Poor Mars is dead,"" to paraphrase the song from Oklahoma. That is the sum and substance of current thinking on Mars,...


THE SEARCH FOR LIFE ON MARS: Evolution of an Idea

Poor Mars is dead,"" to paraphrase the song from Oklahoma. That is the sum and substance of current thinking on Mars, reports New Yorker space-science writer Henry Cooper in this book on the recent Viking landings. The time is the year of the bicentennial. The place (besides Mars) is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The people: the likes of Carl Sagan and assorted chemists, biologists, geologists. Cooper's notes assiduously record the changes in landing sites, the equipment failures and ingenious corrections, but he focuses on the biological experiments conducted to determine if either ""macrobes""--Sagan's term for naked-eye visible life--or microbes were in evidence on the rusty planet. Unfortunately, neither the facts nor the writing make the search itself come alive. True, there are colorful slices of Sagan enthusiasm (often couched respectably, as Cooper notes, in double-negative syntax: ""Just because deep dust didn't turn up on the Moon doesn't mean it won't on Mars""). There are also cogent details of Sagan's intellectual history--such as his early studies under the geneticist H. J. Muller and his friendship with Joshua Lederberg, Finally, there is a useful epilogue describing events in the perspective of the history of ideas. In between, however, the text is largely a repetitive run-through of the squabbles between the lifers and non-lifers: biologists vs. chemists or geologists. The details of the findings, and of the purely chemical versus biological explanations, are not always clear; and they grow wearisome after the initial ingeniousness wears off. (Cooper is better at the nuts-and-bolts of the space program.) Perhaps it is a thankless task to report what appear now to be largely negative findings; Cooper, however, has not even chosen to ring in some of the dazzle and awe of the event itself--the time-suspended 18 minutes before signals came in denoting that the landers were safely on Mars. More color and less contentiousness would have made this Martian excursion less dry and dusty altogether.

Pub Date: June 23, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1980

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