academically adventurous in moving forward the research of the time. Fred was part of this dynamism as he pushed the boundaries searching to identify the elements of nucleosynthesis in stars and other cosmological matters.
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By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College.

In a quiet corner of west Cambridge Chandra had his first meeting with Fred and induction into the Hoyle family.

Fred throughout his life rarely worked from an office preferring a comfortable chair in the living room of his home. In Fred’s Cambridge home he sat with his back to a floor length picture window looking into the garden. A coffee table ran from his chair some six feet across the window to another comfortable seat facing him. It was into this chair that Chandra gingerly lowered himself on his first meeting with Fred.
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By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College.

Within a few weeks of this first encounter with Fred, Chandra was immersed in solar physics. From this came the calculations for their first paper on the reversal of the Sun’s polar field.

With events in cosmology occupying much of Fred’s time it was up to Chandra to look for a research project. He mentioned his admiration of “The Black Cloud” to Fred who suggested a read of “Interstellar Matter” by Jesse Greenstein might be of interest. Greenstein had discussed the composition of interstellar dust, considering the arguments for the two separate classes of dust grains - icy particles and metallic iron particles.

In the spring of 1961 Chandra accompanied Fred on a trip to the Lake District. Walking in the Langdale Valley was strenuous. It was with a sense of achievement that the men sat down in front of a roaring fire at the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel, a place Fred had frequented since the early 1950’s.

The discussion one evening in front of the fire turned on Fred’s plan for Chandra’s PhD. Fred did not like the theories concerning interstellar dust. As the fire roared the conversation expanded into a discussion on what might be an alternative to the ice and iron composition of cosmic dust theory. Staring into the fire Chandra mused on whether the composition could contain carbon.
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Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

The following day they walked up Bowfell stopping for lunch under a threatening sky. Chandra asked if it was going to rain. “Not necessarily” said Fred “ These clouds could be saturated with water vapour, but for rain to fall, condensation nuclei are required like molecular fragments (ions) or fine dust”. With a moment’s reflection he added, “Some people even argue that meteor dust could supply nuclei for rain.”

From this brief conversation the following evenings at the hotel were interlaced with speculation concerning the difficulties in forming water droplets. If it was difficult to form water droplets in the densities that prevail in the terrestrial atmosphere, how could ice particles condense in the exceedingly tenuous clouds of interstellar space. The direction of their research would now turn to find a denser place than the interstellar medium to resolve the problem of how interstellar dust grains were formed.
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Maurice Wilkes at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory

So started the great adventure into the composition of interstellar dust and forty years of collaboration. This involved reading numerous scientific papers, designing computer programs in Fortran and dealing with the vagaries of a valve powered computer that had but a fraction of the power of today’s mobile phones. In conjunction with this research new observations of interstellar dust became available using the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum.

In 1962 their paper on graphite particles as interstellar grains was published and was received with great suspicion by the Astronomy community.

The years that followed were exciting. Fred went on to build the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in a small section of woodland alongside the drive to the Observatory and Madingley Rise House.
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Institute of Astronomy, Hoyle Building, Cambridge. Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

The field in front of the Geophysics Department at Madingley Rise house was a possibility, but Fred liked to see the horses grazing there. So other sites where investigated. On a warm evening Fred and his son Geoffrey walked a number of sites at Madingley Rise. The horses were cavorting in the field and came to say hello while the two lent on the fence. Behind them lay a coppice which Geoffrey paced out to get a rough idea of size. The die was cast and the Institute was constructed on a piece of wooded ground where only the trees that impinged the building were felled. Onto the site two buildings and a smaller carpark where constructed. The Institute’s main building containing the office accommodation and a meeting room while the smaller building housed a new IBM 360 type 44 computer and staff.

While the Institute was being built Chandra continued the research into Interstellar Dust Clouds crunching data and evaluating those observations now arriving from the newly built infrared telescopes.

Astronomy and Cosmology were blooming and the dark cloud that lurked on the bureaucracy horizon was only seen at first in the Hoyle household.