Sign Up and get your copy of Exopolitics Magazine today!

A Case of Identity

'It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.' - Sherlock Holmes
“A Case of Identity” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holes in the Heavens

If you look out toward our galaxy the Milky Way you will see an uneven distribution of stars.  In certain parts of the Milky Way, between the stars, things can get a little murky.

In the constellation of Sagittarius for example there are dark patches that become particularly noticeable towards the point of the Galactic Centre. It was the British astronomer William Herschel who, in the 18th Century, described these regions where starlight from distant stars appears to dim as “holes in the heavens”.

By the late 19th Century Edward Barnard had photographed the regions and reported vast cloud formations with a remarkable structure he described simply as lanes, holes and black gaps. Astronomers in the early 20th Century began to think of these regions in terms of viewing dark bodies of material rather than regions completely devoid of stars – a kind of cosmic fog.

Sir Fred Hoyle and Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe

The world renowned British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who came from my home town of Bingley in West Yorkshire, and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, from Colombo in Sri Lanka began looking at the nature of this cosmic fog.

In 1960, the same year Chandra Wickramasinghe began his postgraduate work under Sir Fred Hoyle at Cambridge University, the cosmic fog was believed to be made up of water-ice particles.

The collaboration of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe would see them challenge not only the widely held view about the composition of the cosmic fog – which had become known as interstellar grains – but also the orthodox geocentric (Earth centred) theory of biology.

Interstellar Grains

Their initial scepticism about the water-ice theory was aroused when it became apparent that water-ice would quickly evaporate away even in the cold depths of interstellar space. The question they asked was a simple question of identity. What were the interstellar grains composed of?

It was known that the grains were of a quantity that was as large as it could be, only if all the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in the interstellar space were actually contained in the dust grains. There was simply too much of it for it to be comprised of the next commonest elements found in interstellar space – magnesium and silicon.

The Road to Organic Carbon

By the mid 1970’s technological advances allowed measurements in both visible and infrared wavelengths to be made with ever increasing resolution. By 1974, after investigating a number of inorganic candidate materials without success, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe found that complex carbon-based polymers – in particular, polysaccharides – appeared to provide the best match with the data they were seeing. However, it was at this point that the two astronomers inadvertently ran into trouble.

From their perspective, the molecules that comprised the majority of interstellar grains were simply the product of mineral chemical reactions. Radio astronomers had discovered organic materials in interstellar space as early as 1937. However, on Earth polysaccharides (which include cellulose and starch) are predominantly of biological origin. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe had unwittingly crossed the line of a cultural taboo – mixing observational astronomy with biology.

Shortly after publishing this work Hoyle and Wickramasinghe began to experience hostility from journals referees and grant application assessors, making it increasingly difficult to continue and to promote their work. But continue they did.

A Biological Solution

Over a decade after starting out their investigation into interstellar grains Hoyle and Wickramasinghe had shown the presence of organic compounds formed the major component of the interstellar grains. They had a match for the spectroscopic data in the form of polysaccharides, and a solution to the light refraction properties in the form of hollow particles – all for grains of interstellar dust which just happened to be the size of typical bacteria.

The journal referees and grant application assessors who had been hostile before would soon be having kittens as Hoyle and Wickramasinghe began looking at dead and decaying bacteria as a solution to the nature of the interstellar grains.

Experimental Confirmation

Using existing library data for bacteria they calculated what the extinction of starlight for hollow particles would be and found an excellent fit to the astronomical data; one that had previously been unavailable with other theoretical models.

On the strength of this they had one of their colleagues measure the actual infrared properties of a number of different species of bacteria in the laboratory. To everyone’s surprise they found a remarkable consistency of the absorption profiles. The extinction of visible starlight seemed to suggest that bacteria could make up a significant amount of interstellar grains.

If this premise were true, then the interstellar grains would need to have the characteristic absorption in the infrared spectrum that had been found for bacteria samples measured in the laboratory.

It wasn’t long before Chandra Wickramasinghe measured the infrared absorption properties of the interstellar grains that lay on a path from the Galactic Centre to the Earth. He found a remarkable correlation between this and the experimentally derived data.

Counter Arguments

Chemists with experience of Infrared Spectroscopy soon argued against the conclusion stating that the infrared results could be produced by a variety of non-biological organic materials. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe had examined hundreds of infrared spectra of other materials at this point without success and so they were a little sceptical of the chemist’s certainty.

They asked the chemists to provide them with explicit examples of substances that could account for the observations. None were forthcoming with one possible exception of a claim to have yielded undefined “organic residues” that may possess only some of the desired properties.

The astronomers found that their work was being rejected – not using scientifically acceptable hypothesis testing – but simply as unfounded opposition due to a cultural bias against the nature of the claim.

Hypothesis Testing

Carl Sagan famously claimed in his 1980 book Cosmos that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

This quote is often cited by people attempting to justify rejection of ideas that they cannot reject evidentially. Ironically, the statement is itself an extraordinary claim as it is at odds with the accepted paradigm of using the scientific method; involving hypothesis testing with experimentation on falsifiable premises.

The theory of the biological solution to the interstellar dust had simply not been evidentially refuted. It was the strongest theory available for the nature of the interstellar dust.

