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The Sirens of Mars: Scientist gets up close and personal in search for life on Mars

Science: The Sirens of Mars

Sarah Stewart Johnson

Allen Lane, 288 pages, hardcover €25; e-book £9.99

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Refined: Sarah Stewart Johnson is a charming guide to the Red Planet

Refined: Sarah Stewart Johnson is a charming guide to the Red Planet

The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart Johnson

The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart Johnson

Planet Mars.

Planet Mars.

Refined: Sarah Stewart Johnson is a charming guide to the Red Planet

Mars has long been a source of deep fascination for humans. Since ancient times, we have been studying the Red Planet, observing its movements, pondering its nature, speculating. Perhaps most importantly, we've searched it for signs of life.

As Sarah Stewart Johnson points out in this beautifully crafted melange of science and memoir, modern scientific developments created a profound malaise in humanity. Faced with proof that the universe is a cold, indifferent, mostly empty and inconceivably gargantuan place, despair can set in.

Where is the meaning in an individual life, doomed to end, in a cosmos itself doomed to dissipate into nothingness? As Kenneth Williams noted in his diary before killing himself: "Oh, what's the bloody point?" Or as Stewart Johnson more poetically puts it, "We were potentially alone in the enormity of the tenebrous night... This is the affliction of being human in a time of science: we spend our lives struggling to understand, when often we'll have done well just to apprehend." We are, she says balefully but accurately, "a finite tribe in a temporary world, marching towards our end."