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Have you seen photos of Venus?  When the planet is observed in visible light it looks like a big bland ecru ball (see above).  Put a whiteboard and some plastic rolling chairs on that puppy and you would have a corporate conference room in some awful suburban office-park.  Yet ultraviolet imaging of Venus paints a somewhat more interesting picture of swirling bands or darkness in the heady acid atmosphere of our sister planet.  But what does that mean?

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The dark bands turn out to be the result of sulfur compounds (carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide) and other yet unknown chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere of Venus.  On Earth these sulfur compounds are hallmarks of life…or of volcanic activity.  Some scientists are provocatively asking whether extremophile bacteria could have a place in the temperate upper atmosphere of Earth’ closest planetary neighbor.  The bacteria could use the rich sulfur and carbon clouds as building blocks and the UV (and other EM radiation!) bombardment of the sun for energy.  Perhaps, they muse, these dark bands are something akin to algal blooms in Earth’s oceans.

More than a billion years ago, Venus enjoyed a period of prolonged earthlike climate with surface water and an atmosphere which was not so hellishly heavy and hot.  But something went hideously awry and runaway greenhouse effect created a terrible feedback loop which changed the planet’s surface into the monstrous place it is today.  Apparently the igneous/volcanic processes of Venus are rather different than those of Earth, so it was probably not all treeferns, friendly dinosaurs, and bikini-clad aliens even before the runaway greenhouse phase melted away the old surface of Venus, but perhaps bacteria (or analogous lifeforms) could have evolved and escaped the catastrophe by moving into the upper clouds (which, as previously noted here, have temperatures not unlike those of Earth’s surface).

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My guess is that Venus is lifeless as a jackhammer (though, like a jackhammer it can give the alarming appearance of life), yet even if this is the case, we should know more about all of this! What happened to Venus’ original surface? Was there ever life there?  What is going on with its volcanoes and internal geology?  What is the composition of the clouds of Venus? Is there anything there other than strange sufur compounds and esoteric hydrocarbons formed from the mixture of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and UV radiation?   Once again, our nearest neighbor is beckoning.  We need to move forward with sophisticated atmospheric probes (like VAMP) and NASA should collaborate with Russia on their next Venus mission (it looks like our governments are closer than ever anyway).  For some reason, popular imagination disdains Venus, yet the questions there seem salient, and the possibilities for a nearby Earth-sized world of unlimited energy and resources seem, well, unlimited.

Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

I’m busy sprucing up the ol’ homestead for my holiday party and putting the finishing touches on my winter solstice decorations.  As I was hanging festive lanterns in the denuded winter garden—which is empty of greenery save for the holly, the yew, and the hellebores—my minded drifted off to my favorite formal garden.  Back when I was a sullen adolescent, my family would frequently visit the princely Longwood Gardens, a summer estate of the inhumanly rich Dupont family, monopolists who controlled a world-spanning empire of industrial chemicals.  Although the Duponts are probably busy to this day despoiling things and making cheap indispensable products, they have long since turned over their formal gardens to a trust which runs them for the public benefit.  Longwood Gardens are, weirdly, located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, “the Mushroom Capital of the World!”  You can visit them any time (during business hours) if you have the fortitude to head to Pennsylvania.

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Anyway, looking at the wintry ruins of my own garden, I wondered whether Longwood Gardens escapes the ravages of the season, and, if so, how?  Well, as you have probably guessed from the pictures, the professionals at Longwood have an exquisite winter garden!  They landscape outside with conifers, topiaries, and lights.  Inside their acres of climate controlled greenhouses, they are free to run wild and create whatever horticultural extravagances they can devise.  So, as a holiday treat, check out these exquisite garden photos!  Um, in my own garden, I put up some sparkly ornaments…and the holly really does look pretty.  I guess we’ll get back to all of the other plants in spring…

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I mean, yeah, that’s great and all…if exquisite views of an otherworldly paradise is your thing, but can they make chocolate pie with whipped topping?  Happy winter solstice!

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Here in Brooklyn it has already been a long, long winter…and more snow and bitter ice is on its way.  Spring seems like a vanishing dream which recedes further with every day instead of growing closer (as is the proper course of nature’s ancient power).  Would that I were able to visit my felicitous readers in the beguiling south where tropical breezes cajole weary wayfarers with the heavenly scent of orange and gardenia—where winter itself is a whimsical conceit and life is an eternal pleasure garden completely free of care [ed’s note: the writer has not spent very much time in southern latitudes or among tropical people].

