SM = Stuart Miller CW = Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe
SM: Do you prefer to refer to it as the theory of Panspermia or as Cosmic Ancestry?
CW:  Panspermia is a rather hackneyed description of the idea that Life can be transferred from one part of the Universe to another. It is probably more easily recognised and understood than Cosmic Ancestry, I would have thought. But I have no strong opinions either way.
SM: What made Sir Fred Hoyle and you go back to it, because it is a theory that in one shape or form or another has been around for a very long time. What brought the two of you back to look at it?
CW:  It's a very long story in fact and begins with my work with Sir Fred Hoyle on the nature of interstellar and cometry dust.
I began my PhD work on the chemisty and composition of cosmic dust way back in 1962 and at the time, the idea that was really well entrenched in the astronomical community was that the dust in space, the dust that you see in all the dark clouds of interstellar space, was mainly comprised of tiny, submicron sized ice particles, similar to the particles that are present in the cumulous clouds in the Earth's atmosphere.
When we examined all the literature on the subject, it turned out that the whole question of how ice particles condensed in the interstellar clouds was not properly addressed in terms of mathematics and physics.
We know that clouds, even in the earth's atmosphere, could be highly super-saturated with respect to water, but droplets or particles of ice do not form unless there exist what are called condensation nuclei. There's got to form charged molecular aggregates at an adequate rate around which saturated water molecules could condense.
When we examined well-established theories of nucleation and applied them in a cosmic context, it turned out there was no easy way to overcome the nucleation hurdle. You have interstellar clouds that are highly saturated in water vapour, but they wouldn't form particles of ice, the reason being that the clouds are exceedingly tenuous. There's one hydrogen atom per cubic centimetre or something like that.
Under those conditions, we reckoned that particles do not form. So we had to go to denser places in order to form interstellar dust particles, and the first place we looked at were the atmospheres of cool stars. And a group of cool giant stars known as the carbon stars were the location we chose for our first investigation of where dust might form.
SM: Why did you go to cool stars to solve the problem of dust formation?
CW:  Because the interstellar condensation process seemed to be totally inadequate, woefully inadequate to form solid particles out of a pure gas. So going to the carbo-rich cool stars provided us with an alternative location in which the nucleation / condensation processes could occur. The consequence is that if you go to such stars, the dust particles that form must be made of carbon, not water-ice.
For about a decade we developed this theory and worked on the idea that the dust in space was made largely of the element carbon, possibly in the form of soot-like particles, polycrystalline graphite.
But towards the end of the 1960s, with new developments in observational astronomy, there were new techniques for looking more deeply at the nature of interstellar dust. We found that dust made of soot-like graphite was not completely adequate to meet up with the new constraints, particularly at infrared wavelengths, and we had to then develop the theory of organic grains, carbon in the form of organic polymers.
So that was really the starting point of the idea that molecules in interstellar space were organic and could be connected with Life.
Over the period from 1970 to 1979, the dust particles we were looking at turned out to be not simply organic, but exceedingly complex in their organic nature. Eventually it turned out that they had to match the properties of a freeze-dried bacterium to an uncanny degree of precision. It didn't mean that the particles had to be bacteria necessarily, but they had to be of a chemical composition that matched the spectrum of a bacterium, in the infrared and ultraviolet wavebands.
Moreover, a third of all the carbon in interstellar space had to be of this form. That is to say, it was tied up in the form of particles that are indistinguishable from bacteria by every remote-sensing criterion that we could think of. How could such a situation arise?
It was at this point that we began to look seriously at the old theories of how Life started on the earth. We concluded before long that there was no firm evidence to regard these ideas as a proven fact - that Life started on the Earth.
The fact that Life exists on the Earth does not mean that Life started on the Earth.
We made several analogies to illustrate the point. For example, the Celtic languages are spoken in Wales but it didn't originate from Wales. They came from mainland Europe many thousands of years ago. So the fact that Life exists does not mean that Life started on the Earth.
