16 May 2021

A MARTIAN TRAVELOGUE

Stephen James O'Meara. Mars. Reaktion Books.
2020.

This is a really excellent book that tells the story of how humans have interacted with the planet Mars from our early civilisations through the dawn of science, and up to modern day space missions that have landed there and crossed its surface digging up samples. This is all told in an engaging and well written manner by an award winning astronomer who even has an asteroid named after him.
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Reading this took me back to the excitement I had when I bought my first telescope with money from my newspaper round in the 1960s and sought out this small orange red blob in the frigid Manchester skies. Never dreaming I would one day be able to explore images coming direct from the surface of that planet from the warmth indoors, on my high def. computer screen spending hours studying features and rocks in extraordinary clarity allowing me to ponder their geology.

The past few decades of our journey to Mars and our near miraculous ingenuity to send and land machines there controlled from 100 million km away on another planet is probably more amazing than anything an H G Wells novel about Martian tripods could imagine.

This book brilliantly recaptures the excitement and emotions of human contemplation across the ages of our nearest planetary neighbour. The only world we have long felt may be home to some kind of life, and which because of its blood like colour - obvious even if you just look at it with the naked eye - has for millennia formulated astrological ideas linked to it being the home of the God of war and battle.

This mystique means that it has long inspired tales of unfriendly aliens – from Well's Martian tripods invading Earth to more recent contactees claiming conversations with entities from here worried about our development of atomic weapons – tales that persist right into the UFO age.

This book is not about science-fictional or ufological speculation. In fact it is far more interesting. This is the real story of our 20,000 years of gradual understanding about the planet Mars – from the myths of a giant snake slowly devouring it, the truth behind which we now understand via science – to how its surface features created an illusion that through misinterpretation based on then new technology gave birth to myths of aliens having carved out canals because their need for water must be extreme. Whilst these 'channels' were really there, we now know they were not what they appeared to be through our mislead imagination and Martians are not coming here – unless we dig up primitive life and then fly it home.

Yet, ironically, human capacity to wonder means we still view images from the surface of Mars taken by spacecraft we sent there, and in light and shadows they send back to us we still see things, 'creatures' or - in one recent case the letters ET - that are created in exactly the same way as those canals were over a century ago.

In the later chapters of this story the geology of the world is revealed as human ingenuity made it possible to study the surface and seek tantalising signs of that microbial life that could revolutionise everything we know about the universe. Indeed in 2021 we have a helicopter tentatively flying in the very thin Martian atmospheric surveying the landscape of what we believe is a dried up water bed which just might be home to fossil records of the elusive, perhaps long dead. 'real' Martians.

Nowhere is this story told in dull scientific language. It is easy to follow with anecdotes about the scientists who collectively built the picture as we now know it across the last 500 years. All of this richly rewards the imagination. Because whilst we understand much more than we did in the 1960s, the truth about Mars is still being discovered day by day, and every person can share in that exploration if they wish via a home laptop.

This book is the next best thing to going to Mars and reveals why money and effort has been spent doing so. And, as the final pages reveal, why much planning is still going in to working out how humans might live on this cold, arid planet with its thin atmosphere that is unbreathable without help but which is the closest approach in the solar system to our home.

It is full of photographs, many in colour, with extensive links and references, plus appendices offering factual data about the planet, including a complete record of the missions sent to study the planet from its neighbour Earth over the past 62 years. This book is a one-stop Mars travelogue. If you have any interest in Mars at all you will love it. And the exciting thing is that this is just one of an ongoing series, already featuring several other worlds, including Mercury and Jupiter - with each devoted to the story of one of the planets and our human explorations of them, from myth to reality. -- Jenny Randles

1 comment:

diotima said...

Excellent