Our Place in Space: An Immature Technosphere

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, I is for…

AN IMMATURE TECHNOSPHERE

In a previous post, I told you about the DART Mission, our first real experiment to see if we can defend our planet from incoming asteroids.  I believe humanity has a tremendous responsibility to protect our planet, not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of the entire Earthly biosphere.  Incoming asteroids can do serious harm to Earth’s biosphere (just ask the dinosaurs).  But, of course, there are other threats to the biosphere that should concern us—more immediate and urgent threats, too.

The term “immature technosphere” is mainly associated with SETI research.  Imagine, if you will, a planet that is home to alien life.  Over cosmic timescales, we might expect this hypothetical alien planet to go through several phases of development.

Phase One: The Immature Biosphere
Life has begun!  The first microorganisms are swimming around in the planet’s water (or whatever liquid this planet has instead of water).  But biological activity produces biological waste, in one form or another, so as these early organisms multiply and spread, they may end up poisoning their own environment with their own waste products.

Phase Two: The Mature Biosphere
Life has found a way.  A variety of organism have now evolved, and the waste produced by one organism serves as fertilizer, food, or fuel for others.  A natural balance has been achieved.  Natural cycles have emerged.  Life not only survives but thrives!

Phase Three: The Immature Technosphere
Intelligent life has emerged, by which I mean life capable of creating and using technology.  But as these intelligent life forms begin using technology on a grander and grander scale, they may inadvertently disrupt the natural cycles and the natural balance of their world.  Life is threatened once again, this time by technological waste.

Phase Four: The Mature Technosphere
If intelligent life is truly intelligent, it will recognize the harm it is doing to its own environment and start inventing ways to undo that damage, or at least to keep the damage in check.  In time, perhaps a new balance will be achieved, with nature and technology working together in harmony.

Turning our attention back to Earth, I think it’s fair to say our planet is in the “immature technosphere” phase of development.  But an immature technosphere today implies that a mature technosphere may develop later on, and that gives me hope.

I keep saying that this “Our Place in Space” series is a highly optimistic view of humanity’s future.  Part of what I mean by that is that we will not leave Earth behind.  We will not make a new home for ourselves on the Moon or Mars or elsewhere after destroying our first home here on Earth.  I doubt that that would work anyway; any off-world colony we might establish would still be dependent on Earth for a long, long time to come.

I know a lot of people who see the state of the world and despair.  Things are bad right now, and some of the damage we are doing to our planet and to each other cannot be undone.  But a better future is still possible.  Humanity just needs a bit more time to mature.

Want to Learn More?

Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon is one of my all time favorite books.  It’s certainly my #1 favorite non-fiction book.  As an astrobiologist, Grinspoon has more knowledge and authority on scientific matters than I do, but his view of the future is much like the view I’ve been presenting in these A to Z Challenge posts.

So if you’re worried about the state of the world and you want to believe that a better and brighter future is still possible, I highly recommend picking up Grinspoon’s book.

Do Planets Have Genders?

Hello, friends!

So a while back, I got some unsolicited feedback from a person I know in real life.  This person had seen one of the illustrations I’d drawn for this blog, and she was incensed—absolutely incensed—that I would depict the planet Saturn as female.  You see, Saturn is a very masculine planet.  That’s a fact, apparently.

A lot of my thinking about planets—including my thinking on the gender identities of planets—was shaped by a book called Venus Revealed, by David Grinspoon.  That book was my first serious introduction to planetary science.  In a section titled “Men are from Venus, Women are from Mars,” Grinspoon has this to say:

At first I tried being completely gender-neutral in my writing, but this was unsatisfying because, to me, Venus is not just a “thing.”  Venus is not, in my mind, inanimate, and so “Cousin It” will never do to describe him… or her.

In that same section, Grinspoon does a little cross-cultural analysis and finds that Venus has been “a real gender bender” across human cultures and human history.  Sometimes she’s male; other times he’s female, depending on which mythological tradition you’re looking at.  And some cultures have apparently assigned different genders to the Morning Star and Evening Star, thus effectively making Venus genderfluid.

