So, About this Life on Venus Thing — What Did We Really Find, and What Does it Mean?
We’re all exhausted, but at least there’s something to give us some buzz: The potential discovery of life on Venus of all planets.
So, what did scientists actually find, is it proof of life, and what does it all mean?
What is Phosphine?
So, the specific substance that was discovered in Venus’ cloud decks is called phosphine (PH3).
Phosphine is highly toxic, and flammable. It’s a decay product of phosphates, and is thus naturally generated by the decomposition of organic matter. It can also be created in the lab, generally by reacting white phosphorus with sodium or potassium hydroxide. This requires a significant amount of heat.
The primary use of phosphine is as a fumigant, although pests are becoming resistant to it. In humans, phosphine exposure can cause symptoms similar to stomach flu as well as difficulty breathing, muscle aches, chills and sometimes pulmonary edema. It has been known to cause death. Phosphine itself is odorless, but the processes that generate it smell like decaying fish or garlic.
How did Phosphine Show Up on Venus?
This is the billion-dollar question!
Phosphine occurs at very low levels in the atmosphere of Earth, as an organic byproduct. It is most associated with anaerobic biology…that is to say those lifeforms which manage without oxygen (and to whom oxygen is often toxic), and is found around marshes and swamps.
The other place we’ve found it is the atmosphere of Jupiter, where it appears to be being created by the tremendous energy of planet-sized storms.
On Venus, we’ve found it in the atmosphere at about a height of 30 miles. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the area of Venus that has conditions most similar…to Earth.
So, does this mean life? Maybe! Phosphine is considered a biosignature because we know of no chemical process that can create it in conditions other than, well, Jupiter-sized gas giants.
However, Venus’ atmosphere is so different chemically that it’s possible some form of exotic chemistry we have not yet encountered is responsible. Scientists now get to try desperately to prove that.
We can’t responsibly say it’s life until we have eliminated all other possibilities. What we can say is that this is exciting even if it isn’t life, because it means there’s something we don’t know. For somebody who loves science, that’s always awesome.
I love when humanity is wrong because that’s when we learn stuff.
So, What Does this Mean?
What does it mean? If we do confirm life on Venus, how does that change life on Earth?
For some people, it might be profoundly disturbing to know, for sure, that Earth is not a unique haven of life.
For others, like me, it’s kind of a duh. I didn’t expect Venus, but the chances of Earth being the only planet with life on it? Ridiculous.
I suspect the first widespread reaction thus is going to be a ton of internet arguments between the ra ra aliens crowd and the people who are going to try and deny this. Sigh.
One thing to consider: It’s highly unlikely that the life on Venus is intelligent and technological. It could be nothing more than cloud-dwelling microbes, a hangover from when Venus was more hospitable in the past.
We could also be seeing something like cloud-dwelling jellyfish or cephalopods. If these creatures live in the clouds and never touch down, then their evolution would be similar to ocean dwellers, and it’s my feeling and opinion that may lead to intelligence, but not technology. Dolphins don’t use much in the way of tools because they don’t need to.
The biggest change would be philosophical. And, of course, one other thing:
The discovery of life in Venus’ clouds would render the idea of terraforming completely unethical. To create a world suitable for us we would have to destroy theirs. And we will have to discuss whether Venus should be a closed preserve.
Or, will we find that what is on Venus is something we can live and coexist with? Derek Kunsken’s novel The House of Styx, serialized in Analog and I believe available later this year, provides a beautiful description of how humans might live in the clouds of Venus.
If there’s already life there, then that changes how we might deal with Venus. And tests us as a species in a way we have consistently, so far, failed.
Can we do right by Earth’s sister when we can’t do right by the planet we live on? I don’t know.
But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it to be real and true, because it so greatly increases the chance that somewhere else in this universe there really are other beings capable of experiencing joy.