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30 July 2002

0 285 63606 5
Souvenir Press, London, UK

Cosmic Dragons: Life and Death on our Planet

Chandra Wickramasinghe

There is an awakened interest in the heavenly bodies known as comets, both popularly and scientifically. This is evidenced in the first instance by the success of certain disaster movies, and in the second by a plethora of unmanned probes which are scheduled to meet with various comets in the next few years. NASA's CONTOUR (Comet Nuclei Tour) will pass through the comas of Encke and Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in 2003 and 2006. Deep Impact will, as the mission name suggests, impact Tempel 1 in 2005, and Stardust is scheduled to sample P/Wild 2 a year later. The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch Rosetta next year, which will rendezvous with comet Wirtanen in 2011 and place one probe in orbit and a second on the nucleus.

As a race, our fascination with comets goes back possibly thousands of years. They were often considered dread portents, harbingers of doom; both feared and yet venerated. Wickramasinghe paints a picture of comets as 'cosmic dragons' - in Western culture the dragon is an evil creature, to be slain whenever possible, yet in the ancient Orient the fearsome dragon was a terrible but beneficent power, dispensing life-giving rain. Here, he shows how both these aspects might apply to comets, ancient and modern.

Much of what is written will be considered heresy by the scientific community. Readers of The Biochemist will be familiar with these ideas. The whole notion of panspermia - essentially the delivery of biological material throughout space by means of comets, asteroids, and the like - is a shocking and challenging one. Covering ground from the late Sir Fred Hoyle's work on the formation in supernovae of heavy elements and their delivery to Earth, through the identification of organic material in comets and interstellar dust, to the recent studies of cosmic dust by the Stardust probe, Wickramasinghe presents a persuasive argument that not only did carbon-based life originate in space, but that it was brought here by comets, and that this process still occurs. Indeed, he argues that many events in human history, including plagues and the cyclic nature of ice ages, can be traced to regular approaches of comets, both due to direct impacts and shed material reaching Earth.

Wickramasinghe starts the book with some basic astrophysics and biology. Although the treatment is necessarily brief, more detail would have been welcome. The discovery that interstellar dust consists of particles that strongly resemble bacteria is perhaps the most compelling argument of the book - the evidence is quite startling and it is surprising that these ideas are not more widely accepted. He is less convincing when defending Hoyle's quasi-steady state hypothesis of the Universe's generation, especially in view of the body of evidence that favours the 'big bang' hypothesis favoured by most cosmologists. The insistence on the quasi-steady state model does detract from the soundness of the panspermia argument, which is unfortunate because panspermia could exist quite peacefully with the 'big bang' model.

The major implication - if panspermia is true - is that the Universe is teeming with life. If true then rather than the common view that life evolved once, in an extremely unlikely event, on our little blue and green oasis, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's ideas mean that life will be wherever we look, delivered by the comets that also destroy it. The exciting thing is that (apart from the quasi-state state hypothesis), the notion of panspermia is eminently testable, in time.

Richard P. Grant, Cambridge, UK

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