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

Life Cloud

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Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

In 1972 Fred resigned from his various posts at Cambridge and sold the family house.

His decision did not indicate how their research might progress, if at all.

While Fred moved to the English Lake District, Chandra moved to the chair of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at University College, Cardiff. The new posting soon saw changes in both the name of the department and its composition. This sowed the seeds for a great future but upset many in the department, a situation that never resolved itself.

By 1973 Fred was now a “Professor at large” mostly doing his own thing, visiting Universities wherever and whenever it suited him. Chandra continued to collaborate and interact with Fred by means of phone calls, letters, faxes, and occasional visits and meetings. In 1974 Fred Hoyle was appointed a Visiting Professor at Cardiff, one of the few formal appointments he accepted after leaving Cambridge.
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Cardiff 1980. Photograph taken by Priya Wickramasinghe

In 1974 the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe carbon dust theory (first proposed in 1962) took a new turn. Chandra published an argument that the carbon in interstellar dust was in the form of complex organic polymers. This was a time when Fred spent considerable periods in the US so their communications were not as frequent as they had been. Although he did not collaborate on the paper on organic polymers, he fully endorsed it and felt impelled to take the matter further. After many exchanges of letters and phone calls Fred became absolutely convinced that interstellar dust provided the chemical fabric from which life originated, and that the Earth-bound primordial soup idea was seriously flawed.

The idea of chemical seeds of life from space was where Fred stalled for several years. They did however publish several papers in Nature elaborating on the idea and needless to say it triggered a tide of hostility. It is ironic that in 2016 when such a proposition is being fully embraced in academia, that their well-documented history and priority of the 1970’s is largely forgotten.

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Photograph by Don Clayton

What changed Fred’s mind about continuing research was his attendance at a small conference organised by Chandra and held at the Gregynog estate of the University of Wales in August 1976.

By 1976 molecules in space were an orthodoxy. Even dense clouds of gas containing great quantities of organic material were de rigueur. Everybody was talking about them, in Gregynog they spoke of little else. While other distractions occupied Fred’s mind there was enough in the discussion to penetrate his consciousness and make him wonder just how complex the organic material in space could be. Was it conceivable that the complexity might be great enough for the material to serve as the immediate building blocks of life? As the conference disbanded Fred suggested to Chandra that it would be worthwhile looking into this question. By life he meant mundane life like our own, not the monster of “The Black Cloud”.

Chandra threw himself into the work. Within a few months the idea of prebiotic material in space materialised into a publishable form. It even cleared the usual refereeing hurdle because it was as yet too mild to be a threat to established opinion. Likely enough, if it had been received in a friendly way Fred might have been content to go no further. But an unfriendly event occurred regarding the funding for a computer from the SRC which made him so fighting mad that he was determined to show the world that he and Chandra were right.

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Photograph by Geoffrey Hoyle

Reply from SRC 4 November 1977

“Dear Professor Hoyle,

Your joint application with Professor Wickramasinghe for a grant of £10,540 in support of computational work on the identification of polysaccharides and related organic polymers in galactic infrared sources, was considered by Astronomy II Committee on 25 October.

I regret to have to inform you that the Committee were not prepared to support the proposal outline in your application. In arriving at this decision the Committee indicated that it was not clear that the problems mentioned in the application were ready for attack by computational methods …”

This response was an indication that their work on interstellar prebiotic polymers was being firmly rejected by the astronomical establishment.

Thereafter, until the time of Fred’s death he used a programable Hewlett-Packard HP-41CV hand held computer.