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Notes & Queries 11/10/08

Larry Klaes sends along links to four of Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe’s books on panspermia, now available online. I first encountered the duo’s Evolution from Space shortly after its publication in 1981, found it curious and unlikely, and went on to other things. But the idea that a microbe might make its way between planets is under greater scrutiny than ever, even if the concept of interstellar panspermia remains contentious. And I think Larry sums the matter up nicely: “Certain ideas in these works have become a bit more accepted, or at least less further from the mainstream than when they first came out. They do make for very interesting reading whether you agree with their ideas or not.”

The Cosmic Ancestry site offers resources on the topic here, including PDF’s of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s Space Travelers: The Bringers of Life, Viruses from Space, Living Comets and Proofs That Life Is Cosmic.


I’m looking at a stunning image of Saturn’s rings, with a huge, smoggy Titan bisected by their arc, and battered little Epimethus hovering just above the rings. The view is courtesy of the new National Geographic title Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System, capturing the intriguing organic chemistry of one Saturnian moon and contrasting it (via an insert) with another, the continually surprising Enceladus. The photograph is lovely, but Planetology aims to be more than a collection of memorable imagery. The method here is to look at the natural processes that shape the landscapes we see with our probes, with emphasis upon the forces that shape their existence. Earth appears in these pages not so much as our home but as another intriguing planetary surface.

Thus an image of Mercury’s Spider crater is contrasted with a shot from orbit of Canada’s Manicouagan crater, some sixty miles across, where rivers trace impact-generated fault lines even as weathering and crustal movement wear down other evidence of the cataclysmic event. The rift zones of Venus are contrasted with the long troughs of Mars’ Cerberus Fossae and insets of the Great Rift in East Africa. Page after page the views tell the tale of the movement of fluids on Titan and Mars, the action of ice volcanoes on Triton and the erupting plumes of Enceladus, the formation and movement of ice, the effects of storm and wind.

Astronaut and planetary scientist Tom Jones, working with planetary geologist Ellen Stofan, wrote the text, from which this:

Through field observation and experiment, earth scientists have built theories or hypotheses about how volcanoes erupt, earthquakes rumble, and glaciers advance and retreat. Today, researchers apply those models to the features seen on other planets; if those geological features can be explained by our model, then our understanding is reinforced. If solar system reality does not fit our Earth-generated theory, then the model needs revision. Geologists head back into the field for more data, and theorists go back to reassess their approach to explaining fundamental forces like impacts, volcanism, and erosion. By incorporating the data and imagery from robotic probes and astronaut expeditions into the study of our planet, we not only learn more about the solar system but also about our own Earth.

A point well taken. For me, the interesting thing about this book is the way it played with my sense of perspective, so that the unusual features we see on distant planets and moons relate to things I take for granted on this planet because I’m not used to looking at them from space. We’ll do that same kind of perspective-shifting one day when we gain the ability to image exoplanets up close, a distant prospect, but perhaps within reach in a matter of decades with extended versions of Webster Cash’s New Worlds and other space-based observatories.


The latest Carnival of Space is up at Simostronomy, with special attention to the idea of magnetic shielding for future space travelers. Solar and cosmic radiation provide a danger great enough that an unfortunately timed solar storm would quickly prove lethal to humans and associated electronics. The Potentia Tenebras Repellendi site quotes Robert Bingham from the University of Strathclyde, one of the venues where this work is being conducted: “It would be a bit like being near the Hiroshima blast. Your skin would blister, hair and teeth fall out and before long your internal organs would fail. It is not a very nice way to go.”

Bingham’s team, as Universe Today notes, is working on a prototype that should be operational within five years, a mini-magnetosphere generator that can do for astronauts what Earth’s magnetosphere does for us on the ground, protecting our bodies from harm. The system is no bigger than a large desk and needs about as much energy as an electric kettle. It would operate through two small satellites, located outside the spaceship, which could be switched on if an approaching solar flare or coronal mass ejection were detected.

So now we have scaled the magnetic bubble idea down into an efficient deflector shield. Says Ian O’Neill at the Universe Today site:

This astounding achievement is a big step toward protecting sensitive electronics and the delicate human body against the radioactive effects of manned missions between the planets. It may sound like science fiction, but future astronauts may well shout the order to “RAISE SHIELDS!” if the Sun flares up during a 36 million mile journey to Mars…

More in this article from the Telegraph, which points out that although the idea of a magnetic bubble has been around since the 1960s, the thinking was that only a large bubble, perhaps 100 kilometers wide, could work. The energy involved in generating such a field would be enormous. The recent experiments, conducted not only at Strathclyde but at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the University of York, makes it appear that a solution to the ‘space weather’ problem is on the horizon, at least until we hit the heliopause, beyond which all bets are off.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk November 12, 2008, 10:36

    The Planetary Society will be sending along an experiment aboard
    the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission, set for launch in 2009. The
    probe will be the first spacecraft to land on the largest Martian
    moon (assuming Phobos 2 did not crash into it after losing contact
    with controllers in 1989) and return samples of its surface to Earth.

