A writer I respect wrote on twitter:
“Wow, I don’t care about abstract scientific “progress” at all anymore. They found some bacteria in a cloud on Venus? What’s that got to do with me?”
I don’t post on twitter, not often. I don’t tweet, and I don’t reply. I’m a lurker, and I lurk while the baby is nursing, or when I have to wait in line and would rather spend those five minutes in someone else’s head.
She was being tongue-in-cheek, but a smattering of people took her seriously and blew their tops; overheated at the silliest hot take, as if they need to release every ounce of pressure built up by their self-importance and indignation. I wanted to answer her, too, but it’s stressful to imagine myself writing anything there. This is all to say that this is not a subtweet of her,* but I did want to answer, so here we are.
Why should you care about phospine on Venus, potentially indicative of life there (though not a life like any life that’s here, not even the bacteria)?
What’s it got to do with you?
Nothing. And that’s the point. A the very least it might inspire you, but to what, I’m not so sure.
If there is life there in the Venusian acid clouds, and not some undiscovered inorganic chemical pathway, we are not unique in our experience of life. If we can prove it, N of one becomes N of two—a doubling of the chances that life might be ordinary. We can dare to think that, if it’s on Venus, it might be most places we can think to look, and we might matter less than our minds can comprehend.
Of course, we don’t even have an agreed upon definition for what life is and what it’s not. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it . . .”** We don’t even know if we would know it when we found it. There are more potential molecules like the ones Terrene life than there are stars in the universe.
Still we search for it, whatever it is, because we want to feel less alone, the way sending out a tweet or replying to one does, for a second, before we think about it too long. Maybe like our twittering, that exploration is just a waste of time, but so is living. The system exists for efficiency, to speed up the creation entropy, but also in doing so to slow down, to hold a pattern until it bursts and there is more chaos than there was before.
Whatever you do, whether you care or not, don’t find comfort in the idea that you can live anywhere else. We have billionaires in the ruling class dreaming of a colonized, terraformed Mars. But even if life can exist elsewhere, it doesn’t mean that a life like yours can exist elsewhere. You can’t live in the clouds on Venus, or the lakes on Titan, or underneath the ice on Enceladus, or even in the deserts on Mars. You can only live for sure on this perfectly imperfect little rock, hoping that whatever transformed Venus and thrust those would-be, might-be lifeforms into its upper atmosphere isn’t happening here and now, as the air heats up and the ice melts and the oceans turn to acid.
But don’t let it depress you either. Life changes the place where it is, and maybe some creatures in Venus’s clouds will transform them little by little to something less acidic, and little by little it will become something that could harbor a life like ours. Then again, it could just as well go in the other direction. So we don’t have any choice but to try to hold the pattern here, on Earth, our Earth, in our time, for as long as it will hold. Although I fear in those moments when I set aside the twitter voices and listen to my own, that it is getting close to bursting.
*Well, since I let the blog post to twitter, I suppose it technically is, but she’ll never see this so its moot.
** Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity in the 1964 Supreme Court decision Jacobellis v. Ohio