Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's Analysis of Interstellar Dust What'sNEW | Selected ResourcesAlmost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. — Thomas Kuhn (1)
The astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle was born in Bingley, Yorkshire, England on June 24, 1915. He received a master's degree from Cambridge in 1939 and was elected Fellow, St. John's College, Cambridge in the same year. He rose to become Plumian Professor of Astrophysics and Natural Philosophy in 1958. He was a leading contributor in the discovery of how the elements from lithium to iron are synthesized inside stars. In 1997 he was awarded the Crafoord Prize by the the Swedish Academy in recognition of outstanding basic research in fields not covered by the Nobel prize.
Professor N. Chandra Wickramasinghe was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on January 20, 1939. He studied astrophysics at Cambridge, where he was a student of Hoyle's. He received his Ph.D. in 1963 and an Sc.D. in 1973, and served on the faculty at Cambridge. He is now a Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy at the University College, Cardiff, Wales. He is an expert in the use of infrared astronomy to study interstellar matter.
These two scientists did not originally set out to prove that life comes from space. They were astronomers, not biologists. They were trying to identify the contents of interstellar dust by finding something that would match its infrared signature, or extinction spectrum. When they began working on this problem in the early 1960s, the standard theory was that the spectrum could be adequately explained by graphite grains. But an imperfect match between the theoretical and actual spectra, and an implausible account of the formation of the grains pushed Hoyle and Wickramasinghe to search elsewhere. In their work and others', molecules that are more closely related to biology began to enter the picture.
In 1968, polycyclic aromatic molecules were detected in interstellar dust (4). In 1972, convincing evidence that the dust contained porphyrins was obtained (5). Then in 1974, Wickramasinghe demonstrated that there are complex organic polymers, specifically molecules of "polyformaldehyde", in space (6). These molecules are closely related to cellulose, which is very abundant in biology. By 1975, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were convinced that organic polymers were a substantial fraction of the dust. This line of thought was considered wildly speculative at that time. Now however, the idea that organic polymers in space are abundant and may be necessary for life is well accepted. Today we often see stories about things like vinegar among the stars (7), or "buckyballs" from space as "the seeds of life" (8). To that extent the scientific paradigm for the origin of life on Earth has already shifted.
But Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were not satisfied. In the middle 1970s, they turned their attention to an apparent anomaly in the spectrum. It had a low, broad "knee" centered at about 2.3 wavelengths per micrometer (the slight convexity on the slope at the left side of the graph above) (9). This spectral feature could be explained if the grains of dust were of a certain size, and translucent. After trying almost everything else first, in 1979, they looked at the spectrum for bacteria. Dried bacteria refract light as irregular hollow spheres, and their size range is appropriate. The match between the spectrum for dried bacteria (solid line) and the ones from the interstellar grains (dots, triangles and squares) was nearly perfect. Thinking without prejudice, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe concluded the grains probably were dried, frozen bacteria (10).
When [Wickramasinghe] first made this calculation... he was dumbfounded. After almost twenty years in which he had tried in vain to obtain a theoretical extinction curve closely matching the observations, using theories that permitted a considerable measure of parameter fitting, he now had a theory with no adjustable parameter, a theory which yet gave... excellent results... (11).
This finding was ridiculed at the time, is still ridiculed today, and is definitely not accepted by mainstream science. It has become common to wonder if Fred Hoyle has "gone off the deep end." But in fact, Hoyle spent ten productive years studying the implications of this finding (12). And Chandra Wickramasinghe is still working on the evidence for life from space. While exploring the vast new scientific territory they found, they have taken some wrong turns and have changed their opinions on some questions. Certain other scientists have roundly criticised them for such "inconststencies" and for sometimes having less than complete corroboration for their findings. Criticism so bitter discourages all pioneering scientific enquiry. Perhaps their work will be honored eventually.
27 Sep 2014: Even more complex organic molecules have been found in space.
25 Jan 2014: Water in interplanetary dust is a byproduct of solar wind and is therefore probably ubiquitous in the solar system.
