David A. Weintraub

 

On his book Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go

Cover Interview of May 07, 2018

A close-up

Readers who are shopping for a great book to read, who are trying to decide whether to read past page one in Life on Mars, likely will turn first to the Table of Contents, where I have what I hope are a few alluring chapter titles (Why Mars Matters; Water on Mars: the Real Deal; Vikings on the Plains of Chryse and Utopia) and then to the first lines on the first page. Authors, after all, lose sleep in their efforts to make sure the first line and first paragraph of the first page is so well written and so enticing that readers are drawn into reading more. So, of course, I think readers should start at the beginning of Chapter 1. But I’m neither Charles Dickens nor Herman Melville, and though I like my first sentence (“Are we alone in the universe?”), I know I can’t compete with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “Call me Ishmael.”

Where then, to best lure potential readers into Life on Mars? The epigram, penned by Canadian astronomer Peter Millman in 1939, encapsulates the value, intrigue, and importance of the chapters that follow in such a way that I would advise readers to start their journey there, after the Table of Contents but before page one. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I’ll offer the epigram to readers right here: “So much nonsense has been written about the planet … that it is easy to forget that Mars is still an object of serious scientific investigation.” Mars is the closest place in the entire universe where extraterrestrial life might exist. Life on Mars, if it exists, could be DNA-based and thus could be the parent or the child of terrestrial life, or, life on Mars could be a form of biology that arose independently of life on Earth. Those are serious questions about what we know and don’t know about life on Mars. The answers to those questions are extremely important for understanding ourselves and for evaluating the next steps humans should take as we set sail from Earth to other ports of call. And what was true in 1939 remains true today: much of what we think we know about Mars might be nonsense. I hope readers will want to dig into the pages of Life on Mars to unearth my reasons for making such a (potentially) controversial comment.