When we examined the probabilities that are involved in putting together the most primitive living system, for instance, considering how amino acids combine into a basic set of enzymes (that is crucial for life), it didn't take a lot of calculation to discover that this is an incredibly improbable event. If it happened on the Earth, it means we've essentially overcome superastronomical* odds in doing so.
In view of the superastronomically* vast improbability factors that are associated with the assembly of the first living system, we quickly rejected the Earth as a reasonable site for a first origin of life. It would obviously pay to go to the biggest available cosmic system if one had to overcome such incredible odds. And the biggest available cosmic system is the Universe as a whole.
The transition from non-life to life in our view must have involved the resources of all the stars in all the galaxies in a substantial part of the Universe, but this transformation needs to have taken place only once.
The Earth is of course not a closed system. The Earth receives debris from comets, hundreds of tons of cometry debris, much of which is known to be organic, enters the Earth's atmosphere on a daily basis.
The solar system itself, the comets being part of the solar system, is connected to interstellar clouds, for the simple reason that it condensed and formed from such a cloud. So there's a physical connection that extends from the Earth all the way to the formation of the solar system, the formation of the galaxy, and maybe to the formation of clusters of galaxies.
That was the thinking behind the revival of the ancient theory of Panspermia.
SM: You had very little support at all when this came out. How much opposition did you get?
CW:  We had a huge amount of opposition. In fact I've written a book about it, `A Journey with Fred Hoyle' *, you should perhaps have a look at it, it's coming out in December.
Our first step in the direction of Panspermia was to suggest that the Earth's early atmosphere was of a kind that could not have supported the requirements of classic Urey-Miller experiment, that the Earth's atmosphere was largely oxidising, and therefore you wouldn't have got any of the organic building blocks of life formed in-situ on the Earth.
At this time we were finding huge amounts of organic molecules in space, even in the interstellar dust as I have said. The dust in interstellar space seemed to be so incredibly complex in its organic configurations that a connection with life was becoming almost inevitable.
So we had argued in the mid-1970s that the origins of Life had at the very least to involve the importation of complex organic building blocks of Life from comets.
By the end of the 1970's we had published a great deal of this in the most conservative scientific journal `Nature', in fact a whole series of papers appeared at this time.
SM: Did you have any trouble getting published?
CW:  Up to a point in time, we did not. As long as we said the building blocks of Life came from space and didn't refer to Life itself coming from space, it was OK. There was a degree of opposition but we managed to get our papers published.
When we published these ideas, there were very distinguished scientists, including a past President of the Royal Astronomical Society, who wrote in the same journal saying that all this is not plausible because no organic molecules could survive in space! Carl Sagan * and his collaborators also published a letter in Nature saying that although these ideas are interesting, they cannot be defended because organic molecules do not survive the harsh conditions of space.
Of course, all such criticisms have been proved to be totally wrong. We now know that vast quantities of organics exist in interstellar dust, in gas, and everywhere.
SM: But what convinced you that they could survive radiation in space?
CW:  Because we worked through all the details of the physics, that other people had not. We were not stupid as many critics implied we were!
We argued, first from spectroscopy, that they exist out there in space, and in vast quantities. Just looking at the strengths of absorption bands caused by this organic dust, we found that one third of all the carbon in interstellar space is tied up in particles indistinguishable from bacteria, as I have already said. This was too much to rule out as a trivial coincidence, in our reckoning.
We made further predictions of a bacterial model of the dust that were later verified. There were many such events and in our naivety we thought that all this would eventually convince the sceptics. But critics who were vociferous when the evidence was relatively weak, became increasingly silent as the evidence steadily grew in strength.
A particular instance was a spectrum of a source of infrared radiation at the centre of the galaxy (called GCIRS7) that had an uncanny resemblance to our predicted bacterial spectrum. Critics eventually conceded the good fit of the bacterial model to the data, but made the point that particles similar to bacteria could perhaps be generated inorganically or abiogically in space, and it was not necessary to involve biology.
SM: Could you understand this opposition or did you find it very frustrating? I would imagine that your theory would have seemed extremely threatening to many people.
