Blast Off To The Red Planet With The Spring Book Club
This story is a part of our spring Book Club conversation about ‘The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World.’ Join our online community space, record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app, and read along with our lineup of discussion questions, live zoom events, and more.
Radio producer and Book Club crew member Christie Taylor talks to guest host John Dankosky about the exciting scientific journey ahead for readers, with help from LibraryLinkNJ’s Stephanie Sendaula.
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Sarah Stewart Johnson is an associate professor at Georgetown University, a visiting scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the author of The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World.
Stephanie Sendaula is a programming and outreach specialist for LibraryLinkNJ in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So we just talked about a movie that’s based on a great book. And now it’s time to blast off into another good book. And who better to recommend one than SciFri Book Club Crew Member Christie Taylor.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Ahoy there, John. Welcome aboard the spaceship.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yes, indeed. Getting aboard the spaceship just in time for the one-year anniversary of the Perseverance Rover’s arrival to Mars. Hey, are we going to the Red Planet too?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You guessed correctly, John. As they say in the ancient and wise movie Total Recall, “Get your butt to Mars.”
And as we announced a couple of weeks ago, this spring, we are reading The Sirens of Mars, by planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson. It is a book about the centuries-long quest to understand the Red Planet, and how exactly you go about answering the question of, is there life over there? Was there life here? And maybe a bit more mind blowing, what is life anyway?
JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, boy. Yeah, it’s a big question. And it seems like a fair question to ask, when the only data point we have is life here on Earth.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Exactly, John. And I wanted to get everyone out there in listener land as excited about The Sirens of Mars as I currently am. SciFri Library friend Stephanie Sendaula joined me to chat a bit about some of the things we were most hyped about. But I also managed to sneak in a chat with author Sarah Stewart Johnson herself.
Here she is reading a short excerpt from The Sirens of Mars.
– As inconceivable as it sounds, Mars wasn’t always understood to be a place. To be sure, the ancients knew there was something intriguing about Mars. The Mesopotamians noticed that it followed a strange loop in the night sky, drifting separately from the fixed stars. Everything in the immense night moved together, everything except five little wanderers.
Of those, only one appeared as a blazing red lamp. It wasn’t only the planet’s distinctive color that made it perplexing, but also its motion. Mars drifted eastward night after night in relation to the other stars. But for about 10 weeks every couple of years, it suddenly turned and backpedaled against the Zodiac, wandering west for 60 to 80 days, before resuming its normal course.
From this, Plato concluded that the planets have souls, for what could these retrograde acts be, he reasoned, if not expressions of free will?
It wasn’t until Galileo looked through a spyglass from a colonnaded terrace in Padua that Mars began its transformation, from a glint of light into a world. Galileo constructed his telescope with his own hands. He mounted it on a stand, but because of its tiny field of view, he had to be utterly still, barely breathing, hoping the following evening temperatures wouldn’t cause the glass to mist over.
But through its tiny aperture, he determined Mars to be a spherical body, illuminated by the sun.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Stephanie Sendaula is here now. She’s a Programming and Outreach Specialist with LibraryLink New Jersey, and a regular guest on this show.
Hey there, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Hi. Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here again.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK, Stephanie, it is your fault that we’re reading this book. So tell me why you recommended it.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I just really like how much– first of all, how much I didn’t know about Mars. And the fact that so many other people, they’re fascinated by it, amazed by it, sometimes even confused by it. And to see so many philosophers, like Plato, and scientists, like Galileo, and just people wondering about what is this place? Is it a planet? What is it like there?
So that quote especially, it just like really drew me. Because I was thinking, oh, it’s not just me who’s amazed by it. It’s these other people as well throughout history.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: This image of Galileo, just like holding as still as he possibly can, holding his breath, just in order to observe Mars as a sphere, with this tiny telescope in the night air, is just– my heart pounds a little bit just thinking of it. It’s so stressful.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: These scientists were literally up all night, wondering about this planet, or this place, and what can we learn from it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just to sort of back up to a wider view for just a second. I mean, this is a book that starts with the earliest observations of Mars. But it also has these really thrilling moments where, for example, we get a closer look at Mars via the Mariner 4 Mission, in 1960. And it’s our very first closeup. And I wanted to know, did you have a favorite moment or part of the book?
