Comment, Ispa, March 2016
Whilst the Zika virus continues to grab headlines, it is possible space origin and its long-term impact on humanity appear to have escaped the attention of commentators. A correct understanding of the problem may hindered by adherence to an obsolete paradigm of Earth-centred biology. Bacteria and viruses outweigh the mass of all higher life forms by several factors of ten and represent an ever-changing microbial environment in which we live. Evolutionary change takes place not only by random mutations and Darwinian selection, but far more significantly, through the interaction of terrestrial biology with a vast cosmic biosphere.
In a paper currently in press with the Journal of Astrobiology and Outreach we have drawn attention to certain aspects of the Zika story that dwarfs all others. The Zika virus appears to have recently changed genetically so as to cause an increased incidence of microcephaly (diminished brain size) in babies born to mothers infected with the virus during pregnancy. Microcephaly and the Zika virus now appear to show signs of being sexually transmissible, thus indicating that genes causing diminished brain volume and cognition may be gaining ingress into the human germ line. We note that in our past evolutionary history the volume of the human brain doubled between 500,000 and 2 million years ago, and there are viral “footprints” in modern brain tissue that can be associated with such events that can be associated with the emergence of speech and other cognitive skills.
The worst case scenario is that the Zika virus latches on to our evolving germ line and gives rise to a population of humans with diminished brain size and cognition. The Zika epidemic, unless it is promptly checked, could thus turn back the clock 2 million years representing a dramatic retrogression of human evolution.
15 January 2016
A new study published by the Global Warming Policy Forum has vindicated ideas on global warming that were discussed by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in an article published as early as 1999. In this article, they wrote that mankind’s ability to inject greenhouse gases into the atmosphere was to some extent essential to “maintaining the present advantageous world climate and delaying the onset of the next ice age. This is the opposite of what environmentalists are erroneously advocating.” The Global Warming Policy Forum has endorsed this climate skepticism. Read more on the GWPF website.
4 January 2016
Image of a giant comet
The article in the Royal Astronomical Society’s journal Astronomy & Geophysics co-authored by Professors Bill Napier and Duncan Steel, Centaurs as a hazard to civilisation, has received extensive media coverage for its suggestion that the Earth is in more danger of colliding with the debris of a giant comet than with an asteroid. This is consistent with ideas discussed extensively by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in a long series of books and articles in the 1990’s. The recent article by Napier and Steel has been reported in Astronomy Magazine (22 December), Royal Astronomical Society website (22 December), Daily Express (22 December), Science Daily (22 December), Daily Mail (22 December), Phys.org website (22 December), The Guardian (23 December), Sky News (23 December) and many other places.
8 October 2015
The Royal Astronomical Society held a special conference at Burlington House, London to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the late Sir Fred Hoyle. Chandra Wickramasinghe was one of the main speakers and gave a presentation entitled: “Fred Hoyle and the foundation of astrobiology as a new discipline”. The proceedings of the meeting are published in the December 2015 edition of News and Reviews in Astronomy and Geophysics (Vol 56, Issue 6)
Image of the surfce of Mars
Almost four decades after the 1976 Viking Missions had found ample evidence for microbial life and water on the Martian surface, NASA has at last made the announcement that evidence of seasonal water tricking down cliff surfaces. While Gil Levin’s arguments asserting a positive life detection are still being disputed, NASA and ESA have continued to discover indirect indicators of extant life such as a variable methane emission at surface sites and in the atmosphere of Mars. Following the recent water detection announcement Chandra Wickramasinghe had letters published in The Times and The Guardian after the news about water on Mars. Click here for the letter in The Guardian.
In The Times, he wrote:
"The announcement that liquid water exists on Mars was accompanied by the comment that the discovery raises the chances of microbial life existing on the planet. Although we have no knowledge of how non-living matter turns spontaneously to life anywhere in the cosmos, it is a fact that Mars and Earth are intimately linked in the solar system. Over the past four billion years comet impacts have taken place regularly on both planets, and these impacts could have brought life to both Mars and Earth from a common source. The most violent of these impacts could also have exchanged ejecta in the form of meteorites that carried viable microorganisms from Earth to Mars and vice versa. In either scenario, the newly discovered watery planet Mars and our home planet Earth would form a single connected biosphere for microbial life. This would ensure the certainty of microbial life existing in the watery environments of Mars".
