Well, it’s been 6 months since I’ve posted and I’ll spare you the obligatory excuses of the Pandemic and various other things that I will just group under the heading of “life”. And speaking of “life”…
Sorry for that lame segue but I couldn’t resist:)
On September 14th, I was travelling the Northern Highway with a friend who was happy to do the driving when I noticed some incoming texts and email from friends and fellow members of the space community. And because being relentlessly curious is a standard requirement of space enthusiast membership ,I was willing to blow the data on my phone ( we weren’t anywhere near wifi) to find out. And I wasn’t disappointed!
The Internet was abuzz with the exciting news that a team of scientists at MIT and Cardiff University had detected a biosignature in the atmosphere of Venus that could potentially indicate the existence of life. The gas, phosphine, is generally only produced by organic life—-the emphasis being on the word “generally” and “life” in quotation marks. These are two qualifying distinctions that likely kept this still very exciting news from blazing across the mainstream headlines and instead, confined to online alerts. articles and newsletters aimed at space enthusiasts like me. After all —as I have said numerous times on this blog–“life” is an extremely broad term. And , as far as the general public is concerned, it is hard to get excited about a bio signature in the clouds. Case in point: when I told my 10 year old granddaughter who has a budding interest in astronomy and space exploration—she became very animated and excited and predictably—demanded to know what “they ” look like! That is when I had to explain that, at least as far as we know at this point, it’s a matter of “it” and not “they”.. Her excitement diminished rapidly and visibly, like the air being let out of a balloon.
Like most of the general public, my granddaughter is a Mars fan, a planet which she plans to visit some day and who know? She just might do that, although I am told by her mother ( my daughter) that if she ever actually becomes as astronaut, I will not be easily forgiven.
Unlike Mars, Venus has never captured the imagination of the the public as a place that might harbour life. And for good reason. With surface temperatures that average 461 degrees Celsius , surrounded by toxic clouds of sulfuric acid and a blistering surface that NASA describes as a “hellish wasteland” , Venus has never seemed hospitable to life –and here comes that pesky qualifier again —at least not life as we know it.
So back to the discovery of the phosphine in the clouds that surround Venus–a region that scientists tell us is actually quite temperate. So, although nothing that we know of could survive on the surface a planet that is hotter than the metaphorical fires of hell, the cloud shrouded atmosphere of Venus does contain other things that astrobiologists feel are necessary for the development of life such as an energy source ( the sun ) and liquid—-albeit liquid sulfuric acid.
“Living rain” is what Voxx interviewer, Brian Resnick, calls it during an interview with MIT astrophysicist, planetary scientist and leading exoplanet researcher, Sara Seager. She agrees with his metaphorical description of the potential microbial life but is quick to point out that a bio signature lone does not guarantee the existence of life.
“We aren’t claiming to have found life.” she says. “We are claiming we have a robust detection of phosphine in the atmosphere. ” And although phosphine ( which is reported to be quite foul smelling, by the way) is generally produced by organic life, it could also be produced by some unknown Venusian chemistry that we don’t yet understand. In other words–and this applies to all aspects of the search for life elsewhere in the Universe–we don’t know what we don’t know.
However, Seager points out that her team did an exhaustive search through all the known chemistry that could have produced more than the tiniest amount of phosphine, Which leaves only two possibilities for the source; ” The gas was produced by life or by some sort of chemical interaction scientists don’t yet know about.”
This margin of doubt doesn’t lessen the importance and impact of the discovery. Although you are not likely to be reading about this on the cover of Time magazine any time soon –the implications of even possible life on the 2nd planet to the Sun and our next door neighbour in the Solar System ( technically closer to us than Mars ) are staggering !
IN 2013, Sara Seager was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada which was hosted by the Thunder Bay chapter here in my home town. Anyone who has any familiarity with space science, astronomy and the search for exoplanets and other worlds beyond our own knows that Sara is a rock star in this field. Having her as our keynote speaker was quite a catch for our small Northwestern Ontario city. Our members were all doing double duty as volunteers for the week long event and I was honoured to be able to billot Sara in my home for the 2 days she was here , as well as take her around to conference events in addition to my other duties. I was initially intimidated by her obvious brilliance, intensity, and stellar reputation ( excuse the pun ) in the science community. But she was gracious and giving of her time as we bonded over a mutual interest in the societal implications of the discovery of life beyond our planet —my interest honed in on the specific impact of such a discovery on the religious dogma of faith communities . So it was over a cup of tea and a late night conversation at my kitchen table that the concept of this blog was born. . And also the title “The Awakening” —as Sara pointed out that an Awakening of sorts will be required for world religions and believers to process this new information into their world view. Sara’s passion and dedication to the scientific exploration of the thousands of other planets that we now know are out there and her understanding of the ethics of bringing the news of any discovery of life , especially sentient life, to the world, continue to inspire me personally and professionally. In other words and in more common vernacular: this is big stuff and she gets it!
- You can read more about Sara’s influence and inspiration for this blog if you go back to the opening introduction on the website and the acknowledgements at the end of the intro.
I’ll leave you with Sara’s words when she responds to the Resnick’s question as to what it would mean to find life on Venus: ( and this is vey much what I would expect from the brilliant but thoughtful young scientist who sat across from me at my kitchen table on a fateful summer night} ” I think that it would mean that , if there is life there, is has to be so different from life on earth and that could show that it had a unique origin. It would give us confidence that life could originate anywhere. And that would mean that our galaxy would be teeming with life. ”
Would love to know your thoughts.