Chandra Wickramasinghe: Dusting the Cosmos


Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe has spent over four decades in a breathtaking search for signs of life in the cosmic wilderness, including in the tons of space dust that falls on Earth every day. Anushree Srivastava, for IARC, finds out more.

AS: Prof. Wickramasinghe, we are extremely honored to have you with us today. Please tell us something about your antecedents and your early life in Sri Lanka.

CW: When I was growing up in the 1940’s, Sri Lanka was Ceylon, a remote corner of the British Empire. I was born to an educated middle class family, and my father was himself a mathematical scholar, distinguishing himself as a wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge University in the 1930’s. He specialized in Astronomy and was taught by the famous Cambridge astronomers of the time including Sir Arthur Eddington. My family was Buddhists and I was brought up in the traditions of Buddhism. I admired the philosophy and wisdom of Buddhism but did not much appreciate the ritual side of the religion. I went to a school modeled in the tradition of Eton and Harrow – Royal College, Colombo, and I excelled in Science and Mathematics, going on to the University of Ceylon to study Mathematics. After my degree in Ceylon, I won a British Government Commonwealth Scholarship that took me to my father’s old University, Cambridge in 1960.

AS: You obtained PhD degreein Mathematics from Trinity College Cambridge. What piqued your interest and curiosity for Mathematics?

CW: My interest in astronomy was sparked by the fact that my father talked to me about his work in Cambridge, but more because the night skies around where I lived were often spectacular. From the age of about 13 I began to take a serious interest in the stars, and started to read books on this subject getting more and more inspired as I did so. I was fortunate when I got to Cambridge to work under the iconic astronomer of the 20th century, Sir Fred Hoyle. He introduced me to my research topic – interstellar dust.

AS:What is Interstellar Dust? Would you like to simplify the concept for our readers?

CW: Interstellar dust is present in our galaxy in the form of gigantic dark clouds in between the stars. Individual dust particles are minute in size but there are so many particles densely packed in the clouds that they block out the light of distant stars. At the time I began my research in the 1960’s, the prevailing view was that this dust was made of microscopic crystals of ice. My studies quickly overturned this long entrenched paradigm.

AS: You first proposed the theory of organic nature of dust in interstellar space and comets. Please tell us about your profound work on interstellar material and how it is associated with the concept of “Origin of Life”?

CW: To begin with, I found that the dust was much less volatile than ice, and was in fact made mostly of the chemical element Carbon. We speculated the carbon was in the form of graphite, similar to soot that comes out of a fireplace. In the 1970’s new astronomical data showed that the Carbon in this dust must be made up of complex organic molecules. More than one third of all the carbon in the galaxy was required to be in such a form. It was in trying to understand how this huge conversion of carbon to organic molecules could be achieved that we stumbled on the connection with life – Panspermia.

AS: We read about the groundbreaking Hoyle-Wickramsinghe Model of Panspermia Hypothesis. How the theory originated? How the idea of “Cosmic Ancestry” took shape?

CW: When we looked at the existing Earth-bound theories of the origin of life it slowly dawned on us that such ideas have very little to support them. The degree of complexity of even the simplest living cell is mind-boggling. We argued that no amount of random shuffling of components could achieve the highly specific ordering of the component molecules if life is to form. In other words the simplest living cell has an information content that it could only have arisen in a cosmic context. A small puddle on the Earth (primordial soup), and a few million years available would be grossly inadequate for this purpose. The whole universe was somehow involved in the origin of the first evolvable living cell. But once this cosmic origin was achieved its spread across the universe was inevitable.

AS: We would be interested to hear about your lifelong association with your mentor and legendary astronomer Late Sir Fred Hoyle? Any interesting anecdote you would like to share with our readers?

CW: I was lucky to be one of the very few research students that Fred Hoyle ever took. We got on very well, and after my PhD my collaboration with him and friendship continued until his death in 2001. From Fred Hoyle I learnt several important lessons in life. First, to always think for yourself, and not be content to follow others uncritically. Also, to persevere in what you believe. Stubbornness and obstinacy was a virtue in some instances.

