Only Earthlings based in deep space could have escaped the excitement over Mars this past summer, as the Red Planet made its closest Earth pass in 60,000 years. In Magnificent Mars, Ken Croswell writes of another "favorable opposition" a time when Mars' orbit brings it between the earth and the sun when people were also fascinated with the planet. That was back in 1892, when scientists were eager to prove or disprove the existence of Schiaparelli's "canals." From Kepler, Schiaparelli, Lowell and Hall through present-day observers, Croswell recounts the sometimes fantastic, sometimes ground-breaking theories about the planet. He also briefly discusses the etymological trail of Mars and touches on the planet as imagined by science fiction writers, before launching into a thorough discussion of its evolution, chemical makeup, orbit and other data.

Author of five other books on space, Croswell has a talent for distilling technical information into decipherable terms. This isn't to say the book won't engage longtime students of Mars; Croswell, after all, holds a Ph.

D. in astronomy from Harvard.

Helpful charts and tables summarize the book's text. One table chronicles 40 years of NASA's unmanned missions to and near Mars. Those missions, though often plagued by mishaps and outright disasters, have nevertheless provided the stunning one might say stellar images that fill this large-format book. Printed on black paper, the color photographs and topographic maps of the Martian terrain and view of the heavens are spectacular.

"It's not the vibrant Mars of Percival Lowell, nor the boring Mars of Mariner 4," writes Croswell, "but a complex planet whose history and mystery scientists are just beginning to decipher." Magnificent Mars is a readable and brilliantly illustrated account of all that we have learned and a little of what we have yet to discover about our closest neighbor. MiChelle Jones writes from Nashville.

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