Skip to main content

Destination Mars - Andrew May ****

There's something special about Mars. It's partly the way that it introduced interplanetary travel and SF aliens to so many through fiction such as War of the Worlds, but also it looks so distinctive to the naked eye - and it presents us with our best hope of a new Star Trek-like frontier in our home solar system.

Andrew May makes effective use of the novel/film The Martian to pull us into the story of Mars and expeditions to it. Weir's book is both engaging fiction and superbly researched, making an excellent teaser for what is to come. Throughout Destination Mars, May ensures that we get a balance between the astronomy, the practicalities of such a distant voyage - particularly if people are to be involved - and the stories. So, for example, there are plenty of references to both science fiction and some of the more dramatic occurrences in the many ill-fated attempts to get probes to Mars.

Although the book does cover the planet in an astronomical sense and the many unmanned probes and rovers (with all too many suffering disasters), its prime focus is the most exciting bit - the aim of getting human beings to Mars, and the possibility of setting up a long-term colony there. May does not underplay the difficulties here. This is no over-optimistic brochure for a Mars venture. But he does also look for solutions to the many problems and gives us an upbeat picture of the possibilities.

If I have a criticism, it is that the book comes across as a bit an engineer's vision of the challenge of getting to Mars. May is an astrophysicist by training, but sometimes he gives us a bit too much systematic working through possibilities and probes for me, where perhaps fewer examples explored in more depth, leaving the complete details to an appendix, might have been better. But, having said that, we soon get back to something that's more inspiring.

This isn't an in-depth book - it's part of a series of short 'Hot Science' books - but it seems to have just the right amount of content to capture the imagination and spur the interest of the reader in the dramatic possibilities of a venture to a closest cousin of a planet in the solar system. It would work well for a younger reader with an enthusiasm for space or for adults who look back fondly on the Apollo missions and hope for more real space exploration in the future.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  

Please note, the reviewer is series editor for the series this book forms part of, but this is an unbiassed opinion on the book itself.

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…