‘Life from space’ expert loses funding

A British scientist with controversial views on the origin of life and diseases from space has been dismissed from his post. Cardiff University have told Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe that they are withdrawing funding for his department.

Carina Nebula photographed by Hubble (NASA)

Prof Wickramasinghe, 71, a long-time collaborator with the late astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle, was the only paid member of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology.

He is a fervent supporter of panspermia, the idea that life was seeded on Earth by comets and asteroids. He has also suggested that viruses such as influenza arrived from space in a similar way.

The professor has recently drawn criticism for his support as editor for a paper in the unorthodox Journal of Cosmology which published a paper by Richard Hoover, of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, claiming to have found fossilised evidence of life in three meteorites.

Prof Wickramasinghe told Skymania today that his dismissal is not directly linked to this because he was advised that funding would be withdrawn last September. However he is angry over the university’s treatment of him and his unpaid supporters, and wonders if his research was seen as too controversial.

Chandra Wickramasinghe
Chandra Wickramasinghe (CCAB)

He told us: “The authorities intimated to me that in view of financial stringencies they were looking at areas outside the core curriculum to cut and this was one of the targets they had.

“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.

“All the other staff, totalling about 12, are honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology.

“What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally.

“We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial.

“I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”

He added: “I am the astrobiology editor of the Journal of Cosmology. The Journal has published work such as on the Hoover meteorites that was decidedly controversial but that didn’t mean that the papers were not worth publishing.

“I personally invited Hoover to submit his paper because I’ve known him for a long time. If that Hoover stuff had come out the blue I would have been suspicious because it would have seemed almost too good to be true.”

“He came to Cardiff about a year and a half ago on my invitation and brought a sample of the Murchison meteorite. Within sight of myself and half a dozen other scientists at the Earth sciences lab, he used a hammer to crack open the meteorite.

“He turned an electron-scanning microscope onto a freshly cleaned surface of the meteorite and some of these images with biological structure jumped out onto the screen. It was pretty impressive.”

Prof Wickramasinghe added: “Most of our publications last year were in the International Journal of Astrobiology, a mainstream Cambridge University publication which is heavily peer-reviewed and is not a trivial journal.”

The professor, who appealed against his sacking, is now seeking private funding for the centre to continue as a limited company and says he has had two or three expressions of interest in recent days.

He said: “I’ve got ongoing collaborations with, for example, the Russian space agency. Next year is 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned trip around the world. To mark this, we’re doing lots of experiments such as looking for viruses and evidence of cometary organics coming in from space. To continue work like that I have to set up a company.”

An official spokesman for Cardiff University said: “The decision to close the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology (CCAB) in 2010 was made on the basis of budgetary and strategic reasons and not because of any views expressed by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe or the Centre.

“The University can confirm that its decision is not connected in any way with any views which may have been expressed in the Journal of Cosmology.”

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©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

3 thoughts on “‘Life from space’ expert loses funding

  • 03/14/2011 at 6:12 pm

    The problem with panspermia is that if life on Earth came from some other location in outer space, where did it come before that and so on with no end. Water, the universally copious life inducing solvent is factually known to have that effect so its location in a Goldilocks zone is necessary for organic compounds to animate in it no matter their provenance. Planet Earth, being a huge receptacle of water, is placed exactly where life sprung up in our Solar system even if this was added to in substance by relatively small extraterrestrial bodies like comets.

  • 03/30/2011 at 9:16 pm

    I would find it hard to justify Cardiff’s dismissal of Chandra on age grounds, since they accepted me as a doctoral researcher, and I’m only a year younger. However, there is a difference, I and all my colleagues contribute to the uni’s coffers.
    The idea that it was on fiscal grounds is also untenable, since Russell Davies, Head of School of Maths, told me that Astrobiology ‘had not place there’.
    Right, back to panspermia:
    Jack Hills zircons containing depleted carbon 13 (of biotic origin, hence fossils of bacteria) have been dated to 4.8 Gy ago: the earth is postulated to be 4.5 Gy old. This means that the fossils in the zircons are 300 million years older than the earth.
    Laboratory experiments on earth, trying to recreate life have failed. There is no question about that. We have, so far, been unable to replicate the conditions necessary for life to start. That is because, perhaps, we need to recreate a coalescing dust cloud or a nova in the laboratory.
    Plenty of them in space, – and if bacterial life exists outside of our planet, which seems likely, than any other world which can support life will have it.

  • 04/09/2011 at 12:00 am

    Why can’t the university talk about what that “Strategic Reason” is?

    I’m sure it is not seeing any possibility of advancement in the field of astrobiology. If the university has to express it openly it may make Chandra feel that his work is being “invalidated”. But then again in the field of science, one must not avoid confrontations. For Gods sake, this is not a stupid religion where you take the crap and never have guts to point it out.

    Cardiff Univ, must openly express and justify for its actions without the sentimental considerations.

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