Jayant Narlikar

With fresh wind blowing in bringing global competitiveness and collaboration, attitudes to scientific research will change from that of a routine job to an adventure in creativity.

On April 20, 2005, a 26.7-million cubic foot balloon carrying a 459-kg scientific payload with 38 kg of liquid neon was flown from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad operated by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). The payload collected air samples from different heights ranging from 20 to 41 km and it was parachuted down safely. The samples were independently analysed at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune, and live micro-organisms were found. Such findings have enormous implications for astrobiology, besides providing important inputs to go into the question of how life started on our planet.

Astrobiology deals with life outside the Earth, a question that is increasingly gaining scientists’ attention. For India, it was part of a pioneering series of experiments. Being interdisciplinary in character, astrobiology t had the participation of scientists from institutions specialising in different fields. As the subject grows in scope and interest, more scientists will come forward to participate with a distinct need for an Indian institution devoted to astrobiology.

While challenges to research progress in India abound, there are also several instances of world-class work being done. The upper atmosphere experiment carried out by biologists and space scientists from Indian research institutions clearly demonstrates the capabilities of Indian researchers. The idea was for an objective study of whether the Earth’s atmosphere harbours living systems, especially extra-terrestrial micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses. This was the first time a serious attempt was made to analyse the microbial contents of the atmosphere under strict biological controls. The expertise developed by ISRO in recent years justified an attempt at sampling air from different heights using the balloon technology.

In this pioneering effort, the payload consisted of a cryosampler containing 16 evacuated and sterilised stainless steel probes. Thus, the valves attached to the cylindrical probes could be opened by a remote command from the ground headquarters and the ambient air pumped in. The expertise developed by the ISRO technical team was responsible for preparing such a complex payload.

The first flight in 2001 was successful in collecting air samples from various heights. After the payload was parachuted down and analysed by CCMB and also in Cardiff, U.K., several new bacterial species were identified. Encouraged by the findings, a second experiment with several improvements over the first balloon flight was planned and executed in 2005. The biologists at CCMB and at the NCCS reported finding 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies, with three strains identified as potential new species.

The question that came up then was: how did such life forms get to the upper atmosphere? If no workable method can be found to lift the bacteria from the Earth’s surface to a height of 41 km, then based on the empirical evidence there is strong reason to consider them as being of extra-terrestrial origin.

The impact of this work can be profound if it is conclusively established that the microorganisms detected in these experiments are indeed extragalactic. The work has, therefore, generated interest amongst the international community of exobiologists. For example, if the species found at the height of 41 km is proved to be extraterrestrial in origin, it will open up possibilities of a broad vista of life existing all over this vast universe. It will also strengthen the hypothesis that life on the Earth itself may have been seeded by such microbial showers, making all of us extraterrestrial in origin. Needless to add that the realisation that we are not alone in the universe would be of profound significance in the study of the origin and status, and possibly the future of life, on this planet.

Preferential funding of research programmes is a huge challenge in India, especially for such interdisciplinary niche areas like astrobiology. While large initiatives such as satellite and space launch programmes are well-funded and they enjoy the public spotlight, we must find ways to encourage and support research in new and emerging areas as well. For greater impact in niche area research, the Indian science establishment needs to be endowed with the requisite infrastructural and funding commitment to conduct end-to-end research. Many of these niche research areas offer great opportunity for the Indian science establishment to negate legacy issues and be on an equal footing with the best research output in the world.

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to planning exciting experiments and achieving important results is the bureaucratic framework of our research institutes. The hierarchical structure, especially pay scales of our research institutes mimic the government’s administrative structure. However, the creativity and efficiency of a scientist vis-À-vis the administrator evolve differently, with the scientist bringing differential skill and qualification requirements to the table. Besides, a young scientist is in the prime of his creative life and an administrator, on the other hand, gains maturity with age. To base the promotion criteria of a scientist on the same pattern as for an administrator is to ignore this fundamental difference. This more often than not leads to frustration among the younger generation of scientists as they see their bright new ideas getting ignored or going unappreciated.

While dwelling on the lacuna on one side, it is heartening to see how the balloon experiment breaks new ground.

This inter-institutional accomplishment illustrates the indigenous capability in successfully fabricating experimental set-ups of entirely new types. This trend for originality and creativity augurs well for Indian science. With fresh wind blowing in bringing global competitiveness and collaboration, attitudes to scientific research will change from that of a routine job to an adventure in creativity. It is important for creative young scientists to feel appreciated for the work done and the credit for such cooperative efforts, as seen in the recent Nobel Prizes, would justifiably be apportioned in proportion to the research contributions.

(Jayant Narlikar is Founder Director & Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Prof. Narlikar is a theoretical physicist widely known for fundamental contributions to astrophysics and cosmology. Along with Sir Fred Hoyle, Prof. Narlikar proposed an alternative to the Big Bang theory. He headed an international team which undertook and found evidence for micro-organisms in the stratosphere. An intriguing possibility is that the organisms could have arrived from space. Prof. Narlikar has authored or co-authored a hundred books (professional, science popularization, fiction). Prof. Narlikar is a member of three Indian academies of sciences and Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences.)