For the Love of Mars

A Human History of the Red Planet

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Pub Date 18 May 2023 | Archive Date 23 Apr 2023

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A tour of Mars in the human imagination, from ancient astrologers to modern explorers.

Mars and its secrets have fascinated and mystified humans since ancient times. Due to its vivid color and visibility, its geologic kinship with Earth, and its potential as our best hope for settlement, Mars embodies everything that inspires us about space and exploration. For the Love of Mars surveys the red planet’s place in the human imagination, beginning with ancient astrologers and skywatchers and ending in our present moment of exploration and virtual engagement.
National Air and Space Museum curator Matthew Shindell describes how historical figures across eras and around the world have made sense of this mysterious planet. We meet Mayan astrologer priests who incorporated Mars into seasonal calendars and religious ceremonies; Babylonian astrologers who discerned bad omens; figures of the Scientific Revolution who struggled to comprehend it as a world; Victorian astronomers who sought signs of intelligent life; and twentieth- and twenty-first-century scientists who have established a technological presence on its surface. Along the way, we encounter writers and artists from each of these periods who take readers and viewers along on imagined journeys to Mars.
By focusing on the diverse human stories behind the telescopes and behind the robots we know and love, Shindell shows how Mars exploration has evolved in ways that have also expanded knowledge about other facets of the universe. Captained by an engaging and erudite expert, For the Love of Mars is a captivating voyage through time and space for anyone curious about Curiosity and the red planet.
A tour of Mars in the human imagination, from ancient astrologers to modern explorers.

Mars and its secrets have fascinated and mystified humans since ancient times. Due to its vivid color and...

Advance Praise

“This is the right voice to bring Mars vividly to life. Shindell’s history of what we know about the red planet goes beyond Western ideas, bringing valuable knowledge from many times, places, and cultures both into our view and into rich conversation. Its diverse perspectives and cast of characters make For the Love of Mars an essential read.” ― Janet Vertesi, author of Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams

“Through a wonderful combination of scholarly scientific research and thoughtful humanist perspective, Shindell’s For the Love of Mars provides a delightfully educational and entertaining history of our exploration of the red planet.” ― Jim Bell, Mars researcher and coauthor of Discovering Mars: A History of Observation and Exploration of the Red Planet

“Shindell has done the impossible: setting out the long history of human engagement with the red planet over thousands of years in a single book. For the Love of Mars is compelling reading for anyone who has ever looked at, or even just wondered about, the fourth world from the sun and whether we'll set foot on it someday.” ― Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society

“This is the right voice to bring Mars vividly to life. Shindell’s history of what we know about the red planet goes beyond Western ideas, bringing valuable knowledge from many times, places, and...

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Featured Reviews

Mars, the red planet, occupies a space of its own in the collective imagination. Its peculiarities, most notably the red colour it takes on at certain times, have given it a prominent place among celestial bodies. Countless works of fiction have been dedicated to it, among which I would like to mention 'Stranger in a Strange Land', in which the protagonist, a human raised by Martians, takes on an almost Christ-like stature. Shindell's book is not fiction, but an essay that takes the reader through all the stages of the birth and growth of the myth of Mars, right up to the most recent explorations and the confirmation that curiosity about the planet probably has something to do with the affinity we humans feel for that 'lost twin' of Earth.

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This is a 4.5 star read for me. I always round half stars down.

This book is an interesting and, in my opinion, refreshing examination of humanity’s fascination with Mars. I was glad that this book placed Mars in a broader cultural context instead of only focusing on science. This balance was sometimes lopsided — the opening chapter was a little heavy on discussions of creation myths and while I don’t think any of that information doesn’t belong in a study of Mars, I would have liked to see more mention of the role Mars, specifically, played in the ancient cultures featured in this book. The book as a whole was weighted a little heavily toward the Cold War-Present day era of Mars, which is understandable given the wealth of information recent Mars missions have generated. I still would have liked to see this balanced out with a more thorough examination of historical accounts of Mars.
As a science fiction fan, I appreciated the discussions of Mars in literature and how Martian exploration was used as a framework for stories of imperialism. These discussions showed more than any other part of the book the role Mars played in the imaginations of peoples past and present. This book sought to be anti-imperialist in its discussion of Mars, challenging the Euro-centric notion that medieval European astronomers had the most sophisticated knowledge and continued to challenge modern colonialist ideas that are so often invoked in the discussion of sending humans to Mars. I do think this book would benefit from a companion book or expanded edition that places even heavier emphasis on non-western cultures and gives a platform for marginalized people who have been left out of the conversation on space exploration to further elaborate on the question, “Who do we want to be when we become Martians?”
Overall, this is a thought-provoking, entertaining read that has enough science to satiate nerds like me, but not so much technical detail that non-scientists would be scared off. I’d recommend it to readers of space exploration stories both fictional and fantastical.

