The Venutian Dinosaur Fallacy

The original observation was effectively a lack of an observation. The conclusion was dinosaurs

The Venutian Dinosaur Fallacy

This post originally appeared on the Newton blog on RealClearScience. Read the original here.


Venus has always captured the attention of humanity. Of all the objects that adorn our night sky, it's the brightest, excluding the Moon.

Peering through his telescope in the early 17th century, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei found Venus to be almost featureless. What he saw was Venus' defining, impenetrable layer of thick clouds, obscuring the surface and shrouding the planet in mystery, a mystery quite open to speculation. As summarized by Carl Sagan in Cosmos, one of the most outlandish, yet surprisingly common lines of speculative reasoning went a little like this:

"I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus. Why not? Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course. Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it. Therefore, the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp. If there's a swamp, there's ferns. If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs."

The original observation was effectively a lack of an observation. The conclusion was dinosaurs

For decades and decades, this faulty logic played out harmlessly, roiling imaginations and powering the pens of science fiction writers. Published in 1895, Gustavus W. Pope's Journey to Venus weaves the tale of a fantastical trek to Earth's sister planet, placing Lieutenant Frederick Hamilton and his companion, the Martian princess Suhlamia, in a lush Venutian landscape inhabited by vicious, dinosaur-like beasts. "Exciting adventures, hairbreadth escapes, and perilous vicissitudes" ensue, according to the book's publisher. 

In 1922, fantasies of a wet, swampy Venus started to fade. Astronomers analyzing the visible light reflected from the planet's atmosphere found no signs of the wavelengths which would have been given off by oxygen or water. Venus, they proposed, may instead be barren and dusty, a desert-like place.

Venus is, of course, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, and this new, scientifically modern depiction wasn't nearly romantic or poetic enough for novelists. So what did many of them do? They simply ignored it. Even as late as the 1950s, writers were still describing the planet as wet and rainy. Ray Bradbury's The Long Rain told the story of four men who crash-landed on the planet and were subsequently driven insane by the unceasing precipitation. 

"It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain," Bradbury wrote, "a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping in the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains."

We now conclusively know that there's no rain on Venus, not even a drizzle. The planet's sizzling environment, sporting temperatures in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, vaporized liquid water long ago. With this knowledge, we can revise the aforementioned line of reasoning to reach a more correct conclusion: 

There is no liquid water. Therefore, there are no ferns. Therefore, there are no dinosaurs.


(Images: 1. Venus Clouds via ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA 2. Venera 13 on Venus via NASA History Office)

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists stumble across new organs in the human head

New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.

Credit: Valstar et al., Netherlands Cancer Institute
Surprising Science
  • Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
  • Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
  • Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
Keep reading Show less

Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19

A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.

Personal Growth
  • Millennials have been labeled the "unluckiest generation in U.S. history" after the one-two financial punch of the Great Recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
  • A recent survey found that about a third of millennials felt financially unprepared for the pandemic and have begun saving.
  • To achieve financial freedom, millennials will need to take control of their finances and reinterpret their relationship with the economy.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Personal Growth

    6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

    Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast