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The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ nature of science. It’s closer to the lowbrow end of crime fiction, where the protagonist rushes off without stopping to think, gets hit on the head, wakes up to find a new lead, chases off after it, and so on until finally stumbling on the solution. That’s not the way science works, but it’s how the narrative plays out in parts of this book. For example, when the Curiosity rover detects a methane spike on Mars, that’s the first mention of methane in the book. For many journalists, it may also have been the first time they learned that methane was a potential indicator of life – but not for the scientists, who were eagerly seeking it for that very reason. Telling the story in the correct order – idea first, discovery second – would have been a truer reflection of the way science works, as well as delivering on the ‘detective story’ promise of the book’s subtitle.

The other thing making these early chapters tough going – for me, at least – is that much of the exposition is via direct-speech quotations from the numerous scientists and engineers involved. This kind of thing works well in a TV documentary, where the viewer can see the person speaking, but it’s fairly pointless in a book where all you see is the written word. This prevalence of quotations works better in later chapters – when we go back to earlier events – because it’s more likely that a single interviewee can tell the whole story, without the need to keep jumping between speakers.

It’s at this point, where we get into the history of the subject, that I started to enjoy the book. Chapters such as those on the Viking landers and the ‘Martian meteorite’ ALH 84001 may cover familiar ground, but they’re still first-rate treatments of two great moments in science. Less familiar, but just as good, is the chapter on Donna Shirley and the Sojourner rover – probably the most effective use of the authors’ penchant for interview soundbites.

Of all the chapters, the one that comes closest to the ‘detective story’ format promised by the subtitle deals with water on Mars – and it’s another of the book’s high points. This one has a satisfying ending too, because we can say for certain that the Red Planet had flowing water in the past, and still has plenty of ice today. But there’s no neat ending to the book itself, since the question of life on Mars remains as unanswered as ever. So the story ends with a cliff-hanger – preparations for the launch of NASA’s next rover, Perseverance, later this year, and the various other missions intended to follow it.

The book’s authors are professional journalists, and the result is noticeably journalistic in style. I don’t mean that as a pejorative – they’re academically qualified and write seriously, so think New Scientist rather than Daily Express – but it accounts for their focus on events and personalities, rather than the underpinning ideas and logical reasoning. If I was mildly disappointed by the book, it’s because I was hoping to see more on the latter.

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Review by Andrew May


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