The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Stewart Johnson
It isn’t often that I wish for a longer book; in fact, it’s almost always the opposite. But that’s just what I found myself doing upon finishing Sarah Stewart Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World (2020), which is about exactly what you would think given the title — a history of our attempts to suss out if life exists on our red-hued neighbor, from speculations about ancient civilizations creating Schiaparelli’s “canali” to Johnson’s own work with NASA’s Mars missions. It’s an excellent book throughout, but it also feels like it could have gone into material in more detail in some places and ends so quickly that I had to doublecheck on Netgallery to make sure I hadn’t gotten an excerpt rather than a full version.
Johnson is both a writer and a scientist, which isn’t always the case in popular science books. Most do an excellent job of conveying information, but the stylistic aspects range from poor to adequate to good to, well, Johnson. The more typical non-fiction elements, whether it’s the historical descriptions involving early astronomers like Schiaparelli or Lowell, or the more scientific/engineering-level descriptions of various orbiters, lands, and rovers, are always crystal clear, easy to follow, and placed in a clear timeline of exploration. In short, Johnson is quite good at the explanations.
But where she truly shines is when she waxes more personal and/or lyrical, her stylistic strengths resulting in some truly gorgeous passages. Here is the opening to chapter one:
In July of 1965, as a tiny octagonal spacecraft swooped across the Martian surface, my father, who had just turned eighteen, was standing tall on a humid, hardwood forested hill in Appalachia. There on the edge of Viper, Kentucky — below a hundred kilometers of nitrogen and oxygen, under the Karman Line, the exosphere, and the Van Allen belt, beneath the great, vast vacuum of space — a small natural-gas company had sent a bulldozer up a holler and had set about carving out a flat spot for drilling.
I knew right away I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book. Everything is here. The science of the atmospheric layers. The memoir element of her father, her Kentucky background, that regional “holler.” The mix of space, sky, and earth, of the wondrous and the pragmatic. The subjective voice describing the spacecraft as “tiny” alongside the more technological voice of “octagonal.” The vivid language — “swooped,” “standing tall,” — and the poetic alliteration of “humid, hardwood, hill” and “vast vacuum.” Here’s another nicely lyrical passage from later in The Sirens of Mars, describing a sunset photograph from one of the rovers:
The sunset glows an eerie, baffling, incandescent blue. The color makes no sense. It rattles the mind. It rips at the seams of the physical world. Scientifically, I understand it — the properties of the light, the microphysics of the system. There is no mystery to behold. And yet the mystery, like many others in our universe, is profound, nearly incomprehensible. That blue. So recognizable, yet so foreign. Shining in a halo around our shared star, calling us like a siren.
Johnson works on several tracks, as noted. In one she covers the history of Mars study from the early Babylonians noticing its weird movement in the sky through the first years following the invention of the telescope, into the days of large land-based scopes like Lowell’s in Arizona (from which he launched a campaign pushing the idea of ancient Martians digging a massive canal system to feed themselves on their drying-out world), to the first fly-by missions, then the orbiters followed by the tense lander missions (Mars is the graveyard of interplanetary missions with nearly half failing), and wrapping up with a look forward to planned missions in the next few years.
The second track is her intersection with the above, beginning with her childhood interest in the night sky, reading about the Pathfinder rover as a seventeen-year-old about to leave home for college, and then a pivotal trip to JPL to observe work on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. This was supposed to be a few days’ interruption of her graduate work at MIT, but she was so captivated she “decided then and there that I’d do whatever it took to convince the team to let me stay.” She did and it wasn’t for months that she returned to her school apartment to find the “mug of tea I’d made for myself the morning before I left … as if it had been fossilized.” Johnson worked on several Mars missions after that, her work interrupted by the birth of her first child, which prevented her from being at JPL when Curiosity landed in August 2012. She tells us of how she
followed the mission from afar, momentarily trading my immediate world for the depths of space … I sometimes felt a pang of sadness that Mars might be slipping away. Opportunities only came around so often. The planets aligned and then swung back apart. They waited for no one … it wasn’t obvious to me that’d catch up.
The Sirens of Mars is an excellent book, and my only complaint is that I wish there were more of it. Johnson is such a good science writer that I would have liked to have delved more fully into each of the missions, into the nitty gritty of the biology and the engineering, into more of the failed attempts. And she is such a good memoir writer that I also would have enjoyed more about her personal life as she worked, more about her life as a mother (she has a lovely few passages about her children playing near Vera Rubin’s old work site). Maybe I’m just greedy. Highly recommended.