business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

We've got a pandemic.  And economic recession.  Wildfires that scientists say make vivid the threats of global warming.  And a national election that is creating its own heat, not to mention the almost daily publishing of books about politics that are sending off their own sparks.

And so, it was a tough atmosphere to cut through yesterday when astronomers said they'd detected the presence of a gas in Venus's atmosphere that could indicate presence of some form of life there.

The New York Times writes that the astronomers who made the discovery "have not collected specimens of Venusian microbes, nor have they snapped any pictures of them. But with powerful telescopes, they have detected a chemical - phosphine - in the thick Venus atmosphere. After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source."

On its home page, NASA underlined the word "could."

"Scientists did not announce proof of life on another planet," NASA said.

"What they did find, however, is tantalizing in its potential meaning – though a great deal of work remains to rule out the possibility that other, unknown processes could be creating the phosphine signature detected in Venus’ atmosphere by a team of international researchers using ground-based telescopes on Earth.

"In short, it all comes down to the detection of phosphine in a temperate cloud layer of the Venusian atmosphere.

"The phosphine signature, confirmed via independent observations from two telescopes on Earth, is certainly intriguing because the only natural way we know of for phosphine to form on terrestrial planets is as a byproduct of life.  The trick here is that we don’t actually know what specific lifeform it is on Earth that produces the phosphine found in our swamps and marshes.  It is believed to be microbiotic, potentially E. coli.  But even with in situ research literally in the environment where phosphine is being created naturally on Earth, we still don’t know what causes it."

(Can we note here how ironic it might be that we've now discovered the possibility of E. coli on Venus?  Alert the food safety apparatus…)

Actually, what was interesting to me - and the business lesson in this discovery (and you know there had to be one) - was this passage in the Times story:

If the discovery is confirmed by additional telescope observations and future space missions, it could turn the gaze of scientists toward one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Venus, named after the Roman goddess of beauty, roasts at temperatures of hundreds of degrees and is cloaked by clouds that contain droplets of corrosive sulfuric acid. Few have focused on the rocky planet as a habitat for something living.

Instead, for decades, scientists have sought signs of life elsewhere, usually peering outward to Mars and more recently at Europa, Enceladus and other icy moons of the giant planets.

(Quick note here:  Do not attempt a landing on Europa.  Bad idea.  Just ask Heywood Floyd.)

But here's the business lesson.  Sometimes opportunities reveal themselves in the places where you're not looking.  In fact, competitive opportunities may best be found in such places, because the competition probably isn;'t looking there, either.

And that's the Eye-Opener.