September 14, 2020

Venus has been described as "Earth's evil twin" and "a fiery wasteland." Now it has a surprising new attribute, according to scientists: possible home of extraterrestrial life.

While even Venus apologists admit that the planet is the "literal interpretation of a mythical hellscape," with temperatures that exceed 800°F and poisonous gases that would kill you in seconds, on Monday astronomers confirmed the discovery of a chemical, phosphine, in the morning star's atmosphere. "On Earth, certain microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, like at a sewage plant, are believed to produce the chemical," CNET explains. "The gas is highly toxic to humans and smells like decaying fish." (An MIT professor who spoke with NPR was less polite, describing it as smelling like "the rancid diapers of the spawn of Satan"). What's so cool about this smelly deadly rotting fish gas, though, is that "after much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation" for Venus' levels of phosphine, The New York Times reports.

Though this doesn't confirm extraterrestrial life, it's still "pretty damn exciting," to quote David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute. And as everyone's favorite astronaut, Chris Hadfield, tweeted, the implications are huge: "If there's life in the upper atmosphere of Venus," he wrote, "then we're going to find life on many planets and moons — and around other stars." Sure, that life might not be anything more advanced than a super stinky microbe, but the cosmos are still on the cusp of getting that much more crowded. Suddenly, the big black void above us doesn't seem quite as lonely as it once did.

Speaking as someone who really, really wants the truth to be out there, this is, needless to say, invigorating news — particularly as Venus was the dark horse in the search for alien life compared to her more popular brother, Mars. But beyond being an astonishing breakthrough in the field of astrobiology, the potential of life on (or around) Venus is the kind of feel-good scientific discovery this year has desperately needed.

That's not to mitigate the extremely important work scientists are doing to understand and cure COVID-19, or to grasp the climate science behind our historic hurricane season and the wildfires that have made the air quality on the West Coast downright Cytherean. But the anxiety and urgency driving such research in 2020 can also make me forget that scientific discoveries are a joy — and the Venus news is a reminder that there are still so many amazing things we have yet to learn, even about our own planetary neighbors next door. Jeva Lange

1:43 p.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, and his wife, Jill Biden, on Tuesday released their 2019 tax returns.

That's not a huge deal on its own — Biden has released his tax info before — but the timing is certainly not a coincidence. The Bidens made their documents public the same day as the first presidential debate, which will take place just two days after The New York Times published a report after the paper obtained Trump's tax information, which he has not agreed to release.

The Times piece revealed that Trump paid very little in income taxes over the last last several years and it also raised a lot of questions about Trump's business dealings and personal wealth, so Biden's move appears to be an attempt to show a contrast between the two candidates as they get ready to duke it out on stage.

1:17 p.m.

Be prepared for another live-action Lion King.

A follow-up to Disney's 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King is in the works, and Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins will direct it, Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter reported on Tuesday. The screenwriter behind the 2019 film, Jeff Nathanson, has reportedly already finished a draft of the script, per Deadline.

Jenkins confirmed the news on Twitter and in a statement, saying, "Helping my sister raise two young boys during the '90s, I grew up with these characters. Having the opportunity to work with Disney on expanding this magnificent tale of friendship, love and legacy while furthering my work chronicling the lives and souls of folk within the African diaspora is a dream come true."

The 2019 remake of The Lion King was directed by Jon Favreau, and it grossed a whopping $1.6 billion, becoming the seventh highest-grossing movie of all time despite receiving middling reviews. The original animated Lion King was followed by the direct-to-video The Lion King II: Simba's Pride and The Lion King 1½.

Deadline says Jenkins' movie will be "moving the story forward while looking back," and Variety reports it will "partly focus on the early years of Mufasa." The Lion King is the latest remake from Disney to get another installment; a follow-up to 2019's Aladdin is also in the works, and the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake is getting a Disney+ prequel series about LeFou and Gaston.

Jenkins' 2016 film Moonlight previously won the Academy Award for Best Picture — though famously, La La Land was first wrongly announced to have won — and he followed that up with another acclaimed film in 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk. Should his Lion King movie go on to win any Oscars, let's just hope they read the right winner the first time. Brendan Morrow

1:14 p.m.

If President Trump's calls for his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, to join him in taking a drug test before or after Tuesday night's presidential debate were ever serious, they gained little traction. But it did seem like Trump's campaign team was actually getting somewhere with its request that both candidates subject themselves to a pre-debate, third party inspection for electronic ear pieces.

Biden's campaign reportedly agreed to the request a few days ago, but is now declining.

