Scientists Found Phosphine on Venus—A Possible Hint of Life


In finding a glimmer of evidence that we may not be alone in the universe, she’s also found herself less alone in her molecular obsession. Today, phosphine is the word on every astronomer’s lips.

This story isn’t over, and its ending remains uncertain, a blurry scene in a movie we haven’t yet finished watching. Or a kind of Schroedinger’s cat: We have to hold in our heads the possibilities that Venus is alive and not-alive, at once.

But that was always going to be the case. The discovery of alien life likely won’t happen with either a bang or a whimper, but with a series of mid-volume conversations spread over spacetime and expensive scientific-journal PDFs.

We’ve all experienced many shares of uncertainty in the past eight or so months, as a tiny organism tears through our own planet, protests for racial justice and against police brutality roil American cities, and wildfires turn western US skies the color of Mars. Our whole future, and the shape of our collective story, have grown increasingly blurry.

But Greaves hopes this Venusian mystery provides some respite, however fractional, from the uncertain, scary circumstances on this planet. “I hope this is just something nice,” she says. “I hope it’s a good feeling.”

At least the path toward answers is straightforward. Outside researchers can confirm or refute or expand their data analysis—a task that, Sousa-Silva notes, scientists could have been doing earlier if her team hadn’t kept their discovery quiet until its publication today, as is customary. “I think it’s bad for science to keep it a secret,” she says. “The scientific community would have been better off if they had had access to this discovery early on.”

That community needs to drill deeper into potential nonbiological explanations for phosphine. Sousa-Silva and colleague Jason Dittmann plan to look at Venus using telescopes that sense infrared light, to detect (or not) that press of phosphine’s fingerprint, and to see if other biosignatures pop up.

They were supposed to do some of that work earlier this year, but, you know, Covid. The missed opportunity has felt frustrating to Sousa-Silva. Lately she’s been going outside and staring at Venus, its light wobbling through our atmosphere. She feels its photons going into her eye—unquantified, uncaptured—and it pains her. “They’re just going to waste,” she says. “Every night, Venus is sending us all the information we need to prove this discovery, and we’re just not analyzing it.”

Someday, the scientists hope they can do the ultimate experiment: sending a spacecraft to Venus. Just a simple, little one, Greaves says. One that can fall through those strange clouds and send back data as it whizzes by. Ideally, that project could come together more quickly than a typical, large space mission. But if it takes awhile, so be it. “I can wait 10 years if I have to,” she says.

It may be harder for the rest of us, not so inured to astronomical timescales, to keep our heads around the ambiguity for that long. To hold both possibilities as possible. But if this detection is phosphine, and if this phosphine comes from life, then it would feel kind of poetic. You find love when you least expect it. You find the word you’re looking for when you stop thinking about it. You remember what you wanted to say when the person you wanted to say it to is gone.

You find alien life not in a nice Earth-like place, with a nice ocean and plentiful oxygen, but on a hostile, hot planet, because it’s leaking toxic gas into that toxic world. But there it is, carrying on, in the face of all that.

If that’s the case, it’s very 2020.

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