Written by Anya Phillips
Welcome to installment II of Planet Series; today I will discuss Venus. Thesis statement: Venus is a boiling brownish rock that we can basically never ever visit, but Venus is nuanced, and it deserves our love. Please love Venus. Let’s get into it.
We’re all astronomers here, so let’s start off with speed running some planetary science facts before I pretend to be a WGSST major at the end. In general, the planets in our solar system have average surface temperatures that drop off with increasing distance from the Sun. It follows that Mercury is the warmest planet, right? WRONG! We’ve failed to consider the effects of a planet’s atmosphere on its temperature! Earth has a nice substantial atmosphere, which keeps us toasty with trapped radiation from the Sun, even from 150 million kilometers away. But Earth’s atmosphere is put to SHAME by that of Venus. Atmospheres like ours (in which carbon-based molecules trap heat from the sun) are kept in check by something called the Carbon Cycle. It’s sort of like the water cycle. Basically, carbon gets outgassed from the beneath Earth’s surface (think volcanoes and geysers), is absorbed by water in the atmosphere which rains down, ultimately causing the carbon to be deposited from the oceans back into the Earth’s crust, and the cycle repeats. It’s actually way more complicated than that and also involves organic matter processing carbon but for our purposes know that large bodies of water are important for carrying carbon back to the ocean floors where it reenters Earth’s crust.
The idea is that Venus started out like Earth—with liquid oceans and a respectable but not inescapable atmosphere. But, being so close much closer to the Sun, Venus’ oceans evaporated. Without the ocean to dissolve carbon-based molecules and let them reabsorb into the crust, Venus’s carbon cycle spun out of control. All of Venus’ carbon was outgassed into its atmosphere, and that along with all of the water vapor is what makes the atmosphere the greenhouse we know today, trapping heat from the Sun, and giving Venus an average surface temperature of 900 degrees F (~475 C), hot enough to melt lead. Missions that have landed on Venus’ surface (google the Russian Venera program!) have lasted less than 2 hours before dying completely.
Okay enough science. Let’s briefly get into some cultural references to the planet Venus. For a lot of us, the saying “men are from mars and women are from Venus” comes to mind, demonstrating traditional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity as Mars is the Roman god of war and Venus that of beauty and love. Perhaps a bit more scientifically, we can look to the fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact, who is written to view Venus as “a planet that had let itself go,” disappointed at its seeming inhabitability. Or there’s my favorite reference, in the artist Mitski’s song “Nobody,” in which she sings “Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming, did its people want too much too?” Mitski both references Venus’ ties with femininity and desire, and its place in our minds as a cautionary tale if we let Earth’s atmosphere get too thick by extracting, or wanting, too much from our planet.
So, there are some things to unpack here. First, Venus as a failed Earth, a disappointment. I don’t think Venus’s hostile surface should disqualify it from being your favorite planet! Is it not so incredibly interesting that our neighbor is so similar and yet so different from our home planet? Even if we can’t live there, is it not interesting to imagine the types of creatures who might, either floating in the balmy upper atmosphere or toughing it out through the metallic-frost-covered mountains?
Second, Venus as a cautionary tale—what could happen to Earth humans continue to burn fossil fuels, effectively outgassing carbon faster than it can be reabsorbed, thickening the atmosphere, heating the Earth, causing the oceans to evaporate, and halting the carbon cycle… perhaps a bit depressing, I’ll give you that. But consider this view of Venus an opportunity to examine the entanglement between the scientific and the social spheres. It forces us to understand that the action of a society wielding power over which it has little control and with capitalistic intentions has the ability to geologically alter an entire planet! Venus’s spiraling into a sulfuric hell world was the fault of the sun, but Earth’s doing so could be the fault only of a people who wanted too much.
Lastly, Venus and the feminine. What a contradiction, but also my favorite thing about Venus! The juxtaposition of a planet culturally associated with softness, tenderness, sensuality, and womanhood which beneath its clouds is in fact so hostile that the arrival of humans to it would mean instant death for those humans…I just find it so compelling. Perhaps Venus’s existence speaks to the experience of being perceived one way and feeling completely out of step with that perception. I’m thinking of hashtag femme in stem moments like quietly taking notes about magnetostatics while a male classmate antagonistically interrupts the only woman physics professor you’ve ever had to tell her that she’s using the right-hand rule incorrectly. Or gender-neutrally laughing along as a male classmate announces that “today we’re joined by a female.” Or nodding while a professor brings up the cool paper by “what’s his name?” that you read last weekend before extensively stalking the woman who wrote it to see if she’d be a good Ph.D. advisor. Or calmly listening to professors at Astro coffee discuss the latest space controversies the week Roe v. Wade is overturned by the supreme court, completely torn apart inside but unable to externalize it in this context…
Actually, maybe that’s a little too much for Planet Series, but here’s to the boiling rage that comes with trying to assimilate! I guess Venus exemplifies
- being yourself even if yourself isn’t what others want you to be
- The hostility that can be contained in a single harmless-looking body
That’s why I love it and why you should also love it.
image credit: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/venus/in-depth/
And google searching “carbon cycle diagram”