Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, the chief exponent of the theory that planets like earth have been seeded for life by comets has been dismissed from his post at the Cardiff University in Wales, United Kingdom.
The university informed the Sri Lanka born British scientist that they are withdrawing funding for his department, the astrobiology center.
The UK parliament magazine reported the removal of Wickramasinghe in a story headlined as “Killing the Goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Wickramasinghe believes that life was seeded by comets and asteroids and pathogens like virus for influenza also arrived here from deep space taking hitch hikes on such astral bodies.
Professor Wickramasinghe, a long time collaborator with renowned astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle was recently drawn into controversy when he supported, NASA scientist Richard Hoover who claimed he found fossilized evidence of life in three meteorites.
Wickramasinghe was the only paid worker of the Astro biological Center of the University. The other research fellows and associates worked in an honorary capacity and it cost the university only about 24,000 US dollars an year.
Wickramasinghe told this correspondent: “It is beyond belief that an area of work that attracts worldwide attention on a regular basis should be targeted by any “marketing oriented” University. I am convinced that it is not a case of funding, but prejudice arising from numerous petty causes.”
The United Kingdom Parliament magazine said few problems in science attract more public attention than the search for alien life. “The quest for how life began, not just on earth but anywhere in the universe must rank among the most fundamental problems of science.” The magazine said the astrobiology center is one of the first ever for research in the subject and by the closure the university saved only less than 15k British pounds per year. The magazine called it “Killing the goose that laid golden eggs”. Wickramasinghe gave the following interview to Skymania, the British website:
“The authorities intimated to me that in view of financial stringencies they were looking at areas outside the core curriculum to cut and this was one of the targets they had.
“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.
“All the other staff, totaling about 12, is honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology. “What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally. “We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial. “I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”
He added: “I am the astrobiology editor of the Journal of Cosmology. The Journal has published work such as on the Hoover meteorites that was decidedly controversial but that didn’t mean that the papers were not worth publishing. “I personally invited Hoover to submit his paper because I’ve known him for a long time. If that Hoover stuff had come out the blue I would have been suspicious because it would have seemed almost too good to be true.” “He came to Cardiff about a year and a half ago on my invitation and brought a sample of the Murchison meteorite. Within sight of me and half a dozen other scientists at the Earth sciences lab, he used a hammer to crack open the meteorite. “He turned an electron-scanning microscope onto a freshly cleaned surface of the meteorite and some of these images with biological structure jumped out onto the screen. It was pretty impressive.”
Prof Wickramasinghe added: “Most of our publications last year were in the International Journal of Astrobiology, a mainstream Cambridge University publication which is heavily peer-reviewed and is not a trivial journal.”
The professor, who appealed against his sacking, is now seeking private funding for the centre to continue as a limited company and says he has had two or three expressions of interest in recent days.
He said: “I’ve got ongoing collaborations with, for example, the Russian space agency. Next year is 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned trip around the world. To mark this, we’re doing lots of experiments such as looking for viruses and evidence of cometary organics coming in from space. To continue work like that I have to set up a company.”
An official spokesman for Cardiff University said: “The decision to close the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology (CCAB) in 2010 was made on the basis of budgetary and strategic reasons and not because of any views expressed by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe or the Centre.
“The University can confirm that its decision is not connected in any way with any views which may have been expressed in the Journal of Cosmology.”
Wickramasinghe also told this correspondent: “”I have already obtained offers of support from private foundations, and several international universities are considering affiliations at the present time….I think we would be better off within any system that is appreciative of the work we do..”