Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Life on Mars? Mars and the Search for Life by Elaine Scott

Ever since H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us our first fictional Martians, humans have been fascinated with the planet Mars. A rocky planet like our own, in contrast to those vast gas bags farther out in space, the red planet seems like our fraternal twin in the solar system, and all hopes of proving the existence of past or present living things out there have been pinned on Mars.

Notable science writer Elaine Scott's Mars and the Search for Life begins with the notorious broadcast of Wells' evergreen The War of the Worlds (Modern Library Classics), summarizes the study of the planet from Schiaparelli's first telescopic description of its canali through the Mariner fly-by missions and the Viking I and II landings, and finally takes us right up to date with the Phoenix Mars Mission which landed in 2008.

Scott takes pains to introduce the young reader to the requirements of life as we know it--especially temperature range and the all-important water--before launching into a fascinating description of the findings of the long-lived rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which returned strong evidence of salty seas and extensive water flow in Mars' distant past.

In her chapter "Imagine the Future," Scott goes on to discuss the problems and virtues of a manned flight to Mars, including the investigation of the polar ice caps which future explorers may need for drinkable water and for growing their own food while on the planet. She concludes with experimental attempts to simulate many of the conditions on Mars--the Haughton-Mars Project and the Hankville, Utah, Habitat project, constructed in the hopes of providing a training ground for future Mars-tronauts.

Illustrated with dozens of intriguing color photographs of the spacecraft, equipment, and the Martian landscape, this book both invites browsing and supports student research into what is now known about our next-door neighbor in the solar system. Appended is a list of upcoming Mars missions, a glossary, author's note, bibliography and websites, and index. In a starred review, School Library Journal gave Mars and the Search for Life an unqualified thumbs-up, saying "... this clearly written, carefully constructed book will shine like the Red Planet seen on a clear, moonless night."

Author Scott has also explored that other hot topic in astronomy, the status of the former ninth planet, in her well-reviewed When is a Planet Not a Planet?: The Story of Pluto. This kid-fascinating subject is also covered in a bit less detail in Elaine Landau's excellent Pluto: From Planet to Dwarf (True Books), reviewed here.

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  • farther out in space...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:24 AM  

  • Will the Luddites allow it?

    By Blogger Chris, at 12:41 AM  

  • I hope Ms. Scott doesn't encourage the idea of finding intelligent life on Mars. I always felt kind of betrayed when I realized that there weren't going to be any atom-powered airliners, as promised in the science books I read when I was in 6th grade.

    It's tricky business getting kids excited about the possibility of finding the equivalent of algae on Mars, if life has advanced that far. Even Ray Bradbury had to content himself with the remnants of a noble race of aliens made extinct by global climate change. Diplomatically, he would never have used his storytelling ability in such crass ways as our modern fabulists do.

    By Blogger AST, at 12:57 AM  

  • Excellent, well-written review.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:15 AM  

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