So do planet’s have genders?  No, of course not.  But much like David Grinspoon, I can’t see the planets as purely inanimate objects.  Planets have too much personality for that.  And since I think of the planets as having personalities, then, for better or worse, I also think of them as having genders.

For purely arbitrary reasons, I tend to think of Saturn as female.  But if you’d prefer to think of Saturn as male, or as something else entirely, that’s okay.  I’m not going to fight you over it.  I can love Saturn (and all the other planets, too) just the same, no matter what gender identities we pretend they have.

P.S.: While doing research for this post, I ended up reading a lot about how astrology assigns genders to planets (and also to numbers, elements, constellations, etc). I don’t want to dive too far down that particular rabbit hole, but I thought I should at least share this article on the subject. I used to think astrology was just silly. Now I think it’s problematic for reasons that go beyond mere pseudoscience.

Sciency Words: VIRA

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at some interesting and new scientific term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

VIRA

You don’t mind if I do one more post about Venus, do you?  Venus is my favorite planet, after all, and the detection of phosphine (a possible biosignature!) in Venus’s atmosphere has got me really excited.  I’ve been reading lots of papers and articles about Venus lately, and many of those papers and articles mention something called VIRA.

VIRA stands for Venus International Reference Atmosphere.  VIRA is actually a book, originally published in 1985 by an international committee on space research.  The purpose of VIRA was to consolidate everything we knew about Venus’s atmosphere at that time into a single, easy to use reference guide.  As planetary scientist David Grinspoon describes it in his book Venus Revealed:

Although not exactly a best-seller, [VIRA] is a cherished reference among students of Venus’s atmosphere, and many a copy has become dog-eared and worn.  The tables and summaries of atmospheric data found therein are still the standard on Earth for Venus models, and the wide use of this standard allows us to make sure that we are comparing apples with apples, when making models and sharing new results.

One thing I don’t understand: why are Venus researchers still relying so heavily on a reference guide from 1985?  I’ve found several scientific papers (like this one or this one or this one) offering updates and improvements to VIRA.  And yet, unless I’m missing something (I feel like I must be missing something), it sounds like the original 1985 VIRA is still used as the gold standard for modeling Venus’s atmosphere.

Anyway, when people say we can’t explain where Venus’s phosphine comes from, in a sense, what they mean is that there’s nothing in VIRA that helps explain it.  So maybe the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere will finally give scientists the push they need to update VIRA for the 21st Century.

P.S.: According to this paper, there’s also a Mars International Reference Atmosphere, or MIRA.  And I’m guessing there are similar reference atmospheres for other planets and moons in our Solar System as well.

Sciency Words: Global Resurfacing

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those wild and crazy words scientists like to use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

GLOBAL RESURFACING

Venus is a mysterious planet.  Ever since the detection of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere, the mystery du jour has been: does Venus support life?

We’ll circle back to Venus’s phosphine in a moment, but first I’d like to turn our attention to a different mystery concerning Venus: where did all of Venus’s craters go?

Impact craters are a common sight in the Solar System, especially here in the inner Solar System.  You’ll find plenty of craters on the Moon, of course.  You’ll find lots of them on Mercury, Earth, and Mars as well.  Some of those craters look fresh and new.  Others, due to weathering and erosion, look quite old—sometimes extremely old.

But the surface of Venus is relatively crater free, and the few craters we do find appear to be very, very recent.  In his book Venus Revealed, American planetary scientist David Grinspoon describes Venus’s craters thusly:

All the craters on Venus look unnaturally pristine.  Instead of blending into the volcanic plains that cover most of the planet, they seem planted on top as an afterthought, as though a crew had built a cheap movie-set planet and realized at the last minute that they had better throw in some craters.

Grinspoon goes on to explain how this might have happened:

Suppose that half a billion years ago something happened to Venus, wiping out all older craters.  Vast lava flows occurring simultaneously all over the planet would do the trick.  Then, if there has been relatively little surface activity since that time and Venus has been slowly collecting craters all along, things should look as they do.

This sudden event, when the whole surface of Venus got covered in fresh lava, is called “global resurfacing.” That’s a nice euphemism for an apocalyptic event, isn’t it?

