The discovery of possible signs of alien life on Venus was among the biggest news in astronomy this year, but within days, it faded out of the headlines. This was not a unique event in history: Flash back to 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton stood on the south lawn of the White House to announce the putative discovery of fossilized alien microorganisms in a Martian meteorite. Even as these and other possible discoveries are announced, they arrive with debate and quickly fizzle because we cannot confirm alien life has actually been discovered.
This year’s trip through the hype cycle of the detection of alien life was no different. Researchers announced the discovery of phosphine on Venus as possible evidence of alien life, with the caveat that phosphine might be made in the Venusian environment in the absence of life, though the researchers had endeavored to eliminate the possibility. However, critics quickly pointed out that the evidence for phosphine detection was itself weak, and the consensus by now is that the detection was likely a false alarm. But even if a positive detection of phosphine could be confirmed, the deeper debate of whether or not life produced it will ensue. This debate—or the one in the next iteration of the hype cycle—is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, because the way we currently search for life is insufficient.
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