“The arguments in support of life as a cosmic phenomenon are not readily accepted by a culture in which a geocentric theory of biology is seen as the norm” – Sir Fred Hoyle and Dr N. Chandra Wickramasinghe, Nature Vol. 322, 7 August 1986

A New Domain of Biology

Sir Fred Hoyle and Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe did not assume that the bacteria grew in interstellar space. Their working hypothesis was that the bacteria would likely be dead and in the process of decay.

They proposed that bacterial replication is a product of star formation in environments that are suitable for organisms to grow. After which bacteria are expelled into interstellar space.

They considered that the most likely place where bacteria could flourish would be within comets which, early in a solar systems history, would be heated by radioactive decay – providing a liquid water interior for extended periods of up to millions of years for giant comets. The proposed biomass of the cometary bodies in our own solar system would be more than a billion times the biomass of the Earth.

Only a tiny fraction of viable bacteria would need to survive being expelled into interstellar space in order to seed colonies in other star formations – such as our solar system.

Unearthly Traits

According to NASA a viable strain of Streptococcus mitis was recovered after two years on the surface of the Moon. A little closer to home, bacteria have been found to survive outside of the International Space Station (ISS). Viable bacteria have been recovered from an operating nuclear reactor – where they were actually feeding on the steel in the reactor core.

Bacteria are hardy organisms that have been shown to have the ability to survive extremes of temperature and pressure without loss of viability. The ability of bacteria to survive extremely high doses of radiation and even to repair themselves in environments of continued high radiation are not traits that you would expect for organisms whose genesis and evolution was on the Earth. These are characteristics necessary for survival in space.

Comet Halley

The return of comet Halley in 1986 provided an opportunity to test their hypothesis that microbial life exists in the solar system within comets. This premise required that particles ejected from the comets nucleus into the coma would include organic molecules. The existence of organics would refute the widely held premise that comets are simply ice and rock - the “dirty snowball” model.

Using observations from Earth and the space probes Giotto (ESA) and Vega (Soviet) the dust from Comet Halley was found to be largely organic with about 90% of the comets surface covered by a dark inert material.

Infrared spectra of the comet recorded by the Giotto space probe showed spectra comparable to the bacterial model spectra. A study of comet dust published in the journal Nature rejected the idea that organic components where biological in nature because phosphorus ions (P+) were not detected by the on-board mass spectrometer. However, Wickramasinghe discovered that the data matched phosphate ions (PO+,  PO2+ and PO3+) showing that phosphorus was indeed present.

By the end of 1986 the cosmicrobial model had been shown to be the stronger model than the dirty snowball model. Although it required that astronomers avoid cherry-picking the data to suit pre-existing notions and allowed the possibility that life is not limited to the domain of planet Earth.

Fossil Evidence

Carbonaceous chondrite meteorites are fragments of asteroids that have remained relatively unchanged since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, and are commonly found to contain organic compounds. A meteor of this type fell to Earth near the town of Murchison in the Australian outback in 1969. When examined under a scanning electron microscope a freshly created fracture in fragments revealed complex structures with the appearance of blue-green algae microfossils.

More recently in January 2013 the mainstream press reported on a study of a rock that fell to Earth in Sri Lanka on December 29th 2012. The specimen reportedly contained evidence of fossilised diatoms (algae) in a carbonaceous chondrite meteor.

This was of course refuted by some respectable scientists and other commentators alike. To date, no one has refuted the claims by application of hypothesis testing. It would appear that they do not feel that they even need to employ the scientific method to refute something which, in their own world view, is simply not possible.

Incidence upon the Earth

From their initial discovery of bacteria in space, Sir Fred Hoyle and Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe began looking at incidents of diseases. They suggested that problems with the theories regarding person to person transmission of diseases are circumvented when the trigger for the disease originates from space. Diseases ranging from influenza to the bubonic plague, they argue, are examples of predominantly vertical incidence of viruses, viral particles and bacteria from space.

Regardless of what you believe about the moon landings, the outward appearance presented by NASA was that astronauts returning to earth needed to be placed in quarantine in case they picked up a disease from space.

Extraterrestrial DNA

The incidence of extra-terrestrial DNA on the Earth by viruses, according to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, may solve the problems inherent in neo-Darwinism when explaining how evolution takes great leaps forward, when the step by step approach doesn’t hold up mathematically.

The problem in essence is that neo-Darwinian evolution involves a closed system where changes to DNA must occur stepwise and for the betterment of a species. Open that system up to beyond the Earth and new genetic material, originating within comets, can be introduced – not only to lifeless early Earth of 4.6 billion years ago – but periodically throughout the Earth’s history.

Viruses are known to insert their DNA into the DNA of host species – a process called antigenic shift. The suggestion is that contrary to neo-Darwinian evolution, evolution on Earth may in effect be driven by receipt of new genetic material from space.

By Anthony Beckett B.Sc. (hons) M.Sc.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe presented a lecture on The Case for Life as a Cosmic Phenomenon at the 5th Annual British Exopolitics Expo held at The University of Huddersfield on Saturday September 28th, 2013.

Anthony Beckett Biography

Anthony Beckett lives near Keighley, West Yorkshire. He studied Chemistry at Loughborough University graduating in 1997 and continuing his studies with a M.Sc. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Huddersfield in 1998. He went on to work in the Pharmaceutical Industry as a Analytical Scientist until 2006. He is currently a software engineer and in his spare time he is the executive producer of Exopolitics Great Britain, an organisation which has been hosting the UK’s UFO Disclosure and Exopolitics Conferences since 2009.

© Anthony Beckett 2013