Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Life Lessons from The Martian (it's not all about physics)

Everyone's talking about The Martian, a nerdy novel (and soon-to-be film) about a stranded astronaut's self-reliance on Mars. The story is a whirlwind of adventure and its science is spot on. Unlike your typical superhero, the hero of this novel is equipped with scientific and practical know-how that allows him to (just) scrape through many disasters in the unforgiving Martian environment.

More than any other story I've read, this book emphasizes the need for a broad scientific literacy that lies deeper than a Google search (no internet on Mars), as a matter of life and death.

When I was a kid I thought that all I needed to do to be an astronaut was to become physically fit and learn some astronomy. After all, out in space they'd need an astronomer, right? I pored over the list of basic astronaut requirements, took up running, worried incessantly about my eyesight, and took my first astronomy course when I was 16. Ten years later, I have a PhD in astrophysics but this certainly won't land me a spot on the first manned mission to Mars.

Had The Martian, been published ten years ago instead of last year, I might have taken a few more engineering and biology classes along the way. Silly me for forgetting that the primary challenge for astronauts on another world is keeping themselves alive.

The story follows astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars when a storm separates him from his crewmates and he is presumed dead. Knowing that the next planned mission is years away, and without a way to communicate that he's still alive, Watney has to find a way to stretch the 30-day supply of food, water, and air to last a thousand days.

The first part of the book is told through Watney's logbook entries, riddled with enough humor and sarcasm that the technicalities are never dry or overwhelming. The book's prose is exactly what you'd expect from an astronaut jotting down notes at the end of a long day, but it's the realistic hazards, and realistic solutions, that won me over. The scientific accuracy of the book is incredible.

"[T]here aren’t that many books that try as hard as I did to be as technically accurate as The Martian is. Aerospace engineers tend to be nerds, right? And they read science fiction, or watch it on TV, and they’re used to seeing so much bulls**t—so much hand-waving and violations of physics—that it’s probably hugely refreshing to see a book that at least tries to be accurate," author Andy Weir said in an interview with Ars Technica.

On his website Weir goes further, saying "All the facts about Mars are accurate, as well as the physics of space travel the story presents. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories."

Because the events in The Martian are so plausible, it drives home a few key life lessons:
  1. Know how to garden Watney's first task is to beef up his food supply and luckily, he's a botanist and knows how to turn the sterile Martian soil into fertile, living soil able to grow potatoes.
  2. Know some chemistry As Watney remarks in an early log entry, "There isn't a lot of water here on Mars. ... If I want water, I'll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn." And don't kill yourself in the process.
  3. Know how to wire a circuit Without giving away spoilers, let's just say Watney has to reengineer a lot of equipment and electrical circuits in order to stay alive.
  4. Know how to estimate things Fermi problems are brain teasers that challenge you to estimate, for example, the number of piano tuners in Chicago, based on a few reasonable assumptions and basic math. Watney has to do these calculations on the fly in order to make life and death decisions about his water supply, battery lifetime, and food intake.
  5. Stay optimistic Through the whole ordeal, Watney manages to stay optimistic and resourceful. While the author admitted that he largely ignored the psychological challenges that Watney would have undoubtedly grappled with, the optimism is something to aspire to. 
The Martian is currently 5th on the New York Times Bestseller list, and production for a film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon is underway. Not bad for a first novel from a software engineer.

Yesterday, the first action-packed trailer was released, but I prefer the amatuer quality of the teaser trailer released Sunday:

The Martian film is scheduled for release on November 25th, 2015.

By Tamela Maciel, also known as "pendulum"

Top image credit: Public domain

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