Artist’s impression of Venus, with an inset showing a representation of the phosphine molecules detected in the high cloud decks. (Image: JESO / M. Kornmesser / L. Calçada & NASA / JPL / Caltech)

September 2020 brought a landmark discovery for astrobiology — the detection of a chemical compound in the clouds of Venus that is often associated with the presence of life. Though no SFI researchers were on the team that published the recent discovery of phosphine, one SFI scientist first forecast the possibility of Venusian life more than 50 years earlier. 

With co-author Carl Sagan, the late SFI Science Board member and External Professor Harold Morowitz made a plausible case for a habitable niche in Venus’s atmosphere, in a speculative article published in the journal Nature in 1967. 

“While the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether,” wrote Morowitz and Sagan. They moved on to describe how microbial life forms could survive by floating above the scorching surface of the planet, taking advantage of water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide which are prerequisites for photosynthesis. 

The 2020 discovery brought a new wave of attention to Morowitz and Sagan’s article, with citations popping up in prominent science news outlets and in mainstream media outlets.

Morowitz, who passed away in 2016, was instrumental in establishing SFI as a leading research center for questions relating to biophysics and life’s origins. He convened the Institute’s inaugural workshop on the origins of life in 1987, which grew into a multi-institution, National Science Foundation-funded investigation that produced two leading, but incomplete, scientific explanations.