Hints of Life on Venus?


So news leaked yesterday that a huge study by universities in the US and the UK, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University and the University of Manchester – as well as others – has found what are being called ‘biosignatures’ on Venus.

Today is when the embargo on the story is officially up, so no doubt your BBC News is going to be all like “Are Aliens Social Distancing Correctly on Venus?” The Mirror are going to run a story about “Venusian Tories Put Biscuits on Expenses!” and the Mail Online will have various stories including “Will Venusians Affect Your Property Prices?”, “Venusian Air – The Cure for Cancer?” and of course “Incompetent Government Ruins Everything, Venusian Immigrants to Blame!”

Don’t let me rain on this parade, this is damn big news, the biggest news since evidence of water on Mars and of way more significance to how we think of life forming in the universe outside of our little wet marble.

Here’s a Curious Idiot™ rundown.

The ‘biosignatures’ that they have found evidence for is a gas called phosphine, or hydrogen phosphide, chemical formula PH3. Here on Earth we only know two ways it is produced; by micro-organisms living without oxygen, or by us in a lab.

How did they see a particular gas on a planet so far away? Well, I haven’t read the paper yet, but I’d guess with some form of spectroscopy. Planets, particularly those with an atmosphere, have an aura around them, a faint glow of light passing through that atmosphere. Some of the substances in the atmosphere will absorb different colours of light. We can analyse the data from that light to find what colours are present and what colours are absent. Those different colours, or the lack of them, act as signatures that can be used to figure out what gases are in that atmosphere. See the diagram for some pretty pictures helping to explain it.

A diagram with 4 panels explaining spectroscopy.

1) Light is a form of 'electromagetic radiation'. There is a picture of several blocks of light, going from red to yellow to orange to green to blue to purple. Visible light exists on a spectrum. Like a rainbow. The different colours indicate different 'wavelengths' of light.

2) When light hits something one of a few things can happen.

Red arrows (representing ways of light) hit a blue block of matter. One ray reflects off, one arrow passes through (transmission), one arrow gets stuck in the block (absorption), and one arrow passes through wonkily (scattering).

3) Scientists can then shoot light at lots of different things.

(picture of a red line going into a black circle and blue and purple lines coming out the other end)

And analyse the 'wavelengths' they see off the object in a graph like this...(a picture of a graph with lots of peaks and dips; this is the 'fingerprint' of a substance)

4) Those graphs become a signature, or fingerprint, for particular chemicals, elements or compounds.

A red line goes into the atmosphere (in light blue) of a planet (dark blue). It comes out the other side as green, blue, indigo and purple lines.

We can then use massive telescopes to see what wavelengths are absorbed by planets' atmospheres and see what they are made of - all the way from Earth!
Our lovely, wonderful, EXCLUSIVE We Lack Discipline diagram, with only the finest application of MS Paint!

After the first group to spot it picked their jaws up off the floor they swiftly asked others to verify it, because a discovery like this requires a massive amount of checking and verification before having a press conference to tell people there may be alien life on Venus.

But there also might not be. We have to be open to the possibility that this could all be a very coincidental cock-up. Mistakes happen and while rare, mistakes can happen multiple times in a row. There is a possibility this could be a mistake but from what I’ve snooped out so far I think this has been looked at behind the scenes, by many people, for a long time now. If it is a mistake it is the single biggest coincidental balls-up in science history.

There is a possibility that Venus’ incredibly hostile conditions are a perfect storm for creating a novel physical or chemical process that can produce phosphine in its atmosphere. For me not to get over-excited this is what I believe until we have more information. Venus is a remarkably hostile place. Imagine the Christian images of hell and then make it even more inhospitable, that’s Venus. We’re talking horizon-to-horizon grim and hostile volcanic rock, and an atmosphere around 100 times as dense as Earth’s that is acidic. Even though Venus spins on its axis very slowly, making one day on Venus equivalent to about 240 Earth days and leaving one side baking in the sun for longer, it does not have a hot side and a cold side. This is because its thick acid atmosphere is one massive, swirling, superheated vortex giving a nearly universal surface temperature of about 470°C. Venus is a crazy, rocky, acid oven. It is possible that something going on there that doesn’t happen here on Earth or anywhere else we’ve observed in the universe is causing the production of phosphine.

Of course the evidence we have collected here on Earth makes it a very likely explanation that Venus somehow houses some microscopic life that is breathing, respiring, in its volatile atmosphere and making this phosphine. If this is discovered to be true it would be the single most significant event in astronomical and biological history, and this is me saying that. They could tell me they found video of Elvis planting explosive in the World Trade Centre while George W. Bush filmed it and laughed and I’d just shrug and say that’s not unexpected. I don’t get excited by discoveries all that much because they often tend to only lead to decades of more questions. In this case, though, those questions are the hugest we would have ever asked and the answers could change the way we perceive life and our place in the universe. I’ve been waiting for this shit!

The only disappointing outcome is if this turns out to be a trick of the telescope or a mistake in the reading or a data anomaly. If it turns out there is phosphine but it’s a process and not life making it that’s still a remarkable discovery. In terms of geology it would teach us an unbelievable amount but I’m not rocks guy, I’m a life guy. In terms of biology it knocks our Earthbound ideas out of the park and gives us an idea that building blocks of life can and will be created in the most hostile of environments. It gives us hints as to how a volatile, volcanic early Earth may have found itself a perfect nursery for life. It teaches us that hurricanes, volcanoes, methane oceans, ethanol skies and champagne-shitting-supernovas can all find a way to become such a nursery.

If it turns out that there are micro-organisms on Venus – then fuck the flowery words, no exaggeration, no bullshit. Life changes. Not our lives. Life itself and our idea of it.

There are going to be a lot of crackpot stories doing the rounds. The initial story was leaked and then mistakes were made, in my opinion, with the handling after that. Rather than firmly take control there and then, the story was taken down. Not before being spread on places such as twitter and reddit, however. Now instead of smart, sensible people controlling the story there are going to be conspiracy nutters linking Venusian aliens with Sandy Hook and suggesting Trump was elected to fight them. I want to stress that most of what you will read will be bollocks.

So look, be excited. This is an incredible development whatever it means. Just don’t let the snivelling, shit-for-brains, gutter-snipes in the press or on internet boards and Twitter make you believe bullshit.

Remember the Curious Idiot™ ethos – The only thing we truly know is we don’t, actually, know anything much at all.

The stark facts are:

  1. We have detected gas on Venus that should only be there if there’s life, or a laboratory.
  2. We’re pretty sure there’s no laboratory.
  3. If that gas is there but there is no life it is being made by exciting new processes.
  4. If the gas is there and there is life it is probably tiny, airborne microbes.
  5. Nobody, of any gender or sexuality, will be Captain-Kirking it up and shagging any hot Venusians any time soon.
  6. Even if there were hot Venusians, if we went to Venus to try to shag them we’d be hard pressed to figure out if you would be cooked alive or choked on acid atmosphere first.
  7. Even if you did, in that short amount of time before you died, manage to have sex with a Venusian, you still wouldn’t be Captain-Kirking it, because you’d be in tremendous pain and dying – thus you couldn’t cum in peace.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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