Episode 9: Phosphine? In Venus’s Atmosphere? It’s More Likely Than You Think
Image: “This global view of the surface of Venus is centered at 180 degrees east longitude. Magellan synthetic aperture radar mosaics from the first cycle of Magellan mapping are mapped onto a computer-simulated globe to create this image. Data gaps are filled with Pioneer Venus Orbiter data, or a constant mid-range value. Simulated color is used to enhance small-scale structure. The simulated hues are based on color images recorded by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 spacecraft. The image was produced by the Solar System Visualization project and the Magellan science team at the JPL Multimission Image Processing Laboratory and is a single frame from a video released at the October 29, 1991, JPL news conference.” (Source: NASA)
This episode is available from our podcast host here: Episode 9
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- “Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus” (Nature, September 2020)
Charles: Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
Tessa: And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
Charles: And today we have an unprecedented, uh, three different guests. And so I was going to propose that we do introductions with queer discussion group roles, where each person says name, pronouns, research, background, and, uh, answers our icebreaker question: If you could date an alien, which one would it be? You can interpret that any way you like. We can start. So I’m Charles. He/him, background in entomology and systematics. If I could date an alien. Do you know what? This is actually a difficult question. I think…
Ashley: This is your question!
Charles: I know. Um, I think I would probably go Odo because I think he would get me and being a shapeshifter would be fun.
And he had that really weird scene with Kira where he liked became a transcendent mist. And that’s interesting. Okay, Tessa.
Tessa: My name is Tessa Fisher. She, her hers, my background is primarily in astrobiology and specifically developing biosignatures for exoplanets, which is going to be very relevant. to Today’s discussion on phosphine on Munis and it’s a little bit cliche, but I would probably go with Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect, just because she is such a pure sweet flower who can also skin you alive with her mind. So, you know, that’s interesting.
Whitney: Hi, I’m Whitney Powers. I use she, her pronouns. My research is on modeling the atmospheres of gas giant planets. So stuff that’s Jupiter sized… that could be exoplanets, could be Jupiter.
And then for which aliens I would date, um, I found this a giant book about UFO contact from the Pleides by my dumpster, awhile back. And they sound pretty chill. Like they’re just like friendly aliens who just like show up and say hi to a Swiss farmer. That sounds like a nice life.
Charles: That’s fantastic. Ashley. Uh, how about you go.
Ashley: Uh, I am a… What am I? I do science. There you go. Yeah. I am a machine learning researcher and astrophysicist. Um, I primarily work at the moment on a autonomous model for classifying the shapes of galaxies. Um, without any prior. Uh, like the labeled training data, I use she, her pronouns.
Um, and if I could date an alien, I would probably go for Catra from She-Ra.
Tessa: Oh, good choice.
Ashley: She soft and she cute.
Charles: She’s got those cat ears.
Charles: Um, and Evan.
Evan: Hi, my name is Evan Sneed. I’m a post-bac researcher in astrobiology. That’s actually how I know Tessa. I do research on planetary atmospheres on the Rocky side. So not looking at gas giants, but a little smaller, Earth and Venus.
He/they pronouns. If I had to choose… I think there’s something kind of special about those Camino ins, you know, the, the clone trader, the cloners. Yo, I don’t know. There’s, there’s something about ’em.
Charles: I’d say when I was a kid, I wanted to be one of those guys so bad.
Evan: They just have that, that grace,
Charles: They’ve got a good look.
Well, these were all fantastic answers. I’m really pleased with that. And so I guess as an introduction, we have gathered you all here today, a council of five, well, really a council for, and then me, to talk about the recent reveal to the public of the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s. Atmosphere… clouds? Area. For anybody who is like me doesn’t know anything about planning or space or atmospheres or chemistry, or really anything except for how to identify flies – Why is this significant? And as if you were describing it to a curious but ignorant ten-year-old what does this actually.
Tessa: Phosphine is an interesting gas… smells kind of funky. And it’s interesting because on earth it’s extremely difficult to make, unless you have biology involved, unless you have some sort of biological process manufacturing.
It, it is not produced in any real quantity, just through blind chemical reactions happening in our atmosphere. And the reason everybody got very excited about Venus was because of this fact, and also because of what we know of the sort of chemical reactions that happen in Venus’s atmosphere, which admittedly is still not as understood as well as we would like.
It would also be extremely difficult to produce phosphine gas, just, you know, again, through happenstance and a bunch of atoms for just running into each other, especially since a major component of phosphine, in fact three fourths of the molecule is hydrogen and Venus is very, very poor in hydrogen. Basically we have a molecule here, which on earth is pretty much exclusively generated by biology, occurring in an atmosphere where we shouldn’t really see it based off we do know of the planets atmospheric chemistry.
And while we don’t know for sure if it’s produced by biology again, there’s a lot, we don’t know about the chemistry of Venus and there are some obstacles to stuff living there, which we will get to. It’s very suggestive. That something very strange is going on.
