304 pages, 52 colour plates, 29 b/w photos, 4 b/w illustrations
In the years since the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Rover first began transmitting images from the surface of Mars, we have become familiar with the harsh, rocky, rusty-red Martian landscape. But those images are much less straightforward than they may seem to a layperson: each one is the result of a complicated set of decisions and processes involving the large team behind the Rovers.
With Seeing Like a Rover, Janet Vertesi takes us behind the scenes to reveal the work that goes into creating our knowledge of Mars. Every photograph that the Rovers take, she shows, must be processed, manipulated, and interpreted – and all that comes after team members negotiate with each other about what they should even be taking photographs of in the first place. Vertesi's account of the inspiringly successful Rover project reveals science in action, a world where digital processing uncovers scientific truths, where images are used to craft consensus, and where team members develop an uncanny intimacy with the sensory apparatus of a robot that is millions of miles away. Ultimately, Vertesi shows, every image taken by the Mars Rovers is not merely a picture of Mars – it's a portrait of the whole Rover team, as well.
"The outstanding contribution of the book is to bring a richness of ethnographic detail – regarding what was clearly an extraordinary scientific project – into generative relation with contemporary theorizing within science and technology studies (STS). While the premise that the material practices of science are at the same time always also social is by now well established within STS, this book demonstrates the profound and subtle ways in which that holds in this particular case. In the process, Seeing Like a Rover extends and deepens our understanding of scientific practice as the conjoining of humans and nonhumans in relations of mutual transformation."
– Lucy Suchman, Lancaster University
"Part academic ethnography, part exploration science and technology primer, and part just plain fun storytelling, Janet Vertesi's Seeing Like a Rover takes you deep inside the thoughts, hopes, and habits of the men and women who set out to explore the Red Planet through the eyes of a pair of high-tech robotic emissaries. As one of those explorers, I've relived many of the highs and lows of remote planetary investigation through her distinctly social, and sociable, lens. Vertesi places what many incorrectly perceive as a purely technological, asocial, non-interactive activity – robotic planetary exploration – squarely in the context of human behavior. Her analysis is thoughtful, insightful, and timely, and is sure to influence future explorers, human and robotic alike."
– Jim Bell, member of the Mars Exploration Rover team and author of Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet
"Janet Vertesi had a front-row seat for the Mars Exploration Rover project, and for the first time she brought a social scientist's keen eye to the way we operate rovers on Mars. In Seeing Like a Rover she doesn't just describe how we did what we did. She gets inside our heads to describe why we did what we did, offering insights that wouldn't have occurred to even the mission engineers and scientists ourselves. It's a fascinating read."
– Steven W. Squyres, Cornell University
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Janet Vertesi is assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University.