Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World


Who are the extraordinary individuals that will take us on the next great space race, the next great human endeavor, our exploration and colonization of the planet Mars? And more importantly, how are they doing it? Acclaimed science writer Oliver Morton explores the peculiar and fascinating world of the new generation of explorers: geologists, scientists, astrophysicists and dreamers. Morton shows us the complex and beguiling role that mapping will play in our understanding of the red planet, and more deeply, ...

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Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World

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Who are the extraordinary individuals that will take us on the next great space race, the next great human endeavor, our exploration and colonization of the planet Mars? And more importantly, how are they doing it? Acclaimed science writer Oliver Morton explores the peculiar and fascinating world of the new generation of explorers: geologists, scientists, astrophysicists and dreamers. Morton shows us the complex and beguiling role that mapping will play in our understanding of the red planet, and more deeply, what it means for humans to envision such heroic landscapes. Charting a path from the 19th century visionaries to the spy-satellite pioneers to the science fiction writers and the arctic explorers — till now, to the people are taking us there — Morton unveils the central place that Mars has occupied in the human imagination, and what it will mean to realize these dreams.

A pioneering work of journalism and drama, Mapping Mars gives us our first exciting glimpses of the world to come and the curious, bizarre, and amazing people who will take us there.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I couldn't stop reading this book! Fascinating, truly fascinating."—Douglas Preston, author of Dinosaur in the Attic and The Cabinet of Curiosities

"If you are, like me, curious about Mars, then you will be enthralled by Oliver Morton's wonderfully readable and authoritative Mapping Mars. This book is a landmark in the history of space exploration; it is meticulously researched yet it is a most human book free of biased science and hype—a space flight in first class prose. Oliver Morton maps the legends, the history, and the personalities onto the contemporary exploration of Mars by instruments. It is a tale of adversity, failure and triumph as the explorers endure vicariously the pain and peril of their robot craft as they map that most awful of all deserts."—Jim Lovelock, author of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

"Mapping Mars is a wonderful work of intellectual history and a permanent addition to the Mars bookshelf."—Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Mars Series and The Years of Rice and Salt

Publishers Weekly
Well-known British science writer Morton, a contributor to Wired, the New Yorker and Science, traces scientists' efforts to map and understand the surface of Mars. Because much of the planet's surface material is basalt, which is porous, Morton explains, it is very probable that water from Mars's now dry canyons long ago sank into underground aquifers and froze. Mars has often been regarded as the planet most similar to Earth, but the author describes graphically how startlingly different its topography is. Mars is a planet with mountains larger than whole American states and plains the size of Canada. Our Grand Canyon would be dwarfed by the massive erosion canyons that surprised us a decade ago with their implication that titanic floods once rushed across the planet's surface. Olympus Mons, its largest volcano, is taller than two Everests, contains more than four times the total volume of the Alps and has a circumference larger than the distance between the northern and southern tips of the home islands of Japan. Morton writes eloquently and displays a breadth of knowledge not often found in science writing. He summarizes how science fiction authors have imagined Mars as well as how pre-computer artists used airbrush techniques to depict Mars's monstrous contours. The book might have benefited from being more tightly focused, but astronomy and geology buffs will be sure to snap it up. 16 color photos not seen by PW. (Sept.) Forecast: News services have recently trumpeted the discovery of underground water on Mars, so this book is sure to appeal to astronomy fans excited by this long anticipated and eagerly awaited event. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
English science journalist Morton reconstitutes the Mars myth for the Net generation, showing how our mapping of the Martian landscape has brought into focus the "blotchy but beckoning" planet observed by 19th-century astronomers. Morton, who covered the failed Mars mission in 1999 and has reported on the informal network of enthusiasts known as the Mars Underground, takes a retrospective look at the mapping of the Red Planet. While the televised face of Mars exploration is well known, he notes, the public has never accorded the glory it deserves to the process by which exploratory probes have provided data for more and more exact maps of the planet. Upon this cartographical substratum, Martian sciences (whether of geology or speculative astrobiology) have erected their hypothetical structures. Mariner 9 in 1971 and subsequent missions, as Morton details, gave rise to many controversies, which range from whether the atmosphere is colored yellowish gray rather than the popular pink to how much water remains under the Martian surface. Parallel to the science of Mars is the science fiction of Mars. Enthusiasm for Mars among SF writers waned in the 1970s as it became apparent that the landscape had been shaped by geological forces that essentially stopped billions of years ago, but interest revived as the initial shock of a barren Mars gave way to a more complex vision of the planet. As geologists began to trace faint remnants of what could have been an ocean, SF writers, led by Kim Stanley Robinson, have been constructing a new, more sober Mars meticulously congruent to the landscape revealed by the maps. The final sections report on such Mars Underground luminaries as Bob Zubin, a MartinMarietta engineer who has created a prototype for a direct mission to Mars. Not for beginners, who will find William Sheehan's The Planet Mars (1996) a better place to start. But for enthusiasts: this will be the Mars book of the year.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312245511
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 11.56 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Oliver Morton is a contributing editor at Wired, as well as a contributor for The New Yorker, Science, and The American Scholar. A former science editor at The Economist, he holds a degree in history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University, and lives with his wife in Greenwich, England.

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Read an Excerpt


And then, as they sat looking at the ships and steamboats making their way to the sea with the tide that was running down, the lovely woman imagined all sorts of voyages for herself and Pa.

—Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Maps of the Earth begin a short walk from the flat where I live. Go down the High Road, up Royal Hill toward the butcher’s, left along Burney Street and then right onto Crooms Hill. At the corner, if you care for such things, you can see a blue plaque of the sort with which London marks houses where people who have made a significant contribution to human happiness once lived. In this case, it was the poet Cecil Day Lewis; as you climb the hill, you’ll pass another one marking the home of Benjamin Waugh, founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Near the top of the hill sits a grand (but plaqueless) bow-fronted white house, called simply the White House. Walk around the White House’s walled garden, down a little alleyway and through a gate in the high brick wall on your right, and you emerge into Greenwich Park. To your right, the beautiful semicircle of the rose garden; to your left a steep path lined by trees. And as you walk out onto the grass, London spread at your feet. As views go, it’s not particularly extensive—the horizon is nowhere more than a dozen miles away and in many directions much closer—but it’s vast in association. The once imperial cityscape is woven from threads that stretch throughout the world.

Across the river to the east sits the squat black-glass bulk of Reuters, information from around the globe splashing into its rooftop dishes. Upstream and on the near side sit the long, low workshops where for more than a century men have made undersea cables to tie the continents together. New skyscrapers devoted to global businesses sit in the redeveloped heart of the docks that used to handle the lion’s share of the world’s sea trade. Within the park itself there are plants from every continent except Antarctica. At its foot sits the old naval college, where generations of Britannia’s officers, my late father included, learned to rule the waves.

Through it all the Thames runs softly, looping around the Isle of Dogs, a local feature leading, as Conrad says in Heart of Darkness, “to the uttermost ends of the Earth.” Little sails down this umbilicus of empire now—but above it the new trade routes of the sky are sketched out by aircraft arriving and departing from London’s four airports, carving their way through the air we all breathe and the stratosphere we shelter under. To the west the Thames beneath them is still daytime blue; to the east it is already evening dark.

Dawn may feel like an intervention by the sun, rising above a stationary Earth; sunset reveals the truth of the Earth’s turning, a slipping away into night. That turning defines two unique, unmoving points on the surface of the Earth: the poles, the extremes of latitude. Add one more point—just one—and you have a coordinate system that can describe the whole world, a basis for all the maps and charts the sailors and pilots need, a way of deciding when days start and end. And that third point is right in front of you, the strongest of all Greenwich’s links to the rest of the Earth. In the middle of the park is the old Royal Observatory, a little gathering of domes perched clubbily on a ridge. Within the observatory sits a massive metal construction called a transit circle. The line passing through the poles and through that transit circle is the Earth’s prime meridian: 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. All earthly longitudes are measured with respect to that line through Greenwich Park.

The English have taken the Greenwich meridian as the starting point for longitudes since the observatory was founded in the seventeenth century. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century—at a time when its home in Greenwich was under the stewardship of Sir George Airy, Astronomer Royal, the man who had that great transit circle built—that the Greenwich meridian was formally adopted by the rest of the world. With worldwide navigation a commonplace, and with telecommunications making almost instantaneous contact between continents a possibility, there was a need for a single set of coordinates to define the world’s places and time zones. Over the years a variety of possible markers to define this prime meridian were suggested—islands, mountains, artifacts like the Great Pyramid or the Temple in Jerusalem. But a meridian defined by an observatory seemed best. In 1884, at a conference in Washington, D.C., and over spirited French opposition, Greenwich was chosen. Airy’s transit circle came to define the world.

Airy was, by all accounts, an uninspiring but meticulous man. He recorded his every thought and expenditure from the day he went up to Cambridge University to more or less the day he died, throwing no note away, delighting in doing his own double-entry book-keeping. He applied a similar thoroughness to his stewardship over the Royal Greenwich Observatory, bringing to its workings little interest in theory or discovery but a profound concern for order, which meant that the production of tables for the Admiralty (the core of the observatory’s job) was accomplished with mechanical accuracy. He looked at the heavens and the Earth with precision, not wonder, and though he had his fancies, they were fancies in a similar vein—ecstasies of exactitude such as calculating the date of the Roman invasion of Britain from Caesar’s account of the timing of the tides, or meticulously celebrating the geographical accuracy of Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.” This was a man whose love of a world where everything was in its place would lead him to devote his own time to sticking labels saying “empty” on empty boxes rather than disturb the smooth efficiency of the observatory by taking an underling from his allotted labors to do so for him. After more than forty-five years of such service Airy eventually retired two hundred yards across the park to the White House on Crooms Hill, where he died a decade later.

It’s a little sad that the White House doesn’t carry a blue circular plaque to commemorate Airy’s part in the happiness brought to humanity by a single agreed-upon meridian, but surely there are monuments elsewhere. Maybe Ipswich has an Airy Street; he grew up there and remained fond of the place, arranging for his great transit circle to be made at an Ipswich workshop. There must be a bust of him in the Royal Astronomical Society or a portrait in some Cambridge common room. And even if there are none of these things, there is something far grander. Wherever else astronomers go when they die, those who have shown even the faintest interest in the place are welcomed onto the planet Mars, at least in name. By international agreement, craters on Mars are named after people who have studied the planet or evoked it in their creative work—which mostly makes Mars a mausoleum for astronomers, with a few science fiction writers thrown in for spice. In the decades since the craters of Mars were first discovered by space probes, hundreds of astronomers have been thus immortalized. But none of them has a crater more fitting than Airy’s.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2002

    Outstanding Mars Exploration Experience

    After reading ¿Mapping Mars¿ I felt that I had actually been on Mars to experience what the planet has to offer. Mr. Morton¿s writing style is very conversational, it's as if you and he are talking over a cup of coffee. He doesn¿t mind getting a little off track from time to time to talk about something interesting to him, such as science fiction works he likes, and other digression¿s. But they are very interesting and eventually weave nicely back to Mars. His knowledge of Mars, Mars science and the people involved in its exploration is exceptional. But most importantly, he makes the story of mapping Mars understandable without reducing it to simple terms and keeps it interesting and exciting. This is a rare combination in any science writing.

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