Why Mars, anyway?

Some people love Mars. I am not one of them.

If you ask me what my favourite planet is, it’s definitely Saturn. It’s massive and floaty and has a huge set of gorgeous rings. Also, it swallowed an entire satellite, which is metal as fuck. Has Mars ever done that? Thought not. (Although landing on Mars is still pretty hard. Plenty of spacecraft have smashed onto its surface.)

A picture of a potato with a sad face
Not Mars. Credit: banger1977 on Flickr.

On the other hand, Mars is a rusty potato. It looks like an orange dot in the sky, and when you look at it through binoculars, it looks like a slightly bigger orange dot. At some point some Italian guy thought he saw lines on Mars, the English-speaking world decided that these were definitely canals built by aliens, and the whole thing turned out to be an optical illusion caused by looking through shitty tiny telescopes. I’m still convinced we spend so much time looking for life on Mars because the sci-fi books and the fucking canali convinced several generations of scientists that the best place to look for life was the cold, dusty potato and not, I don’t know, not one but two icy moons that might have gigantic undersea oceans.

Half the sphere of Europa, an icy white moon with red streaks over its surface
Europa is one of the four biggest moons of Jupiter and might harbour life in an undersea ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
An icy white moon
Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, has a thick icy shell that might harbour an undersea ocean. The moon is warm on the inside and plumes from the ocean occasionally splurt out through the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.







Oh, well. Dusty potato it is.

While I was trying to figure out why the dusty potato is so fascinating to people, I learned some really interesting things, and decided to plop them in this post.

I should stress that for my day job I am a historian of science. I talk to people to figure out how they felt and what they knew about science when they were doing their research (spoiler alert: I have talked to literal professors who emphasise that compared to astronomy in 2020, back in the 1970s we pretty much knew shit all about things in space compared to what we know today). I don’t work backwards from the present day, which is what I’m going to do in this post. Working backwards from the present day and assuming that people in the past had the same knowledge and beliefs we do today is called “presentism”, and it’s widely regarded by historians as a Very Bad Thing.

However, this is not my day job. In my day job I have to write history accurately, say nice things about Mars because everyone loves it, and avoid swearing. This is We Lack Discipline, where it’s okay to say fuck, slag off the Red Planet and make weird historical arguments for the sake of explaining why Mars is more interesting than it might look.

So, why is Mars interesting anyway?

People have been looking at Mars for at least 4,000 years – we have records from Ancient Egypt! So we know that people have been interested in it for thousands of years, because the sky is actually pretty cool. (Also, people had to work a lot harder to amuse themselves before radio, cinemas and TV came along.)

Traditionally, ancient civilisations identified the Red Planet with fire or war because it’s…well, red. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians and later the Babylonians identified Mars with their god of war, Nergal. The Greeks cribbed their astronomy from the Babylonians and decided that Mars was actually their war god, Ares. The Romans cribbed even more from the Greeks and decided that the red dot in the sky was stella Maris, the star of Mars (Ares’ Roman counterpart). That’s how the Red Planet got its name.

Ancient astronomers noticed that Mars has what’s now called “apparent retrograde motion” – in simpler words, it goes backwards. Most Ancient Greek and Roman astronomers thought that everything revolved around the Earth – after all, the Sun and the Moon look like they go around the Earth. In their minds, so should everything else. So Mars going backward was a real problem for them.

A yellow circle representing Mars moves against a black sky
The retrograde motion of Mars in 2020. Credit: Tomruen.

In the 3rd century BCE, they thought they’d solved it. A mathematician called Apollonius of Perga worked out that you could describe the backwards motion in terms of deferents and epicycles – planets doing complicated, loop-the-loop orbits around Earth. 500 years later, the astronomer Ptolemy refined Apollonius’s ideas and presented them in a book called the Almagest, which basically translates as “the greatest thing”. To be fair, the Almagest was pretty great – it influenced Western astronomy for 14 centuries! It turned out that epicycles worked really well, too…at least for a while.

Some small black circles looping around a big black circle
A basic diagram of the system of deferents and epicycles. The deferent is the big circle in the middle. The epicycles are the little circles on the edge of the big circle. When you trace out the path of the epicycle, you end up with a loop-the-loop motion.

By the 16th century, astronomers could measure the position of Mars more accurately, but matching up Ptolemy’s theories with their observations caused problems. To explain why planets seemed to move faster or slower at certain times of the year, they had to add in an “equant” – an imaginary point where planets looked like they had a uniform speed. Nicolaus Copernicus was so irritated by the equant that it was probably one of the reasons he developed a model where all planets revolved around the Sun! He still kept the epicycles, though.

You’d think the problems stopped there, right? Wrong. Planets going loop-the-loop around the Sun in circles…did not actually solve that many of the problems. At all. To get rid of the epicycles would take an even bigger change.

About half a century after Copernicus, a German astronomer called Johannes Kepler was poring over the observations of Mars made by Tycho Brahe. At the time, these were the most accurate observations in the Western world – like getting stuff from the best telescopes in the world today.

