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Not finding life on Venus would be disappointing. But it’s good science at work.

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Last month’s report that there may be phosphine gas in the Venusian clouds came with a stunning implication: extraterrestrial life. On Earth, phosphine is a chemical produced by some kinds of bacteria that live in oxygen-poor conditions. Its presence on Venus, announced by a team led by Cardiff University’s Jane Greaves, raised the possibility that there could be life in what has long been thought one of the most inhospitable environments in the solar system: a planet that’s covered in thick clouds of sulfuric acid, with an atmosphere that’s 96% carbon dioxide, and where the pressure at the surface is 100 times greater than Earth’s. Oh, and it experiences temperatures up to 471 °C—well above the melting point of lead. 

Since the initial report, though, doubt about the finding has crept in. Three different preprint papers (none of which have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, although one has been accepted) were unable to find the same evidence of phosphine on Venus. 

On the surface, the new reports might seem to suggest the team behind the initial findings messed up badly, or is suffering a backlash from overhyping the results. But it was a solid study. The original detections were announced after Greaves and her team found phosphine signals in infrared-to-microwave readings of the Venusian atmosphere made with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. “The authors were super clear. They did a fantastic job of saying that they did not find life—that they found something associated with life on Earth that they cannot explain on Venus,” says Stephanie Olson, a planetary scientist at Purdue University who was not involved with any of these studies. The team went so far as to publish a paper in the journal Astrobiology investigating—and ruling out—known natural causes for phosphine in Venus.

Repetition, repetition

The truth is, the story of Venus’s putative phosphine is not a simple case of a sensational finding being shot down upon further scrutiny. In fact, the rush of follow-up research is welcomed; science is doing its thing. This is especially true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life—after all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

“I think this is a perfect example of how the scientific process works,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, who also wasn’t involved in the studies. “It certainly makes sense that there would be other studies that would try and get at this question.”

The first preprint paper to cast doubt on the original was actually written in part by Greaves herself. After failing to secure more time on telescopes to verify her team’s initial finding—the pandemic has made telescope access difficult and in some cases impossible—she and her colleagues turned to an archive of infrared observations made in 2015 and couldn’t find any sign of phosphine. 

This is frustrating, of course, but as Byrne says, “the absence of proof of a given detection is not proof of absence. It just might mean the problem is more complex than we’d like.” Maybe phosphine doesn’t actually exist on Venus, or maybe it varies over time. Or perhaps the archival observations Greaves analyzed didn’t probe deeply enough into the clouds. 

Replicability is actually a common problem when it comes to these kinds of investigations. Our current characterization of methane on Mars, for example, is under intense debate: NASA’s Curiosity rover has a has a history of detecting enormous spikes of methane on the planet, while ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, designed to study the gas on Mars with far more sensitive instruments than Curiosity, has found bupkis. The same goes for the detection of water plumes on Europa by the Hubble Space Telescope: subsequent investigations have struggled to find them.

Still processing

Another problem that plagues the phosphine findings is data processing. The two other preprints were written by teams that tried to reprocess the original data used by Greaves and her team, suspecting that the original analysis was flawed. It’s often a challenge to pull signals out of the massive amounts of noise found in telescopic data. Researchers in the original study used a technique called polynomial fitting, which is supposed to remove background noise around the spectral region where phosphine signals should pop up. But as National Geographic reports, the way they went about it might actually have introduced false phosphine signals. 

Both of these new preprints reprocessed the data from scratch, without using Greaves’s method. One focused solely on the ALMA data and failed to find phosphine. The other paper looked at both the ALMA and JCMT data. Researchers found no phosphine signal in the ALMA data and detected a signal in the JCMT set that might be explained by sulfur dioxide gas. 

Moreover, the ALMA observatory recently found an error in its calibration system used to collect the data Greaves and her team worked with. That doesn’t mean they had things wrong in the first place. “Even if the ALMA data are found to be erroneous, there’s still an explanation required for whether or not the [JCMT] data are correct,” says Byrne. “I don’t think this is all that clear cut in saying ‘Yes, there’s phosphine’ or ‘No, there is not.’”

