Thursday, May 10, 2018

David Weintraub's "Life On Mars"

David Weintraub is a Professor of Astronomy and directs the Communication of Science and Technology Program at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Is Pluto a Planet?, How Old is the Universe?, and Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book Life On Mars: What to Know Before We Go and reported the following:
I thought professors give, not take, tests, so the idea of me taking the Page 99 Test sounded like a mistake. Of course, almost everything we do in life tests us, and the Page 99 Test seemed innocuous enough. Then I worried. What if my page 99 stinks? Four years of research and writing down the drain. I should decline this offer, I thought, or let my dog eat the rough draft. But I took the test and feel good about it.

On page 99, I report that the century of planetary exploration began when “On July 23, 1896, Lowell Observatory opened for business.” Percival Lowell had used his personal wealth to build an observatory in Arizona. His goal: prove the existence of Martians whom he believed had built a planet-girdling system of canals. A decade later, he would switch his attention to a search for Planet X. That search would be completed in 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

Lowell launched planetary astronomy as a unique astronomical sub-discipline, but his belief in intelligent Martians and his infatuation with the surface markings on Mars first identified as canali by Giovanni Schiaparelli also gave planetary astronomy a bad reputation for half a century. Lowell almost single-handedly drove astronomers away from the study of planets and toward the study of stars and galaxies. We can thank Lowell both for inventing planetary astronomy and for pushing some of the best astronomical minds of the early twentieth century away from planetary astronomy into (then) more reputable areas of study. Edwin Hubble could have pointed the great 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson at Mars and Saturn; instead, he discovered the expanding universe.

As a facility for studying Mars, a slew of NASA missions --- Mariner, Viking, Spirit, Opportunity, MAVEN, Curiosity, and soon InSight --- have surpassed Lowell’s observatory. All of these missions appear in Life on Mars, which tells the story of the science of searching for life on Mars over the last century.

We remain infatuated by Mars because Mars might harbor life. Lowell would be disappointed: Mars has neither engineers nor canals. Nevertheless, we know that Mars is habitable and might host microscopic Martians.

Does it? We simply don’t know, yet. The answer is worth the money and effort involved in the quest for answers, and Life on Mars takes you deep into the story of humankind’s quest for those answers.
Learn more about Life on Mars at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue