Friday, October 9, 2015


I had a total science geeky moment this morning just before the sun came up over the mountains in my new NC home. There in the sky next to the sliver of a new moon was a bright, shiny object winking in the sunlight and moving! It seemed too large for a standard satellite; in fact, seen with binoculars, it clearly showed a bulky shape that was probably the result of a solar panel array. Squee! Could it have been the International Space Station?

Well, as it turns out, the slow-moving object, once identified, turned out NOT to be the ISS, which the NASA website says is due over the Asheville area at 7:52 p.m. tonight. Then, too, the space station will be visible at only ten degrees above the horizon for only a minute. That sucker is moving fast! What I assume was just another little satellite was moving quite slowly, just moseying along, maybe taking pictures of my house for Google.

Now, you, dear reader, are probably smiling indulgently, thinking you would have gone for the binocs, too, right? (Unless you already have the ISS schedule memorized, in which case, you already knew it was just another satellite.) But I wonder how many everyday citizens out there would have looked up at the moon and its strange companion this morning and thought nothing of it—wouldn’t have cared, would have dismissed it, or shrugged, or lifted an eyebrow in mild curiosity? 

The same can be said for all the wonderful science that is at the heart of the new film THE MARTIAN, starring Matt Damon and based on the novel by Andy Weir. Fellow Lounger Laurie Green notes that the audience for the showing of the film she attended was large and diverse, and everyone was talking about the science when they came out of the movie. But perhaps what she experienced only means people who love science are a diverse and enthusiastic crowd (which has been my experience, too). 
The real question is whether people who don’t normally love science can love this movie, and learn to love science in the process. That’s a tall order.

On the one hand, you have Matt Damon, a huge box office draw, and a book that generated lots of buzz as the foundation of the film. On the other hand, you have, well, this conversation:

Am I cute or what? Let's play science!

Pharmacist: Oh, y’all are all dressed up!  Where you been?

Me: We’ve been in town to the movies.

Pharmicist: Oooh! What’d you see?

Me: That new Matt Damon picture—THE MARTIAN.

Middle-Aged Female Bystander: Oh! That looks interesting. Is it good?

Me: Yeah, we really liked it. Lots of excitement. (Trying to feel her out.) Sorta like GRAVITY. Did you see that?

Bystander: (Nodding) Oh, yeah. I liked that. But is it as slow as GRAVITY? GRAVITY was kinda slow.

Me: Um.

Then I lied and said it wasn’t as slow as GRAVITY, which I thought was an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter, when it wasn’t being the most gorgeous space film ever made. 

Now this woman will go to see THE MARTIAN and spend two hours watching Mark Watney trying to burn hydrazine to make water and mix nightsoil with the red dust of Mars to grow potatoes and she’ll hate me for life. Especially when she figures out that Matt Damon loses maybe 50 pounds in the course of the movie and ends up looking like the survivor of a concentration camp.

The encouraging news is the American people may know more about science than we give them credit for. The latest Pew Research Center poll on the Public’s Knowledge of Science and Technology actually shows that most adults got the majority of questions right concerning textbook science and science/technology in the news and daily life. Still, almost everyone (80 percent) failed to identify what gas makes up the largest percentage of our atmosphere (nitrogen). Only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons are smaller than atoms. Tellingly, NONE of the questions dealt with astronomy or astrophysics. And when asked what subject should be given more attention in school, only 11 percent answered “science.”  Hmm. Might want to rethink that.

The problem is revealed in the answer to another question asked in the poll: What’s the main reason many young people don’t pursue degrees in math and science? Forty-six percent said it is because these subjects are “too hard.” Another 20 percent called them “too boring.” So if we’re going to have to “science the s**t out of it,” as Mark Watney says he’s going to do to solve his problems on Mars, we’re going to have to rely on those few science/math geeks who find the subjects easy, not hard; fascinating, not boring.

That just isn’t everyone. I freely admit I love the ideas of science, but my poor, little verbally-oriented brain can’t handle the math behind the concepts. As much as I love the stars, I wouldn’t have passed astronomy in college without the help of a study group. And, not to brag, but I’m no dummy. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from a respectable private college.

So, can a movie like THE MARTIAN generate a lot of interest in science? I hate to say it, but I doubt it. If it attracts interest (and I think it will), it will be because of Damon’s star power and Andy Weir’s incredible good luck. The backstory of how his novel (which I highly recommend to SF fans, by the way) came to be a runaway bestseller and was optioned by Hollywood is irresistible. People will go to see the movie just on the basis of what they know about the book, even if they haven’t read it.

And is the movie any good? Stay tuned to this station next week as Laurie and Donna review THE MARTIAN and give the movie-going mission a NO or NO-GO!

Cheers, Donna

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