Or the first photo from the world’s first digital camera (a shot of Mars taken from space in 1965), which was actually a painting: a bright spark at Nasa realised that it would take longer for their primitive computer to convert the data arriving from space back into an image than it would take him to read that data and paint it by hand, one pixel at a time.
And yet it’s Johnson’s own story that touched me most. Humanity might be alone, but she no longer is: late in the book she falls in love, marries, starts a family. She learns to live with one foot on Earth, a planet that still holds a few mysteries of its own.
This, Sarah Stewart Johnson, an assistant professor of planetary science at Georgetown University in the US, argues in her beguiling first book is precisely why the search for life on other planets matters. It is not just that finding so much as a dormant speck of protein in this planetary tomb would be a peerless scientific wonder. It is that if life can emerge and survive on Mars — “the smallest breath in the deepest night”, as Johnson writes — it can do so in a trillion other places. It raises the likelihood of a universe positively frothing with biology. It would mean we are not alone.