Evolution in the News - October 2020
by Do-While Jones

Life on Venus

Last month, the Internet was abuzz with reports of life spotted on Venus.

As we begin our 25th year of publishing Disclosure, it is appropriate to thank all the readers who send tips and questions about evolution in the news to us at Pogge@ScienceAgainstEvolution.info. It is like having a research staff of several hundred people. Keep up the good work because sometimes you alert us to stories we haven’t seen.

Last month, there were more than a dozen stories 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 in major news outlets about life on Venus, so they were hard to miss. They were all modified versions of a press release from ESO posted September 14, 2020. ESO modestly claims,

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. ESO provides state-of-the-art research facilities to astronomers and is supported by Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. Several other countries have expressed an interest in membership. 14

We didn’t get the press release (which means we weren’t told what to think about it) so we had to read the research paper to see what it actually said.

The article is about spectral analysis of light coming from Venus which seems to indicate the presence of more phosphine gas (PH3) than scientists expected to see. Since they don’t know where it came from, maybe there is life on Venus! Here’s how it began:

If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within the upper-atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions. This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life. Information is lacking – as an example, the photochemistry of Venusian cloud droplets is almost completely unknown. Hence a possible droplet-phase photochemical source for PH3 must be considered (even though phosphine is oxidised by sulphuric acid). Questions of why hypothetical organisms on Venus might make phosphine are also highly speculative (see SI: PH3 and hypotheses on Venusian life). 15

Could they pack any more weasel-words into that introduction? Probably not.

Let’s look into the report a little more closely. The results are based on spectral analysis. We will explain spectral analysis shortly. For now, all you need to know is that spectral analysis is a reliable way to determine what chemicals are present in something simply by looking at it.

The PH3 1-0 rotational transition at 1.123 mm wavelength was initially sought with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), in observations of Venus over 5 mornings in June 2017. The single-point spectra cover the whole planet (limb down-weighted by ~50% within the telescope beam). Absorption lines from the cloud decks were sought against the quasi-continuum created by overlapping broad emission features from the deeper, opaque atmosphere.

We thus sought confirmation of the same transition, with independent technology and improved signal-to-noise, using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) in March 2019.

We are unable to find another chemical species (known in current databases) besides PH3 that can explain the observed features. We conclude that the candidate detection of phosphine is robust, for four main reasons. Firstly, the absorption has been seen, at comparable line depth, with two independent facilities; secondly, line-measurements are consistent under varied and independent processing methods; thirdly, overlap of spectra from the two facilities shows no other such consistent negative features; and fourthly, there is no other known reasonable candidate-transition for the absorption other than phosphine. 16

The likely presence of phosphine gas was first detected three years ago by scientists using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. The ESO confirmed those results last year using their ALMA telescope (which ESO modestly claims is much better). This is real science. One scientist discovers something, and other scientists do different experiments to confirm the discovery. We can be highly confident that there is phosphine gas on Venus.

Spectral Analysis

The phosphine gas was detected using spectral analysis, so let’s explain the process for those of you who were educated in American public schools.

“Frequency” is a measure of how often something vibrates. On a guitar, you use a pick to press a string down until the pick slides off the string. Since the string is stretched down, out of place, it naturally springs back up to its natural position; but since the string has some momentum, it overshoots too high and stretches the string, which pulls the string back down. The up and down cycle of the string creates a wave in the air just like a wave on the ocean.

The frequency of the sound is measured in cycles per second. For convenience, the term Hertz (abbreviated Hz) stands for cycles per second. One kilohertz (1 KHz) is one thousand cycles per second. One megahertz (1 MHz) is one million cycles per second, and so on.

“Wavelength” is the distance between crests in the cycle of a wave. There is an inverse relationship between frequency and wavelength because the speed at which the wave travels is determined by the medium (air, water, glass, or vacuum) it is moving through. Since the speed of the wave is determined by the medium, the more cycles there are, the closer they have to be to each other. It is just like evenly spaced cars all going the same speed on the freeway. The more cars there are, the closer they have to be to each other.

