World-renowned astrophysicist discusses extraterrestrial life

David Saakyan

The topic of extraterrestrial life through bacterial examination was discussed Wednesday afternoon.

The Physics department hosted the lecture, which was presented by world-renowned Indian astrophysicist and cosmologist, Dr. Jayant V. Narlikar.

The 72-year-old expert on astrophysics and cosmological studies has been working on finding signs of life outside our known universe.

“I think the major thing is that the lecture brings new blood,” said Duane Doty, professor of nuclear physics. “This man is pushing a set of beliefs that aren’t common. Just because some of his views aren’t accepted that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong.”

Focusing on the history of astronomical breakthroughs, Narlikar addressed how the topic of extraterrestrial life abroad is an on-going study.

“Life can have various possibilities and those who read science fiction are familiar with several types of life that is possible,” Narlikar said. “Evidence shows that the universe is much richer than they imagined.”

Narlikar briefly spoke about the past accomplishments of British astronomer, Fred Hoyle. Narlikar said Hoyle’s earlier research and work was groundbreaking in a period where astronomical belief was not as widespread as today.

“In the 1950’s, Hoyle wrote a paper saying that molecules existed in space between stars and galaxies,” Narlikar said. “He found that his work could not be published because the feeling in those days was that nothing else more complicated can exist in space.”

It was therefore an initiative for the Indian astrophysicist to continue the experimentation of finding these specific molecules astronomers like Hoyle concentrated on.

“By the early 60’s it became possible to show people about the existence of molecules in space through millimeter wave astronomy,” Narlikar said.

Narlikar said there are two methods scientists can execute in order to find life outside the earth.

First would be to contact extraterrestrial life through radio waves, he said. The other would be to concentrate more on the study of different cells and microorganisms that can help create life.

Since 2001, Narlikar and a number of other Indian astrophysicists partook in a cyro-sampling experiment through the funding of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

The experiment was established to send a large balloon with a payload 41 kilometers up into the atmosphere with an initiative of collecting air-samples and bacteria that might determine the existence of life outside our planet.

“In order to run this experiment, we needed local authorities to comply with us,” Narlika said. “Once the parachute falls down, it can fall land into any village and you had to find it. Lucky for us, we had GPS which allowed us to find it.”

The experiment was initially based on the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe hypothesis, which states that comets can be carriers of micro-organisms in a frozen state. They can further then release onto the Earth’s atmosphere, he added.

The 2001 experiment resulted in the discovery of several different bacterial specifies found high up in the earth’s atmosphere.

“They did not find any life cells, but they found another type of bacteria which was resistant to ultra-violet radiation,” Narlikar said. “It is very unlikely that these species are laboratory contaminants, as no such cultures were handled in the laboratory.”

One particular graduate student found the idea of the experiment to be quite interesting and revolutionary for its time.

“I think it’s interesting that someone thought of looking for bacteria in the upper portion of the atmosphere and it’s not something you think about everyday,” said Gordon MacDonald, 27, physics student.

After the success of the first experiment in 2001, Narlikar said he and his fellow participants of the ISRO ran a similar experiment in 2003.

Narlikar said he plans on further extending the premises of ISRO’s experimentation to continue discovering new developments about what the universe has to offer.

“This is how we stand at the moment and we would like to continue this activity and develop a diagnosis whether the samples are terrestrial or extraterrestrial,” Narlikar said.