Nor is it clear cut whose methodology is more “correct.” “There’s no official recipe or set of rules for how this is supposed to be done in studying biosignatures,” says Olson. Indeed, many advances in science come from the fact that different groups approach problems differently, revealing insights and clues that others didn’t notice.

The key is transparency. “Whatever method one uses, as long as it’s well documented and accessible—which is what we’ve seen with the Greaves paper and the follow-up preprint investigations—as long as it’s reproducible, that’s what matters,” says Byrne. Disagreements are fine, and as long as they can be discussed openly, that’s good science. 

After verifying

Should researchers even reach a consensus that phosphine does exist on Venus, that doesn’t mean there’s life on the planet. “Phosphine is definitely a potential biosignature, but it’s not only a biosignature,” says Byrne. Phosphine is produced on Earth by bacteria living in sewage, swamps, marshlands, rice fields, and animal intestines—but we know it’s also produced in some industrial applications, and on gaseous planets like Saturn and Jupiter where it’s thought life can’t survive. As for what’s going on in the case of Venus, we don’t know enough about the planet to totally rule out some strange chemistry we’ve never seen before. 

The same applies to other potential biosignatures we’ve discovered in the solar system. “I can’t think of a single compound that we can easily measure that would only definitively indicate life,” says Byrne. Methane is produced by many kinds of bacteria on Earth (including those living in cattle), but it’s also spewed by volcanoes. Breathable oxygen (in the form of O2) was created by Earth’s first cyanobacteria, but strange reactions involving sunlight and a mineral called titania also produce it on other worlds.

When it comes to Venus, “this will be a debate that we’ll be having for years to come,” says Olson. And that’s because no single clue can be concrete proof of life unless we send a mission to make direct observations.

“There are things we can do in the meantime,” says Byrne. “But until we go there, it’s basically academic. The only way to answer these questions is to go there.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Adobe expands customer data platform to include B2B sales

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The concept of the customer data platform (CDP) is a relatively new one. Up until now, it has focused primarily on pulling data about an individual consumer from a variety of channels into a super record, where in theory you can serve more meaningful content and deliver more customized experiences based on all this detailed knowledge. Adobe announced its intention today to create such a product for business to business (B2B) customers, a key market where this kind of data consolidation had been missing.

Indeed Brian Glover, Adobe’s director of product marketing for Marketo Engage, who has been put in charge of this product, says that these kinds of sales are much more complex and B2B sales and marketing teams are clamoring for a CDP.

“We have spent the last couple of years integrating Marketo Engage across Adobe Experience Cloud, and now what we’re doing is building out the next generation of new and complimentary B2B offerings on the Experience platform, the first of which is the B2B CDP offering,” Glover told me.

He says that they face unique challenges adapting CDP for B2B sales because they typically involve buying groups, meaning you need to customize your messages for different people depending on their role in the process.

An individual consumer usually knows what they want and you can prod them to make a decision and complete the purchase, but a B2B sale is usually longer and more complex involving different levels of procurement. For example, in a technology sale, it may involve the CIO, a group, division or department who will be using the tech, the finance department, legal and others. There may be an RFP and the sales cycle may span months or even years.

Adobe believes this kind of sale should still be able to use the same customized messaging approach you use in an individual sale, perhaps even more so because of the inherent complexity in the process. Yet B2B marketers face the same issues as their B2C counterparts when it comes to having data spread across an organization.

“In B2B that complexity of buying groups and accounts just adds another level to the data management problem because ultimately you need to be able to connect to your customer people data, but you also need to be able to connect the account data too and be able to [bring] the two together,” Glover explained.

By building a more complete picture of each individual in the buying cycle, you can, as Glover puts it, begin to put the bread crumbs together for the entire account. He believes that a CRM isn’t built for this kind of complexity and it requires a specialty tool like a CDP built to support B2B sales and marketing.