Image of the surface of Pluto
Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe argue in an article in the Journal of Astrobiology & Outreach that the first results from the New Horizon Mission to Pluto shows evidence of a fluid interior with a radioactive heat source driving mountain tectonics and surface restructuring. The presence of methane ice suggests past or ongoing biological sources. Read the full article: Pluto’s surprises: Mountain tectonics, methane and evidence of biology.
Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham, UK
Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics, Gifu, Japan
University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
The theory of Panspermia posits that seeds of life in the form of bacteria and viruses are readily exchanged between planetary habitats, whilst the origin of life itself remains an unsolved and probably intractable problem for science1. The galaxy-wide transmission of such seeds from a single starting point appears to be assured because the distance between habitable planets is now reckoned of the order of several light years, and also because a single source of life such as the Earth revolves in an orbit around the centre of the Galaxy and can spread seeds of life on a wide scale 1,2. The recent discoveries of nearly a thousand habitable planets in the Kepler Satellite project, as well as the extreme hardihood of bacteria that has been demonstrated in many laboratory experiments, support this point of view.
However, direct experiments that show survival during high speed ejection from a planet followed by re- entry has so far been lacking. This deficiency has recently been made good by a Russian study.
The Foton-M4 space capsule carrying several science experiments was launched on 18th July on a Soyuz 2-1A rocket and remained in a 250 by 550 km Earth orbit from 18 July to 1 September 2014. One of the experiments involved the placement of bacteria embedded in clay on the surface of the module so as to mimic the panspermic transport of microorganisms between planets. The results of this unique experiment were reported by Alexander Slobodkin, of the Institute of Microbiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The announcement was made at the 15th ?onference on Space Biology and Aerospace Medicine in Moscow that thermophilic bacteria, deposited in cells of basalt on the surface of the spacecraft, survived from launch at high speed, through a 6 week Earth orbit period with exposure to cosmic rays and re-entry onto a planet. For the first time the conditions of ejection of bacteria from a planet like Earth and re-entry were realistically simulated. Although only a small fraction of the population appears to have retained viability, this is more than sufficient to make the case for panspermia. The situation is akin to the sowing of seeds in the wind. A large fraction might perish, but so many are the seeds that a few will always succeed to survive. The results of the Russian experiment provides the first direct support for the theory of panspermia 3 .
fig.1 Soyuz at blast off and Foton-M4
1. Wickramasinghe, N.C., 2014. The Search for Our Cosmic Ancestry (World Scientific)
2. Hoyle, F. and Wickramasinghe, N.C., 1981. In: C. Ponnamperuma, ed. Comets and the Origin of Life. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, pp. 227
ROSETTA MAY REVEAL OUR COSMIC ANCESTRY
Today's landing on a comet has been hailed as a one big step for civilisation. The importance of this epoch making achievement and its potential for unravelling our origins cannot be overstated. The scientific theory that comets are connected with the origins of life was first developed by the late Sir Fred Hoyle and the present writer from 1980 onwards, and evidence for this point of view has grown steadily over the years. Today it is widely accepted that at the very least the chemical building blocks of life were delivered to the Earth by comets, and this process effectively kick-started the evolution of life on our planet. At the time of the first space mission to a comet in 1986 - ESA's Giotto Mission to Comet Halley - the prevailing point of view was that comets were lifeless inorganic snowballs. Weeks before the Giotto encounter on March 13, 1986 Fred Hoyle and I published a prediction that the surface of the comet would be "darker than coal" and this prediction was reported in the London Times of March 12 1986. On the night of March 13 it turned out that our prediction was startlingly verified when, to the dismay of everyone, the comet did indeed turn out to be so dark as to be virtually invisible to the heavily shuttered-down cameras that had expected to photograph a bright snowfield. Comet Halley was indeed blacker than the blackest coal; and the largely organic composition of comets have come to be steadily vindicated since this time. The dark surface of comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet C-G for short) has already been established and no doubt will be confirmed in the weeks that lie ahead.
The lander Philae that arrived safely on Comet C-G carries a mobile laboratory that will hopefully give us a better understanding of how the solar system originated nearly 4500 million years ago. But what further evidence of our cosmic ancestry will be eventually unravelled by this mission is left to be seen. It is somewhat strange that references to life in comets appear to have been somewhat muted in the publicity covering today’s event. My prediction would be that the connection between life and comets would be the most exciting outcome that will emerge in due course.
12 November 2014