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Review: Mysteries of Mars

Mysteries of Mars
by Fabio Vittorio De Blasio
Springer Praxis, 2018
paperback, 204 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-74783-5

This summer is shaping up to be the summer of the Moon. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is the major reason for that interest, although NASA’s accelerated push to return humans to the Moon—now by 2024, rather than 2028—is also playing a key role. The surge of books about the Moon has put even Mars, which has dominated mindshare in recent years thanks to its past as a potentially habitable world and its future as a destination for human exploration, into the background for a change.

If you need a break from the Moon, and the surge of books about its past and future, there is a Red Planet option. Mysteries of Mars, by Italian scientist Fabio Vittorio De Blasio, offers an overview of our scientific understanding of the planet and, as the title suggests, what we don’t know about Mars.

The book is a relatively straightforward and brief (less than 200 pages) overview of our current understanding of the planet. Five chapters go into detail about the planet, with a particular emphasis on the planet’s geology (De Blasio is a physicist-turned-geologist), as well as the role water played in the planet’s past in shaping its surface. Other aspects of the planet get less attention: the final chapter, on the planet’s atmosphere, goes into less detail that prior ones do on the planet’s surface and interior.

Overlaid on those chapters are ten “mysteries” about the planet hinted at in the book’s title. Those mysteries range from the fate of the early Martian magnetic field to the formation of some planetary features, like Valles Marineris, to whether the planet once had, or might still have today, life of some kind. Those mysteries are interspersed throughout the book; a better structure might have been to make each mystery its own chapter, but the author appeared to also want a more conventional structure of chapters for the book.

One issue with Mysteries of Mars is that it struggles to identify its audience. De Blasio writes in the preface that this is not a “professional book,” but it’s also not necessarily one for the layperson: given the level of detail in some of the sections, it’s more of a backgrounder for students and others (he mentions in that preface a “didactic intent” for high school and university students, although the latter might be better suited for the book.) Yet, he writes he is “unconcerned” with references—there are a handful of footnotes throughout the book and less than a page of references at the end—because this is not a professional book, making it more difficult for those students to follow up on any interest triggered by discussion of Martian science in the book. He also acknowledges that he skipped some aspects he wanted to discuss, like the moons of Mars, because of a “lack of space” in a book less than 200 pages long.

What the book does illustrate in one slender volume is how much we still don’t know about Mars even after decades of close-up study by various planetary missions, including the more intensive studies in recent years by orbiters, landers, and rovers. More missions are planned in the years to come, including several in 2020 alone. But 2019, it seems, belongs to the Moon.

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