CW:  All this seemed threatening to far too many people because it challenged long-established paradigms in science. The idea that Life is somehow centred on the Earth was, and still is, deeply entrenched in the thinking of many people. It was surely a pre-Copernican position that was being maintained 500 years after Copernicus had dethroned the Earth from its privileged position at the centre of the cosmos.
We understood our opposition philosophically in those terms, but I think we failed to comprehend at that time the intensity of emotion that was involved. There was such a torrent of feeling against accepting that Life could have emerged from a bigger universe, external to the Earth.
SM: Do you still find a considerable amount of opposition, even today?
CW:  I think there still is opposition, but it's greatly mellowed, and the ideas of Panspermia are even discussed nowadays at international meetings, at least as a possibility. It's regarded as being a valid theory of the origins of Life on the Earth. So there has been a lot of progress since the mid-1970s.
I personally think there is going to be a continued trend towards acceptance of these ideas, because the evidence that favour the alternative theory is being gradually eroded in various ways.
SM: You do actually align your theory with Darwinism, would that be fair to say?
CW:  Yes. Some of our critics over the years were people who thought we were challenging evolution. Evolution was a very hard won battle in the late 19th century, as you know, and any subsequent challenge of that would understandably not have been taken lightly.
We did not challenge evolution per se, but what we did say was that evolution had to be considered in the context of a continuing input of genetic material from space. This is inevitable if Life was introduced to the earth from outside in the first place, if it came from comets.
At the time we began our research into this theory, it was believed that there was a comfortable half billion years before the Earth became a congenial place for Life, and for Life to emerge.
That span of time has been all but removed from the geological record. We know now that Life emerged almost at the very first moment that it could survive.
The Earth was subject to an epoch of collisions with comets from 4 billion years to about 3.83 billion years, and the first Life on Earth is now placed from about 3.8 billion years. The reasonable explanation is that the first life came to Earth with those impacting comets.
SM: You mentioned a moment ago that this was a continuing process, that Life on Earth was seeded in an ongoing process.
CW:  We know now that the comets impacting Earth between 4 and 3.83 billion years ago brought the first oceans on to the Earth, that's not disputed. Comets were also responsible for bringing the Earth's primitive atmosphere. Evaporation of water from the oceans and dissociation of the water molecules gave a cloud cover over the Earth.
If Life came along with those impacting comets then that process cannot have stopped for the simple reason that comets have continued to reach the Earth. Comet impacts have happened almost to the present day. I mentioned earlier that 100 tons of cometry debris enters the Earth's upper atmosphere, some of which would contain living micro organisms.
SM: You just mentioned a figure of 100 tons of comet debris; over what period of time?
CW:  On a daily basis. 100 tons per day.
SM: A day?
CW:  That's not even contested nowadays. A lot of the incoming material is burnt up in the form of meteors, but a fraction, maybe a ton a day, reaches the Earth's atmosphere intact, and drifts gently through the atmosphere to reach the surface.
There's no question that this is the case and our recent work on stratospheric balloon experiments, in collaboration with groups in India, have shown that some of the cometry material that reaches the stratosphere at 41 kilometres contains viable micro organisms.
SM: So this is a process that is going on today as well.
CW:  It is certainly going on today. It has gone on right through the history of the Earth, so Darwinian evolution had to take place against the backdrop of a continuing injection of highly ordered genetic material from space.
SM: Would you like to postulate as to where it's leading us to at the moment?
CW:  It would be hard to imagine that this process of evolution has come to an end on the Earth. I think it's leading to higher and higher levels of complexity, of sophistication in the nature of biology. It may be leading up to even higher levels of intelligence than we recognise in ourselves at the present time. That's speculation, of course, but it's plausible to say that we are not the end of the road.
SM: You also suggest that genetic programmes for higher evolution are organised or formed in space.
CW:  Not in the cold depths of space. The particles that are present in interstellar space are in a deep frozen dormant condition, so there's no evolution taking place there, they're just sleeping! The genetic arrangements would be hard frozen there, with very little in the form of genetic damage taking place over millions of years.
