Thursday 17 September 2020

Signs of life?

Like the suggestions of surviving organisms that have been reported this past week as possibly living in the sulphuric acid-dominated clouds surrounding our solar system's most hell-like body - the scorching, far-more-barren-than-any-Earth-desert planet Venus - the BBC can still astonish us mere humans by showing itself to be occasionally breathing as far as Lord Reith's 'educate' brief goes.

In a remote corner of the BBC (still to be abolished next year?), The Sky at Night  (introduced even now, musically, by my favourite composer Sibelius's At the Castle Gate), continues to do what it first did over 60 years ago, and does it as brilliantly as ever.

I fear for its future, but I'm glad it's still being allowed to quietly go about its business and that it allows for the late Sir Patrick Moore's designated successor Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, to keep on broadcasting for the BBC alongside Maggie Aderin-Pocock. 

Maggie was a brilliant choice because she's uncannily like Sir Patrick in her so-fast-talking-as-to-be-hard-to-always-follow, enthusiastic delivery, so she appealed to Sky at Night fans. But she's also black and female, so that ticked the BBC's boxes beautifully - and, I suspect, remains the programme's key get-out-of-jail-free card, survival wise. 

Chris is a superb science communicator, and knows people, and I'm guessing got the BBC in - behind the scenes - on what could very well be one of the most transformative scientific discoveries of all time (if people forget Twitter and politics and BBC bias for a while). It was a wonderful coup for him:

Well, this is odd. You're watching this on Monday, September 14th, and a few hours ago, a team of astronomers here at Cardiff University announced to the world what could be the most significant astronomical find for decades. I'm filming this a few weeks before that announcement because The Sky At Night has been given exclusive access to the team behind the discovery. We're having to be incredibly secret. So, what is this top secret, ground-breaking discovery? Well, if you haven't heard, the team claim that they've found what could be the signs of life on Venus. I can't believe I get to say that to camera! The team think they've found what could be the signs of life on Venus. 

Here's what we know in a nutshell. The team used radio telescopes here on Earth to detect a gas called phosphine in the high atmosphere of Venus. On Earth that gas is only made in factories or by bacteria in certain conditions. Either way, it's made by life. The team asked whether natural chemical processes could account for what they've seen on Venus and the answer is "No." They could only make about a 10,000th of the amount of phosphine seen. If that's right, then this detection of gas is a sign of life high amongst the clouds of Venus.  

The scientists featured in this programme provided compelling evidence, with proper scientific caveats, for highly improbable extraterrestrial microbial life actually existing viably, right now, on our very own doorstep, floating in the clouds of Venus, armoured against its sulphuric acid and excreting proof of life as they go about their very limited lives. 

For decades Venus has been considered the least likely candidate for providing a haven for life in our solar system.  Not now though.

I seriously urge you to watch this programme.

I only wish the BBC had made more of it. The kind of BBC I want would have made it a half-hour special on primetime BBC One. 

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