Mars has haunted the human imagination for millennia. From war god in the sky to home base of invading aliens, from canal-scarred elder world to desiccated rock, our sister planet has played many roles in the minds of artists and astronomers. Not surprisingly, when scientists discovered that an odd, fist-size meteorite found in Antarctica had been ejected from Mars during a long-ago comet strike and had crashed into Earth during the last Ice Age, they were as excited as children.

It takes talent to make this story both lucid and exciting. Kathy Sawyer, who began writing about space science for the Washington Post in 1986 (covering the Challenger shuttle disaster and its aftermath), skillfully juggles big-picture context and nitty-gritty details. Sawyer's The Rock from Mars: A True Detective Story on Two Planets also details an aspect of the sciences that usually is hidden: the hard work, imagination, rivalry, adventure and even occasional danger.

The existence of carbon compounds in the meteorite led to a feverish search for clues to the early days of the red planet, which of course were the early days of the entire solar system. Did Mars once have thriving life forms? Could it possibly still have life? As clues, we now have 34 known Martian meteorites.

Sawyer captures the reader's attention from the very first page, with the Saganesque majesty of her opening imagery the rock's ejection from Mars and its eventual surrender to Earth's gravity, the recent social evolution of Homo sapiens while the rock slowly inched back toward the surface, its final emergence into the province of human curiosity. The star of this book is the innocently wondering human brain. Despite rivalries, despite politics, most of the scientists in the story are driven by a passionate, almost devout curiosity that is eager to understand the connections that govern our cosmos, to find out our place in it which is another way of saying to find out who we are. Michael Sims, author of the critically acclaimed Adam's Navel, has recently stolen time from science writing to edit Penguin's The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.

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