Charles: Sure. So… why wouldn’t we have seen this before?
Ashley: This is actually one of my favorite things about this whole story. We haven’t seen it because we haven’t looked for it. This is one of the, the first time in a while in astronomy that a discovery like this has been, hasn’t been like serendipitous. A group of scientists sat down, worked.
out that phosphine would be an interesting bio tracer and then went to some telescopes to look for it and then found it. Whereas quite often in exoplanet research and astronomy in general nowadays it’s, well, we pointed a telescope at a sky for six weeks and this weird thing appeared, and now we’ve got to work out what it is.
So this was, this was like, kind of back to the roots in the scientific method. Someone had a hypothesis and they tested it and it worked out
Charles: That’s actually fascinating to me from a philosophy of science perspective, astronomy often gets brought upside alongside like taxonomy as being a primarily observational discipline.
And thus, is it actually science? Are you actually testing things to the demonstration of hypothesis? Testing in astronomy is very interesting to me. Maybe not to other people. Have we found phosphine gas elsewhere?
Ashley: Yes. Um, I asked this on Twitter. I was like, why aren’t we looking at Jupiter and Saturn? And apparently phosphine has been found on Jupiter and satin, but it’s not as interesting because they have a lot more hydrogen in their atmospheres than Earth or Venus do.
Tessa: And my understanding is also in sort of the really deep layers of the atmospheres of Saturn and Jupiter thermodynamically. It’s a lot, lot, lot easier to produce phosphine than it is on earth or presumably on Venus.
Whitney: That’s, that’s my understanding as well. Another thing about why we didn’t detect this earlier is in part because of the telescopes we’ve had available, this discovery really relies heavily on Alma, which is an array of radio telescopes down in the Atacama desert.
And it’s, it’s been around for awhile, but it’s relatively new and they used another telescope, but the detection with that one was far more marginal.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. The other telescope for the record was the James Clark Maxwell Telescope in Hawai’i.
Charles: That definitely means something to me. Absolutely.
Evan: So the thing about this is that we are developing this technique as we speak, and so looking at Venus using Alma and this, uh, James Clerk telescope, this was a benchmark to see whether this was actually, this technique is something that we could use to look at exoplanets, to look for phosphine and we ended up just figuring out that there was phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere accidentally… that wasn’t the whole point of looking at Venus in the first place, it was just kind of a test, but when this group ended up finding it, that’s what ended up leading to this multi-year saga, uh, of trying to figure out is this actually phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere.
Charles: Hmm. Well, that actually leads to the other question that I was going to ask, which is if somebody could describe the methods and the actual practical work of how these discoveries are made. Specifically how phosphine was found on Venus, but also maybe in general, how people figure out what is actually in the atmospheres of places that we absolutely physically can’t get to.
Whitney: In this case, we were doing this through spectroscopy at radio wavelength or millimeter wavelengths, I believe. Um, and so what, what they did is they looked at a spectrum of light coming from Venus, and they noticed that there is a dip that corresponds to the wavelength of light that phosphine absorbs one of, one of many wavelengths of light that, that this molecule absorbs. There’s a, it’s a lot more complicated than that and the data, how you actually get from an observation to a measurement. And then a detection is very complicated and it’s the sort of thing you can spend an entire PhD on. Um, and that’s not something I have really much expertise in at all.
Charles: Do either of you, Evan or Ashley, or Tessa, have more experience in that area?
Evan: So my experience generally is not in the radio, although some of us astrobiologists are starting to get more into SETI research. And then some of that is more on the radio, the overall process of spectroscopy, where you look for the absorption lines look and see, as you send a signal out or, or you, you look at a signal and then you look at what lines that you expect should be there that aren’t actually there. That’s the exact same thing that we would do in optical astronomy or infrared astronomy or any other type of astronomy when we would look at, for example, exoplanets.
Ashley: Um, and looking at galaxies, which are significantly further away, but looking at emission line spectra and absorption line spectra is, is the pedigree of astronomy really going, going back to even before sort of 1910 spectra was being used to, to measure the properties of chemicals that show up in, in both the atmospheres of stars and then nebulae and planets.
Um, I think one really interesting thing about this result in particular is I, I’m not sure if it’s the case with Alma, but definitely for JCMT, Venus is the brightest object that telescope has ever been pointed at. JCMT is, is used to, um, my secondary supervisor at, during my PhD, um, did a lot of work on JCMT and lovingly called his past research blob counting, because you are just looking for amorphous blobs fields in, in the submillimeter range, the 5 billion light years away. So these aren’t very bright objects it’s used to pointing at. And this was a problem with Venus because it was actually so bright that the reflections from the internal optics of the spectrograph confused the signal. So there was a bunch of like secondary reflections all the way through the telescope, to the detector, which normally you wouldn’t have to deal with.