Discoveries Suggest Icy Cosmic Start for Amino Acids and DNA Ingredients, The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (also Science Daily), 28 Feb 2013.
3 Dec 2011: The data from every direction support the interstellar life and panspermia hypothesis — Chandra Wickramasinghe
27 Oct 2011: Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening, says Professor Sun Kwok.
15 Jun 2011: YouTube video
22 Jun 2010: "Largest molecules ever known in space found..." is the subject of a link emailed by Kenneth Miller.
22 Jun 2010: We have detected the presence of anthracene molecules in a dense cloud... about 700 light years from the Sun....
Survivability of Microorganisms and Organics in Interplanetary Space of the Solar System, Japan Geoscience Union Meeting, 23-28 May 2010.
4 Feb 2010: Chandra Wickramasinghe reviews the case for panspermia in a new article.
24 Dec 2009: ...Interstellar dust includes a substantial fraction of biomaterial in various stages of degradation....
22 Apr 2009: Two new complex organic molecules have been seen toward the center of our galaxy.
Does prebiotic material exist in space?, Physog.com, 26 Mar 2009.
Astronomers spot cosmic dust fountain, The University of Chicago, 5 Feb 2009.
Water in the early Universe, Max Planck Society, 18 Dec 2008.
9 Dec 2008: Organic compounds can also be a by-product of life processes....
1 Dec 2008: Glycolaldehyde 26,000 light-years away has been detected by European astronomers using the IRAM radio dish array in France.
Scientists discover key molecules in the interstellar space for the formation of basic life structures, The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), 19 Sep 2008.
29 Mar 2008: An amino-acid-like molecule has been seen in a dust cloud 25,000 lightyears away. 22 Mar 2008: Methane and water, but no carbon monoxide, can be seen in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet 63 lightyears away. John S. Carr and Joan R. Najita, "Organic Molecules and Water in the Planet Formation Region of Young Circumstellar Disks" [abstract], doi:10.1126/science.1153807, p 1504-1506 v 319, Science, 14 Mar 2008; and commentary:
A Solar System That Looks Like Home, by Phil Berardelli, ScienceNOW Daily News, 13 Mar 2008.
Arecibo telescope finds critical ingredients for the soup of life in a galaxy far, far away, EurekAlert!, 14 Jan 2008.
Red Dust In Planet-forming Disk May Harbor Precursors To Life, Carnegie Institution for Science, 3 Jan 2008.
L. M. Ziurys et al., "Chemical complexity in the winds of the oxygen-rich supergiant star VY Canis Majoris" [abstract], p 1094-1097 v 447, Nature, 28 Jun 2007.
S. Pizzarello et al., "The Nature and Distribution of the Organic Material in Carbonaceous Chondrites and Interplanetary Dust Particles," p625-651 in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, Dante S. Lauretta and Harry Y. McSween, eds., The University of Arizona Press, 2006.
Organic Molecules Found in Diverse Space Places, by Ker Than, Space.com, 8 Aug 2006.
13 Mar 2006: Fire and ice — the first examined particles returned from comet Wild 2 by NASA's Stardust mission.
15 Jan 2006: Stardust landed safely.
22 Dec 2005: Building blocks of life orbiting a Sun-like star were observed by astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
11 Oct 2005: Organic chemicals that play a crucial role in the chemistry of life are common in space.
8 Sep 2005: Deep inside comet Tempel 1 there are lots of organic compounds.
28 Jul 2005: Cosmic organics seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
2 Oct 2004: Chandra Wickramasinghe comments on sugar in space.
Sun Kwok, "The synthesis of organic and inorganic compounds in evolved stars" [abstract], p 985-991 v 430, Nature, 26 Aug 2004.
To Grow, Stars and Planets Need Space Dust... and Formaldehyde?, by Pam Frost Gorder, Ohio State University, 30 Jun 2004. "Even using our best models of interstellar chemistry, we still don’t fully understand how these molecules could have formed. Clearly, something else is going on."
New Molecules Discovered in Milky Way, by Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, 23 Jun 2004.
17 Jun 2004: Mass spectrometer on Stardust sees organic matter at comet Wild 2.
27 May 2004: Organics in planet-forming discs.
Christine Floss, "The extragalactic Universe: an alternative view" [abstract], p 1355-1358 v 303 Science, 27 Feb 2004.
Space molecules point to organic origins, New Scientist, 9 Jan 2004.
9 Jan 2004: Complex organics in interstellar dust confirmed.
2003, December 26: Infrared telescope sees hydrocarbons...
2003, October 23: The red rain of Kerala....
John S. Mathis, "Interstellar Dust and Extinction" [text], p 37-70 v 28 Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys, 1990.
Space infrared astronomy comes of age, European Space Agency, 16 Apr 2003.
Cosmic Dust, research department homepage, Washington University, St Louis MO.
Scientists get first close look at stardust, EurekAlert!, 27 Feb 2003.
Extrasolar meteors hint at distant planet formation, by Nicolle Wahl, University of Toronto, 6 Jan 2003.
2002, August 23: "Cosmic smog may have seeded life...."
2002, July 26: Glycine in space
New evidence for organic compounds in deep space, EurekAlert, 18 April 2002.
Scientists Discover Antifreeze in Space..., National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 15 April 2002.
...Vinyl Alcohol in Interstellar Space, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 1 October 2001.
2001, February 21: Complex carbon molecules and water found in dust around distant stars.
ISO detects benzene in space, European Space Agency, 22 January 2001.
2000, November 27: Leonid meteor reveals spectral signature of bacteria?
2000, September 20: Stardust, by John Gribbin.
Pascale Ehrenfreund and Steven B. Charnley, "Organic Molecules in the Interstellar Medium, Comets and Meteorites: A Voyage from Dark Clouds to the Early Earth" [abstract], doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.38.1.427, p 427-483 v 38, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Sep 2000.
2000, July 18: ESA's infrared space telescope detects CH3 in space.
2000, June 19: Scientists Discover Sugar in Space.
2000, April 27: Most interstellar particles captured by Stardust are complex organic compounds....
Formic Acid Found toward Hot Galactic Molecular Cores — The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, July 1999.
1999, February 19: NASA says astrobiologists find clues to origin of life.
1998, December 18: Scientists in California and Germany report finding the unique signatures of an exotic form of carbon in deep space.
References1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1970. p 90.
4. Bertram Donn, v 152 L129 Astrophysics J. Lett. 1968.
5. Fred M. Johnson, "Interstellar Matter II: Diffuse Interstellar Lines and Porphyrins" p 186-206 v 187 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 25 January 1972.
6. Chandra Wickramasinghe, "Polyformaldehyde polymers in interstellar space" p 462-463 v 252 n 5483 Nature. December 6, 1974.
7. John Noble Wilford, "A Whiff of Organic Stuff Is Found Between Stars" p B7 The New York Times June 11, 1996.
8. Kathy Sawyer, "The Molecules That Fell to Earth: A meteorite may have planted the seeds of life." p 38 The Washington Post Weekly Edition April 29 - May 5, 1996.
9. F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe. "A Model for Interstellar Extinction" p 321-329 v 86 Astrophysics and Space Science. D. Reidel Publishing Co. 1982.
10. F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe. "On the Nature of Interstellar Grains" p 77-90 v 66 Astrophysics and Space Science. 1979.
11. Fred Hoyle, Evolution From Space: The Omni Lecture. Enslow Publishers. 1982. p 70.
12. Fred Hoyle, Home is Where the Wind Blows. University Science Books. 1994. p 395.
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe: Selected Resources
H.C. Arp, G. Burbidge, F. Hoyle, J.V. Narlikar and N.C. Wickramasinghe, "The extragalactic Universe: an alternative view" p 807-812 v 346 Nature. 30 August 1990.