The hidden face of the goddess

After suffering a psychotic collapse that would be immortalized in history books –one that famously led him to cut his own ear and give it away to a prostitute– the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh opted to commit himself in the Saint Paul-de-Mausole hospital, located in the Saint-Rémy community. It was an asylum for the mentally ill. There, among the vineyards and olive trees of the French countryside, he intended to escape from what he described in a letter to his brother as a very strange period, in which he experienced “some moods of indescribable mental anguish, some moments in which the veil of time and the fatality of circumstance seemed to break for a moment”. During his stay, he ended up producing some his most famous works, including “The starry night” –a beautiful representation of the landscape he could appreciate from his room’s window. In what turned out to be his most known painting, a quiet sleepy village, produced partly by what he observed and partly by his memories, is contrasted with a sky that presents itself as extremely alive and dynamic, with lights that penetrate the darkness, silently stalking the sleepers.

It’s difficult to know what was going on exactly in the tormented mind of Van Gogh when he painted this masterpiece, and we’re not missing interpretations that supposedly find clues into his deeper thoughts with every line and tone in the painting, but only one thing is truly inescapable when admiring the image: the universe called to him, clearly, rescuing him occasionally from the labyrinth of his decease. We know this because he didn’t just use random white dots when adorning his night sky, but the exact celestial objects that could be seen from his window in that time of year: the Aries constellation, the Moon, and specially the planet Venus, shining intensely always close to the horizon.

With a couple of master strokes, the artist highlighted a characteristic that we have noticed in our sky since the first human being set out to observe it in any detail: Venus is the third brightest object in the heavens, only outshined by the Sun and Moon. Its brightness has been fueling our imagination for uncountable generations, but it has also blinded us to its true nature. Indeed, it’s hard to find a celestial body that we’ve been as wrong about, for as long.

For starters, many classical civilizations of antiquity erroneously identified our planetary neighbor as two distinct objects, depending on when you observe it: the “morning star” and “evening star” –according to the changing conditions of an orbit they didn’t really understand. The first exception (as far as we know) were the Babylonians, who over 3,500 years ago had already deduced that Venus was a unique spot, referred to as “the bright queen of the sky”. The Greeks, on their part, talked about this fake stellar duality as “Phosphorus” and “Hesperus”, until the famous Pythagoras managed to see beyond the illusion.

In more modern times, it was Galileo who noted –using the then recently invented telescope– that Venus had “phases”, like the ones we can observe on the Moon; something that from our perspective was very powerful evidence in favor of that planet moving around the Sun, and not the Earth (until that moment still considered the center of creation). A century later, Mikhail Lomonosov and others would discover while the planet was lit from different angles by the Sun, that Venus had a dense and opaque atmosphere, a size and composition almost identical to Earth’s, and a rocky surface, where surely many forms of life inhabited, under the shadow of eternal clouds.

Since the planet continued to hide its secrets, the 20th century was abundant with fantastic stories about what could be hidden behind that reflexive layer. Being closer to the Sun, it was evident that the planet should have a warmer and more humid climate than Earth’s, and so it was represented as such in stories by luminaries like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Lovecraft. In them, humans struggled to adapt to a jungle world of giant lizards and insects, punctuated by the occasional carnivore plant.

When it became clear –thanks to spectroscopy– that there was no water in the Venusian atmosphere, our imagination dictated that it had to be a dusty desert world then, to be domesticated only by the most daring explorers.

As we very well know now, it would have been a very short visit.

The human species finally visited this object of ancestral worship in the second half of the 20th century, in the form of the Venera probes, launched by the Soviet Union. Of these, Venera 7 was the first to reach the surface, all the previous ones being crushed by the pressure before even touching the ground. There were no jungles, no swamps, no dinosaurs, hidden behind the shine of the morning star. Instead, this was a boiler at almost 500 degrees Celsius, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide, receiving the constant sulfuric acid rain being released by its volcanoes. Such was the true nature of the hidden face of the goddess, very different from what we expected, but no less beautiful.

So was confirmed recently by the Magellan probe, sent by NASA, when it detected unexplained dark patches spread through the Venusian peaks, far away from its volcanic activity. The best hypothesis so far is that this is black metallic snow, evaporated from boiling rocks, falling grimly over the highest mountains on the planet. A truly imposing image, if a little morbid.

Watching Venus as it really is, one gets the impression that there wasn’t enough rage and madness in Van Gogh’s representation, nor did imagination reached far enough for all those writers to truly describe its characteristics. Fortunately, the exploration of this and many other worlds is just beginning, and it is undeniable that only in the confines of the human mind can this hell become a paradise.

The best is yet to come for this mysterious world.