A planetary scientist, Johnson is passionate about searching for life in unlikely places—whether that means an isolated Australian lake “stippled with halite, a…table salt,” above the cloud line on a Hawaiian volcano—or on Mars. Hopes for life on the red planet have always been high, with early observers mistaking Martian dust for vegetation and even elaborate civic projects. Yet as more sophisticated explorations have exposed these as fictions, actual pictures of that red dust have produced evidence that the conditions to support life really did exist there once. As she traces the challenges, findings, and failures of a string of Surveyors, Rovers, and Explorers, Johnson’s meticulous and lyrical descriptions (the sky on Mars, for instance, isn’t black or blue but butterscotch) convey not only the science but the human quest for meaning that’s driven the work—despite the fact that “half the missions to Mars have failed”; Johnson’s own engagement in this endeavor has been so deep that her first child was due on the same day the Curiosity was scheduled to land on Mars, giving added oomph to her conviction that these missions represent “an almost existential endeavor…to learn what life really is.”
Fabulous mortician extraordinaire and founder of the Order of the Good Death Caitlin Doughty is back with another book, this one specifi cally designed to educate and create a more honest engagement with death. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (W.W. Norton, $25.95) includes answers to more than fifty questions posed to Doughty by her young fans. The kids are great at getting to the heart of any matter, even death, in the most straightforward fashion, hence their no-nonsense queries such as, “why do we turn colors when we die?” and “what happens when the cemetery is full?” Doughty is equally candid in her answers, bringing both her expertise and her engaging writing style to brief and fascinating chapters. The essays are accompanied by wonderfully macabre and quirky drawings by Dianné Ruz, making this book a great library addition for readers of any age.
Letters from an Astrophysicist (W.W. Norton, $19.95,) by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is exactly what the title says it is: a collection of correspondence, via letters, emails, and social media posts, between the director of the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium and members of the general public. As you would expect, a lot of those missives contain science-related questions—including Tyson’s role in demoting Pluto—but many also concern hope, fear, religion, and even parenting. As Tyson notes, “there’s a longing we’ve all experienced at one time or another: the search for meaning in our lives; an evergreen urge to understand one’s place in this world and in this universe.” Addressing matters both philosophical and astronomical, his responses are relatable, thoughtful, and funny; reading them, you will be amused and charmed—and you will most definitely learn something new.