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This edition: Season 2, Episode 8: "The Martian"

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 29, 2016.

First aired: May 6, 2016.

In episode #208 of Science Goes to the Movies, Sarah Stewart Johnson, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science at Georgetown University, joins the show to talk about The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and released in October 2015.

To start, Johnson talks about how much she enjoyed seeing Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, figure out all the science involved in order to survive on Mars. The film is then discussed as an example of how exciting science can really be.

Johnson breaks down what it takes to actually do scientific research about Mars in real life, and details the research being done about the colonization of Mars as a secondary habitat in the event that the Earth becomes uninhabitable. In particular she explains the idea of terraforming Mars in order to make it more Earth-like and friendly to humans. Then a strategy is considered for raising the temperature from the extreme cold that exists there now.

The realism of the windstorm that sets the plot of The Martian in motion is then assessed, as compared to the massive dust storms that do occur on Mars, which carry high wind speeds but not high enough to do the damage shown in the film. How scientist and author Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which the film is based, went about releasing the book chapter by chapter, and the excitement it caused within the scientific community, is then described.

Johnson then breaks down what would be needed in a real-life survival situation on Mars, and how close the film comes to depicting this, including the way the film ignores the huge issue of long-term exposure to radiation.

How Mark Watney approaches the making of water, using the iridium catalyst, burning hydrogen gas in the presence of oxygen, is then carefully explained, and compared to much safer, simpler methods of making water that involve capitalizing on recent discoveries of water bound in hydrated minerals in the soil of the surface.

A comparison of the terrain of Mars to what we see in the film is next, including how closely the dust in the film approximates the extremely fine kind found on the surface of Mars, and whether or not the film captures the extreme geological variability of the landscapes found there. The Hemisphere Dichotomy is explained as a specific location of dramatic change while crossing Mars as Watney does.

The travel time to Mars versus the Moon is considered next, and whether Ms. Johnson would want to take the time away from her family for either. She then talks about what initially drew her to this kind of work, and the source of her fascination with Mars. Planetary science as a field is described, and how full of possibility and excitement it is. Finally, the plans for the 2020 Mars expedition, and its goals, are carefully explained, as well as the purpose of planetary exploration generally.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Sarah Stewart Johnson Assistant Professor of Planetary Science, Georgetown University