Adobe is working with early customers on the product and expects to go into beta before the end of next month with GA some time in the first half of next year.

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Two-year-old Day One Ventures raises new $52.5M fund to invest in Valley startups

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Back in 2018 Day One Ventures launched in Silicon Valley specifically designed to be both a VC and an investor that would also lead marketing and communications for its portfolio. Two years on, Day One has invested in numerous startups to do just that and has today filed with the SEC its new $52.5M fund.

The new fund is similar to the first one: investing across industries from pre-seed to seed, with occasional series A investments (from $100K to $5M).

The fund was founded and is headed by Russian émigré Masha Drokova, who, since arriving in the US a few years ago, has been variously a PR and angel investor, but famously dumped her former life in Russia as a politician and TV reporter.

Drokova says the fund focuses on ‘day one’ companies, as defined by Jeff Bezos, which have ‘customer obsession’ in-built into their company culture.

She says the fund was raised during the pandemic over zoom with $45 million coming from LPs in the first fund. More than 30% of the capital is invested in POC founders; it has 25 female founders in its portfolio; and 33% of its capital is invested in high-growth ‘impact’ companies. Day one has frequently co-invested with Andreessen, Index Ventures, Founders Fund, and Lightspeed.

The fund has had three exits so far: Lvl5, Acquired, Feastly and has invested in Remote.com (with Index and Sequoia).

So far among its portfolio is:

DoNotPay: British founder Joshua Browder, started a chatbot that pays your parking ticket, cancels subscriptions and gets refunds for you. This raised a $15M series A led by Coatue and Andreessen.
Superhuman: An AI-based email client for execs founded by Brit Rahul Vohra – it has raised $35M series B from Andreessen.
MSCHF: This creates viral and controversial products on a Supreme-drop-like model, invested with Founders Fund.
Truebill: a personal finance & savings app.

The fund says its portfolio companies have now raised $825 million in aggregate; over 25% of its capital is in fintech companies; over 30% in AI-powered startups; and it claims to have hit over 500 media publications for its portfolio.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Drakova said “We choose startups with ‘customer obsession’ as the main focus for selection. Secondly, our value add in communications means we have people like Jack Randall who did comms for Robin Hood on our team. Not many women immigrants to the US have raised as much as this, as fast as this. So it’s a good sign for the market.”

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India bans another 43 Chinese apps

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India is not done banning Chinese apps. The world’s second largest internet market, which has banned over 175 apps with links to the neighboring nation in recent months, said on Tuesday it was banning an additional 43 such apps.

Like with the previous orders, India cited cybersecurity concerns to block these apps. “This action was taken based on the inputs regarding these apps for engaging in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order,” said India’s IT Ministry in a statement.

The ministry said it issued the order of blocking these apps “based on the comprehensive reports received from Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Center, Ministry of Home Affairs.”

The apps that have been banned include popular short video service Snack Video, which had surged to the top of the chart in recent months, as well as e-commerce app AliExpress, delivery app Lalamove, and shopping app Taobao Live. Full list here. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be any Chinese app left in the top 500 apps used in India.

Tuesday order comes as a handful of apps including PUBG Mobile and TikTok explore ways to make a return to the country. In recent weeks, PUBG has registered a local entity in India, partnered with Microsoft for computing needs, and publicly vowed to invest $100 million in the country. Though it is yet to hear from the government.

Tensions between the world’s two most populous nations escalated after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in the Himalayas in June. Ever since, “Boycott China” sentiment has trended on social media in India as a growing number of people post videos demonstrating destruction of Chinese-made smartphones, TVs and other products.

In April, India also made a change to its foreign investment policy that requires Chinese investors — who have ploughed billions of dollars into Indian startups in recent years — to take approval from New Delhi before they could write new checks to Indian firms. The move has significantly reduced Chinese investors’ presence in Indian startups’ deal flows in the months since.

More to follow…

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