The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars, by Simon Morden

Review by Annabel

Who hasn’t been enthralled by the idea of there being ‘Life on Mars’ even if said life ends up as the first humans to visit the red planet? As Mark Watney discovered in Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, (reviewed here), sustaining life might be possible, but it would be difficult – especially for the pioneers, subject to low temperatures, increased radiation due to the thin atmosphere, and those dust storms. That was fiction, of course, but well-researched underneath the thrilling story of the marooned astronaut.

Mars always fascinated Simon Morden from a young age. So much so that he became a planetary geologist and geophysicist, then honed his writing skills creating some award-winning SF, fantasy and horror novels. Now he’s ready to tell Mars’ own story, taking us from the planet’s formation 4.5 billion years ago up to the present and considering the future.

There’s no time like the present, for successful missions to Mars are teaching us more about the planet all the time now, from the first flyby by Mariner 4 in 1965 to the current Chinese and US missions (follow the exploits of the US Perseverance Rover, which landed in February, here). You can also sign up to have your name included on a chip on a future mission to Mars at Nasa here – I signed up ages ago, so mine’s already there!) I digress, but only because of the excitement generated by reading Morden’s ‘Natural History of Mars’.

After an introductory section, The Red Planet is divided into sections representing Mars’ geological ages, in the same way as we have the Jurassic, Triassic etc. There is an element of the detective story to things, as he introduces ‘Mars as an unreliable narrator’:

The history of Mars is drawn not just on its surface but also down into its broken bedrock and up into its frigid air. Most of all, it stretches back into deep time, where the trackways of the past have been obliterated by later events: there’s no discernible trace of where they started from or how they travelled, only where they ended up. The history of Mars is simultaneously obvious and hidden.

Good scientist that he is, throughout, Morden gives us the competing theories on how Mars gained its unique geology and topography. The formation of ‘The Great Dichotomy’ is one such subject with two main theories involving convection and impacts to explain why Mars has a colder, thinner crusted and flatter northern half and a hotter, thick crusted, mountainous southern half. In comparison this is a really big thing compared to  Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small rocks, tiny and uninfluential. Phobos which is falling towards the surface will be destroyed by Mars’ gravity eventually.

Mars is also home to some giant features that dwarf those on Earth. Olympus Mons is 2.5x the height of Mount Everest and 2x the depth of Mauna Kea. The largest volcano in the Solar System was visible to 19th century telescopes. However, together with the chain of the three Tharsis volcanoes, which you can see to the left on the topographic map below, these are giant structures indeed, as is the 1400-mile-wide blue impact crater known as the Hellas Basin.

One particularly fascinating chapter discusses how Mars gets its red colour. We’d be wrong in assuming that it is just rust – iron oxide, which needs oxygen, water, and not least native iron to form usually. It’s down to volcanic activity again, which created the iron ore magnetite in tiny spherules, which mixed with quartz sand and then was mechanically milled by the wind, eventually reacting to create the red haematite dust that coats the planet.

The dust will also cause big problems for anyone attempting to live there too: being so fine, it can get in everywhere, and if breathed in could cause cancers and silicosis – that is if the solar radiation due to the scant protection offered by Mars’ negligible atmosphere doesn’t get you first!

I’ve only mentioned a few of Mars’ peculiarities, which are many; Morden’s portrait of the Red Planet takes us through them all. His writing is pitched at the level of science enthusiast, minimising the amount of technical jargon, clearly explaining all the concepts. It really helps that he also writes novels, for his storytelling of Mar’s evolution has a natural flow. This is no dry scientific work but an entertaining history, albeit one with no place for little green men nor discussion of Schiaparelli’s mis-translated ‘canals’ observed in 1877. A Mars map would have been nice but isn’t strictly necessary.

You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this book. I love books about space and astronomy and learned so much about planetary geology from this Martian natural history, which gives a fresh appraisal of where we are in our understanding of the Red Planet.

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Annabel is a Co-founder and editor of Shiny, and is very happy for her name to go to Mars in her place as she is getting a bit long in the tooth for spaceflight.

Simon Morden, The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (Elliott & Thompson, 2021). 978-1783965618, 240pp., hardback.

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