I remember it distinctly. It was the summer of 1976 and I was eight years old. I was standing by the door of the Pig & Pancake Restaurant in Astoria, Oregon, waiting while my father paid the bill for our meal. There was a coin-operated newspaper box in the entryway, through which the front cover of the local paper could be seen. But instead of the expected image of a local politician or a store-front along the town’s main street, there was a grainy, black and white image of what looked like a rock-strewn desert. I looked closer, trying to see the words beneath the picture that were partly obscured by the edge of the box and the reflection of the glass. Then I saw it, “Mars.” I was looking at an actual photograph taken on Mars! The Viking I lander had reached its destination and had successfully transmitted a picture from the surface of another planet.
As my father came near, I could hardly speak for my excitement. I’m sure I got out “picture” and “Mars” amidst a lot of other gibberish. My father, a man of few words, bent down to look at the paper in the box window. “Huh. How about that,” he said. It was a phrase I had often heard. I was as accustomed to such reactions from him as he likely was about his nerdy little boy being excited about some science related thing or another. His world revolved around providing for his family; he worked with his hands and his back, worked hard for long hours, and had little time for much else. But he wanted his son to work with his mind, and so was encouraging if not enthusiastic about my fascination with science – and in the 1960s and 1970s of my childhood, science was squarely focused on space.
As we had reached the Moon in 1969, Mars was the next logical place to go; however what I didn’t realize at that time was that far from being the “right, where shall we go now then?” destination, the attention of astronomers had been fixed in fascination on the red planet for quite some time – centuries in fact – and the story of this fixation is quite a fascinating one in and of itself, particularly as recounted in Dr. David A. Weintraub’s Life on Mars; What to Know Before We Go.
Delving all the way back to the 1636 observation by Francesco Fontana of a dark spot in the center of the planet’s face as seen through a then rather recently invented little device called the telescope, and working his way forward through the many famous, as well as infamous, observers and their claims to discovery – first of structures and then of life – about Mars, Life on Mars presents the reader with both the history of what we have learned about the planet and how we learned it.
However before beginning all that, he makes a short examination of the idea of Mars in our more recent cultural memory – the past century or so – to show how it has captured the imaginations of so many. Far more than the other planets clearly visible from Earth, Mars holds pride of place in our collective minds. Is it because it’s the closest? Is it because it’s relatively easy to observe in comparison to the others that can be seen with simple telescopes? Just what is it about Mars that has seemed to encourage so many people’s imaginations to run wild?
Remember the famous Orson Wells radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds? Well, perhaps not first-hand, but you’ve likely heard or read about it. However what you’ve likely heard or read is very probably not what actually happened; like so much about Mars – particularly so many of the “discoveries” made about it over the centuries, the popular story quickly outgrew the facts. Stories are funny like that.
But in the case of Martian astronomy, as Dr. Weintraub so effectively explains, while many overly confident astronomers have reported stories (assumptions, more specifically) that were larger than the facts, it has often been from these that closer examinations have been made from which more correct information has been gathered. And much to his credit as an author, Dr. Weintraub makes it a point not only to explain what was assumed, why it was incorrect, and what was discovered as a result, but also how all this came to pass.
In any history of scientific discovery, knowing how something was discovered is every bit as important as what was discovered. How did Signor Fontana discover the dark spot on Mars? By looking through his telescope. Simple enough. But in later years, as people asked what that dark spot was, or what the “canali” were, or why some areas appeared to change colors with the Martian seasons, these are where some great assumptive leaps were made, and where some very clever thinking was subsequently required to determine if such was truly so. After all, no one had reached the surface of the planet until 1976; other methods of analysis were necessary until then (and in some ways very much still are even now).
From astronomy enthusiasts to historians of science to the simply curious, Life on Mars presents a thorough but overall quite intelligible to a general reader (there are a few sections of later chapters where the grass gets a bit tall in places) history of the fascination with and exploration of Mars, its geography, and its potential for harboring life. It also provides a rich, example-filled, eloquently interwoven presentation of how the scientific process works in evaluating and testing claims of discovery, making it a superb book for all interested in learning more about what we presently know about Mars and how we’ve learned it. And, as there are, as of this review, presently six active NASA missions to the planet underway, it is hoped that it will inspire its readers to both pay closer attention to news of future discoveries as well as simply to look up into the night sky in wonder at the bright point of light that seems to be just a bit more red than the rest.
Author: David A. Weintraub
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Pages: 320 pp., 8 color, 34 b/w illus.
Published: May 2018
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.