Thursday, September 17, 2020

The best news on Earth is not on Earth

This year has been one of the worst, and most bizarre, in decades. Certainly of my lifetime. Democracy is crumbling, fascism seems ascendant, climate change is causing catastrophes and of course there's the pandemic, which... well, we all know how bad that is.

Maybe that's why the news that leaked--and then gushed--out earlier this week felt so important. Signs of life on Venus! Right next door! Closer than Mars, even! The details of the announcement, that scientists had found in Venus' atmosphere phosphine, a gas that is only naturally produced by organisms, made it all the more exciting. They had worked hard to rule out other explanations, and made their observations at different times using different equipment. The most likely explanation for what they were seeing, they said, was life.

Venus. Not pictured: atmospheric microbes.

When methane was found on Mars a few years ago, it felt more interesting than exciting. Like phosphine, methane is unstable and most often is produced by living organisms. The amounts detected on Mars shouldn't exist unless it is being continually produced, or released from deep under the planet's surface. The methane still hasn't been explained (or biological origins ruled out) but I guess that caveat felt pretty big.

With the Venus news, the chances that it wasn't a sign of life seem much smaller. It would need to be an observation error, or the phosphine would have to be caused by some undiscovered natural process.

That's cool on its own. But what makes it even more moving, for lack of a better word, is what it says about the universe. Venus is inhospitable in every sense. Heat, pressure, corrosive substances. Like the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Life on Venus, even microorganisms, sure seems to imply that it is likely to exist on some of the other billions of planets in just our galaxy.

Handy neighborhood map.

So while we're wallowing through 2020, it's nice to think that at least we might not be doing it alone.