The observations of Mars didn’t match up with Copernicus’s epicycles, and Kepler had to add the equant back in. Even then, Copernicus’s system didn’t work.

Was Kepler going to have to go back to geocentrism – to the Sun orbiting the Earth? For fancy maths reasons, you can just keep adding epicycles and equants to an orbit and you’ll eventually be able to approximate it. You just had to add on more and more. And to people who liked geocentrism, that might have made sense. But Kepler was also a passionate heliocentrist – he was really, really invested in the idea of the Earth orbiting the Sun. As a young student, he’d defended it on both theoretical and religious grounds. His pre-existing preferences shaped what he did and the science that came after him.

So he kept the Earth orbiting the Sun, and got rid of equants, epicycles and circular orbits.

What was his big idea?


It turns out that when you argue that planets move around in ellipses rather than looping circles, it works much better. (To be fair, they’re not very stretched-out ellipses. They are nearly circular. Easy mistake to make when telescopes have basically only just been invented.) It took a while for Kepler’s ideas to catch on, but they got a huge boost from astronomical observations and from Kepler’s ideas being incorporated into one of the most popular textbooks of the time.

Yeah, maybe Mars is just a tiny dusty potato, but it’s a tiny dusty potato that changed the world and led to us re-evaluating our place in the Universe – literally!

Space: What’s the F***ing Point?!

I get it, you’re too wrapped up in work, school, what’s on TV, that latest videogame and you wonder quite what the hell the interest in space is. It’s massive, it’s far away and it seems it barely interacts with you at all.

It has got to the stage where even something as big, bright, beautiful and obvious as the bloody moon needs to have marketing terms applied to it to make people give a shit. It isn’t enough to actually see a moon, just have a look, and appreciate it and the differences. No, we need to advertise the SuperWolf Strawberry Milkshake Blood Moon – claiming it’s named after some aboriginal hunter-gatherer tradition and soon it’ll be brought to you by McDonalds.

An image of the full Moon
Is this a blue Moon? A green Moon? A supermoon? A not-so-super-actually-quite-meh Moon? Whatever! It’s cool!

I was one of you, too. I didn’t care about looking at space. Sure, I’d spot a few things whilst out and about, here and there. I just didn’t really care. It was a conversation with Osnat about what I could potentially contribute to Popular Astronomy magazine that got me into it. What I wanted to do, in a hobby full of old, male, pervy nerds throwing stupid sums of money around on telescopes and lenses that cost hundreds or thousands of pounds, was tell the regular, 13-45 year old, person, no matter who they are, on the street how they could enjoy space for free, or for little money.

There is no doubt that a good set of binoculars, or even a decent telescope, can show you a lot more than you can ever see with the naked eye. But people, especially people who live in the light-polluted urban sprawl, will be surprised the difference a dark sky can make.

With the naked eye at least four of the planets in our solar system are easily visible (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.) There are a potentially another three in Mercury, Uranus and Neptune but they are incredibly faint or appear at stupid-bastard-o-clock.

With the naked eye I have seen the Orion Nebula (on the sword off Orion’s Belt…Kind of look where his knob should be for what looks like a star with a spunky mist around it).

You can, obviously, see the moon but if you see a moon at less-than-full you may even catch some Earthshine. This is where light reflected off the Earth illuminates the dark area of the Moon slightly. You can see the galactic core of the Milky Way – the cloudy, dense, fuzzy chasm across the sky that gives our galaxy its name.

You can see clusters, like the star nursery of The Pleiades – otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, an amazing sight that looks like a tiny version of the Big Dipper.

Several bluish-white stars on a black background
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. There are way more than seven of them.

You can see amazing stars like the dazzling rainbow jewel of Sirius (actually two stars, but you can’t see the separation with the naked eye) and the massive, red Betelgeuse which caused a lot of buzz in 2019/2020 as speculation rose about whether or not it would go supernova.

You can even see our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda – a galaxy ours loves so much they are rapidly moving together for a kiss in about 4.5 billion years’ time.

The Andromeda Galaxy - an elliptical galaxy, tilted on its side on a black background. Purple and red swirls of dust are on the outer edges of the galaxy. The galactic centre is a murky white.
The Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour (and getting closer all the time).

That’s just the highlights of the obvious stuff, as well. There are other nebulae, clusters, galaxies, objects, comets, meteors, satellites, random shiny objects, stuff that seems to appear and disappear at will and possibly aliens – although there have been, as yet, zero confirmed alien sightings by amateur astronomers – all visible with the naked-eye.

So why not go observing? What’s stopping you? This ain’t trainspotting, people! You don’t have to don your anorak and notebook and go nerd it up. You can take a bivvy tent and a few cans of beer and sit on top of a hill chilling with your mates. Although I am obliged to suggest you drink responsibly, it is at your own risk if you choose not to drink responsibly and end up inventing your own constellations shaped like cocks. If you’re a real criminal scumbag you could do something else that We Lack Discipline is legally obliged to suggest they do not recommend or endorse and take some dope, do some magic mushrooms and sit down a really dark beach gazing up at the stars and listening to the gentle hush of waves tripping yourself all the way to another damn galaxy.

