When I was about eight years old, watching the sunset, I asked Dad, “What’s that bright star over there?” He said that it wasn’t a star. It was a whole planet called Venus…He said, “You know why they called it Venus? Because they thought it was so beautiful and glowing. But they didn’t know that it’s filled with deadly gases and sulfuric acid rain.” Wow, I thought, “This is it! I’m hooked!”
-Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, in the film Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. This scene, unfortunately, isn’t in the novel. The young Arroway instead looks at Venus and dreams of creatures like us who build crystal cities there.
My wife and I live in a pretty heavily wooded neighborhood which means a lot of my stargazing is limited to what’s straight up, or at least well above the horizon. Venus, though, can be spotted even through the trees in the mornings right now. Our closest neighbor–closer than Mars, where a mole will land on November 26th, 2018–it burns brightly, sunlight reflected off its dense clouds. Maybe it’s because it’s closer to the sun, and therefore represents moving inward, that Venus doesn’t seem to exert as much pull on the human imagination as the outer planets, although Galileo did turn his telescope toward Venus, and the planet provided him the first clues that the Earth moves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Venus goes through phases like the Moon, and this is only possible if it’s between us and the sun.
Venus also intrigued the young Carl Sagan. At a time when other scientists seriously thought Venus might harbor life Sagan concluded that its dense clouds would trap heat, creating a nightmarish landscape where the surface temperature is higher than the melting point of lead. Ray Bradbury’s stories All Summer In A Day and The Long Rain imagined Venus as a jungle world of almost perpetual rain–although as the cinematic Dr. Arroway notes, it’s sulfuric acid, not water, that rains on Venus, and sometimes even forms flakes–sulfuric acid snow. It’s probably quite beautiful, although the spacecraft that have landed on Venus have only lasted a short time, destroyed by pressure and heat. It’s no wonder that in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama all the planets of the solar system–including Mercury–are colonized, with Venus the lone holdout, resisting human intrusion.
And Venus, overheated by greenhouse gases, could very well be our future. There’s something worth looking at.