Nicky Jenner notes that excluding the Earth, Mars is the most-Googled planet, and that it has been the most targeted planet for our unmanned space probes. From these probes, and NASA rovers on the Martian surface, we get a flood of data and images that constantly add to our knowledge of its nature and attributes.
For any would-be visitors she warns that it would take at least 8 months to get there and a round trip could last between 18 months and 3 years. When you get there it’s no holiday camp, the surface is dry and dusty, the atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide and the average temperature is -60 degrees centigrade. The upside is Martian dust storms only attain wind speeds of 60mph, nonetheless it is a harsh environment for human colonists that makes Cleethorpes sound like paradise.
Besides the facts about Mars and how we might colonise it in future, Nicky looks at how it has infiltrated human consciousness, beliefs, mythology and popular culture. She shows that its redness was equated with masculinity and warfare by the Ancient Greeks. Homer in the Iliad states, ‘Fighting can delight the heart of Mars’. The Romans equally regarded Mars as warlike and depicted it as a muscular warrior.
In recent centuries Mars has been seen as the most likely place in the Solar System to host intelligent life. The mis-translation of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observation of channels on the Martian surface from the Italian ‘canali’ into the English ‘canal’, led to the belief by astronomers, notably Percival Lowell, that Martians used these canals to grow crops. Nicky observes that although some scientists were sceptical of Lowell’s popular theories, Schiaparelli made no effort to correct the canali/canal error.
H. G. Wells neatly incorporated the war-like mythology of Mars and the idea of intelligent life dwelling there in his The War of the Worlds novel in 1878. It took nearly a 100 years to dismiss the idea of intelligent life there, but it is still the focus of science fiction and conspiracy theorists who believe that the planet is littered with artificial structures and that in the distant past a nuclear war wiped out the inhabitants.
For those of us planning to go there in future or who have the more humble aim of learning more about this fascinating planet, Nicky provides us with a handy and entertaining guidebook.
4TH ROCK FROM THE SUN: THE STORY OF MARS / AUTHOR: NICKY JENNER / PUBLISHER: BLOOMSBURY SIGMA / RELEASE DATE: 6TH APRIL