That’s the other great thing about observing. Do it your way. Do what you bloody well want. If you want to hang around a bunch of 50-year-olds with red lamps and notebooks, spouting coordinates and magnitude numbers like it means something, you do it. If you want to get tipsy, screw on a beach and then gaze in post-cum clarity at a few constellations do that as well. The Earth is big, space is bigger and there’s plenty of room for everyone at its table.

Why, though? Well to me that’s obvious. Whether you want to believe it or not we’re connected to everything out there. I’m sure the dinosaurs at one point thought “What’s the point in space? I just want to eat, shit and bang!” and then a giant hunk of rock from space turned the Yucatan into a bowl and I bet they wished they had the ability to gaze up and go “Ooh! What the fuck’s that! Maybe we should prepare for this!?”

The sun sometimes flares, messing with your mobile signals and wi-fi. The moon is sometimes dazzling white and sometimes red and that’s because stuff is happening. Comets appear and disappear as transient visitors and one day one of them may eviscerate itself in our atmosphere and you’ll be a lot less scared if you know it’s coming. We are inhabitants of this universe and it’s good to know what’s going on.

Space doesn’t belong to anyone. No nation owns it, no school owns it, no elite group owns it. Sure the stuff up there has names and designations, but so do the birds of paradise and if you saw them without knowing their Latin binomial you’d still think they were fucking beautiful.

I’m a working class guy with a middle-class brain. I never loved school, I didn’t appreciate the rules and the structure didn’t fit me, but the stuff – the things you can learn – that is something I loved. I reckon most other people are the same. There’s a stigma where I come from for being clever. You get called a boffin, a nerd, you get picked on and bullied, as you get older you get accused of being above your station or forgetting where you came from. The more you know the more alienated you feel and yet, because you’re like me and grew up with ‘fuck’ as more of a form of punctuation than a word, you don’t fit in with the people who do like it and do care about it.

I’m here to say “fuck that!” I want to see MDMA fuelled stargazing beach parties. I want to see kids being grumpy in the streets because they were up past midnight gazing at the stars with mum and dad. I want to see hoody-donning delinquents on housing estates saying “Mate, that ain’t a star you fucking idiot – that’s Jupiter!” I want to make it acceptable for people to know stuff.

Knowledge is power, always has been and always will be. Amongst humans, that’s as permanent a fixture as the stars and planets shining, orbiting, twinkling, shooting, exploding and rotating in our skies. There was a time when every beer-swilling, nut-scratching, blue-collar family dreamed of their kids growing up to be astronauts. I’m bringing those days back.

What’s the point in space? It doesn’t need one, just like you. Space is just fucking cool, fight me.

Top Ten Venus Memes

It’s been floating around on the internet for a couple of days, and floating around even longer around astronomers, but it’s official: there’s weird shit on Venus and, on Earth, that weird shit is mostly made by things that are alive.

Does that mean there are aliens on Venus? No, not quite. The weird shit could be made by chemistry we don’t know about. We’re totally rooting for aliens, though.

Of course, this is a mind-blowing announcement, made during the hell year when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, infections are spiking, and various parts of the world are actually on fire right now. So how do we parse the news of weird shit on Venus? Through memes, of course. And we at We Lack Discipline are here to curate the finest of them for your viewing pleasure.

(Also, content is king and the way the internet works encourages more content, always, but that’s another story…)

Honourable Mention

An image of a smiling white man with wild brown hair. He is gesturing with his hands. The bottom text reads "aliens".

This guy. This fucking guy. If it exists, he thinks aliens did it. Pyramids? Aliens. Religion? Aliens. Kettles? You guessed it, aliens. He gets his one tolerable moment when we actually get hyped about aliens and weird Venusian shit.

10: Happy Little Microbes

This is a nice meme to ease into the alien hype. Bonus points for Bob Ross.

9: Disturbing Microbes on Venus

Poor, poor Venusian microbes. They already live in clouds of sulfuric acid. Now the Earthlings are on to them.

8: The Search for Life on…Venus?


After centuries of Mars hogging the spotlight, is Venus going to get some attention? We hope so.

7: New Information

Everyone is interested in phosphine right now.

6: And That Means…

Venus is everywhere. Sorry, no getting away from it!

5: Hello, Am Phosphine

The not-so-new chemical on the block didn’t quite come out of nowhere, but it sure seems like it.

4: The Meme Trifecta

Enjoy this trifecta of fresh, home-made memes. Mmm.

3: We Found Phosphine on Venus…

…and this is what the headlines did.

2: Friendship Ended With Mars

Now Venus is everyone’s best friend. Awww.

1: This is Fine

This is it. The best meme, as judged by a definite expert and not just a lazy grad student bashing out a listicle in between conference sessions…oh wait. No, I am not an expert. But this is definitely the meme I liked best. Life on Venus, if it exists, is totally just chilling out.

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.