Charles: That’s fascinating. Yeah. I will say this all made. I think some of the hesitation, and maybe this is just me projecting, it may have been just like, well, duh, spectroscopy, but if I am any gauge for other people, people don’t know that.
Certainly not other entomologists, I would guess. And if there’s anybody I’m trying to get to listen to this podcast, it’s entomologists… and other people, I guess, and whatever, so, okay. So we’ve established how it happened, why it happened, why it’s significant. In the reporting of this, that any of you have seen, do you think people are missing anything really important? And I know that’s a very vague question…
Ashley: Well, it’s probably not aliens.
Charles: [begrudgingly] Okay.
Ashley: I hate to burst anyone’s bubble.
Whitney: Yeah. Unfortunately… this it’s a cool discovery and it would be incredibly cool if it was some form of life, but there’s just so much, we don’t know about Venus. And there’s so much, we don’t know about the chemistry that might exist regardless. We found something really interesting, probably not life. Sorry.
Evan: And even on top of that, phosphine is not something that in terms of fairly simple molecules, phosphine is not something that we have a whole lot of information about. And the reason for that largely is that for all of us that are oxygen breathers,
Charles: Which as far as we know, is everybody on this call.
Evan: I’m pretty sure
Charles: As far as we know.
Evan: Phosphine is actually an incredibly toxic and a lot of the times it’s actually used as a fumigant and for rodenticide on earth, phosphine is not something that you want to have around if you are generally complex life. And so our understanding of it, it’s dangerous to work with, it’s dangerous to research. We have some information on it, but it’s not, we don’t have as much, we don’t have as much understanding of it compared to some of the other biosignatures that we would think we would see.
Charles: We have an answer for why we don’t know a lot about phosphine, which is that it could kill any of us. But it’s, it’s interesting to me that we don’t know more about Venus. Is there a reason for that?
Ashley: Oh, I know why this, I know why this is.
Ashley: This, this two reasons, um, one of them is political and one of them is scientific.
Ashley: Yeah, so the, the political is the often the Moonlight. Um, and as the, well, even during the race for the moon landing, um, NASA and Roscosmos were battling to land on planets as well.
NASA did really, really well at landing on Mars and Russia did not…
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. Eventually. Yes. And the land does that when two Venus were all done by Russia, I don’t think there’s any other country that’s actually successfully landed something on the surface of Venus. Um, and nothing has been there since the mid eighties.
And so that that’s the political side of it. Like Russia was the main country interested in going to Venus and they stopped doing it because the Soviet union collapsed.
Charles: I was really hoping I was going to be able to back you into acknowledging that there is life on Venus, and then we didn’t go there because we have a bad relationship with them.
Ashley: Uh huh. Yeah. Uh it’s you know, the Venetians there.
Tessa: Very prickly folk.
Charles: They’re so rude. Okay. So the other reason.
Ashley: So the, the scientific reason, yeah, is Venus is a hell hole, the Venus is literally the worst kind of planet. You could send a robotic Explorer to.
Charles: That’s really not going to help… That’s really not going to help our diplomacy.
Ashley: The, the land does that did make it to the surface of Venus. Uh, most of them, it only lasted like at most half an hour. The full, uh, all of their circuitry was eaten, eaten away by the acidic atmosphere. One of my favorite stories is one of the earlier Proverbs. I had a surface, so it had a little detector on a stick to detect what the, um, what the ground was made of.
And after the Lander landed it sent some photos back and then it deployed his little surface monitor. And the Russians got back a really weird result because it seemed like the ground was made of plastic. And what had happened was the lens caps from the camera had popped off, landed on the ground. Exactly where the surface probe was meant to go.
Charles: I mean, that would have been a really strong bio marker in its own way.
Whitney: Oh, so I, so while you were talking, I, I did a little reading on Wikipedia and the United States did send one. Lander to Venus it made it to the surface and lasted about 45 minutes before it was killed by
Ashley: good job. Just being venous and incorrect,
Whitney: probably in hospitable place.
Charles: That’s fascinating… Well, that’s fascinating, but is there a reason we haven’t done more distance research on it?
Ashley: Mars is more interesting… at least that like that that’s been the thing in terms of, um, I don’t know if anyone had a chance to watch the BBC sky at night special on this discovery. Um, but the, uh, the lead research, uh, spoke quite candidly about how difficult it was to get funding and telescope time for this project. And when it comes to planetary science in our own solar system, people are a lot more interested in Mars than they are in Venus.
Charles: Is part of that greater interest in Mars, connected to the idea that we can more easily get there?
Whitney: In part, if I recall it’s about… it takes about as much energy to get to Mars, as it does to get to Venus, it is easier to land something on Mars because it doesn’t have much of an atmosphere.