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Unfortunately I am presently unable to leave the ice-fastness of my home to travel the happy Azores or frolic in the eternally verdant south.  Even my imagination is beginning to turn cold and cracked. People of past eras likewise missed the summer during long winters.  Unlike us, such bygone generations also lacked Hollywood movies, jet airplanes, and refrigerated trains full of produce—even aristocrats were far more trapped by the winters of yesteryear.

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To keep some of summer’s pleasures with them (and, more practically, to provide a home for tropical fruits and flowers which would never grow in temperate climes), bygone generations kept conservatories, greenhouses, and orangeries.  These splendid glass buildings were heated in the winter.  Such conservatories had a golden age in the18th and 19th centuries, when glass and heating became cheaper, yet international transit infrastructure was not robust enough to provide cheap travel and tropical produce to the masses (or indeed to anyone).

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The favorite architecture for such buildings was ornate gothic–which suited the shape of the iron and glass (and of the taste of the times).   To help my winterbound readers escape the endless arctic storms, I have included a gallery of some of the loveliest gothic greenhouses I could find online.  Sadly the majority of these buildings seem scantly furnished with flowers and fruit, but that means you can imagine them filled with whatever sensuous orchids and sumptuous fruits you would like.  As an added bonus the last few greenhouses are contemporary, so if you have some space you could always add such a miniature gothic greenhouse to your own garden!

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Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility.  Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume.  Because of its  size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus.  Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).

Maybe we should head over there and check it out…

Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus.  In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure).  In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean.  The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).

A photo of the surface of Venus from Venera 13

The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong.    Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid.  Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago.  Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).

Artist’s Impression of the Surface of Venus

Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain).  The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit).  Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide.  Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities.  Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology.  Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies.  As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).

Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists).  Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans.  Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens.   Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below.  Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth.    How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?

The Eocene (Illustration by Bob Hynes for the Smithsonian Institution)

The Eocene epoch (which lasted from 56 million ago to 34 million years ago) was hot!  Temperate forests ran all the way to the poles.  Steamy tropical jungles grew in the latitude where Maine is now and the equatorial regions of earth were (probably) sweltering. Tropical reefs formed in the coastal waters around a heavily forested and ice-free Antarctica. Since there was not year-round ice at each pole, the sea levels were much higher.

A Global Map of the Early Eocene (map by Dr. Ron Blakey)

The Eocene was a time when most of the contemporary mammalian orders first appeared.  The earliest artiodactyls, perissodactyls, rodents, bats, probiscideans, sirenians, and primates all originated during this time.  Of course mammals were not the only story: the Eocene was also a time of great diversification for birds and many familiar orders of avians developed then.  Reptiles begin to put the setbacks which marked the end of the Cretaceous behind them and several giant new species emerged including an immense tropical ur-python and a host of crocodiles and turtles. It is harrowing to think that the first wee dawn horses and cute little early atiodactyls were forced to contend with a 13 meter long super snakes and giant crocodilians (which flourished in the great hot swamps of Alaska), but such is the case.

Titanboa with Ancient Crocodilian (painting by Jason Bourque)

The high temperatures of the Eocene are perplexing to scientists.  By contrast, the temperatures of the Paleocene (which was the first era of the Cenezoic and had directly preceded the Eocene) were much more temperate. In fact the temperature spike of 56 million years ago seems to have ended the Paleocene and brought about the diversification of Eocene life.  The rapid warming is known as the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum and scientists have been vigorously debating what caused the climate change.  An immense amount of carbon seems to have entered the atmosphere at this time, which in turn led to greenhouse warming.  It remains controversial as to how such a large quantity of carbon got into the atmosphere.  Comet/meteorite impact, massive peat fires, and volcanic activity have been suggested as triggers, however supporting evidence is lacking.  The release of globally significant quantities of hydrocarbons–which had been trapped in undersea clathrates seems like a more feasible hypothesis, as does the idea that the earth’s orbit brought the planet closer to the sun for a time.

Phenacodus, a goat-sized grazer of the Eocene era (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The end of the Eocene was also linked to the carbon cycle.  Reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems to have led to global cooling and newly evolved varieties of grasses began to invade large swaths of the world.  Additionally two massive meteor strikes in Siberia and Maryland combined with substantial volcanic activity to finish off the long hot summer. But during the Oligocene, the era which followed the Eocene, the world was a much more familiar place inhabited by orders of animals which are still here with us today (or are us–since primates first evolved during the Eocene).

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