    Onboard is an experiment acronymed LIFE for Living Interplanetary
    Flight Experiment. A variety of microbes will be placed inside the
    canister to see if they can survive the 34-month journey through
    deep space to Mars and back.

    To quote:

    “The journey will be a test of one aspect of the “transpermia” hypothesis –- the possibility that life can travel from planet to planet inside rocks blasted off one planetary surface by impact, to land on another planetary surface. For example, if a rock on Earth contained life and were blasted off Earth, could it survive until it reached Mars? Or, if life existed on Mars, could it have been transported to Earth? The Planetary Society experiment will test the ability of life to survive the interplanetary voyage by flying organisms for several years through interplanetary space in a simulated meteoroid.”

    More information may be found here:


  • ljk December 3, 2009, 1:02

    Plaque U-turn for Bournemouth star man Sir Fred Hoyle

    8:00 am Wednesday 2nd December 2009

    By Katie Clark

    THE life of the great British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle is to be commemorated with a plaque in Bournemouth – months after the council said it couldn’t afford it.

    Plans for a Blue Plaque at the former home of the astrophysicist in Admiral’s Walk in West Cliff, Bournemouth, were put on hold earlier this year after a request by Cllr Ron Cooper for it to be put up during 2009, the Year of Astronomy.

    A number of problems including budget difficulties in the planning and transport service unit meant the ceremony was unable to go ahead and the proposal was put on the back burner.

    But in an apparent turnaround, on Thursday the mayor of Bournemouth, Cllr Beryl Baxter will unveil the plaque in honour of the man who invented the term “Big Bang”.

    Full article here:


  • ljk April 8, 2011, 12:25

    Extraterrestrial Life and Censorship

    Authors: N. Chandra Wickramasinghe (Cardiff University UK)

    (Submitted on 7 Apr 2011)

    Abstract: In this article I chronicle a series of landmark events, with which I was personally involved, that relate to the development of the theory of cosmic life. The interpretation of events offered here might invite a sense of incredulity on the part of the reader, but the facts themselves are unimpeachable in regard to their authenticity.

    Of particular interest are accounts of interactions between key players in an unfolding drama connected with the origins of life. Attempts to censor evidence incompatible with the cosmic life theory are beginning to look futile and a long-overdue paradigm shift may have to be conceded.

    Comments: 16 pages, 4 figures, for Journal of Cosmology Proceedings of “New Directions in Modern Cosmology” workshop, Lorentz Center, Leiden NE, Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, 2010

    Subjects: Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO)

    Cite as: arXiv:1104.1314v1 [astro-ph.CO]

    Submission history

    From: Carl H. Gibson [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 7 Apr 2011 12:27:58 GMT (800kb)


  • ljk March 20, 2012, 0:25


    Adam Curtis | 15:58 UK time, Friday, 24 February 2012

    Both individuals and societies tell themselves stories to simplify and make sense of the messy chaos of reality. It is naive to think that it is possible to live without the protective bubbles these stories create. But sometimes the stories can become terribly limiting and trap us, and prevent both individuals and whole societies from moving on into another kind of future.

    One September night in 1945 three British mathematicians and astronomers went to see a new film at a cinema in Cambridge. It was called Dead of Night. It was a series of ghost stories told by a group of people gathered together in a farmhouse. The stories are linked by a device of a central character who is convinced that he has experienced the whole situation in the farmhouse before. In the end he murders another of the group – but then wakes up from this terrible dream.

    That morning the telephone rings, he is invited down to the farmhouse, and the whole story, or dream, starts all over again.

    The scientists loved the film, and they sat discussing its circular structure. One of them suggested that it could be the model for how the whole universe really worked. That, although the universe was expanding, it was also constantly renewing itself – to maintain itself in a steady state.

    Out if this came what was called the “Steady State” theory of the universe. It was going to dominate scientific thinking for the next twenty years, and it would also make one of the three scientists very famous.

    He was a very difficult and argumentative man called Fred Hoyle – and the story of what happened to him and his idea is odd and funny – and also shows how science can often add a spurious certainty to the stories that modern societies tell themselves.

    I also want to tell the story of two of the men behind the film Dead of Night – because both of them were convinced that the certainties of the post-war years had trapped Britain in a narrow bubble that was preventing it from seeing the world as it really was.

    And we may still be in that bubble.

    Full article here: