The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another Planet

A review of Sarah Stewart Johnson’s lyrical reflection on the hopes and fears generations of observers have projected onto the red planet

Valles Marineris, the 4,000-kilometre canyon ripping through the Martian equator

The home of the west wind

Since first coming into focus as a new world through the gaze of Galileo’s telescope, the planet has been a canvas for the imaginations of generations of astronomers, artists, composers and writers.

Detail from Giovanni Schiaparelli’s Mars map

The ‘wave of darkening’

Schiaparelli’s observation that the planet appeared to be criss-crossed by lines inspired the gentleman astronomer Percival Lowell’s notorious theory that Mars was mapped by an intricate network of canals. Lowell believed the suggestion made sense of several phenomena that had puzzled astronomers, notably the shadows that crept across the surface during the Martian spring. This ‘wave of darkening’, Lowell reasoned, was a sheen of vegetation that spread from seasonal overflow of the canals just as, on Earth, the Nile Delta turns green.

A world of storms, fossilised

But the notion that Mars hosts an advanced society, or indeed any kind of surface life, has disintegrated over past century as more powerful telescopes have evolved, and, since the 1960s, probes and landers have crossed the void to survey the planet. Since Mariner 4 sent back the first grainy images of the surface in 1965, using transmitters no more powerful than a couple of lightbulbs to send back pictures across 40 million miles of space, the image of a forbidding world utterly different from Earth has become ever sharper.

Detail of meteorite ALH84001

The primal planet

Despite the search for life on Mars being pushed ever deeper into the planet’s recesses, Johnson continues to hope: ‘Maybe there we’ll discover an underground mausoleum, some single-celled version of the catacombs beneath Paris.’ Maybe. As The Sirens of Mars unfolds her sense of wonder is shadowed by the planet’s forbidding silence. This is a sublime, terrifying place.

Martian sunset recorded by NASA’s Curiosity Rover

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