The Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology in the United Kingdom is being closed by Cardiff University for what the university calls "budgetary and strategic reasons". Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the centre, has said that he plans to turn it into a limited company. Nature asks him about his work, and how he intends to go it alone.
How did the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology come about?
The programme of research began in the 1970s in collaboration with the late Fred Hoyle. Until 1974 it was thought by the vast majority of astronomers that interstellar dust was all made of inorganic ice particles, similar to those in the cumulus clouds of Earth's atmosphere. We challenged these ideas and developed a theory of organic grains. By 1995, we were arguing that an origin of life on Earth is much less likely than life having an origin on a cosmic scale, that life is certain to have been brought to Earth from outside, most likely on comets. This idea of panspermia flew in the face of conventional wisdom, the model of the primordial soup.
Ours was one of the first astrobiology centres and today there are several universities around the US that have astrobiology departments.
What was your professional background when you got involved in this?
I was a professor of mathematics, and I was doing this research as a sort of hobby.
A lot of your work has been controversial.
Some of the work is obviously controversial because people don't agree that life did not start on Earth. Controversies are healthy as long as they're conducted in the proper way.
Why has the centre been closed by Cardiff University?
In 2010 there was a funding crisis in the United Kingdom. Cardiff University had to review its spending plans and departmental structure, and it looked at subjects that were not in the core disciplines of science or the professions. My complaint is that it's such a low-cost programme - £10,000 - 15,000 (US$16,000 - 24,000) a year - that it didn't really pay them to cut it. I appealed, but my appeal was rejected last week.
Will your work continue?
The work of the centre is by no means complete. We have a collaboration with the Russian Federal Space Agency and others worldwide, and we have decided to set up the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology as a limited company and charity. We've got offers of some support - mostly from the United States, including from the Astrobiology Research Trust in Memphis, Tennessee.
Are any parts of astrobiology now generally accepted?
The aspect of our research that has become absolutely mainstream is studying the properties of interstellar and cometary grains and inferring that these have a complex organic character. That wasn't accepted 30 years ago, but today there's no question now that the galaxy is chock-a-block with chemicals that are the building blocks of life.
Is panspermia a scientifically falsifiable idea?
Yes. We predict that if you find life on another planet or comet and it's identical in genetic make-up and biochemistry to that on Earth, it has a common origin. If it's not the same, panspermia is proved wrong, because the finding shows that life can develop independently. If experiments on Earth show that life can be generated relatively easily in the laboratory from organic molecules, then panspermia becomes unnecessary.
You have suggested that flu epidemics have an extra-terrestrial origin and that the SARS virus is an extra-terrestrial virus. How seriously did you mean it?
Well, once you say that life started from outside and is continually being brought in, then the whole evolution of life on Earth is against this background of incoming genetic material. Some of the material would be pathogenic to plants and animals, so yes epidemics from space must remain at least an academic possibility.
This month, Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, published a paper in the Journal of Cosmology (1) claiming to have found biological structures in a meteorite. You wrote a supportive commentary (2) on the claim, but it hasn't gained widespread acceptance. Why do you think that is?
If it immediately gains widespread acceptance, the whole idea of Earth-centred life collapses in an instant. People are clinging tenaciously to the idea that life is centred on Earth. They will continue to do so until they are absolutely forced to abandon their position.
1. Hoover, R. B. J. Cosmol. 13 (2011).
2. Wickramasinghe, C. J. Cosmol. 13 (2011).