Now this is important: Venus should have had little-to-no volcanic activity since her last global resurfacing event.  Otherwise, those younger, fresher, “unnaturally pristine”-looking craters would have gotten resurfaced too.  But in the last few years, circumstantial evidence has emerged suggesting that there are active volcanoes on Venus after all.

And now, finally, we circle back to the detection of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere.  Some have suggested that that could be evidence of Venusian life.  But according to this preprint paper, that phosphine signature could also be interpreted as further evidence of volcanic activity.  Maybe global resurfacing was not a one-time event half a billion years ago.  Maybe resurfacing is an ongoing process that’s still happening today!

In a previous post, I said that Venus is about to teach us something we did not know: maybe it’ll be a biology lesson, or maybe it’ll be a chemistry lesson.  But now I think there’s a third possibility: maybe it’ll be a geology lesson.

P.S.: Special thanks to Mike Smith from Self Aware Patterns for sending that preprint paper my way.  At this point, it is just a preprint paper waiting to go through the peer review process, so don’t get too excited.  But the more I think about it, the more I feel like the authors of that paper are on the right track.

Sciency Words A to Z: Unknown Absorber

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, U is for:

THE UNKNOWN ABSORBER

If there’s one thing worth remembering from all this astrobiology stuff, it’s that life begins with chemistry.  All life in the universe, no matter how strange and exotic it may seem to us Earthlings, must depend on chemistry.  And I don’t know many places that are more chemically active than the planet Venus.  So is Venus a good place to go looking for alien life.

To quote from David Grinspoon’s book Venus Revealed, “Where life is concerned, Venus is consistently voted ‘least likely to succeed.’”  Sure, Venus is chemically active, but in a way that will violently tear apart complex organic molecules.

However, Grinspoon has the temerity to go ahead and speculate—and he makes it abundantly clear this is pure speculation—about the kinds of organisms that might call Venus home.  And that speculation focuses on a mysterious substance found in the Venusian clouds, a substance that has long been called the unknown near-U.V. absorber, or simply the unknown absorber.

In the field of spectroscopy, every chemical is known to absorb very specific wavelengths of light.  When light is spread out into a spectrum, as with a prism, you get a sort of unique barcode that you can use to identify chemicals.

A very simple “barcode” representing hydrogen.

If you’ve ever wondered how astronomers know which chemicals are found in space, or on other planets, this is how they do it.

In 1974, NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft sent us our first ever close-up photos of Venus.  In the visible part of the spectrum, there were no real surprises, but photos taken in ultraviolet showed that something was absorbing U.V. light like crazy, producing a spectroscopic barcode that nobody recognized.

In his speculation about life on Venus, Grinspoon mentions another chemical with a complex, hard-to-identify spectral barcode: chlorophyll, the chemical that makes photosynthesis possible here on Earth.  I say hard-to-identify… it’s not hard for us to identify, because we already know what it is.  But if extraterrestrial observers were studying Earth’s spectrum, chlorophyll would have them very confused—almost as confused as we were by Venus’s unknown absorber.

So could the unknown absorber be a chlorophyll-like molecule? Could this be the first evidence of air-born bacteria, drifting around in Venus’s cloudbanks, performing their own version of photosynthesis?  Maybe, Grinspoon tells us in Venus Revealed.  But that book came out in 1997.  In 2016, this paper was published identifying Venus’s unknown absorber as disulfur dioxide.

On a personal note, I wrote a blog post about Venus’s formerly unknown absorber before, and my post got the attention of the lead author of that 2016 paper.

But even though the mystery of Venus’s unknown absorber may have been laid to rest, I think this still served as a valuable lesson about what we should be looking for out there in the cosmos. Someday, another unknown absorber, with another weird spectral barcode, may be the thing that leads us straight to the discovery of alien life.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, the Martians better watch out.  The Vikings have landed on their planet!

Sciency Words A to Z: Oxygen Catastrophe

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, O is for:

OXYGEN CATASTROPHE

Oxygen.  What could be more healthy or more wholesome to life than oxygen?  But oxygen is, in fact, one of the most dangerous and deadly chemicals on Earth.  It is, as you might easily guess, a powerful oxidizer, and it reacts with just about everything—especially organic matter!