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, I had a few. But one that really stood out to me is the part where she was in college and she was studying science, and she travels to Hawaii. And she is going up the volcano. So it’s Mauna Kea. And they climb to the summit. And at the top, she notices a fern just isolated there, growing by itself, just in this desolate condition. And she is saying, at that moment is when she wanted to be a planetary scientist. Because if that can grow all alone, all isolated by itself, what else could be on Mars?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Well, and I feel like I got such a bigger appreciation for this question of life on other planets. William Pickering, who was studying Mars, an astronomer, he studied Mars around the time of World War I. He had this gloriously romantic view of Mars, as being lush and green. And he would send these observations, where he said he saw seas and floods, and even like parts of the planet snowed in at times.
But it seemed like, Pickering at least, like he placed all of his despair at the war and hatred of like the conflict he was seeing on this one little planet in the sky, and just kind of hoped it was a better place.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Oh, yeah, definitely. What was your favorite part? Was it that part, too, just people exploring it and trying to find out more about it?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder, I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
I actually really like this moment that was kind of a turning point in our understanding of Mars. So we went from, again, maybe it has ferns, maybe it has trees, there are these optical illusion canals that people thought might be evidence of people, or might be at least evidence of vegetation of some kind, and then, the Mariner 4 mission, in 1960, got the first sort of flyby closeup of the planet.
What they figure out that they’re seeing is just tons and tons and tons of craters. Which is a bummer. And here’s Sarah explaining why.
– Those craters meant that there was no significant atmosphere, no significant weathering. You know, the oceans and the rivers that we have here on Earth, they hadn’t been operational on Mars for billions of years, to accumulate that many craters. There was no weathering, no erosion, no plate tectonics, like none of the sort of features that we were familiar with seeing here on our own planet.
And The New York Times even declared that Mars was probably a dead planet.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, that part I thought was very powerful. Just also the part where she talks about thinking about Mars might be just like Earth, but in reality it’s so different. And just the emotions of seeing people trying to study it. And then also their misconceptions, and realizing that what they thought about it, like the canals you mentioned, might not always be what they seem.
So it is really emotional, in a sense, for that reason. Because you’re like, oh, they solved it. And then, a couple of chapters later, there’s new research on it. So we’re learning more about it all the time.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We are asking the question, is there life on Mars? Or was there at one time life on Mars? And you know, she’s a scientist. She doesn’t necessarily come down strongly to a definitive answer.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, I felt I’m still undecided, to be honest. I think I’m more fascinated by the watery past, just the evidence that there were lakes and bodies of water at one time on Mars, and what has happened to them? But I’m not entirely sure about past civilizations or– you know, I think Sarah leaves that vague, too. It’s kind of up for us to decide. So I could go back and forth.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us today.
STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Thank you for having me again. It’s great to be here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Stephanie Sendaula is a Programming and Outreach Specialist with LibraryLink New Jersey. We’ll be seeing her again in a few weeks.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Christie, I’m really excited now to read this book. What exactly do people need to do in order to join this Extraterrestrial Book Club?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: There is so much you can do, John. First, any information you could possibly want is going to be on our website, sciencefriday.com/bookclub. Get that in skywriting. Write it on your hand in Sharpie. Anything you want to do to remember that, sciencefriday.com/bookclub.
But the biggest thing we want you to do, really, is just start reading. Get a copy from Powell’s Books, bookshop.org, or your local indie bookstore. And if you’re still not sure yet if this is the book for you, we have an excerpt and a full chapter on our website for you to check out. And of course, there are oodles of libraries out there that have this book. Some of our amazing library partners have even gotten extra copies, so you don’t have to wait in a hold line to start reading.
We’ve got a bunch of online events, weekly questions to tickle your brain, and a whole lineup of fascinating scientists, ready to help us appreciate the difficulty and wonder of searching for life on a planet like Mars. We are going to talk about meteorites. We are going to talk about water. We are going to talk about space gadgets. The full list is on our website. And say it with me again, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Sciencefriday.com/bookclub.
This sounds really exciting, Christie. Thanks so much for this preview.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much. John.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.