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4th Rock from the Sun

4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars

Nicky Jenner
Bloomsbury Sigma,
280 pp.
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Why should we invest money, time, and resources to go to a barren planet that seems bent on destroying our robotic emissaries? In 4th Rock from the Sun, Nicky Jenner mounts a compelling case for why Mars is worth the effort.

Early Greek philosophers noticed that Mars seemed to reverse its direction of motion for a while before coming to a standstill and eventually resuming its forward motion again. We know now that this is a result of the fact that Mars and Earth travel around the Sun at slightly different speeds. This seemingly subtle detail proved crucial in determining that Earth was actually not the center of the universe. Mars has been keeping scientists busy ever since.

From theories of ancient oceans to speculation about underground reservoirs that could sustain life, from lost magnetic fields to lethal radiation levels, the book details all we know about our most explored planetary neighbor. It also references a wealth of robotic science, describing the exploits of NASA’s martian rovers, which serve as sentinels of a coming human presence on Mars.


NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this close-up of an impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars in 2015.

There is a chapter for everyone: The science fiction geek who spends her time thinking about laser swords and warp drive will learn about geology and the intricacies of navigating the solar system, while the hobby geologist will be introduced to a multitude of examples of pop culture inspired by the red planet. The latter is where the book really shines, as Jenner considers the influence of Mars on our history and culture.

Citing the 1940 science fiction story John Carter of Mars, she reveals how 20th-century writers conceived of the planet as a dying world inhabited by Martians, a view that was widely shared at the time, including by some scientists. The slapstick exploding brains of Mars Attacks! also get a mention, as does an episode of Doctor Who featuring sentient Mars water. One is left with a greater appreciation for how pervasive Mars is in science fiction tropes and how tantalizing it is to imagine the many forms that martian life may take.

Jenner also gives a vivid account of the perils posed by space and conditions on Mars, describing what makes it so hard to send satellites to the red planet (distance for one, but also the fact that the atmosphere is too thin to slow a spacecraft significantly but too thick to ignore in calculations) and why it would be even harder to send humans on an extended trip there (the astronauts being slowly irradiated and health problems caused by zero gravity being the most worrisome).

4th Rock from the Sun is more motivational manifesto than instruction manual, offering just one chapter on the technical difficulties of going to Mars but an entire book on why we should still try. In doing so, it serves to inspire the reader to root for this next potential milestone in human history.

About the author

Institut für Geophysik und extraterrestrische Physik, Technische Universität Braunschweig, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany