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:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under