Comets and life 3


Updating Comets and Magic Universe

Did comets spark life on Earth?

Part 3 Initiating biochemical action

Pascale Ehrenfreund rides again (as in Part 2) in the story in Magic Universe called “Life’s origin: will the answer to the riddle come from outer space?”. But please focus first on Wlodzimierz Lugowsky.

I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule,’ boasts Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. When Gilbert and Sullivan wrote their comic opera in 1885 they were au courant with science as well as snobbery. A century later, molecular biologists had traced the genetic mutations, and constructed a single family tree for all the world’s organisms that stretched back 4 billion years ago, to when life on Earth probably began. But they were scarcely wiser than Pooh-Bah about the precise nature of the primordial protoplasm.

In 1995 Wlodzimierz Lugowsky of Poland’s Institute of Philosophy and Sociology wrote about ‘the philosophical foundations of protobiology’. He listed nearly 150 scenarios then on offer for the origin of life and, with a possible single exception to be mentioned later, he judged none of them to be satisfactory. Here is one of the top conundrums for 21st Century science. The origin of life ranks with the question of what initiated the Big Bang, as an embarrassing lacuna in the attempt by scientists to explain our existence in the cosmos.

After discussing possible “home cooking” of life by hypercycles, RNA catalysis or lipid catalysis, and touching on the possibility of false starts, the tale turns back to the sky in pursuit of the only hypothesis acceptable to Lugowsky.

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About Comets


Occasional postings will comment on news of comets and asteroids. This introduction explains my long-standing interest.

About Comets: Speculation and Discovery Dover Classic re-issue of The Comet is Coming!

Comet Ikeya-Seki at dawn, 1965. NOAO/ R. Lynds.

In 1968 the BBC producer Philip Daly and I visited a teacher of classical guitar called Tsutomu Seki in Kochi City, Japan. From his small rooftop observatory, he had co-discovered the spectacular Comet Ikeya-Seki 1965 when it was just a faint smudge in the sky. For the first BBC-TV science blockbuster “The Violent Universe”(1969) about quasars, pulsars and cosmic microwaves, Seki’s patient searching provided some light relief. As professional telescopes grew bigger, comet-hunting became a job mainly for the amateur astronomers.

Ahead of the competition, the BBC anticipated the public interest in the impending return of Halley’s Comet in 1985 and in 1980 published my book The Comet is Coming!: The Feverish Legacy of Mr Halley. In the following year BBC-TV broadcast a 60-minute TV documentary also called “The Comet is Coming!” produced by Martin Freeth. We labelled the programme “a prank” because the comic actor Tim Brooke-Taylor played the ghost of Edmond Halley fated to ride in limbo on his eponymous comet, voiced by Leo McKern.

Both the book and the programme climaxed with important new science, the first strong evidence that the impact of a comet or an asteroid 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. My inquiries took me to a gorge near Gubbio in Italy, where the thin red clay layer marking the end of the Mesozoic Era had proved to be doped with extraterrestrial atoms of iridium. As so often with my science reporting, the story was highly controversial at the time (“Unbelievable arrogance” one dinosaur expert called the impact theory) but now it’s standard stuff.

At mission control in Darmstadt in 1986 I was present for the tumultuous interception of Halley’s Comet by the European Space Agency’s Giotto spacecraft. Although badly damaged in the high-speed encounter with the comet’s dusty head, Giotto not only returned excellent data but survived to intercept Comet Grigg-Skjellerup in July 1992. Then my book Giotto to the Comets was published very quickly by Presswork, because most of it was drafted in advance of the second encounter.

When The Comet is Coming! re-appeared from Dover in 1994 under its time-adjusted title Comets: Speculation and Discovery, a preface briefly summarized the results from March 1986, when five spacecraft, the Soviet Vega 1 and Vega 2, the Japanese Sakigake and Suisei, and Europe’s Giotto, all intercepted Halley’s Comet.

In Magic Universe (2003) my story about “Comets and asteroids: snowy dirtballs and their rocky cousins” stressed that the distinction between the two kinds of micro-planets had become fuzzy. It also looked forward to NASA’s Deep Impact encounter with Comet Tempel 1 in 2005. By then political interest had been engaged in the search for wayward objects that threaten to collide with the Earth, under the tag Spaceguard. Cross-links to “Impacts” and “Extinctions” led readers to the re-interpretation of key events in evolution on the Earth as consequences of traffic accidents like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Rosetta and its lander. ESA.

Writing for the European Space Agency kept me up to speed with the discovery of vast numbers of sungrazing comets, spotted by the ESA-NASA SOHO spacecraft, and with ESA’s ambitious Rosetta mission, launched in 2004 to rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. Rosetta will put a small lander onto the icy nucleus, and spend the next two years orbiting the comet as it heads towards the Sun and swings around it, spewing out its tail. Rosetta is the de luxe mission that comet investigators have waited for ever since the Space Age began.

Comment on The Comet is Coming!

As we would expect from Calder, Britain’s most entertaining science writer, The Comet is Coming! is factual, easy to understand, and great fun. Timothy Ferris, New York Magazine

Comment on Giotto to the Comets

Nigel Calder has risen to the occasion. A most interesting book about a most interesting and important mission. Patrick Moore

You can buy Comets: Speculation and Discovery at



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