AS: In your entire career, we see a beautiful interface between the two disparate scientific disciplines: Astronomy and Biology. How did that come about? What really inspired you to pursue the philosophy of life beyond Earth?

CW: This merging of subjects came about quite naturally. It began with my discovery that organic dust was everywhere in the universe, then from analyzing the complexity of living systems and deciding that the origination of life is most likely to have been a unique event in the cosmos. All the familiar divisions between the sciences are of course man-made. The universe does not respect the boundaries between these subjects, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and biology.

AS: What are your thoughts on the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life? Scientists predict to discover alien life in near future. What do you think about that?

CW: With the current estimate of habitable planets in our galaxy alone running at over 100 billion, and with panspermia (the mixing of microbes across galactic distances) it is impossible to argue that the Earth is the only place where there is life. Evidence of extraterrestrial microbes entering the Earth already exists beyond any doubt in my view. It is still disputed, sometimes vigorously, because scientists don’t like to admit they have been wrong for so long. I think a paradigm shift is just round the corner – from Earth-centred biology to cosmic biology.

AS: There are specific places on Earth that serve as potential analogues for exploration of extraterrestrial land and oceans. Scientists and students visit those sites to get an idea of past or present environmental and putative biological processes on other celestial bodies, such as Moon, Mars, and Jovian moon Europa. Do you see the significant ramifications of such works in astrobiological context?

CW: Yes, life is being discovered on the Earth in almost any location you can think of. Deep ocean vents, depths of lake Vostok, Antarctic ices etc. No matter where you look there is some microbe that has colonized every conceivable niche. I think some of these extreme environments on Earth where life is found have similar conditions to those that exist in other bodies in our own solar system. I think the evidence is strong that there is life in interior pools in comets, Enceladus, Europa, Pluto, among a host of other solar system bodies.

AS: How essential it is for us to explore our cosmic roots? Do you think that finding the answers of the fundamental questions in Astrobiology, such as – Are we alone? Where did we come from? – has implications for the intellectual evolution and survival of human race?

CW: I think our capacity to ask these questions and sometimes to find the answers sets us apart from all other creatures that inhabit our planet. It is a human imperative and our duty to engage in such explorations.

AS: Would you like to comment on the practicality of manned deep-space missions? How pragmatic it is to see the future of humanity as multi-planet spacefaring species?

CW: This will surely happen perhaps within a hundred years. Man’s curiosity and his desire to explore will not stop at Earth and its immediate environs. Our realm of exploration will stretch further beyond our solar system in due course.

AS: You are the Trustee and Director of Research at the Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics (ISPA). Please tell us more about it.

CW: It is obvious that realizing our cosmic ancestry and our continuing biological connection with the Universe will have consequences. It would change our attitudes profoundly as well as our sense of values. This would to a give rise to a new ecocomic system – astro-economics.

AS: What is art? How students can benefit from that?

CW: I think that Art, Music, Science are all one single integrated human venture. The scientist, musician and artist all explore the same universe using different tools, so to speak.

AS: What has been the true guiding force of your life and scientific career? Has there been a particular incident in your life, which inspired you to devote your life to astronomy and astrobiology?

CW: My desire from childhood was to try and understand why we are here! Life, love, longing, death – what does it all mean? On the face of it, this all seems meaningless and random. Buddha asked these questions – not exactly in the same form. But I think it is up to each one of us to ask similar questions even if the answers seem ever more remote – that is what has kept me going

AS: We have read that you have been profoundly influenced with Buddhism. Please tell us a bit about that, too.

CW: I think that Buddhism is the one religion that does not require blind belief, but exhorts you to think for yourself. It also encapsulates wisdom about the human condition and human psychology that is second to none.

Interview of Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe conducted by Anushree Srivastava for IARC. Follow us on Twitter and view our programs.