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If you’re looking for an exemplar of mastering multiple identities, find a telescope and point it at Venus.

In both astronomy and popular culture, Venus has always assumed a diversity of guises. Morning star, evening star. Goddess. Planet. Frankie Avalon song. A plant that eats flies. And the realm ruled by women in the unforgettable film Queen of Outer Space (starring Zsa Zsa Gabor as the nemesis of the evil queen).

So it’s not surprising that Venus enjoys sufficient celebrity status to warrant big-type headlines when it makes news, or at least a lot of social media hype. In the latest such instance, all it took was a whiff of a noxious gaseous chemical in the planet’s clouds, hinting that Venus might harbor life, to stop the presses and start the tweetstorms. After all, life on Venus would be a big surprise. Scientists have long considered it the hell of the solar system, hotter than molten lead and with an unbreathable atmosphere.

Yet, as it was so ably reported by Lisa Grossman for Science News, the chemical in question, phosphine, is no guarantee of life on Venus. It’s just that the known nonbiologic ways to make phosphine do not seem plausible in the Venusian environment. Phosphine’s persistence in the clouds shrouding Venus suggests something must be currently producing it — otherwise the sulfuric acid in the planet’s upper atmosphere would have destroyed any signs of the gas by now. So phosphine might be a signal of life — perhaps some form of anaerobic bacteria (which do not require oxygen), as phosphine would be deadly to life that relied on oxygen.

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Category: Science
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