Oral history of British science
Wickramasinghe, Chandra (6 of 13). Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. Life Story Interviews
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Science and Religion
2015-07-28, 2015-07-29, 2015-07-30
British Library, London
Wickramasinghe, Chandra, 1939- (speaker, male)
Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)
Part 6: Further comments on conversations with FH in lounge of hotel following each day's walking, including discussion of weaknesses of theories of Dutch astronomers claiming ice crystals as key component of interstellar dust, design of own PhD work examining other mechanisms for interstellar dust formation, discussion of current affairs (including communism). Mentions FH's political conservatism; own lack of sympathy with his views on communism in Russia and China. Brief positive comments on FH's use of language in science/science fiction. Further comments on FH's political conservatism. [5:39] Story of visit, at beginning of PhD, to Dutch astronomer HC van de Hulst [VDH] to discuss his ice grain theory of interstellar dust formation; return to UOC to investigate details of ice grain theory, leading to identification of "serious flaws"; investigation of alternative constituents of interstellar dust, beginning with carbon (derived in outflows from certain stars). Mentions paper published with FH in journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society [MNRAS] entitled 'On graphite particles as interstellar grains' ; status of this paper as beginning of own and FH's challenge to established model of interstellar dust. Comments on sceptical responses to this paper; arguments, through first half of 1960s, with key proponent of ice grain theory: J Mayo Greenberg [JMG]. Story of verification of own and FH's carbon theory of interstellar dust by rocket measurements of spectra of light from stars taken above the Earth's atmosphere, 1965. [13:32] Comments on/discussion of use of UOC computer EDSAC2 in work on formation of interstellar dust, involving calculations of how dust particles dim starlight at different wavelengths. [18:01] Comments on homesickness; difficulties in communicating with parents during first part of PhD [20:19] Comments on social life in Cambridge during PhD, focused on TC; absence of perception of discrimination in the university; awareness of discrimination in Cambridge outside of the university in availability of rented accommodation. [22:53] Comments on visit home during PhD [summer 1962], including meeting of ACC on flight home; development of friendship with ACC from this point (including shared belief in existence of intelligent life beyond Earth); his support of own and FH's work. [27:46] Comments on own view at time of meeting AAC (1962) of likelihood of existence of intelligent life beyond Earth; development of work with FH on interstellar dust leading to belief, by the mid 1970s, that complex organic molecules were widespread in the universe. Mentions paper in journal 'Nature' in 1974 'Formaldehyde polymers in interstellar space'; subsequent 'Nature' paper (with FH) on evidence for existence of particular "ring" organic molecules in interstellar dust. Comments on development of argument that the particular organic molecules that (based on astronomical evidence) seemed to be present in interstellar dust were derived (in space) not from inorganic chemistry but from microbiology (life); powerful opposition to this argument of current Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis that life began on Earth in an electrically excited 'primordial soup' of chemicals; parallel between this challenge to Earth as centre of biological universe to earlier challenge to Earth as centre of physical universe; own (and FH's) view that 'origin' of life on Earth was, in fact, the arrival on Earth of life that has originated elsewhere/before. [33:58] Comments on reasons for strong support, in biology, for Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis (primordial soup); own (and FH's) counter theory. [38:26] Story of development of work with FH at UOC following completion of thesis (which was focused on role of carbon in cosmic dust), including application for UOC research fellowship, awarded by Jesus College [JC]. [41:22] Story of participation in 1965 NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) conference, including contributions of US astronomer/physicist Fred M Johnson. [45:29] Further comments on/discussion of arguments made for possible existence in space of chlorophyll-like molecule based on data involving absorption of starlight in particular 'spectral lines' (caused by intervening molecules of very specific kind); various attempts to explain existence of these 'spectral lines'; observation that the kind of molecules that are a good fit for explaining the 'spectral lines' are made more readily by biological than non-biological processes. [51:43] Further comments on experience of 1965 NASA conference involving public debate with senior scientists opposed to own work/ideas, including suspicion that own (in this context) minority ethnic background was a factor in opposition to own ideas. [55:26] Detailed comments on/discussion of experience of overt racism in the late 1970s at the University College, Cardiff [UCC], with related stories, including possibility that a university in England may have provided a more positive environment. Mentions extent to which own establishment of Department of Astronomy at UCC has been written out of the university's official history. Story of establishment of Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology in 2000. [1:07:36] Story of career from mid 1960s including period of time spent at Caltech Kellogg Radiation Laboratory [CKRL], Pasadena, California US and Goddard Space Flight Center [GSFC], Greenbelt, Maryland, US [1965-1966], acceptance of offer of post as Professor of Mathematics in a new university in Ceylon [in Colombo]. Mentions meeting wife Priya here; marriage 1966. Story of meeting Priya, then a law undergraduate. Brief comments on Priya's view of/support for own work. [1:12:04] Comments on reasons for not enjoying period at CKRL. [1:14:15] Further comments on period at GSFC, including successful collaboration leading to publications, dislike of tendency towards group/committee work here. [1:15:52] Comments on return to Cambridge in 1967 to take up position in Institute of Theoretical Astronomy [ITA], recently established by FH [and continue JC fellowship]. [1:16:18] Comments on wife Priya's support for own career; FH's view that resistance to bold ideas was to be expected; view that FH and self made scientific progress (including founding of discipline of astrobiology) by working against established (and "establishment") positions.
Life story interview with Professor of Astrobiology, Chandra Wickramasinghe