Venus is Hell

I dropped in on the BBC iPlayer app the other day. It’s been a while as I’ve not been enthusiastic about BBC TV for a long time; it’s played too safe and formulaic.

However, Professor Brian Cox’s latest presenting vehicle, The Planets, caught my attention. The CGI graphics in the previews reminded me of the artist’s impressions of the imagined landscapes of real planets, which featured in the weekly encyclopaedia I was given as a kid. They might have been illustrated by Angus McBride who did the mythical beasts I blogged about before, but I don’t actually know. The landscapes were quite fanciful and earth-like, with graceful though strangely coloured clouds, and often featured multiple moons or planetary rings in the sky.

The Planet‘s planets are a whole different ball game. Based on real information sent back by probes, it shows a stark and horrifically hostile environment on each of our terrestrial neighbours. Venus, for example, is described as “Hell” compared to Earth’s heaven, while Mars, hoped to be the most plausible for human colonisation, appears like a sad, dead wasteland.

I’ve long held the impression that life is a fluke, an extreme, long odds, outside chance and that it ought not to have happened at all. It required a very special set of conditions: a place in the solar system goldilocks zone; the right sized planet; the right amount of essential elements, in the right proportions; water, existing in three states; a magnetic field; and probably a whole host of things I haven’t considered. The fact that life has existed here for billions of years, long enough to enable selective evolution to develop complicated lifeforms, and somehow avoiding a natural catastrophic annihilation may be regarded as a miracle. Though I enjoy science fiction, I’ve often found the facts far more impressive.

On science fiction, I’ve had this idea about the perfect afterlife when a soul is free to wander wherever in pleases. Mine would love to fly to other planets just to see how they matched up with those artist’s impressions.

But then the other day I had a crisis of doubt. How do souls, or ghosts, work? Without a body, they have no sensory perceptions and won’t see, hear or feel anything externally. They are all imagination, aren’t they? Oh well, back to the drawing board…

image: imagined, the brief life of a Venera probe on the surface of Venus, a reality Hell (from The Planets, BBC)

The Upright Creator

Sue Vincent’s comment on The Name of the Cloud That Ate The Sun has me thinking about a creator and its motives.

The idea of God, the creator, of the Abrahamic faiths has Him creating us in his image. This is understandable as we readily create imaginary beings in our own image, or partly so. Intelligent alien life is usually bipedal, with limbs and a head on top with eyes and ears and a multi-functioning mouth – and many of them speak fluent English in an American accent. The popular idea of a robot is also a bipedal machine.

Given that bipeds came last in line, whether it’s creationism or evolution, what gives with all the other stuff which came before? Well, robots might be the clue. Getting the things to stand upright and walk. It’s not easy and with a lot of robotics, this is an unnecessary fancy but it doesn’t stop a lot of technicians struggling with the concept. They will succeed but more because of god than being good designers, I think.

But why would a creator be bipedal, being, as it were, out there in space and existent throughout all time? Why would it need to stand up when there is no up in which to stand?

image from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam

History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.

During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.

I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!

It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.