SciTech

Up in the Air: Learn the life lessons from ‘The Martian’

“I’m going to have to science the (bleep) out of this!”

Mark Watney’s exclamation about his strategy to survive on Mars sets the stage for a great movie about living solo on the red planet. (Slight spoiler alert: A few minimal details about “The Martian” are in this article.)

But it can also provide a guide for all of us to follow in many aspects of our life on Earth.

The movie itself is not always scientifically accurate. The wind and dust storm that precipitate the scenario faced by Watney (played by Matt Damon) is not realistic: The atmospheric pressure on Mars is less than 1 percent of that on Earth, so even a 100 mph wind would feel like a light breeze does here.

Can you grow potatoes on Mars? Even in Watney’s protected habitat, sunlight diffusing through the roof panels on Mars is less than half the brightness as on Earth. Growing vegetables under artificial lights requires high-intensity lights – think of those giant fixtures used in basketball arenas and high-ceiling warehouse stores.

But “The Martian” author Andy Weir knew this and chose the starting event based on excitement, not science. I am not one of those who Tweets complaints throughout a movie screening – I will give the film artistic license. It’s a movie, not a documentary.

An important theme woven through the movie, and more so in the book, is the repeated application of logical, scientific thinking and methodology to the challenges of life. Stranded astronaut Watney’s calculation of the number of potatoes needed to survive a few hundred sols (Mars days) is just one of many calculations found in the book.

Watney thinks out problems carefully and comes up with the solutions, sometimes (in the book) after putting the problem aside for a while. That scientific method can work for all of us here on Earth. Whether it is simple things like reacting to a personal emergency (like a mysterious rain leak in your house) or broader issues challenging us (like man-made climate change), solutions are waiting for us and need to be addressed for us to survive, personally or as a species.

And while there was a bit of true rocket science in the book, those calculations were not difficult math. Back-of-the- envelope calculation ability is a part of life and should be in everyone’s toolkit.

I tell my nonscience-major students that math is important in daily life. The misunderstanding of subprime ARM mortgage interest calculations contributed to the housing bubble collapse. People did not think out what they were getting into.

The big picture: You should spend a couple of hours with Mark on Mars and then rethink how you can science your own challenges!

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this column is at: www.upintheair.info.

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