Seeing the Trees through the Forest

The Forest

Venus Landing. Credit:
Soviet Planetary Exploration Program
It's time to get back to some of the reader’s questions. Over the last couple of months I've focused on the easy ones like "how big is the universe?". Now, people are asking the tough ones, like that from Mike:

"There’s been a recent debate in our local papers regarding Venus' high planetary temperature being related to the dearth of carbon dioxide on the planet. Apparently Venus is much, much hotter than Mercury, even though Venus is twice as far from the sun. Could you explain a bit about our system’s planets and how they differ compositionally? What is it about the Earth's composition of elements that makes it just right for 99% of the life on the planet? I say 99% because it seems 1% of the life is strange enough to exist in all sorts of harsh conditions."

When it comes to the landscape of our own neighborhood, it gets a little more complicated for me. I have a tendency to look right past the solar system in my research of the distant Universe. I'm sure there's an explanation for this in the cliché of missing the forest for the trees. I just do it in reverse.

The Trees


Hubble Deep Field. Credit:
R. Williams, The HDF Team (STScI), NASA
Truth is, the trees are quite intriguing in their own right. I think people are more impressed with the observations of our solar system because the proximity lends to very detailed images and observations. Compare an image of the surface of Venus to one of the deepest images from Hubble Space Telescope. The image of Venus fits within our sense of scale that we established in our time here on Earth. You can even see familiar rocks and the feet of the Soviet robot. The Hubble Deep Field... needs a bit of explanation.

For the rest of the year, I am going to pull back from the farthest reaches of the universe and focus on Venus and the other planets. It will give me a chance to learn a little about what the Solar System actually looks like. It will also give me a chance to explore some of the most breath-taking images that NASA has created. I'm just going to have to do a little research to get it right.

Kyle S. Dawson is engaged in post-doctorate studies of distant supernovae and development of a proposed space-based telescope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

latitude: 37.6797, longitude: -121.698