And what it does have isn’t just like sulfuric acid that melts your Lander, but also for a long time, people really didn’t think about Venus as a place that could have life. So Mars has really been the star of the planetary science community because there’s clear signs of water and that’s really intriguing because we think much more about Mars as what could have been a habitable planet at some point more so than we do about Venus. And so that draws a lot of the attention and the funding.
Ashley: I think there, there is an understanding that Venus may have had a similar past to earth and Mars. It certainly works out that, you know, if two out of four of the rocky planets in our solar system had water on their surface. And we know that most of the small moons also have a large amount of water, it makes sense that Venus had water as well in its, in its past.
Whitney: I guess another part of why Mars more than Venus is because Venus is very hard to observe. So those signs of past life or past water are going to be a lot harder to find on Venus.
Charles: Why is Venus harder to observe?
Whitney: Well, uh, you have, Venus has a lot of clouds. Um, Venus is entirely covered in clouds. So that means that if you have a, if you send an orbiter, um, you can’t just take optical images of the surface like you can with Mars. So that’s part of it. And the other part is…
Charles: Venus just doesn’t want to give up its secrets.
Whitney: And the other part is that it’s very hard to send something into its atmosphere and have that survive for any meaningful amount of time.
Ashley: Except a Zeplin.
Evan: Getting things to the surface and surviving 93 bars of atmosphere is not enough. And what
Ashley: Like three hundred degrees Celsius temperatures.
And who, who, who
Whitney: does the sulfuric acid and yeah, it’s, it’s a nasty place.
Evan: Mars is a lot nicer as basically the only thing about Mars,
Ashley: low bar, but, but yeah…
Evan: The biggest thing about Mars is the temperature gradient between your day night cycle. Cause it’s a big desert. That’s all it is.
Ashley: Yeah. Getting to get nice balmy 20 degrees in the summer on Mars. It’s nice.
Charles: Are we talking 20 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit?
Ashley: 20 degrees Celsius.
Charles: Cause I was thinking 20 degrees Fahrenheit is terrible.
Evan: Anything compared to 740 Kelvin of Venus is nice, in my opinion.
Tessa: I was just going to say, I would like to offer a small defense of Venus because there have been a few people talking about the possibility of life on Venus, as you know, as early as the late nineties, because the weird thing about being this is that while the surfaces totally inhospitable to any known form of life, there is a point in the upper atmosphere where incidentally, they got this phosphine gas detection about 50 to 60, 70 kilometers above the surface where the temperature and pressure is actually about this close to earth.
As you can find in the solar system. I mean, it’s warm. It’s about somewhere between 30 and 70 degrees Celsius and which is, is hot, but it’s not boiling. And also the pressure is just about one atmosphere, about same you get walking around on earth.
Ashley: I think I also read that it’s that, that part of the atmosphere is also about 80 20 nitrogen oxygen.
Whitney: Oh, interesting. That’s also where you get clouds and Venus’s atmosphere and those are, those are clouds sort of like what we get on here on earth, which are largely composed of water. So there’s, that is also, well, I don’t know. I don’t really. Okay. Maybe, maybe I can walk that back. Sorry.
Tessa: The idea behind it and why initially people got really excited about phosphine on Venus is that, you know, there are these droplets, spend it in the atmosphere. We know they’re there at that level. And you know, we also know that there’s. Quite a bit of bacteria suspended in our atmosphere at any given time, mostly in droplets, in our case of water vapor on Earth, you know, up in clouds doing their thing.
Charles: Wait wait wait… So if I went up into a cloud right now and I took some kind of collecting medium, if I took an agar plate and I flew through a cloud and I just like held it up and I got some of the cloud on it, and then I came back down to earth and I cultivated it. Would I find stuff?
Tessa: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Charles: That’s incredible.
Tessa: Yeah. Aero-biology is a thing, but the problem I’ve, at least I’ve discovered recently reading about this as we’ve noted, sulfuric acid is a major component at the Venusian atmosphere and part of the problem. This is one of the other reasons we don’t know much about the chemistry of Venus’s atmosphere is on earth. We’re used to thinking about sulfuric acid dissolved in water, what you would do in your high school chem lab or whatever. On Venus. However, the planet is so poor and water that it’s basically droplets of sulfuric acid with a little bit of water to salt in. And well, there is potentially some very weird biochemistry that can survive under those conditions.
Nothing we know of on earth could handle that and just not basically instantly dissolve into its constituent molecules.
Ashley: I see, I don’t think that’s as big a hurdle to life on Venus as it’s been portrayed in the past week or so of, of, of the media round. Right? Because we’re talking about… yes, nothing on Earth could survive that but presumably… I would wager that if there was a life on Venus that it occurred around about the same time life occurred. On F and would have occurred on Mars, whether that is the same event or three different events is up for debate. And, and also it would take some amount of time for the software, your crap, sulfuric acid concentration to increase in the atmosphere.
Is it, is it so unreasonable? Imagine that over the course of a billion years, that. Life slowly adapted to existing and sulfuric acid bubbles.