You don’t have to be much of a musician to recognize whether a particular note was played by a flute or a saxophone. Even though the fundamental pitch is the same, they sound different. That’s because the flute produces a sound consisting mostly of a single frequency. The saxophone produces the primary frequency plus some harmonics.

In the same way, scientists can use light to determine the presence of a chemical by looking at it from a distance. The light looks as different as the sound of a flute is from the sound of a saxophone. Just as your ear can tell what instrument is being played by doing a spectral analysis of the sound the instrument produces, a telescope (and appropriate signal processing) can tell what gas is present by doing a spectral analysis of the light. The spectrum (range) of electromagnetic waves (light waves, radio waves, and X-rays) is divided as shown in this picture.

Your eye (and brain) can tell a red apple from a green apple (unless you are color-blind) by analyzing the light coming from it in the 600-nanometer range. The ESO analyzed the light coming from Venus in the 1.123-millimeter (1.123x106 nanometer) range, which is near the arbitrary dividing line between infrared light and microwaves. The light looked like it was coming from phosphine gas, and it probably was.

Others Weigh In

If I asked you to close your eyes and hold out your hands, and I put a golf ball in one of your hands, and a ping pong ball in the other, you could easily tell which hand was holding the golf ball because it has more mass, so it feels heavier. In the same way, a mass spectrometer can identify molecules by weight.

Forty-two years ago, NASA sent a probe into the atmosphere of Venus to measure the gasses there using a mass spectrometer. That data is still in a database somewhere.

“There was some controversy in terms of the veracity of the signal [from the telescopes which recently detected phosphine on Venus], and I was inspired from that to look for other evidence that could support that detection,” says Rakesh Mogul at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He and his colleagues re-examined data from NASA’s Pioneer Venus Multiprobe, which measured the masses of various compounds as it sank into the crushing Venusian atmosphere in 1978.

Mogul and his colleagues found previously unreported signs of phosphine consistent with the levels that Greaves’s team spotted from Earth, along with other chemical compounds that are expected to form as phosphine breaks down. 17

There are some caveats. In this case, it is more like trying to tell a volleyball from a soccer ball, than telling a golf ball from a ping pong ball, by weight.

Data like this, from a mass spectrometer, is notoriously difficult to interpret, so this finding isn’t completely definitive, says David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona. “I’m still not 100 per cent ready to declare there’s definitely phosphine in the clouds of Venus, but it’s more strongly indicated now than it was before there was this second hint.” 18

If it had been easy to spot the presence of phosphine, NASA would have noticed it 42 years ago. But, since they weren’t looking for it then, it is easy to see how they missed it.

The data from two telescopes and one mass spectrometer all indicate approximately the same amount of phosphine on Venus, so we can be pretty sure that’s how much is there. That’s how real science works.

The Problem

The problem is that the accepted models said there should not be that much phosphine gas on Venus. Either the measurements or the model must be wrong. The measurements were done by three different groups of scientists, using two different kinds of telescopes and a mass spectrometer, and all three measurements agreed. The measurements are probably right, so the model must be wrong.

It isn’t unusual for models to be wrong. You can’t trust a model until it has been verified experimentally. Politicians don’t understand this, so they trust unverified models about such things as climate change, spread of disease, and effectiveness of masks (if the models justify doing what they want to do.)

When a model is wrong, the appropriate thing to do is to figure out why it is wrong, and fix it. The first step in the process is to propose a change to the model, and try to verify the corrected model.

Phosphine Lifetime

In this case, the model predicts how much phosphine should be produced by natural processes on Venus, and how long the phosphine should last before it disintegrates, dissipates, or reacts to form something else. Knowing the production rate and the destruction rate, one can calculate how long it will take for the two opposite processes to reach equilibrium (that is, how long it will take before the rate of production equals the rate of destruction) and how much phosphine there will be (measured in parts per billion, ppb) when equilibrium is reached.

