Oral history of British science
Wickramasinghe, Chandra (8 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 8: Continues comments on distinction between life and not-life, including much greater complexity of simplest organism than most complicated organic molecule. [3:18] Comments on experience/view of Christianity at UOC, including experience of going to college chapels, difficulty accepting Christian view of a God concerned with needs of individual Christians; relations with Bill Thorpe in JC - a Christian ornithologist. [7:36] Comments on memory of lack of/limited background/general/popular discussion of relations between science and religion until the 1990s (mentions Richard Dawkins); view that wider decline in Christianity in the UK has similarly recent timing. [9:49] Story of return to UK in late 1960s to resume fellowship of JC and take up position in ITA [noise on microphone], including experience of birth of children. Comments on international visitors to ITA; tendency to dine several times a week at JC. [13:34] Comments on changes to own life as a husband and father. [15:44] Comments on wife Priya's experience of life in the UK, including her giving of cookery demonstrations and (later) publishing of cookery books. Mentions Priya's work as library assistant in Cambridge. [17:38] Story of development of argument, through 1960s and 1970s, that interstellar dust is constituted by bacteria, including role of spectroscopic data generated by then (1970s) new infrared [IR] astronomy; own and FH's work on observation that IR data suggested presence in interstellar dust of carbon-hydrogen links, development by early 1970s of view that this IR data suggested presence in interstellar dust of organic molecules (carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen) with numerous papers published in journals including 'Nature' in first half of 1970s. [23:53] Comments on fact that this published work did not convince scientific/astronomical "establishment" ("especially in Britain"); rebuttal of own/FH's work by astronomer David A Williams published in 'Nature'. [25:40] Story of arranging in the mid 1970s for own brother Dayal, an academic astronomer in Australia, to used the Anglo-Australian telescope [AAT] to investigate own and FH's theory that bacteria might constitute interstellar dust; brother's recording of "signature" matching particular bacterium; response to 'Nature' paper on this observation; continued work (including 'radiation transfer models') to strengthen/support the argument that interstellar dust is largely biological ("bacteria and perhaps viruses"). [33:33] Comments on difficulties, from this point (mid 1970s), in continuing to publish work in scientific journals, due to pursuit of theory of cosmic life, including publication in 'Blue Preprint Series' [of University College Cardiff Press], in papers accepted by the "liberal" journal 'Astrophysics and Space Science', edited by [Zdenek] Kopal and in books, the first 'Lifecloud: The Origin of Life in the Universe' (1977). Comments on widespread impact of this book, including discussions (involving self and FH) on several BBC 'The Sky at Night' television programmes. [36:09] Comments on 1977/1978 influenza outbreak ('The Red Flu'). Story of telephone conversations with FH concerning belief in Ceylon/Sri Lanka that colds and influenza derived from atmospheric precipitation, and correlation between influenza/common cold outbreaks and meteor events. Comments on development of view, with FH, that proposition of bacterial content of interstellar dust and occurrence of disease on Earth were connected in wider view of bacteria in space leading to book with FH 'Diseases in Space' , which included analysis of absence records held by boarding schools in England and Wales. Detailed comments on analysis of this data for boys living in different boarding houses of Eton College suggesting that "life in space is continuing to interact with us". Comments on analysis of own and FH's historical data on incidence of influenza. [47:10] Discussion on reasons for asking brother, in use of AAT, to look for signature of bacteria in IR spectroscopic observations, involving comments on development of own thinking on nature of cosmic dust as containing/being constituted by formaldehyde polymers, then polysaccharides (cellulose), then double-ring molecules (polyaromatic molecules), then bacteria (with key contribution of measurements made by research student Shirwan Al-Mufti [SAM] of IR spectrum of desiccated dried bacterium (E. coli) under simulated space conditions). [53:28] Comments on reasons why SAM was tasked with measuring the IR spectra of E. coli, with detailed comments on own view of dissatisfaction with Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis (primordial soup) of origins of life on Earth (relying on very small probabilities offered by particular object - the Earth - that is small in scale compared to the universe). [57:37] Discussion of extent to which own and FH's work at this time was led by interest in theories of the origin of life on Earth, and astronomical observations concerning constitution of the universe, including "intellectual switch in our minds" away from "terrestrial system" to "cosmic system" accounting for origins of life. [59:42] Comments on view/memory that this "intellectual switch" had been made by the time of asking brother Dayal to use AAT to make certain observations. [1:01:04] Comments on reasons why it was not possible to seek astronomical observations from sources other than brother and the AAT. [1:02:37] Story of own and FH's accurate published predictions of observations made of Halley's Comet during European Space Agency Giotto mission, 1986. [1:06:59] Comments on access to astronomical data through conferences, reading of preprints and published papers. [sound of house fire alarm] [1:08:59] Comments on collaboration with FH conducted through telephone calls and exchange of letters (between own home in Cardiff and FH's in Yorkshire) and infrequent visits. Mentions own and FH's archive of correspondence. Detailed comments on moment at which FH began to accept own arguments concerning presence of living material in the universe, as recorded in this correspondence. Further comments on FH's opposition to Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis/communist politics of JBS Haldane. [1:15:38] Further comments on division of labour in collaboration with FH. Comments on 'radiation transfer calculations' made through 1970s into early 1980s to explore/quantify fit between IR astronomical data and various candidates for composition of cosmic dust; tendency for academic astronomy community not to accept own and FH's arguments in successive papers on presence of microorganisms in space, with this situation not changing until recently. Mentions terrestrial experiments in progress  showing arrival from space of "biological material". Story of attempt, in late 1980s/early 1990s, to seek support of British Aerospace [BA] and Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO] in experiments to observe the upper atmosphere, with IRSO beginning balloon experiments in 2000. Comments on analysis of material collected by this experiment, showing "unambiguous evidence of biology" in stratospheric dust/aerosols; reception of related publications.
Life story interview with Professor of Astrobiology, Chandra Wickramasinghe