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|November 16, 2002||
The Rediff Interview/Jayant Narlikar
It takes more than intelligence to do science. It takes courage. Courage to make extraordinary claims.
Last week Dr Jayant Narlikar of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics made one such claim: the eventual (http://www.astrobiology.cf.ac.uk/cultured.html) discovery of extra-terrestrial life...
Let us pause awhile before the significance of this sinks in.
If his claim is true, then for the first time we have evidence that we are not alone. That there really does exist life beyond Planet Earth!
Narlikar and his collaborators, including the famous N C Wickramasinghe, have found microorganisms. Though these microbes are not the little green men from Mars that we have been waiting for, the discovery is enormous and brings new challenges in the directions of 'panspermia': the theory that life exists and is distributed throughout the universe in the form of germs or spores that develop in the right environment. Panspermia could also mean that there is a possibility that life on Earth came from outer space!
Dr Narlikar is no snake oil merchant! He is respected across campuses as among those who choose to pursue the extraordinary. He is more than a mere academic. His credentials allow him to be counted among the real men of science, those who genuinely push the limits of possibility.
And when such men make "extraordinary claims", they will make it to their own peril if they do not heed the warning of Carl Sagan. The great sky watcher, imaginer, thinker, and teacher once wrote: "I believe that the extraordinary should be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Syed Firdaus Ashraf sought this "extraordinary evidence" from Dr Jayant Narlikar...
When and where did you launch the experiment to find evidence of life outside Earth?
A payload attached to a balloon was launched in January 2001 from the balloon facility of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Hyderabad.
What is the evidence on which you are basing your claim of discovering extraterrestrial life?
This living matter was detected at 41km height and it is so far difficult to see how it got there if it were from the Earth. Volcanic ash does not rise beyond 25km and does not stay for more than a few weeks. Our experiment was done when there had been no volcanic eruption of any note in the previous few months.
Space debris from defunct satellites and rockets has been estimated and are too small to account for our collection. Also the precautions taken and the type of bacteria detected cannot be linked to a laboratory contaminant. That it could not be cultured with the common media also suggests that it is a rare type.
How has the international scientific community reacted to your discovery thus far?
We have encountered interest + curiosity + certain degree of scepticism. This is natural when something contrary to long-held beliefs is claimed.
Are you willing to collaborate with the international astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology community?
It would indeed be desirable to have more experiments of this kind carried out. The present one already involves two universities in the UK collaborating with us.
What kinds of life forms were found in your experiments?
The evidence for living matter came in two forms: First cationic dyes applied to the sample on filters indicated the existence of living (viable) cells.
The second evidence was from growths observed from using potato dextrose agar as medium and the microorganism could be identified as staphylococcus pasteuri.
Rod-like bacillus and fungus (engyodontium albus de Hoog) were also found.
The first evidence came from the molecular biology labs of David Lloyd in Cardiff (UK) and the second from the labs in Sheffield (UK) by Milton Wainwright.
Why do you think this evidence can withstand the scrutiny of today's science?
For reasons given, and the precautions against contamination that were observed make us confident that the evidence should stand.
How can you rule out contamination from Earth? How is your cryosampling (the method used to collect the bacteria) different from methods used before? Could you elaborate with a few details?
The Indian Space Research Organisation had developed the cryosampler for earlier experiments in atmospheric sampling and had used it successfully. The cryosampler has evacuated and decontaminated stainless steel tubes that can be opened and closed by 'telecommand'. Then there is a cryopump that fills the tube with air at liquid neon temperature. This system is superior to any that has been used in earlier experiments.
What is your guess about the origin of the life forms you found? Did they come from meteorites and other such bodies? Do you suppose they can be traced back to the Oort Cloud (a belt of celestial rocks circling the far outer boundary of the our Solar System)?
It is too early to guess. At this stage we would like to say that a prima facie case can be made for it to have come from above rather than below... The density profile with height seems to match this hypothesis. It would be necessary to do further experiments to link the findings to specific sources like comets and meteor showers.
What are the physical conditions that must have led to the development of these life forms?
It is too early to say anything on this issue till we know the source.
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