By Dr Myint Zan
Launch of Sputnik (4 October 1957)
4 October 2020 is (using the historic present tense) the 63rd anniversary of the launch of the human-made satellite Sputnik I by the then Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. (Sputnik I is not ‘Sputnik V’ which is the ostensible or claimed vaccine against Covid 19 and the reference is categorical to the launch of Sputnik I into Space and not to the ‘launch’ of the supposed vaccine against Covid 19). Hence 4 October 1957 can generically be considered to be the date that ushered in the ‘Space Age’.
Postulate Re Microbial Life on the Clouds of the Planet Venus (14 September 2020)
Almost 63 years after the launch of Sputnik I on 14 September 2020 the scholarly journal Nature Astronomy published an article ‘Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus’ written by a group of 19 scientist-authors. Within hours of the publication of their scientific paper news media the world over has summarized the statements made in the paper with fairly dramatic headlines such as ‘Is there life floating in the Clouds of Venus?’ (By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent, 14 September 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54133538 )
The detection of the gas phosphine in the clouds 60 metres above the planet Venus (‘Venusian’) surface was what led these group of scientists to ‘conjecture’ that the presence of phosphine might indicate the presence of microbial life on some Venusian clouds.
The BBC news item stated that on the ‘Earth, phosphine is associated with life, with microbes living in the guts of animals like penguins, or in oxygen-poor environments such as swamps’. The writer of the news item mischievously also stated that ‘there are no penguins on Venus’.
In this writer’s humble view the postulate or proposal that the Venusian clouds might harbour ‘microbial life’ is not a strong scientific hypothesis yet. In fact even the 3rd author (out of 19) in the scholarly journal article Dr William Baines cautioned against (over) enthusiasm regarding this (scientifically) intriguing proposal.
Microbial Life on Mars 3.6 billion years ago?
On 7 August 1996 a scientific news item ‘Meteorite yields evidence of primitive life on Mars’ https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nasa1.html/ was published.
In retrospect, the title can be considered as ‘premature’ Using the logicians’ phrase it might even be regarded as a ‘fallacy of hasty generalization’. The postulate then was a rock first discovered in 1984 in Antarctica could have fallen onto Earth through a meteorite about 16 million years ago. And apparently it contained fossilized microorganisms from Mars going back to about 3.5 billion (3,500,000,000) years.
Then United States president Bill Clinton (born 19 August 1946) over-enthused (so to speak) regarding that news item. He reportedly said that news item was ‘the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century’!
As far as this writer can discern the current occupant of the White House being monumentally egotistical, malignantly narcissistic and politically ‘engaged’ as he is for his reelection -including through foul means- has not commented on this ‘Venusian clouds’ news item.
More than 24 years after the issuance of the news item on the supposed discovery of Martian microbial fossils in a rock supposedly coming from Mars this claim can be said to be inconclusive or ‘unproven’ .
Conjecture regarding the presence of Microbial Life on the Venusian Clouds (Now)
As stated above a more radical and dramatic, if you will, scientific paper, proposed in September 2020, that there might be microbial life on some clouds of Venus presently (now).
This claim is significant in that at least ‘on paper’ it can be subject to falsification empirically though that may take some time. The BBC news item quoted above states that ‘the US space agency (Nasa) asked scientists recently to sketch the design for a potential flagship mission in the 2030s’ to verify (or refute) the ‘Microbial life in Venusian clouds’ proposal.
That is a decade away in the future but let us hark back briefly into the topic of ‘space travel’ from the relatively recent past to places far, far away from the Earth and long, long into the future.
Human Space Travel, Voyager Space crafts, Intragalatic Travels of Other Civilizations
The Space Age which dawned on 4 October 1957 made it possible for the conjectured and potential (emphasis added) ‘flagship mission’ (i.e. unmanned or should I state ‘unpersonned’) space craft that might be sent to the clouds of Venus.
Less than twenty years after the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union in August and September 1977 Voyager II and Voyager I ‘unmanned’ space crafts were respectively launched by the United States ‘into’ the solar system. The Voyager space crafts included a plaque containing among others a sketch of a male and female, the cosmological location of the Earth (so to speak) and greetings (a few seconds long) in 55 languages including Burmese. The greeting Mar Yei Lar Khin Byar မာရဲ့လားခင်ဗျာ (Are you well?) apparently made by the then (in 1977) 10 year old Burmese boy can be listened at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjIqeXgz5PsAhXf63MBHXNUClYQFjACegQIAhA C&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvoyager.jpl.nasa.gov%2Fgolden-record%2Fwhats-on-the-record%2Fgreetings%2F&usg=AOvVaw3EY-YakA_ETntltZzHAmQp
Various sources stated that in about 40,000 years either or both of the Voyager space crafts would pass within 1.6 light years of the nearest star vis-à-vis their ‘trajectories’. (Light travels at the rate of approximately 186282 miles per second; a light year is the distance light will travel in a year. Hence the distance from the ‘nearest’ star and the Voyager space crafts 40,000 years in the future would be (186282 x 60 x60 x24 x365 x.6) miles from that star!)
