Book Review: The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

  Tablet displaying the Libby audiobook page for "The Sirens of Mars" on a concrete bench with stone surround

Sarah Stewart Johnson mixes memoir with a history of man's exploration of Mars in this well told narrative. She is a planetary scientist who has worked with NASA on missions to Mars, and is also a professor at Georgetown. In the book, she touches on her own life sparingly, giving us enough about herself to understand how her love of geology and geochemistry led her to NASA. Bits of her story are sprinkled throughout the book. But it's when she is laying out the story of the hunt for life on Mars that the book really soars. Her prose is really very good - verging on the poetic - and draws you in.

Johnson tells this story chronologically, starting with early NASA missions, though she does take some side trips back to the later years of the 19th century (and in some cases earlier earlier) for an understanding of how we humans have perceived our closest neighbor and it's potential for life. In these side trips she lays out how Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first mapped Mars in the 1870s, and included seas, continents and canals, based on his observations from Earth. The thought that Mars had intelligent life who built canals later inspired Percival Lowell, who studied Mars intensively, and began large telescope construction to more clearly see Mars in the early twentieth century.

Meanwhile, the main thread of the book takes us through the major NASA missions to Mars from the Mariner flights in the 1970s through Pathfinder and Sojourner up to the rovers of the 21st century. She even mentions (in anticipation) the rover Perseverance and its helicopter companion Ingenuity - the book was published just before they landed on Mars. One thing I did not know, or had forgotten, was the role Carl Sagan played on the early Mars missions and his involvement in the initial experiments that tried to determine if the building blocks for life (or life itself) existed on Mars.  

Overall, this is a short but pretty ambitious book taking on mankind's fascination with the Red Planet and our search for evidence of life there, and I believe it mostly succeeds in it's ambitions. Well worth a read for anyone interested in science history, or interplanetary exploration or the search for life in the universe. I rate The Sirens of Mars Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

NOTE: I did the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. Campbell is an actress and prolific book narrator who did her usual fantastic job. She also narrated The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I reviewed in January.

The Sirens of Mars links:

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