THE FIRST CLUE that Sarah Stewart Johnson’s 2020 science memoir, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, is something special is right there on its cover. Above the matter-of-fact subtitle, “Searching for Life on Another World,” sits the work’s evocative, lyrical title: The Sirens of Mars.
The pages that follow bear witness to the title’s poignancy. In prose that is both poetic and clear-eyed, Stewart Johnson intertwines her journey from Kentucky schoolkid to Ph.D. planetary scientist with the history of the pursuit of evidence of life on the Red Planet. These chronicles are necessarily connected; Stewart Johnson began contributing to NASA’s Martian missions while she was a grad student and hasn’t stopped since.
From the debunked canals to failed launches to the dazzling success of the recent rovers, she lays out where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going. Stewart Johnson also shares about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field, and of how she immersed herself so deeply in another world that she sometimes lost her place in this one. She writes all of it with language as lucid and beautiful as the Martian vistas we have been privileged to glimpse in recent years. | DL