On Campus Talk by 'Jayant Narlikar'

A  Search for Extra-terrestrial Life in Earth’s Atmosphere

-Dr. Jayant Narlikar

The discovery of three bacterial species beyond Earth’s atmosphere has opened up an intriguing possibility of extraterrestrial life beyond the planet, says Emeritus professor and founder director of Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Jayant Vishnu Narlikar.

Renowned astrophysicist, Narlikar says that there was mainly "circumstantial evidence" to prove that life and more importantly, intelligent life could exist beyond our planet.
"The most classical books in astronomy, till about a century ago, just mentioned that our universe exists till the Milky Way galaxies. But, due to better evolving astronomical tools, we have now discovered groups of galaxies, clusters, and super clusters. The more we discover of our universe, the more chances we have of discovering life. Millimeter-wave astronomy has helped us discover molecules in space, so we can say that life's building blocks- cells, DNA- do exist in space as well. But until now, the evidence in front of astro-physicists with regard to intelligent extra-terrestrial life is mostly circumstantial," he says.
According to him, the number of so-called "super-civilizations" that may exist extraterrestrially is equally speculative.

The American astrophysicist Frank Drake devised an equation which tries to find out the number of these super-civilizations that might exist. It incorporates factors like the rate of star formation, which is about one per year, the fraction of stars which are good suns, the fraction of good stars with planetary systems, among other factors. Researchers have come up with figures ranging from one to several billions. But the generally agreed upon figure by researchers around the world is the possibility of around a million, existing super-civilisations.

Referring to Frank Drake’s equation, Professor Narlikar says, “There is definite circumstantial evidence to support life outside Earth. A program known as SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) has been in operation for more than four decades to receive coded messages about existence of life on earth. Sending manned missions or spaceships to find extraterrestrial life, is impracticle. "Some of these galaxies, where we may have reason to believe intelligent life may exist, are located a few million light years away. So if we send someone in a spaceship and, by some huge advancement, we find a way to keep a man alive for lakhs of years, who will he bring the information back? Even unmanned probes do not make much sense. At the current technology, the best way to make contact with possible extra-terrestrial life is through coded radio messages, which is being done by space agencies around the world"

He, however, is more hopeful about the quest to find primitive forms of life. "Comet-tails might be carriers of micro-organisms and when they brush against planets, some of those micro-organisms might be released. Their existence is still something for research for ISRO. It detected living cells upto 41 kilometres from the Earth's surface. The experiment, which involved something called a cryo-sampler and released into the atmosphere using a balloon, also found new bacteria, which survived UV rays. If their characteristics are found to be different from those of the earth's bacteria, they should be extraterrestrial. The bacteria — Janibactar Hoyleis, Bacillus Aryabhatai and Bacillus Isronensis — have been discovered after years of collaborative research by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and NCCS, Pune.

The ISRO-CRYOSAMPLER experiment has detected live micro organic cells in ultra violet light. With the new body of research having already opened up intriguing possibilities of life outside Earth, astrophysics scientists are now wondering if we, human beings, are after all evolved from these micro organisms.

The procedure and the results of this experiment are the subject of his on-campus talk on 10th Feb in BITS-Pilani.


About J.V.Narlikar

Narlikar is a proponent of steady state cosmology. He developed with Sir Fred Hoyle the conformal gravity theory, commonly known as Hoyle–Narlikar theory. He has received several national and international awards and honorary doctorates. India's second highest civilian honour, Padma Vibhushan, was awarded to him in 2004 for his research work. Prior to this, in 1965, he was conferred Padma Bhushan. He was once featured on Carl Sagan's TV show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in the late 1980s.  He is a global figure in science.



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