Here are two books in this ongoing series of posts on science books for SFF readers that explore basic signs of life, one at the cellular level here on Earth, the other at the molecular level on Mars.
The Sirens of Mars
The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart Johnson is an exciting record of the search for life on Mars, specifically for the chemical precursors necessary for living tissue but also for habitats where microbes might thrive. A planetary scientist who has worked on several Mars missions, she can take us inside the excitement of discovery – and the disappointment of failure – at each step in the building knowledge of Mars and how to approach the increasing complexity of each mission to learn more and more about the nature of the red planet.
Johnson gives us vivid portraits of the scientists who pushed their careers to the limits and accounts of the technical accomplishments in each of the breakthrough missions to Mars. Interwoven with it all are glimpses of memoir about the writer’s own development, personal and professional, including beautiful moments of realizing something about the emergence of life in her own life and body through the birth of her son.
One of the most interesting dimensions of the book is the author’s insight into the lives of some of the important pioneers of Mars exploration. The early and quite mistaken images produced by Lowell showing the “canals” of Mars, the tragic story of Wolf Vishniac some of whose ideas were disproven by early missions, the relentless imagination and genius of Carl Sagan, and many more. They all bring this story to life, showing what the personal stakes were for the people whose brilliant innovations drove the search for signs of life on Mars.
It’s the quality of writing that sets this account apart from so many others. Johnson has great gifts for setting the scenes, capturing the intensity of the human search and lyrically conveying the landscapes of Earth and Mars where scientists have sought the microbes or components of past life that might have survived in extreme environments. She also captures the fascination with Mars from ancient times onward, the wildest imaginings of life on the planet, including the elaborate speculations of science fiction writers. Then came the gasping disappointment of shattered dreams as everyone saw the first actual photographic images of the cold and seemingly sterile surface that looked more like the barren moon than a place where life could thrive.
This is an inspiring and deeply human chronicle about the ongoing search for signs of life on Mars. Not to be missed.
The Secret Language of Cells
The Secret Language of Cells by Jon Lieff, MD, describes the myriad ways cells communicate with each other across the human body and also within cells among their component parts. As a fan of Lieff’s website, Searching for the Mind, I have long anticipated this book because his clear writing makes neurobiology so accessible and because he poses the powerful question: What version of mind is controlling the thousands upon thousands of decisions made by cells to keep the human body in balance?
What controls the internal growth of cells, telling them get just this big, then stop? What enables cells to communicate among themselves so they know how to build organs, how to regrow tissue, how to alert each other to invading or diseased cells so that an attack can be coordinated to remove them? And what about the thousands of trigger events cells have to recognize in order to do their jobs? These are the kinds of questions Lieff poses, and he brilliantly explains dozens of processes by which cells listen and respond to each other.
One of many remarkable chapters concerns discoveries of the ways blood cells communicate with the tiny capillaries that carry them to each organ in the body. It turns out that the blood cells, moving in single file through these tiny vessels, are constantly trading signals with the vascular beds of the capillaries. The lining cells of these beds, unique to each organ, function like brain centers. They stimulate and regulate the stem cells of each organ, managing their blood supply and functioning. And how do they do that? Lieff summarizes the latest thinking on the process and opens the door to more questions and ideas about the massive operating system of communication that keeps the whole body going.
As a neuropsychiatrist, Lieff is especially good at describing in detail that is always interesting the specific components of neurons and how they transmit information and are influenced by learning through neuroplasticity. He describes the dendritic spikes as areas of the brain communicate with each other and the rapidly expanding knowledge of the complex interactions of numerous types of brain cells and the components of each one.
The driving idea of The Secret Language of Cells is that cells themselves are not the most basic component of life. It is rather the conversations between and within them that “determine biological activity and produce the essence of life.” By summarizing and simplifying the language of multiple areas of research, he creates a picture of the constant mobility and information sharing among cells that is changing our view of life and consciousness. It’s this research which will be the essential background for science fiction writers and readers as it breaks down many misconceptions of the past. Lieff has opened this up to lay readers as few scientists have been able to do.