Skip to main content

4th Rock from the Sun - Nicky Jenner ***

It's rather appropriate that the title of this book seems to be based on the name of the so-so TV show '3rd Rock from the Sun' - like that programme, it shows promise and has plenty of good bits, but as a whole it's rather confused, lacks structure and could have been so much better.

What we have here is a rag bag of everything the general reader might want to know about Mars - or about anything vaguely related to Mars. Nicky Jenner has an engagingly open writing style, although I think the copy editor at Bloomsbury must have been on holiday - I've never known a copy editor let a single exclamation mark through in an adult title, yet this one is littered with them! That did make it feel occasionally as if I was reading a book for children! But it's not!

Getting off my punctuation hobby horse, the good news is that there is lots of genuinely interesting material about Mars here, including stuff I've never seen in a popular science title before. Some of this is in the detail of the geology - how and why the two hemispheres are so different, and the future of the moons, for instance - and some is in the cultural impact of Mars. I've never read a book on the subject that doesn't bring in War of the Worlds as a cultural marker - but I can't remember any waxing lyrical on the subject of Captain Scarlet, a series from the makers of Thunderbirds which I loved as a child (though I had forgotten the Martian aspect until Jenner reminded me).

There's plenty more to like. Jenner takes a realistic view of the various potential attempts to get humans to Mars and points out very firmly how far the concept of terraforming strays into science fiction. She emphasises the difficulties of making the trip (I knew USSR/Russia had suffered failures, but I wasn't aware of the sheer scale of disaster they've suffered with Martian probes). In a chapter called 'The Massive Mars problem' she dedicates far more to the oddities of Mars being a lot smaller than Earth in models of how the solar system formed than I've seen before, highlighting the unexpected nature of this planet (and, arguably, our solar system as a whole).

Unfortunately there are some issues too. Apart from the overall lack of structure, there are some chapters that just didn't work for me. I like a nice bit of tangential material as much as the next person, but chapter 2, titled 'The Wolf and the Woodpecker' and spending time on Mars as a god, astrology and even, somehow, the tarot, seemed too far removed from the topic. As the first chapter is very general, then we get this, I was really feeling 'Get on with it!' with the obligatory exclamation mark by the end of chapter 2. There are a few other chapters where there's the opposite problem of too much information. In one, Jenner goes through pretty well every Mars probe that has ever existed at some length. Similarly, the breakdown of the impact of microgravity on the human body, with around 15 sections such as 'Bones' and 'Blood and urine' just piles in too much detail. Its a mass of fact statements with no flow. Sometimes less is more.

Pulling a view of the book together, that lack of structure comes through very strongly. For the reader, 4th Rock lacks any sense of narrative drive. It presents collections of information on different topics, some fascinating, some rather tedious - but even all those exclamation marks aren't enough to keep a constant level of interest. Most readers will learn plenty about Mars they didn't know already, so it's definitely worth a look. But for me, it didn't work as well as it could have.


Hardback:  

Kindle 
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 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…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…