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The news last week that scientists had spotted a potential signature of life in the clouds of Venus was always likely to cause a stir. But arriving the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – during which our everyday lives have changed significantly – the story has truly captured the public imagination. In the latest episode of the Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester takes a broad view of the discovery: an inspiring example of lateral thinking, persistence and collaboration.
The deduction that Venus could be harbouring life is linked with the detection of phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere. For terrestrial planets such as Venus and Earth the only known processes to generate phosphine in such a location are connected with metabolism. To learn more about astrobiology, Glester catches up with two members of the team behind the discovery, both based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Clara Sousa-Silva is a quantum astrochemist who for over a decade has studied phosphine as a potential signature for extraterrestrial life. She is joined by Sara Seager, an astronomer and planetary scientist, who among other things speaks about future missions to Venus to help resolve this mystery. As both researchers explain, the “life hypothesis” came as a last resort following a rigorous search for alternative explanations.