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This was a very interesting book. I love the way the author talked about humans and Mars. I would say pick it up if your a science nerd. You will love it. I hope to own this one day.

Countless works of fiction have been dedicated to it, but an essay that takes the reader through all the stages of birth and growth of the myth of Mars. I think the opening chapter was so what heavy. I would have like to read more about the role of Mars.

Overall this is a thought provoking, entertaining read that has enough science to satisfy needs like me, but not so much technical detail that a non-scientists would be scared off of it. I would definitely recommend the book too readers of space exploration stories both fiction and fantastical.

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This book is excellent! It has a really awesome combination of science and history, balancing the two in a way that feels accessible for readers coming with multiple frames of reference. It was really neat to have in one volume discussions of ancient cultures and myths and modern day science and Cold War history and sci-fi literature. Just overall a really cool and entertaining read.

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For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet, by Matthew Shindell, is a fascinating look at how we have perceived our celestial neighbor over the centuries.

This history, while touching on science as we progress through the ages, is not a science book but a history book about an object of science. From myths and misunderstandings to scientific mistakes and corrections, we trace the history of Mars as it has evolved with our own evolution.

Shindell takes a global approach, including perspectives often overlooked in western histories. Admittedly this doesn't, and can't within the limits of a book one can reasonably carry, go into minute detail about every way in which every culture has understood Mars. To criticize it for not doing what it couldn't do is posturing and can be ignored. An entire book could likely be written about every culture's perception of Mars, and even the western perspectives included are not given a deep dive. But then some people like to pose by claiming all of the information in a book can be found on wikipedia and other online sites. Even when such a sweeping statement is true it means little to nothing, since the idea of a history book is to bring things from many different sources together into a coherent whole. This book does that very well. Even if much of the material is available online, which it likely isn't.

If you like reading about the history of objects that have gone from having a largely mythical or spiritual meaning to one based mostly in science (though still deeply embedded in our collective imagination), you will enjoy this book. You'll learn some new things, and remember just how intriguing our planetary neighbors can be.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Science, politics and fiction all reflect and effect each other in the history of human's fascination with Mars. The stories drive people to study mars and the politics heavily influence both what kind of stories are told and what kind of science is allowed to happen.

From the oldest creation myths to the shows on TV today, Shindell examines both what we know about Mars and the stories we tell about the Red Planet in this fascinating book both about Mars and our own history.

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Seriously cool book about a topic that is dear to my heart—space exploration! The first book I've ever seen that asks why we think we have the right to colonize Mars.

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This is a fun and immersive book about human fascination with Mars. Shindell’s aim is to draw an arc through history, from ancient times until now, on Mars in our imagination and meaning—from an erratic, eccentric light in the sky, to the relatively known quantity it is now, a rocky, cold planet. He takes readers on a tour from Mayan and Babylonian astrologers, among others, through astronomy in the Middle Ages with Galileo; seventeenth and eighteenth scientist-philosophers like Descartes, Newton, and the Herschels; Pickering, Lowell, and others; writers like Wells, Lasswitz, Wicks, Burroughs, Clarke, Bradbury and Sagan; through to the space race of the 1960s, and the impact of the Cold War on today’s missions.

Space exploration has become much more international in recent times, and Shindell is careful to be as inclusive as possible, where another author might focus all of their attention on the seeming leader in popular imagination, the US. A quote near the beginning of the book explains why:

Of course the “we” of Mars exploration will be construed differently by different readers, and it is my hope that by the conclusion of this book it will be obvious that the “we” should be construed as broadly as possible.

Some questions Shindell helps me answer: Why should I, a Zimbabwean woman, care about Mars exploration? Who is the popular idea of Mars for? Who was it for before? What contributions to the human idea of Mars have come from non-European sources? How has what we imagine Mars to be like changed over time? What books and films have contributed to our imagination about Mars? What is the future of Mars for us: exploration, or habitation? Really, the only question Shindell has not dealt with—perhaps has not been able to—is why the dream of Mars is full of men.

Important to Shindell is Mars in the imaginary, and he makes important points about the language of space missions—frontier, and colonizing new worlds—where he proves eloquent in locating that in recent Earth history. He also talks about the Mars/NASA PR machine, and why Mars continues to loom large for us: an example is how many of us—those who are terminally online—witnessed the death/fading away into the dark on Twitter of Opportunity Rover, which is referred to by Shindell in an excellent chapter about NASA’s exploration missions after Apollo.

This is probably the only non-fiction book on Mars you ever need to read. Certainly, it is one of the best. Although very detailed—which got me a little bogged down when the author dealt with the age of philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy— it is comprehensive, factual and intellectual, while remaining very accessible. It is an essential and important corrective—more correctly, the beginning of one—for the Eurocentric discourse on Mars. For the Love of Mars is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.

Thank you to University of Chicago Press and NetGalley for access.

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