Posts Tagged ‘Fossils’

Have Astronomers Found Traces of Life on Venus?

September 19, 2020

The big story on Tuesday was that astronomers had discovered traces of a gas, phosphine, in the atmosphere of Venus. The gas is produced by living organisms, and so it’s discovery naturally leads to the possibility that the second planet from the Sun may be the abode of life.

The I’s edition for 15th September 2020 reported the discovery in an article by David Woods entitled, ‘Forget Mars, a startling discovery may mean there’s life on Venus’. This ran

Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus: a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500o C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50Km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.

On Earth phosphine – a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms – is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.

A group of British, American and Japanese scientists – led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified Venus’s phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The presence of the gas was confirmed at an astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Professor Greaves said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock.” Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer, who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science.”

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a particular part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30oC, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – a major issue for the survival of microbes.

Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate the findings.

This reminds me somewhat of the excitement in the 1990s when scientists announced that they may have discovered microfossils of Martian bacteria in a meteorite from the Red Planet found in Antarctica. The above article was accompanied by another piece by Woods, ‘Nothing found since claims awed Clinton’, which described how former president Clinton had made an official announcement about the possibility of life on Mars when the putative microfossils were found. The article states that confirmation that these are indeed fossils is lacking. It also notes that 4,000 exoplanets have also now been found, and that some of them may have life, but this has also not been confirmed. Astronomers have also been searching the skies for radio messages from alien civilisations, but these haven’t been found either.

Dr Colin Pillinger, the head of the ill-fated Beagle Project, a British probe to the Red Planet, also argued that there was life there as traces of methane had been found. This looked like it had been produced by biological processes. In a talk he gave at the Cheltenham Festival of Science one year, he said that if a Martian farted, they’d find it.

A few years ago I also submitted a piece to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that there might be life in Venus’ clouds. It was based on the presence of organic chemicals there, rather similar, I felt, to those on Saturn’s moon, Titan, which at one time was also considered a possible home of alien life. I got a letter stating that the Journal was going to run it, but in the end they didn’t. I think it may have been because another, professional astronomer published an article about it just prior to the proposed publication of my piece. I think I threw out the Journal’s letter years ago while clearing out the house, and so I don’t have any proof of my claim. Which is obviously disappointing, and you’ll have to take what I say on trust.

The possibility that there’s life on Venus is interesting, and undoubtedly important in its implications for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos if true. But I think that, like the Martian microfossils, there isn’t going to be any confirmation for a very long time.

Cartoon Against Richard Desmond and Nigel Farage

June 20, 2017

This is another in my series of drawings attacking the Tories and their media lackeys. This time the picture is of Richard Desmond (centre), the pornographer and proprietor of the Express, and Nigel Farage (right). I drew it when Desmond was promoting the Fuhrage and UKIP.

The figure on the left, as you can see from its distinctive coiffure, is Maggie Thatcher. I’ve drawn her once more as a pre-human hominid skull to represent death and the subhuman nature of the Tories and their grotty policies. Just to make it even clearer, there’s a human skull at the bottom of the picture, as well as the skull of an extinct animal.

I think the animal skull is from a giant salamander, which lived just before the age of the dinosaurs. I drew it simply because I liked its shape, but thinking about it now, it’s another perfect metaphor for the Tories: a giant, slimy creature hunting others in a festering swamp.

Girolamo Fracastoro: The Christian Father of Modern Pathology

May 15, 2013

Until the 19th century the favoured explanation for the origin and spread of disease was the miasma theory. This followed the ancient authors, who believed that disease was caused by bad smells. It’s the reason malaria has its name – mala aria, bad air. The germ theory of disease only became dominant in the 19th century, when medical science was able to confirm that disease was spread by micro-organisms. It is nevertheless a surprising fact that some physicians from the 16th century onwards came very close to a germ theory of disease. One of these was the classical Humanist and polymath Girolamo Fracastoro.

Fracastoro became a student at the University of Padua in 1501, the same year as Copernicus also enrolled at the university. He was interested in a wide range of scientific subjects, pursuing research and writing on medicine, pathology, physics, geology and astronomy. He also had good relations with the Church. In his long poem De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (Concerning the Contagion and Contagious Disease), published in 1546, Fracastoro advanced a modern theory of the spread of epidemics. He believed they were spread by little particles or seeds, and identified three different types of illness.

The first were those spread by person to person contact, such as leprosy, scabies and respiratory tuberculosis. The second were spread by utensils, beclothes and other items, with which infected people had come into contact. These were the vectors – the causes of transmission – of some of the fevers. The third type were diseases such as smallpox, that could travel great distances.

A similar explanation for the spread of disease was later advanced in the 18th century by the French Academy of Science to explain outbreaks of plague. These later physicians considered that it was spread by small spores. In this instance Fracastoro was clearly far ahead of his time.

Apart from his medical writing, he was the first to recognise and describe the magnetic poles, and one of the first to propose the modern origin of fossil beds. He can thus be considered a true Renaissance Christian man of science.