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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

From Venus, a sign of our smallness

The planet Venus, seen from the Japan Aerospace

The planet Venus, seen from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Akatsuki probe. A report released on Monday said astronomers have found a potential signal of life high in the atmosphere of our nearest neighboring planet. Credit: AP

There is a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles that is hallowed ground — for astronomers and, really, for all humankind.

Atop that peak is the famed Mount Wilson Observatory. It was in the news last week, not because of a new celestial discovery but because it was being threatened by wildfire. The flames got within 500 feet before firefighters turned it back, preserving a facility that still functions but that is best known for the amazing work Edwin Hubble did there nearly a century ago.

Hubble is the person who discovered the size of our universe.

Using the Hooker telescope, the largest in the world at the time, Hubble figured out in 1923 that a swirl of gas and dust known as the Andromeda nebula was not part of our Milky Way but its own galaxy beyond the Milky Way, which back then was considered pretty much the extent of the universe. Hubble continued to discover other galaxies, and in 1929 confirmed that the universe is expanding and that those galaxies are moving away from Earth, one of the foundations of the Big Bang Theory.

This was mind-blowing stuff, of course, perhaps not fully appreciated even today. Because what Hubble did was to relegate us humans to a status of insignificant gnats in an expanse of space we can’t begin to wrap our brains around. In this kind of immensity, are we really the only advanced life form out there? Could we really be the only game in town?

Because the cosmological gods love a good coincidence as much as any pantheon of deities, they conspired to drop another piece of news as fire was climbing Mount Wilson:

Life on Venus.

No, not actual E.T.’s. but evidence of life in the form of a chemical called phosphine, discovered in Venus’ thick atmosphere by telescopes far more powerful than the one Hubble used. The theory, not universally accepted, is that only something alive like an anaerobic organism could produce this gas in conditions that exist on and around Venus. And if anaerobic organisms exist, well, who knows. (If phosphine rings some distant bell, perhaps it’s because Walter White used it on "Breaking Bad" to try to kill two rival gangsters.)

News of possible life in Venus’ atmosphere excited scientists. The planet itself has been generally considered inhospitable. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, the surface temperature averages more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmospheric pressure at its surface is 90 times that of Earth.

But the search for life in the universe, while thrilling and necessary, also can feel incomplete. We look for signs of life as we know it, for places with conditions akin to what we have on Earth. We look for planets in the fabled goldilocks zone, where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. It’s an understandable strategy.

But what if there are forms of life not dependent on water, forms of life we’ve never seen? We have no proof that such life-forms exist, but think of all the things we used to not know. Hubble taught us the universe is vast. Why wouldn’t the possibilities for life be every bit as vast?

Science is neither devoid of nor incompatible with imagination. That’s always driven discovery. And that will continue. But let’s not be constrained by the limits of imagination, either.

Our biggest advances come when we think big, when we let our minds roam free. That’s true of scientists studying the cosmos, and the rest of us living our earthly lives. The universe of possibilities is endless. May our exploration of them, here and in the heavens, never cease.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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