I'm looking for a science fiction short story I read many years ago. The storyline is a planet being observed for possibility of life and the conclusion is it is uninhabitable because of the 'poisonous oxygen clouds' around it. The twist is that it is an alien observing Planet Earth. Any ideas of author? I have tried all manner of permutations of keywords on Google etc, but drawn a blank. Thanks in advance.

  • I remember a similar story, where at one point a ship landed in a field of grass and the grass caught on fire. There was a significant temperature difference between their home and earth and the idea of the grass burning from heat of their rocket was beyond their imagination. Is your story the same as the one I am remembering? Jun 18, 2014 at 18:58
  • Hi James, I think your story is different, my aliens didn't land on earth because they thought it impossible, but thanks for commenting. I think the Report on Planet Three by Arthur C Clarke answer is the most likely. Cheers, Rob
    – rob
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:06
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    A side note: oxygen is poison to humans as well (indeed almost all organisms). The only reason we can tolerate it is because the majority of our atmosphere is nitrogen
    – slebetman
    Jun 19, 2014 at 0:41
  • @slebetman - that's absolutely not true. Humans can breath pure oxygen, it is not poisonous to us. The reason why it is dangerous is it's tendency to explosively burn at high concentrations. They used it for our space program until the first tragic fatal accident. It can accumulate in tissues at a toxic level, but only when breathed at higher than atmospheric pressures (a pure oxygen SCUBA dive would be dangerous, but that also presents problems with the nitrogen, as well.) When in their space suits, astronauts are breathing pretty much pure oxygen. Sep 21, 2016 at 14:11
  • 1
    @AndrewMattson: Oxygen is poisonous at higher partial pressure, not higher pressure. If you have pure oxygen at atmospheric pressure it is by definition higher partial pressure of oxygen since the partial pressure is now 100% atmospheric pressure instead of 21%. Indeed, oxygen poisoning has killed people (especially babies) in unpressurised environments simply because the oxygen concentration has been allowed to rise above 40%. Oxygen starts be coming toxic at atmospheric pressure above 30%. The only reason the astronauts were not poisoned was because they used lower pressure.
    – slebetman
    Sep 21, 2016 at 14:55

2 Answers 2


This sounds like it could be Report on Planet Three by Arthur C Clarke; it's presented as a report (hence the name) made by Martians observing Earth, and goes through some key differences between the two planets from the perspective of a hypothetical Martian civilization, of one those differences being - of course - the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere.

The thick gaseous envelope surrounding the Earth contains large amounts of the poisonous and very reactive element oxygen...

Other differences called out include temperature, gravity, fire, water, and it all feeds into speculation about the possibility of life on Earth (which the Martians deem unlikely owing to "violent climatic extremes", among other reasons).

It ends with some discussion of the possibility of sending a probe to Earth and the unfortunate demise of the Martians in a nuclear war (which the feigned translator notes happened just at the same time as our "historical" Trojan War.)

  • Hi, thanks for the answer, this sounds like it fits the bill, now I just have to locate a copy. I can't believe it was someone as famous as ACC, I was expecting it to be some little known obscure work!
    – rob
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:08
  • @rob: you can probably find it on Google books and use that to verify if it's the story you were thinking of. Please feel free to retract your accept if it turns out wrong! :)
    – user8719
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:11
  • Cheers, will do. Back to marking exam papers now!
    – rob
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:12
  • I've added a google books link
    – Valorum
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:20
  • thanks, I wanted to ask the question but it feels good to have it already answered. May 14, 2020 at 10:34

Could it be "From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story: Book 2" by Jennifer Morgan?.

There's a specific mention of "poisonous oxygen clouds" in the review...

Told from the Universe’s perspective, From Lava to Life gives an exciting overview of the emergence of life on Earth. It begins with bacteria’s rise in complexity as it develops into an eukaryote who is rescued from “poisonous oxygen clouds” by mitochondria. Familiar organisms like jellyfish and worms, as well as the fantastical other-worldly five-eyed Opabinia emerge from the primordial ooze. Animals, plants, fungi, and dinosaurs inhabit the earth until a meteor creates the first Great Extinction, an example of the centrality of interdependence to life on Earth. This disaster marks the end of a chapter in Earth’s history, and the book.

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  • Hi, thanks for responding, but this looks like a children's book and was published much more recently than the one I was thinking of. The Arthur C Clarke book answer fits the bill I think.
    – rob
    Jun 18, 2014 at 19:11

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