The Trump campaign's unfounded speculation that Biden is planning to cheat — whether via electronics or performance-enhancing drugs — during the debate has coincided with their insistence that the former vice president is a strong debater, which runs counter to their usual depiction of him as a gaffe-prone candidate whose mental fitness should be called into question. Tim O'Donnell

11:59 a.m.

For the first time in months, New York City's daily COVID-19 positivity rate has risen above three percent.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) in a news briefing on Tuesday said the city's coronavirus positivity rate is 1.38 percent based on its seven-day rolling average, but the daily positivity rate has risen to 3.25 percent, which according to The New York Times is the highest the number has been since June.

"That is cause for real concern," de Blasio said.

De Blasio also said that the city is facing a "serious problem" that is "primarily" in nine zip codes. Officials have been "particularly concerned about eight neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens" that "have accounted for about one-fourth of New York City's new cases in the past two weeks," The New York Times previously reported.

In recent months, New York had brought its number of new COVID-19 cases down significantly after being the hardest-hit state for a while early in the pandemic. But New York recently reported more than 1,000 new daily cases for the first time in months. The news that the daily positivity rate has risen above three percent was announced on the same day that New York City's elementary schools began in-person classes. The Times' Eliza Shapiro notes that if the city's positivity rate remains above three percent for seven days, public schools will be forced to close.

"We know we can turn it around, but everyone has to be a part of it," de Blasio said. "But we also know that there have to be very tough measures ready to go and that we will use them as quickly as needed." Brendan Morrow

11:32 a.m.

The National Football League is facing its first major in-season hurdle regarding the coronavirus pandemic after the league announced Tuesday that the Tennessee Titans had three players and five team personnel members test positive for COVID-19. The tests apparently went through multiple rounds of evaluation to confirm the results, as is league protocol.

The Titans are closing their facilities until Saturday, as are the Minnesota Vikings, who the Titans played Sunday, although there's no word if Minnesota actually has any positive tests.

As things stand, it seems the Titans and the league are hoping the team team can safely play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, but it will likely be a wait-and-see approach. Scheduling logistics, of course, take a back seat to the health of the individuals who tested positive, but the league is reportedly mulling contigency plans should the game be postponed. Major League Baseball, for what it's worth, experienced two major outbreaks early in its 2020 season, but the regular season finished smoothly. Read more at ESPN. Tim O'Donnell

10:56 a.m.

Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has died, state media reported Tuesday. He was 91. The cause of death was not made clear, but he fell ill with an unspecified condition earlier this year.

Sheikh Sabah, whose family has ruled Kuwait for 260 years, had served as emir, the country's ultimate authority, since 2006. Before that he was prime minister and, for many decades, foreign minister. While in that role, per BBC, the staunch U.S. ally became known as the "dean of Arab diplomacy" for his efforts to restore relations with countries that supported Iraq during the Gulf War when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.

As emir, The Associated Press notes, he served as a mediator between Qatar and several Arab nations that launched a boycott against Doha, but the situation remains unresolved. In 2011, he maintained power during the Arab Spring protests, while still allowing demonstrations.

He is expected to be succeeded by his half brother, the 83-year-old crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah. Read more at BBC and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

10:40 a.m.

When President Trump speaks in private about religion, "many" of his comments are "marked by cynicism and contempt," reports The Atlantic.

Former aides described how they have "heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base."

In one instance, Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen told The Atlantic that in 2015, Trump enthusiastically showed him an article about a megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million for a private jet; Trump reportedly said the pastor was "full of sh-t" and that "they're all hustlers." Cohen also remembered that once, when Trump was told that his son was at a playdate with a Jewish girl, he said to Cohen, "Great. I'm going to lose another one of my kids to your people." And according to Cohen, Trump frequently mocked Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.

In another instance, a former adviser recalled showing Trump a video of a televangelist performing "faith healings," which Trump reportedly laughed at, saying, "Man, that's some racket." The report additionally quotes a recording of Trump meeting with religious figures in 2016 in which he reportedly admitted that "I don't know the Bible as well as some of the other people" and joked about being taken aback when Mike Pence asked him to bow his head and pray.

"I said, 'Excuse me?’" Trump reportedly said. "I'm not used to it."

Former campaign official A.J. Delgado told The Atlantic that Trump is "not a religious guy," while former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res said, "I always assumed he was an atheist." The White House told The Atlantic that Trump is "a champion for religious liberty" who is "also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths." Read more at The Atlantic. Brendan Morrow

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