True, life on Earth as we currently know it would not be possible without oxygen, but left to its own devices oxygen would eagerly burn us all up.

It started with cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae).  Cyanobacteria were the first organisms on this planet to develop photosynthesis, a process that uses sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into biomolecules.  But photosynthesis also produces hazardous oxygen as a waste product.

Things were okay for Earth’s biosphere for a while, but eventually the oxygen situation turned deadly.  As David Grinspoon explains in his book Earth in Human Hands:

For hundreds of millions of years, the cyanobacteria kept spitting out oxygen, but all the excess was hungrily snapped up by the abundant iron in Earth’s crust and interior.  Yet eventually, around 2.4 billion years ago, the crust was thoroughly oxidized and there was no more available iron lying around.

Grinspoon goes on to explain how life would eventually learn to protect itself from the harmful effects of oxygen exposure and even learn to control oxygen, transforming what was (and still is, in some respects) a deadly poison into a valuable and powerful new fuel.

Before we evolved that ability, however, the buildup of corrosive oxygen in the atmosphere was massively fatal for most of the species that existed on Earth at the time.

This event, approximately 2.4 billion years ago, is generally known as the Great Oxidation Event, but it’s also sometimes called the Oxygen Catastrophe.  I prefer calling it the Oxygen Catastrophe, because the consequences were truly catastrophic for almost everyone who was not a cyanobacteria. This was, in fact, Earth’s first mass extinction event.

As we continue our search for alien life, I think it’s important to keep oxygen’s true nature in mind.  To us, oxygen means life, but it could just as easily be seen as a deadly poison.  There may be other worlds out there with “poisonous” atmospheres, and those worlds may turn out to be the ones we should pay the most attention to.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, what if life on Earth started somewhere else?

Sciency Words A to Z: METI

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, M is for:

METI

In a sense, SETI researchers are just sitting by the phone waiting for somebody to call.  Maybe that’s the wrong way to go about it.  Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone, start dialing numbers, and see who picks up.

This idea is sometimes called active SETI, but it’s more common (and according to this paper, more appropriate) to use the term METI: the messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Earth has been broadcasting TV and radio signals for over a century.  This has led to a common misconception that even now, aliens on some far off planet might be gathering around their equivalent of a television set, watching old episodes of Howdy Doody  or The Honeymooners.  Or perhaps, if the aliens live nearby, they’re currently listening to our more recent music.

But Humanity is only a Type 0 or Type I civilization, depending on which version of the Kardashev scale you’re using. Either way, our broadcasts are not actually that strong.  As David Grinspoon explains in his book Earth in Human Hands:

Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system.  It would take a huge antenna, much larger than anything we’ve built or planned, to pick up on them.  From a radio point of view our planet is not completely hidden, but it is hardly conspicuous.  This could easily change.  Targeted messages sent directly toward nearby stars would cause Earth suddenly to turn on like a spotlight, becoming an obvious beacon announcing, for better or worse, “We are here!”

Of course we’ve already done this.  Several times, in fact.  But not with enough consistency to truly make our presence known.

The first attempt was in 1974, when Frank Drake and Carl Sagan transmitted a message from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, aimed at the M13 globular cluster.  But according to Grinspoon, if aliens ever do pick up that signal, “[…] they might dismiss it as a momentary fluke.  We would.”  That’s because the Arecibo message was a quick, one-time thing.  By itself, it’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt that life exists on Earth.

If we really want to get somebody’s attention, we have to send a sustained, repetitive signal, kind of like those repetitive radio pulses Jocelyn Bell detected in the 60’s.  We have the technology.  We can make METI a reality.  But should we?  Some say yes, others no.  After all, we have no idea who might hear our signal, or what form their response might take, and there is no guarantee that the aliens will be friendly.

METI is a discussion and a debate that maybe we all, as a species, should be part of.  Perhaps we should take a vote, because in the end, we all have a stake in what might happen.  And while we’re at it, there are some other issues we all, as a species, should vote on.  Or at least that’s what Grinspoon says we should do in his book.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll go back in time and check out the oceans of Mars.