The lifetime of phosphine on Venus is key for understanding production rates that would lead to accumulation of few-ppb concentrations. This lifetime will be much longer than on Earth, whose atmosphere contains substantial molecular oxygen and its photochemically-generated radicals. The lifetime above 80 km on Venus (in the mesosphere) is consistently predicted by models to be <103 seconds [less than one thousand seconds, about 17 minutes], primarily due to high concentrations of radicals that react with, and destroy, PH3. Near the atmosphere’s base, estimated lifetime is ~108 seconds [one hundred million seconds, about 3 years] due to thermal-decomposition (collisional-destruction) mechanisms. Lifetimes are very poorly constrained at intermediate altitudes (<80 km), being dependent on abundances of trace radical species, especially chlorine. These lifetimes are uncertain by orders-of-magnitude, but are substantially longer than the time for PH3 to be mixed from the surface to 80 km (< 103 years). The lifetime of phosphine in the atmosphere is thus no longer than 103 [one thousand] years, either because it is destroyed more quickly or because it is transported to a region where it is rapidly destroyed. The SI [supplemental information] (including Figs S7-12; Tables S2-3) details our methods. 19

In other words, phosphine gas (PH3) doesn’t last long in the upper part of Venus’ atmosphere. After about 17 minutes it reacts with other chemicals and is destroyed. The surface of Venus is very hot, so phosphine gas only lasts about 3 years near the surface before heat breaks it down (according to the model). In the middle of the atmosphere, the lifetime of phosphine gas is “uncertain by orders-of-magnitude.” (One order of magnitude is 10 times. Two orders of magnitude is 100 times. Three orders of magnitude is 1,000 times.) So, their estimates could be off by 10 times, or 100 times, or 1,000 times, or more. They really have no clue. Their model is based on guesses.

They measured about 10 parts per billion of phosphine gas. Where did it come from?

We estimate the out-gassing flux of PH3 needed to maintain ~10 ppb levels, taking the column of phosphine derived from observations and dividing this by the chemical lifetime of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere (Figure 5). The total outgassing-flux necessary to explain ~10 ppb of PH3 is ~106-107 molecules cm-2 s-1 (shorter lifetimes would lead to higher flux requirements). Photochemically-driven reactions in Venus’ atmosphere cannot produce phosphine at this rate. To generate PH3 from oxidized P-species, photochemically-generated radicals have to reduce the phosphorus by abstracting oxygen and adding hydrogen – requiring reactions predominantly with H, but also with O and OH radicals. Hydrogen-radicals are rare in Venus’ atmosphere because of low concentrations of potential hydrogen-sources (species such as H2O, H2S that are UV-photolyzed to produce H radicals). We model a network of forward-reactions (i.e. from oxidized P-species to PH3), not only as a conservative maximum-possible production rate for PH3, but also because many of the back-reaction rates are not known. We find the reaction rates of H radicals with oxidized phosphorus species are too slow by factors of 104-106 under the temperatures and concentrations in the Venusian atmosphere (Figure 5). 20

You don’t have to understand much chemistry to see that their models are based on wild guesses. Let’s look back at the beginning of the discussion again:

If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within the upper-atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions. This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life. Information is lacking – as an example, the photochemistry of Venusian cloud droplets is almost completely unknown. Hence a possible droplet-phase photochemical source for PH3 must be considered (even though phosphine is oxidised by sulphuric acid). Questions of why hypothetical organisms on Venus might make phosphine are also highly speculative (see SI: PH3 and hypotheses on Venusian life). 21

The measurements are scientific, but the conclusions are not. The measurements have been confirmed. The conclusions have not.

