Talking about Janet Vertesi’s book, in a travelling across the solar system and going into orbit around the Red Planet kind of way.

I’ve always been fascinated by Mars. Not quite for as long as I can remember, but nearly. About seven years old I had a book about the Solar System, which I would pore over for hours, believing every word and speculative picture in it. Pluto was still a planet then and it was made of ice, fact. And Mars was red, of course, and criss-crossed by canals.

Even without the accompanying detailed pictures I could easily imagine these canals as I lived by one. Most people thought it went from Liverpool to Leeds but I knew better, walking along its muddy banks but seeing only the red dust of Mars. ‘Seeing as’ or even ‘drawing as’ Janet Vertesi might have called it had she even been born then. But we’ll get to her in a bit.

As the 1960s got properly going and the local library opened up to me I found science fiction in the adult’s side. Yellow-jacketed Gollancz books full of dreams and spaceships, often as not going to Mars. Finding Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin and H.G.Wells. Taking me off to the edges of the known Universe and sometimes bringing creatures from there back to Earth, the War of the Worlds. Gustav Holst at school too, Brother Pete the music teacher playing us ‘The Planets’ – Mars, again, the bringer of war. Just like in The Eagle each week, Dan Dare Pilot of the Future, saving us all from the Mekon then taking his holidays, safely, on Mars. Dan Dare the bringer of peace. I dreamed of going there.

The dreams only getting keener as we began flying round and then landing on the Moon. Even for a teenager I was immensely impressed but still thought it was a staging post. Because without the constraints of Earth gravity, by the time I grew fully up the spaceships would be regularly leaving the Moon for Mars. Wouldn’t they?

David Bowie, the Starman of my record player, thought so too. And we’d sit together and sing out our dreams:

“Is there life on Mars, is there?” Major Tom to Ground Control, “You better not mess…”

But the spaceships never did leave for Mars, or at least not then. And I continued dreaming.

As the century ended I found the Mars Books, a trilogy of them by Kim Stanley Robinson. Science Fiction they were still called but getting more like science, more like real. Terraforming, the Mars Elevator and finding all they needed to know off little hand-held communication and knowledge devices called AI’s. I’m typing this on one now. And I’ve used it to find all the pictures of the Mars I knew when I was growing up. Finally getting to the future.

Where I’ve spent the last week. Not quite on Mars, but a close as I’m likely to get. On buses, at home, in cafés and the library, if you’ve seen me, I’ve probably been clutching this book by Janet Vertesi. I said we’d get to her eventually. It’s called ‘Seeing Like a Rover.’ It’s her PhD and it’s an ethnographic study, neither of which things you expect to find sharing a sentence with a word like ‘exciting.’ But it is, beyond exciting really, because it’s taken me to Mars and I’m going to be here for a while.

So what it is, this book, is a record of the two years the author spent with the Mars Team. The team of engineers and scientists that lived and breathed the Mars Rover mission for much longer than that. Debating, directing, focussing, filtering, finding out, ‘drawing as’ and ‘seeing as’ two pancamera-filled robots exploring the surface, the rocks and the craters of the place, searching for evidence of the waters of Mars.

“Follow the water” being the watchwords of the mission, and the urge at the centre of the best of the stories so far.

The cameras on the Rovers, you see, can see things that we can’t. Capturing light frequencies our eyes wouldn’t get. Using their thirteen filters to send back collections of the photographs they’re asked to take, photographs of Mars, transmitted back here for the scientists to study. Combining images and filters, for example, to see the dust in the atmosphere there, or not see it. Seeing as, drawing as, emphasising differences they find and bringing them to their daily meetings. A couple of hundred scientists and engineers, some really together but most through screens across the laboratories and universities of Earth, each day.

And here’s the thing. They decide what they think and what the Rovers will do next by consensus. No talking over, no domineering or jeering. By consensus. So when one scientist, called Susan in the introduction of the book (people are called by pseudonyms) finds something interesting that many doubt, she gets listened to and agreed with. To get more time and more photographs taken for her to analyse. Because she might have found evidence of hydration. She might have found where there was once water.

And when a group of us talked about this in our own Earth university, here in Liverpool, we talked as much about Susan being able to speak and be listened to as about the science. Wondering whether, for example, she’d have got such space and attention in, say, the Westminster Parliament of mostly men?

“Fat chance” we all thought. “No consensus and no chance.”

So Susan goes away with her extra photographs of the surface of Mars and works with them in her lab, for a couple of months, while the book tells other stories.

So then what you’ll see next to these words are the photographs from her lab, taken by Janet Vertesi when she visits Susan’s lab in Chapter Three. The lighter colours in the soil you can see, some yellows and greens, being her potential hypothesis:

“That this ferric sulfate deposit could have been deposited evenly throughout the region by something like flowing water.”

When she takes these photographs and her thoughts to the consensus meeting they all agree with her:

“Susan’s presentation was catalytic” Janet Vertesi says. “The entire Rover science team began excitedly exchanging ideas about the light-toned soil…” Wind? Ice? Water? Rivers?

So that’s where I’m up to, chapter three out of eight. Exploring the waters of Mars. AndI’m off now to carry on reading. Engrossed and enthralled by an ethnography? Yes, and so glad for this time at a University where an extract from the book was suggested to me. A Mars book so good I went straight out and bought it. Still fascinated after all these years.

And amazing is an over-used word these days. In conversations and especially in review type writings like this. But this is an amazing book.

You can read the same sample of ‘Seeing like a Rover’ as I did here.
Then you’ll probably want to go and find the whole book.

Me, I’ll be writing an essay about it soon. Another one!

Read more University stories here at Fieldnotes for Utopia

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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