Red alien cells reproduce, just like Wickramasinghe wanted
“Once again the Universe gives the appearance of being biologically constructed, and on this occasion on a truly vast scale. Once again those who consider such thoughts to be too outlandish to be taken seriously will continue to do so. While we ourselves shall continue to take the view that those who believe they can match the complexities of the Universe by simple experiments in their laboratories will continue to be disappointed.”
The is a quotation from a paper by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe supporting their notion that life came to earth by a process of panspermia — organic chemicals from celestial bodies land on earth and begin the process of organic evolution, which they claimed was otherwise too manifestly improbable even to consider. Fred Hoyle was once a cutting edge cosmologist, but as life went on became something of a Don Quixote. His descent began when the world of cosmology rejected his steady-state theory of the universe in favor of the Big Bang. He was never the same. Hoyle was at the height of his popularity as a popularizer of cosmology when Robert Woodrow Wilson and Arno Allan Penzias of Bell Labs discovered cosmic microwave background radiation consistent with the Big Bang (a term, ironically, that Fred Hoyle himself invented to explain the rival theory). As additional evidence mounted over the years Hoyle eventually retreated to a theory of Quasi-steady state cosmology, which met with the same lack of interest. During the time he was being marginalized in his field (in 1983 the Nobel Prize committee omitted him when they awarded the Physics prize to his co-worker on a theory he developed), he descended into murkier fields where he made more outrageous claims. He originally advanced the idea of a Supernatural Creator because the attributes of carbon were too great, in his view, to have arisen “accidentally.” He then hooked up with Chandra Wickramasinghe to conceive of the theory of panspermia, or the seeding of life from comets and other cosmic bodies. On top of this theory he claimed that “biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design. No other possibility I have been able to think of.” The essence of the “support” for both these claims to anthropic creation is that it must be so because he can think of no other explanation.
Perhaps his most outlandish claim was that the Archaeopteryx (that hallowed symbol of Darwinian evolution discovered in a Jurassic limestone site in Germany just after the appearance of On the Origin of Species) was a fake! Hoyle’s career of misdirected theorizing ended when he died in 2001. He spent much of his later life writing science fiction.
Wickramasinghe, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, has continued to advocate for panspermia. And as luck would have it, proof fell into his lap. Well, it fell all over India in 2001. According to Godfrey Louis, “red rain” that began falling on Kerala, India starting July 25, 2001, was examined by him and found to contained particles which proved to be not anything that he was familiar with — not sand or any other kind of simple minerals. In Godfrey Louis and A. Santhosh Kumar, “The Red Rain Phenomenon of Kerala and its Possible Extraterrestrial Origin,” 302 Astrophics & Space Science 175 (2007) (abstract; article behind pay wall), Louis argued that the red particles had the appearance of biological cells. But the Ethidium Bromide dye fluorescence technique showed there was no DNA in the cells. The material making up these “cells” were largely carbon and oxygen. Louis estimates that 50,000 kilograms of these “cells” fell on India in 2001. And based on electron microscopic study which revealed the “fine cell structure indicating their biological cell like nature,” Louis floated the possibility that they were of extraterrestrial origin.
Enter Wickramasinghe. In a non-peer reviewed article in the math and physics archive “arxiv.org” Wickramasinghe the astronomer was able with his colleagues to have these very “cells” reproduce. See Rajkumar Gangappa, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Milton Wainwright, A. Santhosh Kumar and Godfrey Louis, “Growth and replication of red rain cells at 121º C and their red fluorescence,” (August 29, 2010) (pdf file). What they did was autoclave this muck from 2001 at temperatures up to 121º C for one to two hours, after which they counted the “cells” and found there were more than when they started. So the conclusion is that these “cells” reproduced, without DNA, at temperatures higher than any known life form on earth is able to. The cells, however, were unable to reproduce at temperatures that earthly cells do.
Then they performed fluorescence examination which they conclude “may well have a bearing on a possible space/comet origin of the red rain cells.” The reason is that “the fluorescence emission pattern of red rain cells” is similar (damned similar if you need a wakeup) to “the same emission in the famous Red Rectangle, a nebulosity associated with a planetary nebula.” The correlation they call “impressive” (or damned “impressive” if you prefer). They conclude the paper with the quote from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that is quoted at the head of this post The odd thing, however, about using the quote is that Wickramasinghe in this paper claims to have in fact “match[ed] the complexities of the Universe by simple experiments in their laboratories …” Well, I suppose strict literalness is the hobgoblin of something or other.
Well, who knows. Sloppy science you say? Hell, I bet there was more money in the equipment Wickramasinghe used than Galileo invested in all his telescopes put together. So scoff if you will. You don’t want to be used as an example of someone who persecuted pioneering science. One day these “cells” with a nucleus without nucleic acid will probably take over the earth, especially since the world is getting hotter. They seem better equipped to handle the heat than current organisms are. When everything else dies off, only things that can reproduce at 121º C will be able to survive. And they will radiate into all the niches left by us, and 3 or 4 billion years later there will be (red) scientists contemplating the seeding of life from space (which will be no closer to its ending because solid state cosmology will have been vindicated). Hopefully they won’t fall for the limestone impressions that look a little bit like a feathered dinosaur with wings.
They’re already turning up the thermostat at the Discovery Institute just thinking about the use they can make of this paper.
Update [9/11/10]: I don’t particularly follow the career of Chandra Wickramasinghe in any detail, and therefore I was unaware of this damning fact: In 1981 Arkansas passed a law requiring “Public schools within this State [to] give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” In the suit that followed, challenging the constitutionality of a public school teaching religion as science, Chandra Wickramasinghe testified on behalf of the state, claiming that the neo-Darwinian synthesis that forms the foundation for all of modern biology (from genetics to population studies to paleobiology to virology to, well, all of modern biology) was unsound. You can read his testimony at a site maintained by panspermia-ists. It is interesting that he acknowledged that his initial objections to Darwinian evolution stemmed from his childhood religious beliefs; that is, that “it ran counter to my own cultural inheritance of Buddhist beliefs that the Universe is eternal and that the patterns of life within it have a permanent quality.” The same, I assume (I am not a Buddhist), applies to the Big Bang hypothesis. He describes in that testimony how biologists are “indoctrinated” into the neo-Darwinian belief. In short, Chandra Wickramasinghe, the mathematician who aspired to become the Shiva (sorry that’s Hindu, not Buddhist), the destroyer of modern biology, has become the living tribute to the sad, paranoid, wacko beliefs that the once great Fred Hoyle descended into. I say this with sadness myself, because in the late 1960s I devoured Hoyle’s popular book The Nature of the Universe to the point that it literally fell apart from re-reading. Needless to say, time has passed that book by in the same way it has passed Fred Hoyle and his still living side-kick and disciple (in the religious sense).