Artist concept of Curiosity approaching Mars

Book review: ‘The Sirens of Mars’ by Sarah Stewart Johnson

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A personal take on the search for life on the red planet.

Having spent the last few months wondering whether life on Earth would ever return to normal, it might seem frivolous to ponder the existence of life on another world. On the other hand, we’ve all had to widen our perspectives during the coronavirus crisis, whether attempting to understand pathogen transmission vectors or broadening our TV-viewing habits beyond 'Emmerdale' and 'Love Island'.

The subject of ‘The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World’ (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241216002) hovers somewhere between the disparate worlds of science and culture in that it “traces the evocative history of our exploration of Mars”, interlacing the personal journey of its scientist-author with “tales of others who have searched the planet for signs of life”. It’s clearly a personal journey – almost an autobiography – but, despite the esoteric nature of the subject, Sarah Stewart Johnson is grounded. While comfortably referencing such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Harold Urey, she is as likely to channel JRR Tolkien and Fred Flintstone.

The story opens with the author searching for ‘extremophiles’ in the muddy expanses of Western Australia where the ponds are “as corrosive as battery acid”. Despite the “sulphuric waters”, she says, “the most astonishing array of life” can be found in what is one of the most similar places on Earth to the ancient surface of Mars. Indeed, the name of the area itself – the Nullarbor Plain – seems straight from science fiction, alongside the genuinely Martian ‘plain of Hesperia’ and ‘dunes of Elysium’.

Despite its 70-odd pages of chapter notes, the book has a filmic, novel-like quality in its presentation. Chapter 1 begins with the author’s father reading about the Mariner 4 Mars probe in a Louisville newspaper, segues into a press conference at JPL Pasadena and then embarks on a potted history of the early space race. Back with Mariner 4, she manages to make its star sensor’s preference for dust particles and paint flecks interesting and personalises the process of imaging Mars by introducing Bob Leighton, head of the imaging team. Bestowed with “a deep passion for photography”, Leighton designed “a gizmo with a slow-scan television camera” to record images on magnetic tape as the probe whizzed past the red planet. “In a sense,” she opines, “it would be the world’s first digital camera.”

Later on, the story becomes even more personal as the author interleaves her pregnancy, C-section and “immaculate baby” with the landing of the Curiosity spacecraft on Mars. Some would criticise the urge of ‘less-than-famous authors’ to be autobiographical in their presentation of what is ostensibly a technical subject, but this often serves only to highlight the critic’s envy: envy of an author’s career, perhaps, or of their abilities as a writer.

Our celebrity culture means that there will always be a market for stories of and by the famous, but autobiographies of relative unknowns are arguably easier for us to associate with, not least because they tell of lives and careers to which many can realistically aspire. Let’s face it, most of us have a far greater chance of working on Mars exploration than appearing on 'Love Island'.

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