Tessa: But that is a good point.
Whitney: Yeah. Like I suppose it could be possible. And we see life in some really crazy places on earth as well. So maybe not, maybe not anything as extreme as Venus, but we also don’t have those sorts of conditions on earth to compare to.
Another issue with life existing in Venus’s atmosphere is that water droplets don’t stick around forever. I saw an abstract that this week that was, that said that a droplet of water might stick around in the atmosphere for, Oh, I forgot it. It was maybe like four months or something, but I could be forgetting that, but that.
That makes it very hard to, for life to persist if its environment only is around for four months, this abstract suggested that you could imagine that there would be some sort of spore face to the life. Mmm. And the other, the other issue there is that my understanding of Venus is that you can find water in its atmosphere, but you really don’t find much of any much of any water at all in the atmosphere, right by the surface, let alone like standing water on the surface of the planet. So when like this droplet would fall out, fall from the sky, like there’s nowhere for that life to go that would be survivable.
Evan: In fact, I think when we talk about Venus, there’s this it’s almost cliche.
So, so Venus. We think actually was Earth-like at one point back, back a couple of billion years ago, there’s this idea called the faint young song paradox, but in short, we can boil it down to the sun and most stars as they get older, they get brighter. So a couple of billion years ago, Venus. Was orbiting a star that wasn’t as bright and thus it wasn’t, you know, the surface of Venus wasn’t as hot.
We think that Venus likely looked like earth and had an active water cycle. And as it heated up that water started to it wouldn’t precipitate anymore and it would stop getting to the surface and the same way that we’re talking about. Now, that’s only some of the water. Uh, only a very small amount of waters in its atmosphere still.
And none of it makes it to its surface.
Charles: Now, how do we know the history of planets? Because on earth we have access to a lot of physical evidence that can give us clues to how things happened over the past few billion years. But on Venus, obviously we can’t go digging around for different kinds of rocks.
Whitney: Wo this in a couple different ways. One of them is by looking at other systems so we can look at young stars and observe that they tend to be cooler than older stars. Um, and then for details of our solar system, asteroids are actually a great clue as to how the solar system formed there. They’re the remnants of the early solar system.
And we can learn a lot about the history of earth and the solar system from looking at these objects, which have just kind of been floating around out there since the solar system was formed and they can tell us really cool things like how the giant planets actually migrated through the solar system.
Ashley: And some cool stuff like that, that you have a piece of that puzzle, of course, is, is computer modeling. Um, and coming not with generally, you would come up with a theory about how say that the atmosphere of Venus evolved, and then you would test against the observations we see now. So if I have a theory that Venus has surface water, what would that mean after four billion years what would, what would be left in Venus’s atmosphere to indicate that there was surface water and then also doing computer modeling and, and, and trying to build a, essentially like backtrack through the history of, of a planet to try and work out what processes would have caused the current conditions.
Evan: And we can couple that with, you know, we are you’re right. We aren’t getting onto the surface and doing archeology, we aren’t actively digging, but we do have satellites. We do have orbiters and we can use them to be able to peer through the clouds and to look at the surface of the planet. And we’ve been able to do that now for several decades.
And we’ve been able to map the surface of Venus pretty decently. And from that we can, we have some idea of what the rock record. Is like on Venus. So we can couple that to our models and try to see how they’re related.
Tessa: Right. I will point out though that one of the other difficulties with Venus, and this is something I’ve always thought was a really cool fact, is that unlike earth, Venus doesn’t really have plate tectonics.
The way our planet does the entire surface is based across is basically one giant tectonic plate. And as a result of this, instead of, you know, having. Regular earthquakes and volcanoes and the sort of stuff you see on earth with subduction and all that stuff. It appears that about 500 million years ago, the whole surface of Venus just basically melted.
So it’s, even if we could land stuff on Venus, it would be difficult, certainly more difficult than it is on earth to find very good, very, very ancient rock records of. Anytime beyond 500 million years ago
Charles: What I’ve really learned so far today is that Venus is very private… to ascribe intentionality to a planet, it really doesn’t want us to know a lot about it or wants us to really work hard,
Ashley: Just playing hard to get.
Charles: Yeah, Venus is our hard to get queen. Um, okay. I… planets. I all, all I can think right now, genuinely is last night I went on a live trapping trip. And for those of you not in the know, uh, light trapping is when you get like a bulb.
That has a certain UV output and you put it up with a sheet and it attracts a bunch of nocturnal insects. And it’s great. It’s terrible in that a lot of insects land on your skin. And I have very sensitive skin. So I don’t love that. I love seeing insects. It’s a reasonable trade off. And so we were out in the desert because that’s where you get more insects.
And Arizona is incredible because you don’t actually have to go very far to be able to see a full sky full of stars. And so I was looking up in the stars and then I was driving back into Tempe and I had like a weird transcendent experience where I like realized that we were all on a planet together in space and it was really wild.