The cosmic evolution of Life has to take place either in the interiors of comets, which are warm for at least a million years from the time when they condense, or it has to take place on the surfaces of planets.
The solar system is not the only system where there are comets, nor Earth the only location where evolution has taken place. Surely there have to be billions of planetary systems out there. Planetary systems, just like ours, that are now regarded as being commonplace.
Most sun-like stars should be endowed with planetary systems. There are a few dozen extrasolar planets that have been discovered in the past decades, but this is essentially only the tip of the iceberg in terms of planetary discoveries. Solar systems have to be very frequent occurrences, and the evolution on planets like the Earth has also to be commonplace.
Now another effect that is only recently coming to be recognised is that the process of evolution from cosmic genes cannot be confined to the planet on which it has occurred.
In our case, the products of assembly and evolution cannot be regarded as being Earth-bound. This is because of the impacts with comets and asteroids that have taken place throughout geological time. Such impacts can lift material off the surface of the Earth, material that contains terrestrially evolved genetic programmes and biological material, and this can be then gravitationally deflected into the outer regions of the solar systems.
This life-bearing material from Earth can eventually become incorporated in comets in our outer solar system. Comets containing Earth life can occasionally be lost from the solar system, so the processes of evolution on our planet, or on other planets would not be confined to those planets.
SM: On that basis, the Universe must be full of life.
CW:  Yes. Life is teeming throughout the universe, and more importantly Life on Earth is connected intimately and inescapably with Life that exists everywhere else in the universe.
This January there were two papers published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society discussing precisely these issues. The fact that we got these published in such a respectable journal answers one of your earlier questions about how difficult it is to get our ideas published. It is now not so difficult to get even ideas on Panspermia published, serious work on it like the paper I co-authored with my colleague Dr. Max Wallis in Cardiff.
SM: Is there anything that says in this that as we've evolved as we have here, that intelligent Life elsewhere would be similar to us or is there a chance it could be very, very different?
CW:  I think on the basis of this theory, Life everywhere in the universe has to be intimately interconnected. Our Life is connected to the most distant parts of the cosmos, so whilst Life in a distant galaxy millions of light years away can be different from ours, it will only be different in the way that an elephant is different from a giraffe. The same cosmic genetic programmes that we have accommodated here on the Earth would be distributed everywhere.
SM: Do you accept the theory of Gaia?
CW:  Yes, I do. I'm a great believer and supporter of Lovelock's Gaia, where the whole planet is an interconnected ecological entity.
I would go further than that. I would say that the whole universe has to be regarded as a Gaia-type entity, linked together with the interdependence and co-evolution of cosmic life. There's a connected chain of "being" that extends all the way from the Earth to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.
SM: This leads on to more speculation. Do you regard this as coincidental or arranged? Is it too neat to be coincidental?
CW:  I have often wondered about it. As a reductionist scientist I would like to believe that the incredible arrangements in life were arrived at by random processes in an essentially infinite Universe. But this is just a philosophical preference. I have no hard evidence to back it up.
If one regards the transformation from non-life to life as being virtually impossible through inorganic means, even by going to the biggest available system, then one enters the domain of metaphysics.
I think if you are courageous enough to go along that route, you've got to accept the possibility that the spectrum of living systems in the entire universe is an intelligent artificial construct.
SM: Is that a difficult theory to take on board?
CW:  It is an exceedingly difficult position to accept in the context of modern science, which is based firmly on reductionist methodology.
I myself think one cannot rule out that position on logical grounds. We have human biochemists nowadays who can do a lot of genetic manipulation. We can splice genes from a bacterium to a fish and so on. We can even work out the consequences of such a splicing. So to envisage a cosmic intelligence that was able to work out all the consequences of all the possible splicing of genes is not entirely beyond the realms of logic.
SM: That would be directed Panspermia?
CW:  In a sense that would be a form of directed Panspermia; directed - - directed by an intelligent entity or system across the cosmos, yes.
