“Where is everybody?”
That was the famous question posed by Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950. No, Fermi wasn’t trying to get through to the official Covid-19 hotline. He was pondering an even more puzzling question. If our galaxy alone contains billions of stars, each of them with orbiting planets, then the universe must be teeming with more life than on a private beach during lockdown. But if that’s the case, why haven’t we detected any up to now? Surely at least one civilisation out there would try to make a galactical instavid? This contradiction between the high probability of alien life and no evidence that it exists is what’s known as Fermi’s Paradox.
This past week, though, Fermi may have finally gotten an answer to his question. Astronomers have announced that they have detected phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Similar in size to Earth, Venus is incredibly inhospitable to humans. The surface temperature of the bright planet next door is a balmy 465 degrees Celsius. It literally rains sulphuric acid. The atmospheric temperature is six times that of Earth, so anyone standing on the surface of Venus will be instantly crushed.
Still, I’m sure when space tourism kicks off, more visitors will be interested in visiting Venus than coming to Trinidad. Who really wants to visit a place where they nonchalantly fish out bodies from the water outside the poshest hotel on the island? Or where you can’t lime in any rum shop?
The discovery of phosphine on Venus is significant because everything we know tells us that it is only produced two ways—either by industrial processes or via living organisms such as microbes. This means there are two possibilities for the presence of phosphine on Venus. Firstly, there is a mysterious way by which phosphine is occurring naturally on the planet. This can’t be ruled out—after all, stranger things have occurred.
Or, secondly there is a microbe named Zorbimus who excretes phosphine every time he dines on some acid-filled Venusian clouds. This can’t be ruled out either. Venus may be inhospitable to humans, but as our own Mother Earth proves, life can exist in the most extreme places. Organisms known as extremophiles can be found on Earth deep underwater, near the intense heat of hydrothermal vents. Or in incredibly low temperatures such as under ice sheets in Antarctica. Or even in highly acidic and corrosive places like Facebook or Twitter.
Personally, I am hoping that this discovery on Venus ends up being signs of life. That would be historic and fulfil one of three big dreams I want to become a reality before I die—the others being the creation of realistic sex robots that look like Scarlett Johansson and having a reliable five-day water supply from WASA. That last one might prove too fanciful though.
How would humans react if we found alien life in our solar system? Will we stop fighting each other? Would racism and inequality and religious conflict cease to exist? In what ways discovering that humans are simply grains of sand on a universal beach front change humanity? Or will we simply treat it the way the Ministry of Finance treats credit rating downgrades, ignoring it and decrying all those who point out that gravity exists?
Part of me would like to believe the discovery of alien life would usher in an era of a new way of living for human civilisation. But part of me also believes the first question CNN would ask a Venusian is if he or she supports Trump. Trinis may just want to know if Venusians love doubles, and social media will search Zorbimus’s old tweets to see if he ever said anything racist towards Neptune or Mars.
Perhaps religious institutions will simply continue believing humanity is the pinnacle of creation and set out to convert a new flock on Venus. Perhaps an entirely new scandal involving priests and under-aged microbes will engulf the Vatican. Every Saturday, believers will fly around the upper atmosphere of Venus, armed with umbrellas protecting them from acid rain to spread the word of God.
Perhaps the detection of alien life will change everything and nothing at the same time. Incidentally, the question of “who owns Bridgeman’s” might be a bigger mystery than the question of life in the universe.
Of course, there may be no life on Venus or anywhere else, for that matter. Earth may be the only planet with living beings. We could be a weird galactic anomaly. Like that one Pennywise sales rep that’s actually friendly and helpful. But if that’s true, that’s also fascinating. And the same big questions about how we see ourselves among the cosmos might be even more pertinent.
• Darryn Boodan is
a freelance writer