The year 2020 is also the 90th birth year of scientist, astrobiologist Frank Drake (born 28 May 1930). In the early 1960s Professor Frank Drake devised the (so-called) Drake equation. The Drake equation calculates the ‘chances’ regarding the existence of ‘Extra terrestrial intelligence’(ETI) or extra terrestrial civilizations (ETCs) . (Note that ETI and ETC are vastly different from microbial life. On planet Earth, it takes 3.8 billion- 3800 million- years to progress from ‘mere’ microbial life to homo sapiens who are able to use radio astronomy.) Frank Drake is one of the pioneers of ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ (SETI).
Suffice to say that this ‘search’ and attempts to communicate with extra terrestrial civilizations is not based on religious rites and rituals of any religion. Nor is SETI based on magic, ‘hocus pocus’ or science fiction but on communication through radio astronomy.
Radio astronomy can communicate ‘only’ at the speed of light. If, say, an extra terrestrial ‘civilization’ ‘located’ 40,000 light years away had sent signals to Earth it would have taken 40,000 Earth years to reach Earth. Those radio or messages would have arrived perhaps, at the earliest, some time in the 21st century! And forty thousand years ago the discovery of agriculture by homo sapiens had not yet taken place and Neanderthals (now extinct) and homo sapiens probably still co-exist at least in parts of (what is now) Europe!
(Almost no? Chance of) Communicating with ‘Extra terrestrial Civilizations’ and Extreme Improbability of More Advanced Other Extra terrestrial Civilizations to ‘do’ Intragalactic Travel
There may or may not be extra terrestrial microbial life forms now (as contrast to millions of years ago) in the solar system especially in the clouds of Venus or perhaps one or more of the moons of the planet Jupiter. Most scientifically literate persons should know that not withstanding science fictions especially regarding Mars there IS no (nil) extra terrestrial civilizations in our solar system.
Metaphorically (or is it cosmologically?) let us deal briefly with ‘our’ Milky way galaxy. It would be overwhelming even in the imagination to consider intergalactic travel (travel from one galaxy to another) in contrast to intragalactic (travelling within ‘our’ Milky way galaxy) . ‘Our’ ‘nearest neighboring|’ galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy but discussion here would only be on intragalatcic travel. (‘travel within the Milky Way galaxy).
A (wild) guess would be that among the billions of planets orbiting their own Suns (stars) the odds of extraterrestrial technology-proficient (that could use radio astronomy and ‘do’ space- travel) ‘civilizations’ emerging would be a ten billion to one chance ( 100,000,000 to 1). Since there are supposedly 250 to 500 billion stars (i.e. 25,000,000,000 ? to 5,000,000,000?) in the Milky Way galaxy if only one in ten billion host a ‘civilization’ there could be 25 to 50 extra terrestrial civilizations (ETCs).
The late astronomer, scientist and (in the complimentary sense of the word) populariser of science Carl Sagan (9 November 1934- 20 December 1996) stated that in the Milky Way galaxy alone there could be millions (!) of extra terrestrial civilizations. Arguably, the great scientist was not merely a tad but also very much optimistic and enthusiastic re the existence of and communication with ‘extra terrestrials’.
Alone in a ‘Lonely Universe’ or Arrogance of Cosmological Proportions?
On the other hand paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris (born 6 November 1951) of the University of Cambridge asserts that humans ALONE are the only civilization in the entire Universe with its billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and roughly equal number of planets orbiting these stars.
He made this contention in his book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (2003). This writer asserts (this time not so humbly): the claim that there isn’t (wasn’t, wouldn’t be) a single ETCs in the entire Universe is monumentally (cosmologically) ‘human centric’ so to speak and is almost indescribably presumptive and arrogant.
‘Glorious Isolation’ and Thinking about other extra terrestrial civilizations from the perspective of ‘other’ extra terrestrial civilizations
The writer does not recall where he reads it but an astronomer scientists has expressed his view to the effect that perhaps a few planets – perhaps one, two or three or a few more planets orbiting may be up to a billion or even ten billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy might have been able to eventually develop the technology, modes and methods of intra-galactic travel (i.e. travel within the Milky way galaxy) but perhaps before they could do so their Suns (stars) would have died out and their civilizations too would have disappeared. (Our own Sun supposedly would begin to die out in 4 to 5 billion years). Should there be extra terrestrial civilizations in the Milky way galaxy they probably do (or) did exist in ‘glorious isolation’ of each other.
Perhaps like a million or so SETI enthusiasts on Earth (the world over), ‘SETI’ enthusiasts in other extra terrestrial civilizations might be ‘wondering’ (instead of actually wandering or travelling within the Milky Way galaxy) as to whether, for them, ‘other’ extra terrestrial civilizations exist.
What we can say is that, on planet Earth, albeit assisted by radio astronomy, cosmological theories, advanced mathematics and physics, organic chemistry and biology as well as a slew of other disciplines SETI enthusiasts and researchers might only be able to guess or ‘wonder’ about the existence or other wise of ‘other‘ extra terrestrial civilizations.
This article commemorates the 63rd anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I in October 1957 and the publication of a scientific article on the possibility of microbial life in the clouds of planet Venus in September 2020. It also belatedly commemorates the 90th birthday (in May 2020) of Professor Frank Drake who is one of the contemporary pioneers of SETI research.