SM: I think I read in another interview that you conducted that you said that Life could only have come from an area of space where Life already existed.
CW:  Yes, the insurmountable difficulty for empirical science is to demonstrate the process by which non-living organic matter turns into life. Once that has happened somehow, the rest follows.
Bacteria and bacterial spores can withstand all the adversities of space and spread in a way that cannot be stopped. Within my life time, certainly within a couple of decades, I think that position could become firmly established, because of the indomitable nature of Life at a microbial level.
The radiation resistance of bacteria has surprised everybody who has worked in this area. For instance there's a micro organism called a Halobacterium discovered in a salt crystal in a New Mexico salt mine that is a quarter of a billion years old. This discovery is less than two years old.
SM: Is there any doubt in your mind, for example, that Life exists on Mars?
CW:  I have not the slightest doubt that Life exists on Mars. In fact the 1976 Viking explorations of Mars probably established the presence of life. The results of the Viking experiments, to this day, have not been fully understood except on the basis of life.
Recently there has been some interest in the discovery of methane in the upper atmosphere of Mars and even the most conservative of the NASA scientists say that this is a possible indication of ongoing micro biology on Mars. There's a lot going that all point in the direction of Life on Mars.
I think there is going to be Life discovered also in comets when we get to them with the right instruments. There's going to be Life discovered on Europa for instance; everywhere where Life could survive there would be Life in the solar system.
SM: Do you understand the politics of the subject in the sense that it's obvious that at least since 1976, we've known that Life almost certainly exists on Mars.
Do you understand NASA's hesitation and extreme conservatism or do you feel that there is a lot more going on behind this? What would be wrong with announcing, because it appears to be reasonably certain and very probable, that Life exists on Mars?
CW:  I've just said I have no doubt that Life exists on Mars. I have no doubt that the recent atmospheric detection of methane confirms Life on Mars. The alternative to microbial Life producing methane is to say that there's volcanic source methane. Volcanic methane has a very short life time in the Martian atmosphere and I think that's not a viable explanation for it.
You ask what's the reason behind the resistance? I think money - big money - has a lot to do with it. If it is accepted that the 1976 experiments proved the existence of Life on Mars, then the present generation of NASA astronomers and astrobiologists might find it difficult to get large sums of money from the taxpayer's purse.
SM: Right, so there is a slight degree of cynicism there.
CW:  Yes, I admit that.
SM: Do you bother to think about the social implications of what you're doing and how people would adapt to this, or because it's a slowish process involving a few decades at least, that people have time to absorb and that these sorts of theories take hold gradually?
CW:  I think that in the past that has been the case, that acceptance of a dramatically new concept in science has taken a long time to get established.
Because of the present-day climate of instant information access across the planet, and the also intense interest that people have in astronomy and the world around them, I think the acceptance of correct ideas would probably, this may be wishful thinking, would follow the facts more briskly than they did in the past.
But the social implications of having ourselves connected to a much bigger universe would be quite profound in the sense that our own self importance would, as a species, become less important. In such a context a new world view would emerge in which our petty squabbles - squabbles between nations - could be viewed in their proper perspective.
SM: But it raises questions about God and other theological issues too.
CW:  It certainly does and I think the readjustments would inevitably follow. A new generation of religions might be born. I don't know how quickly that would happen, but I think it will happen more quickly than in centuries or even perhaps decades, if the facts of cosmic life become compelling.
It would also be hard to avoid the implications of Life being everywhere, if for instance that external Life interacts adversely with terrestrial life.
For instance, if occasionally the alien Life that comes from comets leads to epidemics of diseases that decimate human populations, or populations of plants and animals, then obviously you would have to take note of that.
SM: You strongly hinted at that some months ago when you publicly stated that you thought the SARS virus possibly came from outer space.
CW:  Yes, I published that speculation in a journal of great respectability - `Lancet'. This was of course attacked by many.
