4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars by Nicky Jenner is a detailed look at Mars as a planet and how we on earth have perceived it. Jenner is a freelance writer and editor. Her news stories, features, interviews, and reviews have appeared in a variety of international popular science magazines, including New Scientist, Nature, BBC Sky at Night, Astronomy Now, The Times Eureka, and Physics World. Nicky is also a copywriter for the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory.
When I was a kid looking at the night sky, Venus was easy to spot as the brightest light in the sky next to the Moon. The next brightest was the giant Jupiter. Saturn’s rings could be seen in my simple telescope. Mars was a different kind of planet. It was the only object that glowed red in the black sky. This red light was not lost on the ancients either. Perhaps even more unusual was, at times, Mars moved backward in the sky. In the geocentric view of the universe, this was truly odd. Mathematicians tried to explain this in a variety of ways usually ending up with something that looked like it was made with a Spirograph. Once mankind began to accept the heliocentric universe with elliptical orbits things began to make sense.
Jenner takes the reader on a history of the planet and its place in our solar system. She also spends a good deal of time on the cultural impact Mars has made on mankind. Not only did it intrigue the ancients, it also intrigued people like H.G. Wells and writers through the pulp age to Kim Stanley Robinson and the major motion picture The Martian. Mankind has looked to Mars as a future home, an occupied place, and even the invading planet in War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks. Mars was the one place that writers, as well as scientists, hoped to be home to life.
When most Americans remember the Space Race, they think of the Moon, forgetting that Mars played a large role too. The Soviet Union was fixated on Mars throughout its existence. Mars is the most visited planet in the solar system and would even more so if it wasn’t for the high failure rate of other countries. Currently, Mars is the only known planet entirely inhabited by robots. Rovers are still exploring the planet. Jenner takes a detailed look at the exploration and logistics of sending probes for fly-bys, landings, and rovers. Although the exploration of space costs money, a great deal to some, NASA’s technology and science returns much more money that it spends. India, a recent add on to those planning to explore Mars, has spent about $70 million to launch and send a probe to Mars. Expensive? The fictional journey to Mars in The Martian cost $100 million to make.
4th Rock from the Sun is an up to date and informative book about Mars. Jenner’s writing is smart but easy to follow. There is not an attempt to dumb-down the science nor an attempt to put it out of reach of a layman. The history and science work well together to bring a complete picture of the red planet.