And so what I’m saying is that this whole conversation is bringing me back to that place of like the universe is large and incredible. And that was a lot of nonsense to get to some more nonsense, but I hope. That it, that feeling of wonder what the universe will resonate with all of these space people.
Tessa: It’s kind of why we do it.
Evan: Yeah. I am blessed to be able to say like, this is what I do for a living. This is what I do for a job is I get to try to answer these questions that people have asked for basically all of humanity might not be very good at answering the questions. But I’m trying, we’re all trying.
Charles: It’s you’re not alone. As we can see from this call. Maybe getting into more speculative territory, we have established that it’s probably not extraterrestrial life on Venus. I will take the position of a cynic and say, how would we even know that we had found life if we found it, given that either we have a very narrow definition of life based on us and our understanding of stuff on earth, in which case we are probably unlikely to find that elsewhere because of the specifics of like contingency. And I even talked about evolutionary contingency on a different episode. And so the idea that, you know, life evolved a certain way here, but that’s just how it happened and the particularities of earth, et cetera. Or we have a very broad definition of life, in which case we would likely find things that are extremely unlike us. But then how would we be able to tell that they were alive? I guess I’m basically asking you all to tackle the philosophical question of what it means to be alive.
Tessa: I’m going to go ahead and jump in on this one first, because this is a major part of my research is that how do we deal with life that is very exotic compared to ours or radically different? And our hope is that all living the systems because of just at a very base level, the laws of physics in our universe in order to be alive, they’re going to have certainty.
Motifs and features in their organization, even if like the atmosphere of their breathing or the molecules they use as the basis of their power comes to, you’re very different. They’re still going to be organized in a similar way. That’s why going back to our second episode, you know, why I talked about network theory is because that’s one way of looking for sort of those system of organization and living things.
So basically to answer your question, I would try to figure out all the chemistry that’s going on in their biochemistry or whatever their equivalent of biochemistry is. And then see if the resulting chemical reaction network looked weird. And if it looks weird, it’s probably alive. If it doesn’t look weird, if it just looks like a jumble, it’s probably not one.
Ashley: I think if I would have put a condition on deciding if something was alive, I would say like, imperfect self-replication would be my condition. If it’s copying itself, but it’s not copying itself perfectly. So it is a little bit different every single time. I would say that’s probably something that’s alive.
Evan: I think that brings up a good point that. There are certain things that we’re not going to be able to say one thing one way or another, that for sure this is life, at least until we can go and visit it. And this is one of the great things about Venus is that we, we can go visit it and we can go see eventually. So one of the things right now is the Breakthrough Foundation funded by Russian philanthropist, Yuri Milner. One of the things I haven’t seen talked about a whole lot news is that they are working with this group already, that, that published this page, this result to look and see if we can send missions to Venus within the next decade to go and see if we can find signs of life there.
You know, in probe using using an actual probe, instead of us just kind of, Oh, well that looks like a, a phosphine line using our telescopes here. That’s one of the great things about planetary science within our own solar systems that we can go there. Whereas for the rest of us that just study exoplanets, there’s never going to be there.
There’s going to be very few situations in which we’re going to be for sure able to say, yes, that is a living being.
Charles: You know, you say that, but I’ve seen Star Trek.
Tessa: Just means we’ve got to get someone on inventing the work drive. Yeah, Whitney, any thoughts on it?
Whitney: There’s already a mission on route to mercury and they need to do a couple of flybys of Venus just to get into the proper orbits.
So while they’re on route, um, they’re going to take some measurements of Venus’s atmosphere to try to back up this detection that we saw from earth. Um, so that’s important because, well, we’re pretty sure that we’ve ruled out effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. This lets us just confirm yet again, let’s us confirm that this is indeed phosphine.
Um, and that mission is Becky Colombo. I believe.
Charles: Well, Tessa, do you have any more, like, space topics that you want to make sure we cover?
Tessa: I think the reason a lot of people are excited about this is that… statistically, it’s probably not aliens just because there are so many other things that potentially be. We’ve ruled out everything we do understand about Venus aside potentially from biology, but because we know so little about this atmosphere, there’s still a lot of things that potentially could be contributing to it that are just not well understood at this point.
So given that huge possibility range, statistically, just, you know, using Occam’s razor, it’s probably not life. It’s probably some sort of weird chemistry that happens in high temperatures with phosphorus and extremely concentrated sulfuric acid. And we just, haven’t done a lot of experiments with that.
So, you know, it’s surprising us, but I do still think that this discovery is relevant because it’s probably one of the few we’ve had certainly within our solar system. Where, despite that the possibility of it being life is still a strong contender. I mean, again, it’s probably not what it is, but it’s definitely not out of question again, because it’s happening.