I still think it's a great mystery as to why SARS and also flu viruses first appear eastwards of the Himalayas. The Himalayas are the highest mountain range on the planet that essentially punctures a hole in the stratosphere. It acts like a drain plug for anything that comes in from space. So it's inevitable that this part of the Earth has to be a veritable melting pot of cosmic genes and viruses that come in from outside.
To regard the first incidence of viruses like SARS in China as being caused by the fact that humans and pigs and birds live in close proximity, to me, doesn't make any sense. For instance, in India, dense populations of humans and animals live very close to each other but diseases like that never start in India. Nor do they start in South America where there is a similar conjunction of pigs and humans and birds.
SM: Do you get used to ridicule because I remember when you spoke about your idea about SARS that it was greeted with a degree of levity.
CW:  I think I've got used to it and as long as I maintain enough self-criticism I don't bother too much about fatuous criticism. What is important to me is to follow the path to truth, as I see it.
SM: Do you feel that mankind is on the edge of something extremely positive in the very near future or do you think we've a little bit more time to get there before things leap forward?
CW:  I think we have all the ingredients for enormous breakthroughs in science and technology and Human progress generally. But what would stand in the way of progress would be a calculated disrespect for the truth.
I think that is something that is really quite worrying at the moment, that we have a situation where the search for objective truth has become much less important than socio/political ambitions of individuals, groups of individuals or even entire nations.
SM: That's a fairly strong statement. You must be very depressed about that.
CW:  I tend to be quite realistic. I think you've got to look in terms of history and notice that societies and civilizations that have reached very high levels of sophistication have also been very fragile in their existence at times. There can be no more certain cause of decline in human society than an abandonment of the pursuit of truth.
SM: Have you ever, during the course of your research over the last 40 odd years, ever had any official intervention in your research? Has anybody ever tapped you on the shoulder and said, "We don't like what you're doing"?
CW:  Yes, at some point this was the case.
And this point I think I should mention is that in the early 80s, there was a request for Fred Hoyle or myself to appear at an Arkansas Creation trial. Fred Hoyle was approached by the lawyers in Arkansas asking if he would step in as an expert witness to say that Darwinian evolution on Earth was not the total answer to the whole question of Life.
He was very busy at the time with Anglo/Australian telescope among other things, so he told me if I wanted to do that, that I should perhaps go.
We decided that I should present a restricted testimony from our work to argue that purely Earth-bound evolution didn't explain the whole phenomenon of Life.
Although we had little sympathy for the religious or political aspirations of the Creationists, we thought we could go along with their stance of a possible need for a "Creator" to originate life on a cosmic scale. We could not rule that out on a logical basis as I have already said. note1
For those reasons Fred Hoyle and I thought it was entirely reasonable to accept their invitation and give our testimony at the Arkansas trial.
In the run up to the event we had a huge amount of hostility directed against us and I remember several distinguished scientists who tapped us on the shoulder and said, "You shouldn't do that!".
After the event, my family and I were intimidated with serious death threats. The Police in Cardiff investigated these threats for over 2 years and concluded that the source was a mystery!
SM: Nothing from a government source? No shadowy figure has stepped forth and said, "Could you stop this?"
CW:  It's hard to answer that question. I think there were some.
SM: You do?
CW:  Yes. Maybe I shouldn't answer this question because it could lead to further problems.
SM: Professor, I am most grateful for your time.
I had no idea that the Professor was bringing out a book at the end of November when I contacted him. But in the light of this interview, this has to be a "must buy".
`A Journey with Fred Hoyle: The Search for Cosmic Life' (November 30, 2004), Publisher: World Scientific Pub Co Inc. ISBN: 9812389121.
Below is the [link] for the book on Amazon UK.
`A Journey with Fred Hoyle: The Search for Cosmic Life'
Note: Profs. Hoyle & Wickramasinghe expanded further on those `superastronomical improbabilities' in this scientific analysis, and as part of this metaphysical comparison.
