Skip to main content

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach ****

The rating on this book is a real head versus heart thing. I went with my heart. If I’d listened to my head, I would have given it a lower rating, or even not reviewed it at all. Because Mary Roach’s book contains very little science – and actually surprisingly little technology too. If I can draw a parallel, to call this popular science is a bit like calling a travel book that happens to be about an area of great geological interest ‘popular science’. The ‘place’ Roach explores – space travel and astronauts – is indubitably very much about technology, but the book itself is really a travel/personal experiences book and for that reason sits rather oddly here.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book and that’s why it got four stars. It is mostly very enjoyable to read, with fascinating material from the NASA archive plus interviews with the people involved in spaceflight, both astronauts and on the ground. It just ignores much of the science and technology and concentrates on the people and their experiences. You will, however, find out about all the hazards of zero g. About eating and going to the toilet in space. About surviving (and not surviving) disasters and much more.
If I am honest, there were a couple of chapters I mostly skipped as they concentrated too much on medical issues and on ways people get broken by extreme conditions, which really didn’t interest me. But there is much to savour. Although vaguely aware of the difficulties, I really hadn’t thought about just how many problems there were with going to the loo in zero gravity – or how embarrassing many of the solutions are. And there’s some fascinating material on the apes who went into space just before the first American astronauts.
I’m not sure everyone will like Roach’s chatty and sometimes eyebrow raising tone, but I did. I was, however, a bit disappointed with the very shallow analysis of the costs and benefits of human spaceflight. I personally find the risk (and cost) hard to justify for the dubious benefits over unmanned flight, and I think she could have done more to defend her position that it’s all worthwhile.
There are also a number of dangling stories. For example, she teases us with the fact that in 2010 Felix Baumgartner was due to perform a freefall jump from space that, in part, would act as a test of whether it was possible to bail out of an ailing space capsule. As it happens the real story gets even stranger as the jump never happened because of a lawsuit from someone else claiming to own ‘certain rights to the project.’ I suppose the biggest dangling story is the ‘Will they, won’t they?’ for an expedition to Mars – that is certainly one that’s going to run and run.
Overall, then an often funny (particularly the footnotes – do read the footnotes), informative and entertaining venture into the experiences and minds of astronauts and those involved in the space industry. Just not a lot of popular science.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …