Georgetown scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson tells the story of how she and other researchers have scoured Mars for signs of life, transforming the planet from a distant point of light into a world of its own.
[Johnson] presents efficient thumbnails of astronomers like Percival Lowell, who popularized the idea of visible 'canals' on Mars as evidence of an alien civilization; Carl Sagan, who suggested that big, turtlelike organisms 'are not only possible on Mars; they may be favored'; and Maria Zuber, the only woman among the 87 investigators on the 1996 Mars Global Surveyor science team. Along the way, you come to appreciate the astonishing ingenuity required to safely send rovers the size of Mini Coopers several hundred million kilometers through a frozen vacuum, land them on another planet and drive them around by remote control. Most compelling are Johnson’s memories of formative moments ... Johnson’s prose swirls with lyrical wonder, as varied and multihued as the apricot deserts, butterscotch skies and blue sunsets of Mars ... beautifully dramatize[s] the emotional precarity of having one’s career pinned to the fate of space hardware ... exemplifies the humanity of science: Johnson laughs, grieves, hopes, fails, tries, fails and tries again.
... vivid ... Through a mix of personal memoir and scientific primer, [Johnson] illuminates the history of astronomers and explorers who have been fascinated by this neighbouring world, known to the ancients as a ruddy dot shining in the night sky ... The strength of Johnson’s narrative lies in interweaving these better-known stories with her own development as a planetary geologist ... don’t expect to read much about Europe’s or India’s exploration of Mars — this is a strictly US perspective...Still, there’s no better guide to what NASA’s various Mars missions have revealed ... a true love letter to geology, on this world and others.
As [Johnson] displays the love of discovery that drives so much scientific inquiry, it’s easy to cheer her on ... The Sirens of Mars is an elegy, though its author may be too hopeful to realize it ... Ms. Johnson remains upbeat: Life, she writes, is 'stunningly resilient.' Maybe it lies buried beneath the Martian soil, where we haven’t found it yet. Conceivably it could arise from 'an entirely different molecular foundation.' She likens this notion to 'trying to imagine a color we’ve never seen'—and when she does, her yearning for signs of life starts to feel more like fantasy than science. What might be a cautionary tale becomes for her an opportunity to wax lyrical ... Great advances can spring from apparent defeat, of course. Perhaps the Mars Perseverance rover, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in a few weeks, will enjoy better luck. At some point, however, we may want to admit that the red planet is a dead planet—and that the search for life on Mars is a siren song.