We are not surprised to find life on Venus …

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… or are we?

Recently announced research suggests that there is life on Venus.

This research identified phosphine (PH3) in the atmosphere of Venus. According to the researchers, the only way to get phosphine is from life.

I might disagree, and here is why: We think of phosphine as only associated with life because we live on Earth, where there is lots of life, and that is where we find phosphine. There are a gazillian chemical compounds that no one thought would or could exist, or even imagined one might exist, that have been synthesized by chemists over the years. The synthesis of some of these compounds depended on the novel synthesis of other, earlier “discovered” compounds. The idea that no chemist will ever figure out how to synthesize phosphine without an organism being involved does not seem likely to me.

But, I’m not a chemist, and especially, I’m not Clara Sousa-Silva, who has devoted her entire research career to understanding phosphine and related problems. She is not a chemist either, but rather, a physicist, who specializes in analysis of extraterrestrial chemicals.

There may or may not be life on Venus, but there is plenty of science fiction set there.
So, is this going to be Mono Lake II, or an amazing new discovery? Only time will tell. I’m just adding this caveat: Since we live on a planet with life, and we see chemical signatures of life, but life is literally everywhere messing around with all the chemical processes, there might be a number of signatures of life that would still exist in life-free environments, but since we have no life free environments on Earth (to speak of) we are ignorant of that set of processes.

This is like the Enigma of Socrates. Socrates speaks. Socrates has two legs, not four. Therefore Socrates is a man, right? That logic would be hard to beat on a planet with no parrots. But on a planet with parrots, Socrates could be a parrot.

“Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus” with about 20 authors, in Nature Astronomy has no public or open source copy. The New York Times has it, but you will need a subscription to read that. Clara has a web site devoted to phosphine, here.

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9 thoughts on “We are not surprised to find life on Venus …

  1. Wouldn’t we be surprised to find life there simply because it would be the first example of extra terrestrial life? I know I’m oversimplifying, but I think the real question posed by the research is “Would we be surprised to find life there if the only thing we know is that there’s phosphine there?”

  2. Sounds like the ball is now in the chemists’ court, and the next step is for dozens of chemists to try to reproduce phosphine in Venus simulation chambers. This sounds exciting.

  3. Let me start with Haldane’s dictum: the universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.

    We know about extremophiles: microbes that live in hot springs; in acid; in Antarctica’s frozen lakes. Deinococcus radiodurans is known as a polyextremophile. It can survive cold, dehydration, vacuum, and acid — as well as an acute ionizing radiation dose of 5,000 Grays with almost no loss of viability. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the world’s toughest organism.

    So, two points:

    1. Those who rule out life on Venus because it would have had to evolve on the surface, and the surface is hot enough to melt lead, are forgetting something, and

    2. Per Haldane’s Dictum, chemical reactions cannot be ruled out.

    1. 1. Those who rule out life on Venus because it would have had to evolve on the surface, and the surface is hot enough to melt lead, are forgetting something,

      More than one something.

      Maybe the surface of Venus has not always been hot enough to melt lead.

      The combined explorations by the Soviet Venera and NASA Pioneer Venus missions have resulted in the finding of unexpected amounts of deuterium in the atmosphere compared to that of hydrogen which suggests that Venus has lost allot of water from its atmosphere. At a relatively early stage of its development, compared to Earth, enough water vapour in the atmosphere condensed to form a water world, which lasted for a couple of billion years to as recently as 700 million years ago.

      Where this is water there could be life, and evolved forms could be inhabiting the upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere (CO2 95%, N2 3.5%, Ar 0.006%, O2 0.003%), unlikely on the surface with temperatures of 480°C and pressures of 90 Earth atmospheres.


      ‘The Planets’ 2019, Professor Brian Cox , Andrew Cohen

      ‘Principles of Planetary Climate’ 2010, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert

  4. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Homo sapiens continues its mass assault on nature, obliterating life at an ever-increasing rate.

    Seriously, it is potentially exciting to find the rudiments of life within our own solar system, but It is impossible for me to escape the word ‘hypocrisy’, and the saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ at reading this news. Heck, we are living on a jewel of a planet, replete with life in its most amazing manifestations, and we are snuffing much of it out in the blink of a geological and even evolutionary eye. By contrast, paying little attention to the unfolding carnage here, some scientists jump up and down in excitement proclaiming that the most basic elements of life may exist in the Venusian atmosphere. This finding makes headlines across the world while our own veritable Eden burns.

    It is impossible for me to escape the irony.

    1. Which scientists are paying little attention to the unfolding carnage here? I know of many who are jumping up and down trying to get politicians to listen. Some of them are even astronomers. Scientists do not control what makes headlines.

    2. Jeffh, I agree. North America has lost 30% of its birds since 1970. Worldwide, more than two-thirds of more than 20,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have disappeared since 1970.

      And insects?

      “More than 40 per cent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5 per cent a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

      The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.”


  5. David, I am one of them. No, we don’t control what makes headlines. But the massive loss of biodiversity currently occurring across the biosphere should be etched into our collective consciences. Besides, what exactly controls what stories make the headlines? That should be obvious in the current neoliberal capitalist system where media ownership is concentrated among fewer and fewer billionaires and as a whole serves short-term elite interests. Many have written about the wretched state of our media so there is no need for me to expand upon that here.

    Again, it seems utterly ironic to me that many get excited over the potential – and it is nothing more than that right now – that there are the rudiments of life in the Venusian atmosphere while some of the same people give a collective yawn to the mass loss of biodiversity here on Earth. Politicians beholden to a morally, ethically and politically bankrupt neoliberal system are not going to listen, any more than the oligarchs who own the media will. By the time we confirm that there is life ‘out there’, our own existence as a species may be near its end. To reiterate, oh, the irony.

    1. No, we don’t control what makes headlines.

      News churn is responsible for the short termism that is creating the collective societal black hole of understanding what is being done to the planet. Case in point:

      The salmon, though it belongs only to the northern hemisphere, has always been a kind of barometer for the planet’s health. That is because anadromous fish – fish that live part of their life in freshwater lakes and rivers and part of it in the sea – offer a clear connection between marine and terrestrial ecology. Most of what we do on land ends up impacting the ocean, but with salmon we are able to see that connection more clearly.

      Our greatest assaults on the environment are visible in salmon. Complex as the problem of survival is for most fish, few species are faced with as many difficulties as salmon. This is partly because it is central to the “food web” (now that we understand the importance of biodiversity and the interdependence of species, this term has replaced the more familiar “food chain”) and partly because of a complicated life cycle that depends on both marine and inland habitat. In 2005, a group of scientists studying the survival prognosis for Pacific salmon concluded that 23% of all salmon stocks in the world were at moderate or high risk of complete extinction. For Atlantic salmon, the situation is even more desperate.

      Net loss: the high price of salmon farming

      The plight of the Pacific salmon was well highlighted by Carl Safina’s excellent ‘Song for the Blue Ocean’. The first five star rating by Melody speaks to the opening idea of this post:

      It was interesting and disheartening to be reading the section in Safina’s book about the Northwest’s salmon annihilation while seeing daily reports in the Oregonian which said basically the same thing, only worse. Where Safina held out some hope that if we acted quickly the salmon runs might be salvaged, my newspaper ten years on is much less sanguine.

      And, like Melody I urge that the fact that this book is over twenty years old should not be cause for not reading this book. Given the deteriorating situation with huge fires along the Pacific north west requiring copious quantities of water including the use of water with fire suppressant chemicals the plight of the salmon is probably way down the list of concerns.

      The dominoes are now falling.

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