Mars problems vs Venus problems

14.45, Wednesday 23 Sep 2020

Perhaps there’s life on Venus. There’s phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus and it should break down pretty quickly, so there’s something replenishing it. The scientists can’t think of any abiotic processes that would create phosphine in that quantity, so maybe microbes it is?

I’m sceptical. There was similar excitement in 1996 about the Martian meteorite Allan Hills 84001 – microscopic fossils! Life! Well, pseudo-fossils.

More likely explanation: planetary geology is weird. (“Geo”-logy? I’m not sure what the appropriate word is.)

Going to check out Venus will be tough.

There was a great paper in JBIS in April: Conceptual Design of a Crewed Platform in the Venusian Atmosphere (abstract only). It summarises two comprehensive studies of how to float crewed scientific missions in the clouds of Venus. The mock-ups look like a cross between dirigibles and the space station. Alien.

Because Venus is fierce.

Here are the first colour photos from the surface of Venus, taken by the Soviet lander Venura 13 in 1982. It lasted 127 minutes. And: Venera 14, a twin of Venera 13, launched five days later and also reached the surface. It lasted there for 57 minutes. A lander dropped by Vega 2 (1985) lasted 56 minutes. There have been no landings since.

Remote observation of the Venusian surface is not possible due to its thick clouds of sulphuric acid. It has a surface atmospheric pressure 90x that of Earth, and a surface temperature averaging 464C/867F.

In terms of size and gravity, Venus is Earth’s twin.

Venus is trying to kill you. It’s dense and impenetrable – there could be a whole civilisation a mile away, and you’d never know.

Venus is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the hidden Africa, unknown to Europeans – the novella that was translated to Vietnam for Apocalypse Now. A journey up the Congo River and into the psyche. Both book and film highly recommended.

Contrast with Mars.

Which is empty (at least in the imagination). Tabula rasa. It’s dangerous, sure, but in a character-building, life-at-the-frontier kind of way. It’s there, waiting for Will to be imposed on it.

And Mars is so explored in fiction, and I mean this modern conception of Mars, not the old one which was criss-crossed with canals and dotted with ancient civilisations. Mars, now, is a blank canvas for the imagination.

So no wonder Elon Musk has Mars as his goal. It’s a place for pure expansion.

A city on Mars will be like a city on Earth but with better AC.

And I think it has diminished us somehow to have Mars held up in the public imagination as the ultimate frontier. Because all other problems become versions of that grand yet simple model frontier, empty spaces that we pave over.

But Venus…

Venus is far from empty. Venus has its own agenda. It has an oppressive air and acid rain. Landers are destroyed in an hour. If humans go there, we’ll be the ones who have to change, not Venus.

Which is a very 2020s metaphor.

Climate change, inequality, pandemics – these problems won’t be resolved by paving over them, no matter how much Will we exert.

They will be negotiated, worked at; they’re obdurate and incredibly complex, and require an acceptance of ground truths that are bigger and stronger than us and can’t be ignored. We won’t fix them, we’ll have to learn about them and deal with them in a million different ways and sometimes we’ll have to appease them. We’re mortal in the face of them. Through the mist and the jungle that crowds the boat, eyes look back, eyes belonging to who-know-what staring out from an unknown land which goes back who-knows-how-deep, and so we push on, we adapt.

The solutions are not straightforward. They require something from us. A price must be paid.

I think we don’t think about Venus because it’s the part of us which is animal, it’s the part which we keep hidden, the un-modern, it scares us to know it’s there; because if we really were to live on Venus, we would have to become something Other, and we can’t tolerate what that might be. Not like Mars which is manageable, already mapped and all that’s left to argue about is the collection of property taxes.

I would like to imagine more stories about Venus and how we would live there.

Because the challenges of the 2020s are Venus problems, not Mars problems.

Update 24/9: It’s an odd experience seeing one of my back-of-the-notebook posts briefly hit the top spot on Hacker News. 5,000 views later… There’s a long discussion here. Currently 186 comments, wonderfully including this one that disagrees yet sums up this whole post better than I could: The challenges of exploring Venus/searching for life are metaphorically similar to current issues here on Earth (climate change, SARS-Cov2, etc.), while Mars represents the endless expansion/frontier attitudes of 18th-20th century mercantilism/capitalism.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.