Life in the Clouds

What is life and what are the conditions needed for it to begin and thrive? These are questions that drive planetary scientists but also theologians. This week we begin again the reading of Bereshit, Genesis, which starts with the creation of the earth and the beginning of life on our planet. While the first chapter of Genesis does not describe a scientific process, it does give an order to creation.

A close reading of the litany of God forming the universe highlights some contradictions. This week in religious school, the 6th and 7th grade teacher, Sharon Brooks, pointed out to the children that vegetation was created on the third day while the sun was created on the fourth day. We all learned that plants require sunlight to grow so how could they be created before their source of energy?

The lesson reminded me of science’s on going search for life beyond our planet. Many researchers speculate that life might exist in underground oceans on icy moons such as Europa or Enceladus. No sunlight would penetrate the thick layers of water ice on these worlds, but we know that while life needs energy to survive, it doesn’t necessarily need light. On earth, undersea volcanic vents surrounded by darkness are teeming with life.

There are so many mysteries about life that we don’t understand. The more we look at it, the less certain we are. Perhaps that is one lesson to take from the odd order of creation in Genesis. And the questions keep coming. Last month scientists announced that there may be life on Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. It turns out that the atmosphere of the planet is filled with a molecule whose existence is best explained by the presence of microorganisms.

This news was exciting for me because I have long felt that Venus gets short shrift in favor of Mars as a destination for exploration and colonization due to a terrestrial bias. Venus, while having a reputation as a hellish place, is actually more hospitable, as long as you stay away from the surface. Unlike Mars it has gravity similar to ours, protects against radiation, and if you stay in a sweet spot way up in the atmosphere the temperature and pressure are close to high altitude spots on Earth.

How cool would it be to explore Venus from floating airships in Venus’s clouds? All you would need to go outside is a heavy winter coat and mask to provide oxygen. No spacesuit would be necessary but you would need protection from the acid rain. We could fulfill our dream of living in Cloud City, like on the Star Wars planet Bespin.

The news about possible life on Venus may inspire more missions to the planet although humans are not likely to go any time soon. In the meantime, we will continue to ponder the great questions of life: How did it begin? Are we alone? Like the observations made from telescopes and spacecraft, our reading of Genesis may not answer these questions, but they help us continue to explore our place in this continually surprising universe.

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