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Mars - Stephen James O’Meara ****

This is the latest in the excellent ‘Kosmos’ series from Reaktion Books (who clearly have a thing about the letter k). They’re beautifully packaged, with glossy paper and hundreds of colourful images, but the text is so substantial and insightful they can’t simply be dismissed as ‘coffee-table books’. My earlier reviews of the Mercury and Saturn titles, written by William Sheehan, gave both books 4 stars. This new one by Stephen James O’Meara is up to the same standard.

As with the previous books, this one goes into more detail than you might expect on the ‘prehistory’ of the subject, prior to the advent of space travel. The first three chapters – about a quarter of the book – deal in turn with mythological narratives, ground-based telescopic discoveries and romantic speculations about the Red Planet. Some of this is familiar stuff, but there are some obscure gems too. The Victorian astronomer Richard Proctor, for example, decided to name dozens of newly observed features on Mars after other astronomers – but only British ones, forcing him to reuse some of the names up to six times each. Equally eccentric was the Swiss medium Hélène Smith – best known for producing, in a trance state, what she claimed was authentic Martian writing, but the book also includes some of her charmingly naïve drawings of Martian houses and landscapes.

The rest of the book deals with the 60 years of serious Martian exploration, starting in October 1960 with the launch of a pair of Soviet ‘Marsnik’ probes – which in the event never got anywhere near the Red Planet – and culminating with NASA’s highly successful series of Mars rovers. For the first couple of decades there was a real hope that some form of primitive life would be found lurking in the Martian sand, but since then the emphasis has shifted – or more accurately bifurcated. On the one hand, there’s the scientific community searching for evidence of life on Mars in the distant past; on the other the technologists and visionaries hoping to send humans to the Red Planet in the not-so-distant future. 

O’Meara is best known for his writings on amateur astronomy, as opposed to professional science, and to some extent this difference comes across in the present book too. There’s more emphasis on conveying facts than on explaining underlying principles, whether of planetary science, space travel or the biochemistry of life. Nevertheless, the book includes some interesting scientific insights, such as the realisation – as long ago as the 1970s – that if there really is life on Mars then you don’t need to land on the planet to look for it. You just have to probe the atmosphere for any departures from chemical equilibrium – as Venus reminded us just last month.

I don’t normally quibble about typos in a book, but in this one I spotted several that really should have been picked up at the proof-reading stage. For example, Stephen Hawking’s name is spelled correctly on page 131, but it has an erroneous final s on the previous page. The Martian moon Phobos is given the correct translation of ‘fear’ (which is obvious, if you think of phobia) on page 172, but back on page 156 it was mistranslated as ‘flight’. NASA’s InSight lander is mentioned on page 127 of the main text, but omitted from the (otherwise comprehensive, I think) list of Mars missions in Appendix III.

Those trivial points aside, this is an excellent book. I suspect that many of the people who buy it – either for themselves or as a gift for someone else – will be attracted more by its stunning array of photographs than anything else. But it would be a shame if readers don’t get into O’Meara’s text too, because it’s packed with fascinating stuff.

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Review by Andrew May

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