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Magnificent Mars    by Ken Croswell order for
Magnificent Mars
by Ken Croswell
Order:  USA  Can
Free Press, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I remember in the 60s following all the NASA spaceflights with enormous enthusiasm, culminating of course in Neil Armstrong's celebrated 'one small step' onto the Moon. There was a hiatus for years, during which my interest lagged, but Mars has me intrigued once more and this informative and up-to-date coffee table book on the red planet, with its gorgeous photographs, is simply magnificent.

Croswell takes us on a journey in words and pictures from pole to pole - 'you climb atop mighty volcanoes that dwarf Mount Everest, snake down giant canyons that could stretch from Ohio to California, ... even poke through craters that puncture the moons of Mars' (which, by the way, look very like lumpy potatoes). And he fires our imaginations by telling us that the planet surface preserves a record of ancient times that may give insights into whether the universe teems with life or we are, for all intents and purposes, alone.

Apparently Mars would have been friendlier to life billions of years ago. It's a bit chilly there now with a mean temperature of -67 Fahrenheit. The book quotes Vaucouleurs, who compared conditions on the planet to those 'in a terrestrial desert, shifted to the polar regions and lifted to stratospheric level.' Despite this, the author tells us that it's the 'friendliest planet in the solar system' next to Earth! Tables at the back of the book provide data on the planet, its moons and its history, and on NASA missions.

I found the history of observations of Mars since 1877 - and in particular the canal controversy and attempts to communicate with Martians - fascinating. Of course science fiction took up the cause, and the book mentions H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jonathan Swift and others. Various missions to Mars are described. The Viking 1 lander set down on the surface in 1976 and took samples. Pathfinder collected rocks, and 'proved enormously popular with the public' in 1997. And of course there is a mention of the controversy about putative fossils of microscopic life in Martian meteorites that have landed on Earth.

After the introductory material, Croswell covers the four elements - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - of the planet in (accessible) scientific detail. I was particularly struck by the fact that the north pole is nearly four miles lower than the south (there may even have once been a northern ocean), that the daytime sky is pink (from omnipresent dust clouds) and sunsets often blue, that Olympos Mons is a hundred times taller than Earth's biggest volcano, and that though canals are improbable, the planet once had rivers flowing across its surface - it lost two thirds of its original water!

Croswell ends with a suggestion that the moons of Mars - Phobos and Deimos - 'may serve as space stations to support Martian colonists' and speaks of the red planet as 'the future abode of adventurous terrestrial life', in which case science fiction would become fact. Exciting stuff and an impressive, engrossing book. It would make a fantastic gift, but I warn you, you'll be tempted to keep it for yourself.

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