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


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Sherman Theatre Cardiff. Photograph taken by Chandra Wickramasinghe

By 1980 Fred was willing to take on conventional theories with a frontal assault. In April at an RAS meeting held at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff Fred gave a public lecture entitled “The Relation of Biology to Astronomy”. The substance of the lecture didn’t win him many friends but he launched a debate which still continues today concerning natural selection. In the course of his lecture Fred said:

” What may be the biggest biological myth of all holds that evolution by natural selection explains the origin of phyla, classes and orders of plants and animals. There are certainly plenty of examples of minor evolutionary changes caused by natural selection and evidence of these minor changes. The major changes are assumed to be similarly caused. The assumption became dogma and then in many people’s eyes the dogma became fact…”

With this statement of intent they were soon to take on the entire biological establishment in re-evaluating the evolution of life in a closed box setting and opening up the process to the wider universe.

Not many astronomers in the audience took much interest in biology even though it was the dominion of astronomy. Fred went on:

” Astronomers have become accustomed to thinking of the external Universe in the words of Macbeth, as being ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Can we seriously believe that anything as subtle as biology could have gained a toe-hold in a world signifying nothing? I pondered this question for a long time before arriving at a strange answer to it. If the astronomer’s world of fury is really in control, then the prospects for biology would be poor. But what if it is really biology which controls the astronomer’s world:”

Here perhaps unwittingly Fred laid the foundations for the modern discipline of astrobiology, a subject that is becoming an increasingly popular scientific discipline.

The next significant event in the development of this thesis was the work of H.D. Pflug who became known to Fred in early 1980. Pflug had discovered organic structures within a meteorite. Fred and Chandra considered this to be absolutely unequivocal evidence of fossilised bacteria and viruses. This was of course challenged by a powerful and well-organised meteoritic establishment that had by now been used to dismissing even the vaguest hints of extra-terrestrial life as earthly contaminants.

The idea that viruses and bacteria from the cosmos could happen perchance to interact with terrestrially evolved life-forms by causing disease led to further objections that had to be addressed. It was necessary to argue that the whole of evolution, except for a relatively minor component of fine-tuning by Darwinian Natural Selection was driven from the external universe. The broadest patterns of biological evolution on the Earth would then appear to be “prearranged” in the context of a vast (perhaps infinite?) universe. Although this approach may be criticised as being reminiscent of teleology, this is exactly what biological research in the subsequent decades has shown it to be. These ideas formed the basis of the book Evolution from Space.

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1980/81 saw the undertaking of connecting cosmic life, viruses and bacteria causing diseases with the evolution of life. If life began over 4 billion years ago with a comet bringing the first cosmic microorganisms, how did it evolve and diversify to produce today’s magnificent range of life forms.

Neo-Darwinists argue that the full spectrum of life is the result of primitive living systems being sequentially copied billions of times. So by the accumulation of copying errors, sorted out by the process of natural selection, the survival of the fittest could account for both the rich variety of life and the steady upward progression of complexity and sophistication from bacterium to man.

Their investigations revealed a different answer. Major evolutionary developments in biology require the generation of new high-grade information and such information cannot arise from closed box evolutionary arguments.

The two spent much time and energy trying to persuade those who believed in the status quo of evolution to open their eyes. This was an uphill struggle and many comparisons were made in their writings on the subject. One, now well known comparison from Fred said that ‘the origin of life from organic molecules on Earth is of a small order of improbability as is a tornado blowing through a junk yard assembling a fully working Boeing 707.’

In a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution on 12 January 1982 Fred said

“… Some people are putting out statements that by appealing to a mysterious process called non-equilibrium thermodynamics the problem of finding the required explicit orderings of amino acids can somehow be solved. This is like saying to a person trying to throw a sequence of 5 million sixes that they would do better if they were to roll the dice a bit faster, whereas of course it would scarcely help at all even if the dice were thrown at the speed of light…”

Fred has been said to be a religious man. This is not the case for he felt that if there were a cosmic creator it would be scarcely conceivable that any of the world’s religions would have fully grasped either His intent or His plan. He always kept an open mind, regarding creation, in some form, as being a valid intellectual position to hold in relation to the origin of life. Fred was also cynical of the ambivalent scientific attitude that prevailed in relation to this whole question: whilst it was considered untenable for “creation” to be used in connection with life, it was perfectly acceptable to contemplate that an entire Universe, with all its inherent laws, suddenly came into existence some 13.75 billions years ago, created to all intents and purposes.

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Institute of Fundamental Studies Sri Lanka

On a visit to Sri Lanka to a conference at the new Institute of Fundamental Studies in 1983 Fred and Chandra visited Arthur C Clark a longtime friend of Chandra’s. It was during this meeting that Clark revealed that a casual remark by the CIA during a visit to him disclosed that NASA had found bacteria in the stratosphere at heights above 40 kilometres in the 1960’s. These findings obviously worried NASA and they dealt with the problem by withdrawing support for further balloon flights.

1986 brought the arrival of Comet Halley and in anticipation of its close proximity to earth five spacecraft were deployed to investigate the comet.

Twelve days before Giotto’s cameras focused on Comet Halley Fred and Chandra published a paper which predicted that the comet’s surface would be black. The London Times picked up the prediction so the priority concerning the colour of the surface of the comet became recorded.

More results from observations of the comet came streaming in confirming the disproving of Whipple’s dirty snowball theory.