Later events resulted in further contemporary (and historical research) - specifically re: `Red rain of Kerala'
www.world-science.net/exclusives/080122_red-rain.htm - quote:- (2007)
"Without conclusive evidence such as meteoritic dust mixed with red rain, it is difficult to say anything specific about Kerala's red rain," McCafferty wrote. But in history, he added, "there appears to be a strong link between some reported events [like it] and meteoritic activity. The reported airburst just before the fall of red rain in Kerala fits a familiar pattern, and cannot be dismissed so easily as an unrelated coincidence."
UPDATE - Jan. 7, 2011 - "Asymmetry of Biological Molecules May Have Come from Space"
UPDATE - Aug. 8, 2011 - "Building Blocks of DNA Found in Meteorites from Space"
UPDATE - Oct. 28, 2011 - "Surprisingly complex organic matter identified in space"
UPDATE - Jun. 23, 2012 - "Lichen Can Survive in Space - Research Sheds Light On Origin of Life"
UPDATE - Aug. 11, 2012 - "Red Rain in India May Have Alien Origin"
UPDATE - Sept. 24, 2012 - "Better Odds That Life Crashed to Earth from Space"
UPDATE - Jan. 10, 2013 - "We report the discovery for the first time of diatom frustules in a carbonaceous meteorite" [PDF]
UPDATE - Feb. 17, 2014 - Researchers discovered DNA and amino acids components in a space rock that fell over Australia
UPDATE - Aug. 27, 2015 - Panspermia: Scientists Mull If Alien Life Can Travel Between Stars Like Epidemic Outbreak
Biography at Wikipedia
Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe was born in Sri Lanka and was educated at Royal College, Colombo where he won many prizes, and later at the University of Ceylon. In 1960 he obtained a First Class Honours degree in Mathematics and won a Commonwealth scholarship to proceed to Trinity College Cambridge.
He commenced work in Cambridge on his PhD degree under the supervision of the late Sir Fred Hoyle, and published his first scientific paper in 1961. He was awarded a PhD degree in Mathematics in 1963 and was elected a Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge in the same year.
In the following year he was appointed a Staff Member of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge. Here he began his pioneering work on the nature of Interstellar Dust, publishing many papers in this field that led to important paradigm shifts in astronomy. He published the very first definitive book on Interstellar Grains in 1967. In 1973 he was awarded Cambridge University's highest Doctorate for Science, the prestigious ScD.
Chandra Wickramasinghe is acknowledged as being one of the world's leading experts on interstellar material. He has made many important contributions in this field, publishing over 350 papers in major scientific journals, over 75 in the high-impact journal Nature. In 1974 he first proposed the theory that dust in interstellar space and in comets was largely organic, a theory that has now been vindicated. Jointly with the late Sir Fred Hoyle he was awarded the International Dag Hammarskjold Gold Medal for Science in 1986.
Chandra Wickramasinghe was a UNDP Consultant and Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka in 1982-84, and played a key role in the setting up of the Institute of Fundamental Studies. In 1983/84 he was appointed the founder Director of the IFS by President J.R. Jayawardene. In 1992 he was decorated by the President of Sri Lanka with the titular honour of Vidya Jyothi. He was awarded the International Sahabdeen Prize for Science in 1996.
In 1973 he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at University College, Cardiff, being the youngest Professor appointed at the University up to that time. He was responsible for starting an Astrophysics research group in Cardiff under the auspices of a new Department that was formed under his headship, the Department of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy. He remained Head of this Department until 1989 by which time the Astronomy Research School in Cardiff was regarded as being one of the best in the UK.
From 1989-1999 he has held the post of Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy within a newly structured School of Mathematics at Cardiff University of Wales. In the year 2000 he was appointed Director of the newly formed Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology.
He is an award-winning poet and the author or co-author of over 25 books and over 350 scientific papers.
He has held visiting professorial appointments in a large number of Universities world-wide.
In recognition of his extensive contributions to science and culture he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Soka University of Tokyo, Japan in 1996.
He was the John Snow Memorial Lecturer and John Snow Medallist of the Association of Anesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland in 2004.
He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) by the Unversity of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka in 2004.
His work on the Origins of Life and the theory of Panspermia is coming to be recognised a one of the most important developments in science in recent years.