2018 year Reviews

Life on Mars: what to know before we go

David A Weintraub, Princeton, 2018, 302pp;

hardback $29.95,

ISBN 978-0-691-18053-3

With a potential manned mission to Mars on the horizon again – at least in terms of space industry planning – we can expect a new slew of books on the subject. This one has a ‘what it says on the tin’ sort of title that promises to tell us what we need to know about Mars before we send people there.

But if you are expecting a treatise on how to build rockets and spacecraft to transport astronauts to Mars or life support systems to help them survive once they get there, you must look elsewhere. This is not a book about enabling human life on the red planet, but a warning about protecting potentially existing life on Mars.

After the typical sections on science fiction and Schiaparelli’s ‘canals’, which seem de rigeur for any Mars book, the author gets down to the science of “Chlorophyll, Lichens and Algae”, Mars meteorites and methane. On methane, which “packs a very powerful astrobiological punch”, he explains that almost none should exist “without being actively created by living things”. Referencing cows, dogs and even gerbils, the author tells the story of the search for excess methane on Mars. This, and the rest of the book, is a good read.

The volume concludes with an unusual appendix of “life on Mars astronomers and scientists” (do the former not qualify as the latter?), chapter notes, a glossary and an index.

No-one knows whether or not life has ever existed on Mars, which is one reason why this won’t be the last book on the subject.

Mark Williamson, Chester, UK

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