The atmosphere with has temperature and pressure and to an extent composition, that’s very similar to earth. There have been weird things. So it had been noted about it before. Um, one thing that I’ve always thought was intriguing was that there’s this weird, mysterious UV absorber as it’s referred to in the literature.
That occurs at that altitude. And it’s been suggested that that can, could be micro was using cycle off to sulfate or another UV absorbing molecules sunscreen, probably isn’t but I mean, it could be, there is, even though it’s probably not aliens for those of you out there who aren’t astrobiologists, you shouldn’t necessarily dismiss the possibility out of hand.
And that’s why everyone’s still pretty excited about this, even though it probably isn’t aliens because. It’s one of the few cases we’ve had in astrobiology where while there’s still a lot, we don’t know the explanation of biology is still pretty parsimonious.
Charles: See, as a systematist, I love that word parsimony. That’s a little joke for all the systematists in the audience
Evan: And at a minimum, anything else that we’d learn about Venus is absolutely massive, to our understanding of our own planet. Venuses in many ways, the closest planet to earth, other than earth within our own solar system and our understanding of how Venus got to it current point and its current atmosphere can help us understand what the future of earth is or a different path that earth could have taken. And when we start looking even more at earth, like planets outside of our own solar system to, for us to be able to understand what are we actually looking for out there, what are we going to find? Hmm.
Charles: So I have a question for the group, which is how bad do you want there to be aliens?
Ashley: I think it would be pretty cool if they were aliens.
Tessa: It would certainly do great things for my professional career and career opportunities in general. So I’m, I’m generally in favor of it.
Evan: Yeah. I don’t really like the idea of getting to work on the extra-terrestrials working to understand them. That sounds like, you know, I’d be pretty happy to work on that for the rest of my life and get paid.
Getting paid is nice.
Charles: Whitney, how do you feel?
Whitney: I think it would be pretty cool. Um, I hope it’s life. Like I know it’s I know it’s very unlikely. It would be pretty cool to see.
Whitney: To see like, like to see what life would even look like on Venus would be really interesting.
Evan: I really liked that we started with what alien would you date and then now, now we ask whether or not we wish there’s aliens out there.
Charles: I mean.. Oh, well, another question is, let’s say tomorrow, a week from now some point something comes to earth claiming that it is extraterrestrial life. It could look like a human. It could look like a big dog. I don’t know why those are the first two things that I think of but maybe it looks like a big insect. And it gets me very excited. Not sexually, just in life. What kind of evidence would you need that we weren’t all just being punk’d?
Evan: Well, first you said a big dog and now all I can think of is the aliens are Clifford.
Whitney: How have they been hiding on Venus all this time?
Charles: Maybe they say they come from Mars.
Whitney: Okay, but where are they hiding?
Charles: Underneath, like… below, in tubes.
Ashley: I think in order for me to believe that they came from another planet, I think I would just probably believe it. Like if, if I saw an actual spaceship on the news and an alien came out, if it’s technology that’s so far beyond anything that we have on a for right now, which is what will be required really for extraterrestrial life to come from another planet to often say hi, I don’t think there’s any reason not to believe that. Fair enough.
Whitney: Yeah. It’s pretty hard to imagine how, how you could fake that. Like there there’s certainly. Like, there’s certainly ways to fake you a folk videos, but alien steps out of his spaceship and starts talking to you. Like it’s a lot harder to fake.
Charles: You’re not wrong.
Tessa: I will also note that if you really do want to be pedantic, assuming that whatever alien representative isn’t just like a clone human, they mean for our convenience would be get a DNA sample or at least a biological tissue sample, do a genomic sequencing on that.
And. You know, if the sequencing totally fails because they have completely different ways of storing to another confirmation or they use completely different sequences, then it, you know, it’s probably an alien because pretty much everything on earth, you can use RNA genomic sequencing on.
Whitney: I used to do data analysis for sequencing before I did astronomy. And you could probably, you could tell pretty easily, even if it uses DNA or RNA, it would be pretty easy to tell that it, it wasn’t related to something on earth because most DNA on earth, there’s, there’s inactive that are repeated throughout the genome, just junk DNA left behind after years of evolution.
And so to see something distinct, distinct there, you could pretty easily tell if this was extra terrestrial genetic material and it would also be really cool to see, um, are there aspects of alien DNA that are the same? Like, are, is there, is there stuff that could evolve independently that would…
Charles: Okay, a follow up question.We’ve established that this is an alien and we can communicate with them. How likely are you to say yes to a date?
Tessa: Well, what does it look like?
Charles: Yes. No, you know, let’s say it’s like a, well, not a Vulcan. Cause what do they do for anybody?
Ashley: Once every seven years, probably quite a lot.
Charles: No, let’s say it looks, it’s a big worm.
Tessa: It depends on what functions of anatomy they have. Like, do they have counts or something similar to tongues, for example?
Charles: Well, that’s very forward, Tessa.
