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No. 48: Nov-Dec 1986

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Life As A Cosmic Phenomenon

"The arguments in support of life as a cosmic phenomenon are not readily accepted by a culture in which a geocentric theory of biology is seen as the norm."

The quotation above heads a revealing discussion by F. Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe as to why their conclusions about cosmic life have not been accepted by the scientific community. Stimulating this article was a statement by J. Maddox, Editor of Nature, to the effect that the labors of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were not convincing very many scientists because they "...had become caught up in the eccentric doctrine of panspermiology, a doctrine for which there was said to be little or no evidence." Hoyle and Wickramasinghe deny their eccentricity and affirm that their ideas have been acquired through observation and the generally accepted methods of deductive science.

Basically, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe maintain that evidence supports the concept of life originating, evolving, and being transported from place to place in outer space. We have published many of their results in past issues of SF and see no need to cover the same ground again. Rather, we wish to dwell on the scientific reception of their work. We do this with two quotations from their Nature article.

These quotations are embedded in their review of the infrared evidence for biological material in outer space:

"Still persuing the infrared problem, we eventually found that among organic materials polysaccharides gave the best correspondence to the astronomical data, and it was exactly at this point in our work that we began to experience hostility from the referees of journals and from the assessors of grant applications at what was then the Science Research Council. We realize now that because polysaccharides on the Earth are a biological product we had unwittingly made a contact that is deeply forbidden in our scientific culture, a contact between biology and astronomy."

And now the second quote:

"We are aware that astronomers and chemists can be found who will claim that these results are not impressive, because equally good results could be obtained using plausible non-biological materials. Our answer is that equally good results have not been obtained using plausible non-biological materials. Such claims are advanced and listened to only because they are designed to be culturally acceptable, whereas our results, although based on careful observations, experiments and calculations are not culturally acceptable. In such a situation the critic is permitted to say anything at all without being weighed in the balance and found wanting."

(Hoyle, F., and Wickramasinghe, N.G.; "The Case for Life As a Cosmic Phenomenon," Nature, 322:509, 1986.)

Comment. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe may be correct in their comments on cultural acceptance; but they are fortunate to even get a chance to make their case in a preeminent scientific journal. Hoyle will not lose his job for promoting revolutionary ideas, but those with lesser reputations might. To be a scientific revolutionary you have to be an already famous scientist or outside the scientific community completely.

From Science Frontiers #48, NOV-DEC 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss