The announcement that Venus may have had conditions hospitable for life once again rearranges our place in the solar system.
OK, so this is a bit of a clickbaity headline, to be sure. There’s no evidence of life on Venus, which remains a choking, sulfuric nightmare. There’s not any evidence that there may once have been life. But there are some new developments in our understanding on the planet that’s just a bit too close to the sun, suggessting that it may have once been habitable.
The study, due to be presented this week at the at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Pasadena, concludes that at a time when primitive bacteria were emerging on Earth, Venus may have had a balmy climate and vast oceans up to 2,000 metres (6,562 feet) deep.
Michael Way, who led the work at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, said: “If you lived three billion years ago at a low latitude and low elevation the surface temperatures would not have been that different from that of a place in the tropics on Earth,” he said.
The Venusian skies would have been cloudy with almost continual rain lashing down in some regions, however. “So while you might get nice sunsets you would have mostly overcast skies during the day and precipitation,” Way added.
Crucially, if the calculations are correct the oceans may have remained until 715m years ago – a long enough period of climate stability for microbial life to have plausibly sprung up.
Of course, conditions for life don’t mean that life ever actually existed. There’s still so much unknown about the precise mechanism from how life develops from a chemical sludge (though admittedly some people have theories that, if not exactly convincing, have convinced a lot of people). Simply because there could be life, plausibly, doesn’t mean that there was.
In its own way, that’s astonishing enough, in ways that are both humbling and elevating. I mean, if Venus, which is close enough to us to be, like Mars, a sister planet, couldn’t develop life, than it makes it even more incredible that we’re here and are typing and reading and having weird dreams and strange fears and can actually send a probe out to study Venus. It makes all life, including human life, even more improbable and bizarre.
On the other hand, it also, I think, shows the decided randomness in an impossible vast universe. Just the other day, it was announced that there could be as many as two trillion galaxies just in the visible universe, which could be less than 10% of the universe as a whole.
Think about that. Think of how long it takes you to walk to the store, or how long it takes to travel the few miles to work on a speeding train bulleting over the ground. Now think of how vast the world is, how it dwarfs us, how our immense ships could sink in the tinies fraction of the ocean and never be seen again.
And think of how small the world is in the solar system, and how small the solar system in the galaxy, and how small the galaxy in the universe, where it is just one of 20 trillion. It’s the sort of size we can’t even comprehend. And each of those galaxies has hundreds of millions of stars and countless planets.
And if we think that there are at least three planets in our solar system alone that might have had the conditions for life–Venus, Earth, and Mars–with a guaranteed 33% success rate, well, that’s sort of humbling.
I’ve argued that, while there is no breathtaking announcement, no dramatic pictures of strange communication, we’re past the point where any reasonable person could dispute that it is at least more likely than not that there is life elsewhere. We’ve just learned too much about how it is plausible just in our tiny little corner of this one solar system that it’s wildly unlikely this nonsense experiment in existence hasn’t been replicated somewhere else, in some other form (or a similar one, who knows?).
I think that the psychological impact of this knowledge will take a while to sink in, but will continue to alter us in ways we can’t really predict. Just as evolution and relativity and the horrors of the Great War helped create the modern condition, as it altered our conception of ourselves, so will this. I think it’ll be fascinating. Because even if there hasn’t been proof, it’s pretty certain that we’re not alone.
But we are also, functionally, alone, at least for now. And that’s not so bad either. I don’t think any of this is a clarion call for nihilism, which granted would be a pretty muted clarion. I think it’s exciting. Some chemical stew got riled up in an ancient ocean, and through endless mistakes, ended up with us, and we’ve made things like William Blake and Venusian explorers and Norm Macdonald. All things considered, for an existence that’s both wildly improbable but also, looking at the universe, probably pretty commonplace, that’s not bad.