Skip to main content

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach ****

The rating on this book is a real head versus heart thing. I went with my heart. If I’d listened to my head, I would have given it a lower rating, or even not reviewed it at all. Because Mary Roach’s book contains very little science – and actually surprisingly little technology too. If I can draw a parallel, to call this popular science is a bit like calling a travel book that happens to be about an area of great geological interest ‘popular science’. The ‘place’ Roach explores – space travel and astronauts – is indubitably very much about technology, but the book itself is really a travel/personal experiences book and for that reason sits rather oddly here.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book and that’s why it got four stars. It is mostly very enjoyable to read, with fascinating material from the NASA archive plus interviews with the people involved in spaceflight, both astronauts and on the ground. It just ignores much of the science and technology and concentrates on the people and their experiences. You will, however, find out about all the hazards of zero g. About eating and going to the toilet in space. About surviving (and not surviving) disasters and much more.
If I am honest, there were a couple of chapters I mostly skipped as they concentrated too much on medical issues and on ways people get broken by extreme conditions, which really didn’t interest me. But there is much to savour. Although vaguely aware of the difficulties, I really hadn’t thought about just how many problems there were with going to the loo in zero gravity – or how embarrassing many of the solutions are. And there’s some fascinating material on the apes who went into space just before the first American astronauts.
I’m not sure everyone will like Roach’s chatty and sometimes eyebrow raising tone, but I did. I was, however, a bit disappointed with the very shallow analysis of the costs and benefits of human spaceflight. I personally find the risk (and cost) hard to justify for the dubious benefits over unmanned flight, and I think she could have done more to defend her position that it’s all worthwhile.
There are also a number of dangling stories. For example, she teases us with the fact that in 2010 Felix Baumgartner was due to perform a freefall jump from space that, in part, would act as a test of whether it was possible to bail out of an ailing space capsule. As it happens the real story gets even stranger as the jump never happened because of a lawsuit from someone else claiming to own ‘certain rights to the project.’ I suppose the biggest dangling story is the ‘Will they, won’t they?’ for an expedition to Mars – that is certainly one that’s going to run and run.
Overall, then an often funny (particularly the footnotes – do read the footnotes), informative and entertaining venture into the experiences and minds of astronauts and those involved in the space industry. Just not a lot of popular science.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…