Wednesday’s Book Review: “Seeing Like a Rover”

Seeing Like a RoverSeeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars. By Janet Vertesi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Acknowledgments, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. 304 pages. Hardcover with dustjacket. ISBN-13: 978-0226155968. $33.25 USD.

Janet Vertesi, now assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, has been embedded with the Mars Exploration Rover team for nearly a decade working to understanding the manner in which modern science and technology is advanced through collaboration, individual initiative, and the power of big questions. Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars is an outstanding example of what may be accomplished by a talented sociologist asking sweeping questions and analyzing data both mundane and exciting.

The twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, first landed in 2004 and began transmitting images and other scientific from the surface of Mars back to researchers on Earth. The result has been a recasting of what we know about that harsh, rocky terrain. It confirmed that Mars was once a watery planet and that it may well have harbored life. Moreover, there may yet be water under the surface, enticing the more adventurous to speculate that life—probably microorganisms—might yet exist on the Red Planet. Achieving this understanding, however, was anything but straightforward. It only resulted from a complex process of decision-making and execution by a team of scientists and engineers on Earth about what to explore, which data to emphasize, and how best to pursue the most promising questions.

This is very much an account of science in action; experienced through the engagements of those serving on the mission team. The heroes are the geeks of science and engineering, working in offices but especially in collaborative spaces where they come together to analyze, decipher, and make sense of digital data transmitted from the rovers on Mars. The images that they receive, and the other data sent to Earth, serve as the touchpoints for the development of consensus about the geological evolution of the Rest Planet. And consensus is the name of the game. The leaders of the science effort for the Mars Exploration Rovers—especially chief scientist Steve Squyres—insist that the various actors on the mission come together to offer the most broad and far-reaching analysis possible based on the data they receive. While there are differences of opinion among the science team about what the data might mean, that process of consensus offers a model of scientific analysis. In Vertesi’s estimation, the digital imagery—modified, colorized, and calibrated—are themselves a product of interpretation by the science team and resulting from hours of complex interaction among its members. She makes the case, and it is a telling insight, that the scientific results are in part constructed through that complex process of interpretation.

Equally important, Vertesi analyzes the competing priorities of the scientists versus the engineers working on those program. The scientists, of course, want to send the rovers wherever they believe there are new discoveries to be found. That may be viewed as risky by engineers who are charged with keeping the rovers operational through the life of the program. The interactions of these two groups is fascinating—especially because neither group is homogeneous and has factions—as they work through questions and coalesce around answers that most all can accept even if they are not optimal for all. This is an old story, all NASA projects have these type of issues, but in Vertesi’s telling the results are more positive for the Mars Exploration Rover teams than in many other projects.

This is a story of the execution of big science. It focuses on the interplay of divergent groups, communities, and disciplines and offers insightful commentary and fascinating conclusions about a major NASA science mission. Most important, Seeing Like a Rover offers others at NASA an outstanding example of how to structure future projects to ensure success. What I found most helpful was not so much the mundane interactions of the staff working in the project as the broadly applicable lessons learned that may be drawn from Vertesi’s work.

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