It’s a godawful small affair, the study of Mars. In a vast and varied universe, our obsession with our next-door neighbour looks a bit parochial. As for the search for life on the planet, the film is a saddening bore: a decades-long montage of setbacks and shrinking dreams, as we hunt for microbes in ever smaller nooks and crannies. 

“One might fairly wonder why we have pinned our hopes for finding life” to this “bewilderingly empty” planet, writes Sarah Stewart Johnson, part of the science team for Curiosity, which is currently crawling its surface.

In her elegantly written and boundlessly entertaining first book, The Sirens of Mars, Johnson not only answers that big “why”, making a case for how those frozen red wastes could support life, but also achieves something more remarkable: she makes wild goose chases gripping, and abandoned ideas beautiful.

Mars was once thought to be more civilised than Earth. When the 19th-century astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed the lines of “canali” there, he meant “channels” – natural straits, like the English Channel. But in the age of Panama and Suez, the idea of Martian “canals” caught on. An American, Percival Lowell, found fame giving lectures on the “benevolent oligarchs” who must have built the canals.

In 1892, a French astronomer wrote “the habitation of Mars by a race superior to ours seems... very probable”. It’s only in the last 50 years we’ve learnt those “canali” don’t exist – they’re an optical illusion, the eye joining up distant dots to make a line.

Friday

In the mid-20th century there were still hopes of lush Martian vegetation. But those dreams were crushed in 1965, when a photo revealing the planet’s “bleak stasis” came back from Nasa’s Mariner 4. Bob Leighton, head of the spacecraft’s imaging team, took Jack James, the mission director, aside to break the bad news: “Jack, you and I have a 20-minute jump on the rest of the lab to go and look for new jobs.”

Not everyone gave up hope. In 1974, Carl Sagan published an article suggesting there could be large animals loping across Mars’s surface. After all, the Arctic looks pretty lifeless, too, until you bump into a polar bear. Sagan – like all the scientists who wander through these pages – is brought affectionately to life with a novelist’s flair for detail, his quirks, flaws and childhood dreams sketched out in a paragraph.

Johnson sees herself as part of a “peculiar band” of Mars scientists, “fiercely bound across the generations” by a shared quest: to prove we’re not alone.

I was particularly taken by Maria Zuber, the only female investigator on the Mars Observer’s team of 1987, and by chain-smoking Eske Willerslev, who “had once disappeared into the wilderness for nearly four years, living part of the time as a fur trapper. He survived off moose meat as he and his twin brother canoed up untamed rivers”.

Johnson worked with Willerslev in Denmark, where she moved to research a groundbreaking paper in which she proved prehistoric microbes could survive for centuries in permafrost. These microbes, she gently suggests, “hunkering down and surviving in a state of dormancy”, had something in common with her own existence, leading a spartan life in a tiny rented room.

What begins as a history of the search for life on Mars reveals itself as a memoir: that search is Johnson’s life. Her all-consuming work drives her away from most people, but it also helps her find her tribe. That “peculiar band” makes for lively company, particularly in the book’s second half, when Johnson’s own life becomes part of Mars’s story.

As a college student, she gets the chance to work on a Nasa project, remotely monitoring the data from an “aerobot” – a prototype for Mars exploration – attached to the flying machine of adventurer Steve Fossett, during his attempt to circumnavigate the Earth solo by balloon.

During Johnson’s night shift, the balloon is caught in a thunderstorm: its fuel catches fire, and Fossett crashes into the shark-infested Coral Sea. When his anxious wife calls, it’s Johnson who answers the phone. (He’s rescued, eventually.)

Still a student, Johnson visits Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the signpost reads “Welcome to the Universe”, and the scientists – constantly jetlagged from timing their sleep to Mars “sols”, not Earth days – are usually either guzzling ice cream or playing practical jokes.

She’s there during the 2004 Olympics. On a whim, they use a rover’s stone-cutter to carve the Olympic rings on Mars. It’s “the first human symbol drawn on to the face of another planet”.

Having only been invited for a couple of days, Johnson refuses to leave, wangles a job and becomes part of the team, finally heading home months later – with no luggage – to find her empty flat and a forgotten, dried-up mug of tea. “I stared at it for a long time, wondering what it said about me that I could step out of my life so easily.”

The Sirens of Mars is full of wonderful stories, like that of ALH84001, “a little rock shaped like a potato” that for a few glorious weeks convinced the world – and Bill Clinton – it was the key to the universe.

Or the first photo from the world’s first digital camera (a shot of Mars taken from space in 1965), which was actually a painting: a bright spark at Nasa realised that it would take longer for their primitive computer to convert the data arriving from space back into an image than it would take him to read that data and paint it by hand, one pixel at a time.

And yet it’s Johnson’s own story that touched me most. Humanity might be alone, but she no longer is: late in the book she falls in love, marries, starts a family. She learns to live with one foot on Earth, a planet that still holds a few mysteries of its own.

The Sunday Telegraph

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