Martian Science Vs. 'The Martian'

Is Martian science fiction making us ignorant of Mars science?

Oct 1 2015, 2:55pm

Image: 'The Martian' promo materials.

This week, NASA announced that researchers have found evidence of intermittent flowing water on Mars. The Internet was immediately disappointed. Those who follow the space sciences had already surmised what the announcement was going to be, while those who may have been surprised by the news had to read the coverage very closely to understand why this discovery was a big deal.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah sent up this discovery in its debut episode. Noah discussed the finding with the new "senior Mars correspondent" Roy Wood, Jr., who immediately expressed disinterest. "Every couple of years on Mars, NASA finds a face in the dirt, a tire track, now they've found a little Martian runoff. Water, Trevor? They want us to be excited about motherf***n water?!"

The announcement took place during the same week that the promotional blitz for the sure-to-be blockbuster, The Martian, was reaching a fever pitch. In the advertisements, plastered across Matt Damon's ruggedly determined face, are the stark words "Bring Him Home." Mars, stranded astronaut Mark Watney quickly learns, sucks.

What are we to make of the collective disappointment regarding actual Mars science and the collective excitement for cinematic Mars fiction? Moreover, how should we understand NASA's drive to excite us about the journey to Mars while The Martian focuses on the journey home?

Planetary scientist Natalie Cabrol, potentially savvy to the fact that NASA's announcement wasn't gaining the kind of traction it deserved, writes that this finding is huge, but misrepresented in the headlines. Significantly, it solves the mystery of the recurring slope lineae, and does so with the satisfying answer of water.

We can now say, "mystery solved"! And solving that mystery has taken years of not only collecting images and looking for changes. On their own, these would not be enough to close that case. It was also about collecting spectra and mineralogical data, and thinking about converging evidence. It is about the resilience of a team that has [done] its best science by testing hypotheses over thousands of observations.

Science, in other words, is slow and meticulous. Evidence of Martian water does not come in the form of a photograph of a beautiful blue lake, but through the combined inference of several different measurements and findings.

Contrast this pace of discovery with the adventure promised in The Martian. Based on a book that achieved a minor miracle of making calculations exciting, watching the trailer, one is met with a portrayal of science and engineering ingenuity as speedy and exciting endeavors (amidst explosions!). There is a genius to Watney's problem solving that follows a linear progression, paired with immediate evidence of success or failure. When confronted with the reality that science is much more complicated than that, do we simply lose interest?

For those scientists, space advocates, and undeterred fans of Mars seeking to leverage the implications of confirming evidence of water on Mars, there were immediate appeals to send more missions, and of course humans, to the Red Planet. On Tuesday, following on NASA's heels, The Planetary Society released details for its initiative to place humans in orbit around Mars. Just like the contrasting representations of the pace of science in fact and fiction, here too we can see opposite trends at work.

Whereas the next great science thing might in fact be a human on Mars, our fictional worlds often urge us back home. The French social theorist Bruno Latour observes this trend towards Earth in the space blockbuster of two years ago, Gravity. He explains:

For the human race there is no space anymore, at least no durable occupation of outer space. That is, there is no way to escape from the Earth. The main character, Dr. Ryan Stone, confesses it at one point: 'I hate space'… the characters, and the spectators with them, realize that there is no longer any Frontier; no escape route except back on Earth.

If the salient theme of The Martian is #BringHimHome, here, then, is another example of a geocentric space narrative. These stories exist simultaneously with others spurring us on to venture further into the universe (Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy), so I don't see this theme of return as standing in for a larger zeitgeist turning away from human space flight.

Both of these narratives persist: collective anxieties are simultaneously focused on the Earth and on potential human futures elsewhere. Take Elon Musk for example; he's a public figure that exemplifies this tension. Musk's two main projects at the moment are the electric vehicle, Tesla, which promises a greener, more sustainable age of transportation, and SpaceX, a promise of escape from Earth. Musk's vision of space travel is not of tourism, but of settlement. While on the scale of one man's company, perhaps it is possible to maintain both of these directions—to both turn away from and back to Earth.

But, to scale up these projects and maintain Earth as a habitable place for the species living here or tame Mars to be a potential home requires an enormous amount of time, money, and energy. It is not unreasonable to ask if both can be done; and therefore worth our collective worry about on and off -world living.

The enormous scientific and technical work that is required for either future brings us back to the misaligned understanding of the work necessary for such STEM accomplishments. Does our excitement and interest in these fantastical fictional worlds turn our attention away from less sensational scientific worlds? Do we lose patience with the commitment required to either colonize Mars or sustain Earth? When a movie promises fast-paced adventure, can the hard-won proof of water on Mars adequately capture the public's imagination?

To be clear, I'm excited about both the science and the fiction. And yet, even though I've already purchased my tickets for opening night, I still haven't read the entirety of the short Nature: Geoscience article explaining this significant Mars science finding. When caught between science and fiction, how best can our excitement in the latter translate to the former?

Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. Follow her on Twitter.