The outwardly dry, forbidding territory of science might seem infertile soil for the whimsy of the newspaper cartoonist. But judging by Mars in their Eyes, an engaging exhibition at London's newly opened Cartoon Museum, missions to our planetary neighbours are a notable exception. After all, everybody knows that martian soils are populated by little green men.
As the martian physiognomy is unknown, it is a gift to a cartoonist's imagination. The inhabitants of the red planet are also used to great effect as mostly perplexed, sometimes mischievous commentators on their Earthly neighbours' aspirations. In a 1976 cartoon from The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, a martian housewife bangs irritatedly on the ceiling of her underground condo as the Viking 1 probe drills through her roof.
Not all missions to Mars were as successful as Viking 1, however. The bad luck and cock-ups along the way are, inevitably, mercilessly lampooned. “Do we measure light years in centimetres or feet and inches?” wonders a white-coated, bespectacled scientist from the pen of David Haldane of The Times in response to one egregious example — the failure of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 following a disagreement between metric and imperial units.
The British-built Mars lander Beagle 2 (missing, presumed lost) features particularly prominently: its lead scientist, Colin Pillinger, is co-curator of the exhibition. A poignant item is the pair of almost identical cartoons sketched in anticipation of Beagle's landing on Christmas Day 2003. Of these, only the one entitled Silent Night — not Hark! Hear the Beagle Sing! — ever went to press.
Whether as a potted history of Mars exploration, a primer of the press's view of science, or simply as a bit of fun, Mars in their Eyes is well worth a visit. It can be seen at the Cartoon Museum in London, a block away from the British Museum, until 1 July.