Tessa: I’m an astrobiologist, Charles, it’s my job.
Charles: Yes. They have the thing that like functions as the tongue, but it’s not sexual for them.
Tessa: Well, I don’t know. I’m sure we could work something out and I’d probably go for it because, hey, when’s the next time, you know, you’re going to get to have sex with something outside your…
Charles: I, I, I want to be very clear. I said, go on a date.
Tessa: Okay, well go on a date. So I’d want to talk to them, have a nice dinner, find out what they eat.
Charles: You don’t have to, this is what I’m saying. You don’t have to do anything except have like a nice pasta dinner. And then where it goes from there depends on you and your comfort with big worms.
Tessa: In that case, absolutely. I mean, but you know, what’s to lose, you could probably find out a lot about their species.
Ashley: Look… if I go on the date with the giant worm, and then it goes somewhere after that, do I go Shai Hulu and get blue eyes and control the spice.
Charles: I was thinking of Dune, yes. It’s on my mind.
Evan: At a minimum, you’re telling me there’s a chance of free pasta. So I’m in. Yeah.
Charles: Well, I mean, they did just come to earth, so they probably don’t have earth money. So, you’re probably paying for the pasta.
Evan: I don’t know. I feel like restaurants can make an exception. It is a giant alien worm.
Charles: You could contact like some kind of TV show and make it a really… like there used to be that Drew Barrymore, Ellen DeGeneres show, First Dates.
Although I think that people on that show did actually have to pay for their own meals. So you’d have to find a more generous show runner.
Ashley: Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised with Ellen.
Whitney: It’s the least you could do if you’re making a show. Just pay for the worm’s pasta.
Tessa: Yeah. I think that’s definitely counts for our recurring segment of, is it gay if it’s in space?
Charles: I was just about to say it.
Everyone: Yes. Yes.
Charles: Yeah, well, that’s the other question is we all know I have human sexualities as far as we know.
Ashley: Look, I’m admitting nothing.
Charles: Yeah. So then it’s like, well… is the worm… am I, is it still gay if it’s a giant space worm? And I’m going to say yes.
Whitney: Oh, of course
Ashley: Its gender is probably not male or female based on human definition, so it’s almost definitely gay.
Charles: I mean, well, cause this is the thing is that if we go by human constructions of sexuality, then it’s probably… if we go by like a certain essentialist, construction of human sexuality, it’s probably not gay, but if we go on a broader, like queer theory, queer is a holistic experience of existing outside of heterosexuality, then yes.
Ashley: The correct way.
Evan: It’s gay.
Charles: Well, we’ve uncovered a lot of important information in the past hour. I think this is going to be really revelatory for people.
Ashley: Okay. Can I, can I hit y’all with some, with some cool Venus mythology facts before we leave?
Charles: Yes, 100%
Ashley: So. Well, one of the things that if you know anything about, about like Roman and classical mythology is the Romans gave gods in the pantry and things called epithets, which are descriptions of, um, different cults that worship the gods and different things that the gods supposedly did.
Um, and so Venus has, has things like Venus Felix, which is lucky Venus and Venus Genatrix, which is Venus the mother. Um, and there are two, which I just love, which I need to share, which is Venus Calyptigus, which is Venus with the beautiful buttocks.
Yeah. She’s the God of beautiful butts and Venus Christina, which is Venus of the yearnings of feminine souls locked in male bodies. Well, there is kind of that kind of beautiful.
Tessa: That is pretty good to know that Venus was looking out for us trans femmes.
Charles: Yeah. And granting you all just the loveliest butts.
Ashley: Yeah. Every trans girl I’ve ever met has an amazing butt and Venus is why.
Charles: So is there anything that any of you would like to say that you haven’t had the chance to yet just like facts about Venus facts, about space? Um, Telling people to watch DS9?
Evan: I’m just really looking forward to us learning more about Venus and especially it’s clouds. And who knows, maybe we’ll get like a Bespen type cloud city type thing on Venus one day because of this.
Charles: Okay. So to close out the show, if people want to find you online, uh, where can they look? And let’s start with Evan.
Evan: You can find me online on Twitter @theneedforsneed, yes it is my last name.
Tessa: That is fantastic.
Charles: How about you, Whitney?
Whitney: Yeah, you can find me on Twitter @powerzzs – it’s mostly pictures of my cat and dumb jokes.
Charles: That’s all anybody needs. And Ashley?
Ashley: Yeah. Uh, if you want to find me on Twitter @drashleynova, and I also have my podcast, which is a queer actual play RPG podcast called feelings first, which you should listen to. We have a new season coming out. It’s great.
Charles: Fantastic. I’m on Twitter @cockroacharles
Tessa: I’m on Twitter @spacermase.
Charles: The show is on Twitter @ASABpod and at our website asabpodcast.com.
Tessa: And until next time, keep on science-ing.