Tiny parcel promises out-of-this-world gift

December 19, 2003

It is impossible to dislike the Beagle 2 project. As its founder Colin Pillinger says in this book, it involves 13 nations but is unmistakably British. The Beagle 2 lander, due to land on Mars on Christmas day, is a marvel of high technology but has the air of something an Englishman might assemble in his shed. And Pillinger, who looks as if he would be happier presenting a wildlife programme than sending space probes into the solar system, would be just the man for the job.

He begins with a confession. The project's masterstroke, naming the lander after the ship that took Charles Darwin around the world, was not his but his wife Judith's. It was the first of a number of wheezes that attracted attention and funding where there might have been neither. Pop band Blur and artist Damien Hirst became backers and the government relented on its determination not to fund the project. This may seem an odd way to find out whether there is life on Mars. Britain is probably the only country to take its science funding decisions with so little fuss.

In these pages, Pillinger mixes his own Beagle tale with the story of the Royal Navy's nine HMS Beagles . Darwin's was the third, and sailed three times round the world, but others had tougher lives. The crew of the fourth won two Victoria Crosses in the Crimean war, two saw action in the first and second world wars, and the ninth, a survey vessel like Darwin's, rescued a ship with more than 200 refugees on board, on her last journey home in 2002. There is also much about those involved. Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle , became governor general of New Zealand and was so incompetent that he managed the seemingly impossible task of causing that peaceful country's inhabitants to revolt.

The amount of material about science and history crammed into this book cannot fail to amaze. Perhaps as a result, some aspects of Beagle are ragged. A ship's crew is more of a "complement" than a "compliment". A book with so much information should have an index. And if anyone thinks only young people do not know about punctuation, they should look at the jarring way Pillinger uses commas.

But the book will teach readers a great deal of science and even engineering. Pillinger describes the construction of Beagle 2 beautifully. Never have so many instruments been crammed into such a tiny space or been made so light. At 68kg, it shows that things have moved on since the US planned a Mars lander, also called Beagle , in 1963. It would have weighed 9.5 tonnes. Pillinger cunningly plays up the lack of space on the original Beagle , and the similarities between the Beagle 2 instruments and the scientist's toolkit that accompanied Darwin around the world.

If it works, Beagle 2 will tell us an enormous amount about the surface of Mars. But its main purpose is the hunt for life. The human interest in the possibility of life on Mars is an old one. As Pillinger shows, our modern knowledge of the planet grew up in the post-Darwin era and even involves some of the same figures, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection. Nobody now thinks that large creatures roam the surface of Mars, but fossils or microscopic life are another matter.

For Beagle 2 to approach the red planet during the year's prime bookselling period is an opportunity not to be missed. And as 18 of the 30 Mars missions since the Soviet Union launched Marsnik 1 in 1960 have been failures, advance publicity may well be preferable to awaiting solid results. Whatever happens, this book is a Christmas gift of choice.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES .

Beagle: From Darwin's Epic Voyage to the British Mission to Mars

Author - Colin Pillinger
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 166
Price - £14.99

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