Reviewed 2/01/2004

Mapping Mars, by Oliver Morton

Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World
Oliver Morton
New York: Picador USA, 2002




ISBN 0-312-24551-3 357p. HC/FCI $30.00

In his Acknowledgements, Oliver Morton thanks many people who contributed to this book. Among them are Ilsa Yardley, his copy editor at Picador USA. That endorsement I will gladly second; for I found but three paltry errors. Though they are barely worth listing, I list them here. (I did overlook the vaguely punnish use of "orientated", found on page 81.)


  Page viii: "Reference, Notes and Further Reading"
    S/B "References". On the page referred to (p. 333), this title is correct.
  Page 100: "Indeed Ray Arvidson, who who led the Viking camera team and took part in its final color calibrations, still remembers the sky as salmon pink: in conversation."
    S/B "salmon pink" (no colon after "pink".) This error is due (I think) to a cut-and-paste operation from two sentences before.
  Page 146: "Superexciting and much more fun than the moon, even if the only opportunities for dancing (. . .) were an occasional evening at the Little America?"
    S/B "Little America." (A period, not a question mark, to end this declarative sentence.)


  1. Morton is awed by the dimensions of Olympus Mons, Mars' largest volcano. (Indeed, it is the largest one in the Solar System). He presents comparison after daunting comparison to terrestrial features. (See pages 45-46.) The one I particularly like points out that, if airliners could fly through solid rock, the entire flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles could be done within the bulk of that gigantic mountain.
  2. In addition to historical figures like Sir George Airy and Grove Karl Gilbert, Morton introduces us to many of our contemporaries. One of the most influential of those we meet is the late Eugene Shoemaker. Flagstaff, Arizona has long been a principal center for the study of the geology of the American west. Thanks largely to Gene Shoemaker, it has also become a center for the science of astrogeology of the Moon and Mars. Shoemaker, a geologist with the USGS, was involved in the 1950s with uranium prospecting in aid of the fledgling nuclear power industry and then with plans for creating plutonium with underground nuclear explosions. (Shoemaker advised against it.) The latter experience gave him insights that enabled him to correctly interpret a geological feature east of Flagstaff. Science had long held Meteor Crater to be volcanic in origin; Shoemaker's work definitively proved it was due to the impact of an extraterrestrial body.1 The techniques of photoanalysis that Shoemaker pioneered were instrumental in developing a coherent geological picture of the Moon prior to the Apollo missions, and today they are being used to interpret images from the three spacecraft orbiting Mars.
  3. It is ironic in light of the above that the three large volcanoes near Olympus Mons were at first thought to be meteoric in origin.
  4. There is a set of Latin terms, mostly derived by USGS scientists, used for types of geologic features on Mars and other planets. Some examples are Meridiani Planum2 on Mars, Caloris Planitia on Mercury, and Kraken Catena on Neptune's moon Triton. These feature names include:
    ChasmaA deeper ditch; a canyon
    ChaosA widespread area of subsidence
    CatenaA string of holes or depressions in a line (from Latin for "chain")
    DorsumA ridge
    FossaA narrow, generally shallow and straight ditch or trough
    MensaA tableland or mesa (often used in the plural, mensae)
    MonsA mountain (e.g. Olympus Mons)
    PateraA low volcanic bulge
    PlanitiaA low-lying plain
    PlanumAn elevated plain
    TholusA hill
    VallisA winding, possibly water-carved valley

    The last feature name above is reserved for the most interesting feature: winding valleys or channels that appear to have been made by running water at some time in Mars' distant past. It was Carl Sagan who came up with the idea of using other languages' names for the Red Planet to label various specific features of the vallis type. An example is Mangala Vallis.3 Mangala is the Sanskrit name for Mars. (See also Morton, page 96.)

  5. Guys, here's a great way to win bets at parties: Did you know Mars once had a Beer Sea? It was, of course, so named to commemorate the German astronomer Wilhelm Beer. There was a Mädler Land as well. Newer names, picked by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, replaced them. Later, the IAU cleaned up the tangled web of nomenclature that had evolved for Martian surface features, naming craters after Beer and Mädler along with many other astronomers and others involved with the Red Planet. Still later, the Martian Prime Meridian was nailed down. As Morton puts it (page 21): "And in 1972 the International Astronautical Union established for all time the precise location of the Martian meridian. Lacking a transit circle made of good Ipswitch steel—or, for that matter, any ancient monuments—the IAU's working group had to use a natural landmark for their zero. They chose the geometrical center of a small, nicely rounded crater in the middle of a larger crater thirty-five miles across. They called that larger crater Airy."
  6. The so-called Face is a rock formation in the Cydonia region of Mars. It looks like a humanoid face in certain images obtained by the Viking orbiters that reached Mars in 1976. Later, higher-resolution images from Mars Global Surveyor show conclusively that it is a natural formation much like "The Old Man of the Mountain" in New Hampshire (which, alas, recently collapsed.) There are two things that annoy me about the "Face on Mars" crowd. The first is their continued insistence that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is an artifact constructed by some alien civilization. The second is the way they still claim there is some NASA conspiracy to hide this artifact's existence. The plain truth of the situation is:
    1. Until there is proof (more proof than a few low-resolution photographs) for something as unusual as construction sites4 on a lifeless planet, it is safest and sanest to prefer the more likely explanation that the pictures show natural formations.
    2. If the formation really were artificial, and NASA could prove it, ever since the discovery they would have been holding press conferences about it, and appealing to Congress for funds to investigate further. The Pentagon, too, would clamor to be involved, as would (with lower volume) the Department of State.
    3. No foreign nation with a decent intelligence service would be silent on the subject; indeed, Russia and China might well already have expeditions under way — which of course our intelligence services would know about.
    Bottom line: Such proof would be NASA's salvation; no way would they suppress it. Beyond that, any real proof of a constructed Face on Mars would have every face on Earth a-goggle. There would be no need for, and no possibility of, concealing the facts.
1 It was Grove Karl Gilbert, a predecessor of Shoemaker with the USGS, who in 1891 noted the paper by a Dr. Foote announcing the discovery of meteoritic iron around Meteor Crater. Gilbert, already speculating that Earth might have coalesced from a horde of planetesimals, knew that the crater had formed in sedimentary rock. Now he siezed on Foote's finding and set out to demonstrate its origin in an impact by what he called a "small star". However, Gilbert's displacement measurements, done by comparing the volume of the crater with an estimate of the amount of material in its rim, showed no extraneous material. (The idea was that the impacting body would occupy part of the space in the crater, so the total volume of ejecta would more that refill it.) Also, he found no telltale magnetic field such as a large buried lump of iron would produce. So it was that the volcanic-origin theory held sway until Shoemaker conclusively demolished it. (See also my review of Rain of Iron and Ice in Visions of a Space Age.)
2 Meridiani Planum is now (as of 25 February 2004) the site of the successful landing site of NASA's Opportunity rover.
3 Incidentally, Mangala Vallis is the location favored by Apollo astronaut Michael Collins for the first manned landing in his Mission to Mars (also reviewed in Visions of a Space Age). Now that I think of it, that is where this review belongs. I'll move it later.
4 Use of the plural is intentional. Richard Hoagland, chief advocate for the FoM, claims there are multiple artifacts at Cydonia. He has said these include pyramids and a temple, all placed in geometrical relationships with each other and The Face. He has made a sort of career out of such claims, much like Bart Sibrel has with his wild claim that the Apollo Moon landings were faked.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2004 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 8 July 2010.