Today's Big Space Story: scientists detect an unusual gas in the atmosphere of Venus that *might* indicate life, pending more study.

I'm especially excited by the potential parallels to recent research on the surprising prevalence & importance of microbial life in Earth's clouds ImageImage
The gas in question is phosphine. On giant gas planets like Jupiter & Saturn, intense heat & pressure form phosphine abiotically. But on smaller rocky planets like Earth there's only one thing currently known to produce phosphine: microorganisms. Could the same be true of Venus?
Several decades ago, the idea that microbes might exist in Earth's atmosphere and deep interior—that they might live, feed, and multiply in such extreme conditions and so far from the planet's surface—was highly controversial, even laughable to some experts.
Today, it's widely accepted that Earth microbes live just about everywhere there is water and energy, even trace amounts, even at temperatures, depths, heights, pressures, and acidities once though to be universally lethal.
On Earth, the wind perpetually whips microbes, algae, and fungi between land, sea, and sky. Colonies of microbes can remain airborne for weeks at a time, not only surviving, but feeding and possibly reproducing among the clouds…
Microbes in Earth's atmosphere are not only passive sojourners, however. Many of them alter the weather by seeding clouds, increasing rain and snow, and ultimately modifying global climate. Some have likely been part of meteorological & climatic processes for *billions* of years
As @DrFunkySpoon explains, Venus likely had habitable oceans for billions of yrs. Perhaps it evolved microbes that circulated btwn sea & sky. Maybe those microbes adapted to permanent residence in Venus's levitating oceans as the ones beneath them dried up
Of course, this is largely speculation. There's still so much missing information. It's certainly possible that Venus generates phosphine through non-living processes that have not yet been identified. But it's currently unclear what those pathways would be.
Still, the detection of unusual chemical signatures that cannot be easily explained by non-living physics remains our best chance of finding life on another planet, so this is an exciting development. For aliens studying Earth from afar, this is exactly what would stand out.
It's all part of the larger idea that life is a planetary-level process, that we can speak scientifically not only of life evolving *on* a planet, but also of planets that are themselves alive…
For in-depth analysis of the Venus findings, please look to my colleagues who routinely cover space, incl @astrolisa @nadiamdrake @shannonmstirone @marinakoren @ClaraMoskowitz @ScolesSarah @AstroKatie et al.

I just wanted to add some life science/Earth system science perspective
Also, it should not be lost on us that we are excitedly discussing the possibility of gas-generating microbial life in the clouds of a runaway greenhouse alter-Earth at the same time that our own gaseous emissions have contributed to toxic smog smothering half of North America. Image

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More from @ferrisjabr

8 May
By popular demand:


White tern
-This is it. This is the nest
-A failure to recognize the fundamental impermanence of being is the source of all suffering
-Taught Marie Kondo everything she knows
Red ovenbird
-Fond of turquoise
-Will challenge you to a contest measured in Scoville heat units
-Have you seen my prize-winning succulents?
-Knows the One True Cornbread recipe
Vogelkop bowerbird

-Apprenticed (read: volunteered) at MOMA one summer
-My favorite artist? You wouldn't know them
-Actually, it's not a "nest"—it's an interactive sculptural platform that uses found objects and corporeal semiotics to interrogate the very essence of intimacy
Read 13 tweets
7 May

American robin
-Traditional values
-Went to the same high school as Martha Stewart
-Substance over scale
-Dabbles in crystals and divination
-Possible fairy ancestry
Common tailorbird
-Has sewn 3 million face masks
-Into "primitive technology" before it was cool
Read 12 tweets
30 Mar
Due to shortages, medical-grade masks *must* be prioritized for healthcare workers. But contrary to the CDC & WHO's confusing guidelines, there is compelling scientific evidence for universal mask-wearing, even of homemade masks. My new essay for @WIRED:…
In the past week, the debate about masks has intensified dramatically. Much of the guidance surrounding their use is inaccurate or contradictory. I tried to take a rigorous look at all the available evidence and cut through the misinformation.
The two most widely used masks are N95 respirators & surgical masks. N95s are typically round or duck-billed and form a tight seal around the mouth and nose. Surgical masks, aka procedural masks, are soft pleated rectangles that are more comfortable, but looser and leakier. Image
Read 33 tweets
13 Mar
For the @nytimes I wrote about the history and chemistry of the wondrous substance we call soap, how it defeats certain viruses and bacteria on the molecular level, and why it has advantages over sanitizer…
The key is understanding that soap molecules act as molecular "crowbars" as @PalliThordarson puts it, wedging themselves into a microbe's lipid membrane and prying it apart
A sanitizer w/ at least 60% alcohol acts similarly, destabilizing the lipid membrane. But there are plenty of viruses that don't have lipid membranes & bacteria that shield their membranes.

Fortunately, soap and water can still *physically remove* these microbes from the skin
Read 11 tweets
24 Feb
Many people are claiming that the new coronavirus is as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu, citing a case fatality rate (CFR) of ~2.5%

The truth is that this comparison is, at best, highly unreliable, and may be completely wrong. Here's why:
The CFR is the number of infected people that die.

This influential 2006 paper states that the 1918 pandemic infected 500 million people globally & killed 50 - 100 million, a CFR of 10 - 20%. But the paper states the CFR was 2.5%. Why the discrepancy?…
Accurately estimating the CFR of any pandemic is challenging, all the more so with incomplete historical records. Estimates of the number of infections and deaths during the 1918 pandemic have changed dramatically over time and continue to be debated.
Read 15 tweets
25 Jan
The viral thread quoted below is missing essential context and contains numerous errors. It does not reflect the latest evidence. #2019nCoV

Here is a new thread with the facts:
The basic reproduction number (R0) is the average number of secondary infections generated by one infected person in a totally susceptible population #2019nCoV
The claim that the new coronavirus has an R0 of 3.8 is based on this paper…

The authors of that paper emphasize the high degree of uncertainty and have already downgraded their estimate to an R0 of 2.5
Read 20 tweets

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