While even Venus apologists admit that the planet is the “literal interpretation of a mythical hellscape,” with temperatures that exceed 800°F and poisonous gases that would kill you in seconds, on Monday astronomers confirmed the discovery of a chemical, phosphine, in the morning star’s atmosphere. “On Earth, certain microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, like at a sewage plant, are believed to produce the chemical,” CNET explains. “The gas is highly toxic to humans and smells like decaying fish.” (An MIT professor who spoke with NPR was less polite, describing it as smelling like “the rancid diapers of the spawn of Satan”). What’s so cool about this smelly deadly rotting fish gas, though, is that “after much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation” for Venus’ levels of phosphine, The New York Times reports.
Though this doesn’t confirm extraterrestrial life, it’s still “pretty damn exciting,” to quote David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute. And as everyone’s favorite astronaut, Chris Hadfield, tweeted, the implications are huge: “If there’s life in the upper atmosphere of Venus,” he wrote, “then we’re going to find life on many planets and moons — and around other stars.” Sure, that life might not be anything more advanced than a super stinky microbe, but the cosmos are still on the cusp of getting that much more crowded. Suddenly, the big black void above us doesn’t seem quite as lonely as it once did.
Speaking as someone who really, really wants the truth to be out there, this is, needless to say, invigorating news — particularly as Venus was the dark horse in the search for alien life compared to her more popular brother, Mars. But beyond being an astonishing breakthrough in the field of astrobiology, the potential of life on (or around) Venus is the kind of feel-good scientific discovery this year has desperately needed.
That’s not to mitigate the extremely important work scientists are doing to understand and cure COVID-19, or to grasp the climate science behind our historic hurricane season and the wildfires that have made the air quality on the West Coast downright Cytherean. But the anxiety and urgency driving such research in 2020 can also make me forget that scientific discoveries are a joy — and the Venus news is a reminder that there are still so many amazing things we have yet to learn, even about our own planetary neighbors next door. Jeva Lange