The Sirens of Mars

Sarah Stewart Johnson
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A planetary scientist details the remarkable history of humankind’s efforts to find signs of life on Mars. Speculation on the nature of Mars, and whether it could harbor life, goes back to the early days of astronomy, when thinkers such as Galileo and Newton peered into the night sky using primitive technologies to examine Mars’ surface. For centuries, theories of what existed there ran rampant. “The idea that Mars was like our planet only drove the quest to see it better,” writes Johnson, who teaches at Georgetown. Then, in November 1964, NASA launched the spacecraft Mariner 4 and obtained the first close-up images of Mars. This success presaged many Mars missions, three of which the author worked on as a planetary scientist. In accessible and sometimes captivating language, Johnson tells the stories of the people and technologies driving these pioneering quests to study the red planet’s biochemical and geographical makeup. She also deftly unpacks the existential stakes that underlie scientists’ aspirations to demonstrate that humans are not alone in the universe. Blending professional and personal narratives in her discussions of major discoveries—e.g., Mars' surface once held water; Martian rock samples contain the elements required for life—she provides a lucid portrait of the countless challenges and breakthroughs of planetary science. The author also demonstrates how the field of extremophile biology—“investigating the crooks and crevices of our planet to better understand the limits of life”—is a key component in the Mars efforts. These recurring themes of optimism, persistence, and survival anchor the book and infuse Johnson’s writing with philosophical weight. Finding life on Mars, she writes, “would be a shimmering hope that life might not be an ephemeral thing, even if we are.” A vivid, poetic account that leaves readers eager to see what's next in the quest to find extraterrestrial life. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.