There is “no known chemical process” which can explain their observations. It must be the result of a “process not previously considered plausible.” There must have been a good reason why it wasn’t previously considered plausible; but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. There isn’t any reason now to believe that what was once implausible is now plausible, other than that a straw must be grasped. A conclusion must be reached even though “information is lacking” and the explanation for the observation is still “completely unknown.” Maybe there are some hypothetical living organisms which produced the phosphine, but that is “highly speculative.”

Despite this, more than a dozen news outlets reported the possible discovery of life on Venus. It is fake news.

As we told you before, because of these reports, Rakesh Mogul went back to the 1978 mass spectrometer data. He wrote,

To conclude, this re-evaluation of Venus’ mass spectra shows the detection of atomic phosphorous as a fragmentation product from a neutral gas. Moreover, the spectra show a tantalizing possibility for the presence of PH3, along with its associated fragments, and singly deuterated parent ion. While intensities of the peaks are low, they are perhaps consistent with the ~20 ppb abundances reported [from the telescope observations] by Greaves et al. Together, the tentative assignments suggest that the reported abundances of H2S (from mass spectra) across Venus’ atmosphere may actually be PH3; and that atomic sulfur is derived from SO2. These total interpretations also lend support to the presence of chemicals potentially out of equilibrium in Venus’ clouds (e.g., PH3, O2, CH4, C3H4, NO, H2, and H2O2). We believe this to be an indication of chemistries not yet discovered, and/or chemistries potentially favorable for life. Looking ahead, and to better understand the potential for disequilibria in the clouds, we require a sustained approach for the exploration of Venus. 22

The model of the atmosphere of Venus is known to be wrong because it does not correctly predict the amount of phosphine gas that was actually measured. The model is wrong because of “chemistries not yet discovered.” That is, their model does not accurately represent the chemical reactions which produce phosphine, or it does not accurately represent the chemical reactions which destroy phosphine, or it doesn’t accurately represent either. They simply don’t know why their model is wrong. They just know more money is needed for the exploration of Venus.

To say that the undiscovered chemical reactions are the result of a biological process is simply speculation. To believe that evolution is the origin of the unknown biological process is speculation squared.

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1 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/09/14/life-venus-astronomers-see-phosphine-hint-life-clouds-venus/5793706002/
2 https://www.foxnews.com/science/nasa-chief-says-venus-is-one-stop-in-our-search-for-life
3 https://www.reuters.com/article/space-exploration-venus-int-idUSKBN2652GI
4 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/venus-life-phosiphine-gas-scientists/
5 https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-there-life-on-venus-scientists-say-maybe-11600130963
6 https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/possible-sign-of-life-on-venus-stirs-up-heated-debate/ar-BB191n86
7 https://pjmedia.com/columns/bryan-preston/2020/09/14/is-there-a-sign-of-life-on-venus-maybe-is-better-than-a-hard-no-n930949
8 https://www.cnet.com/news/the-search-for-alien-life-on-venus-is-getting-a-new-funding-boost/
9 https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/14/venus-life-evidence/
10 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/science/venus-life-clouds.html
11 https://www.npr.org/2020/09/14/912619891/a-possible-sign-of-life-right-next-door-to-earth-on-venus
12 https://www.sciencenews.org/article/phosphine-gas-found-venus-atmosphere-possible-sign-life
13 https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/the-curious-question-of-life-on-venus
14 https://www.eso.org/public/about-eso/
15 https://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso2015/eso2015a.pdf
16 ibid.
17 https://www.autodesk.com/products/eagle/blog/electromagnetic-wireless-electronic-basics/
18 Leah Crane, New Scientist, 2 October 2020, “NASA may have found signs of life on Venus in 1978 without realizing”, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2256078-nasa-may-have-found-signs-of-life-on-venus-in-1978-without-realising/
19 ibid.
20 https://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso2015/eso2015a.pdf
21 ibid.
22 ibid.
23 Rakesh Mogul, et al., 27 September 2020, “Is Phosphine in the Mass Spectra from Venus' Clouds?”, https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.12758