The Martian: Science versus Engineering

I could go on for quite a bit discussing the differences between the book and the movie. In fact, I was just on a panel at a science fiction convention where we discussed that topic. The panel also discussed things that either the book or the movie got wrong.

Here I will just consider two lines of dialog.

The first was in the book, but was not used in the movie. It occurs in Chapter 5, in the log entry for Sol 40. Mark Watney is explaining all of the various problems encountered when burning the hydrogen extracted from the hydrazine to form the water needed for the potato plants. The line is “Everything went great right up to the explosion.” I consider it the best line in the entire book. Obviously, it made more sense in the movie to simply show the explosion, but I feel that in doing so they lost a great line.

I am more concerned about the second line of dialog. It was not in the book, but was created for the movie. It occurs when Watney is contemplating the many things that he will have to do to make it to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) at the Ares 4 site, which is 3200 kilometers away. He then says “I’m gonna have to science the s**t out of this!” You can go online to any number of websites and purchase a t-shirt with the uncensored version of that line.

It is a great sounding line, but I have one major problem with it. Consider the censored version of the variation that I am proposing:

I have a couple of reasons for this change.

In the book, Watney explains that everyone on the mission has two specialties. He is the botanist and the mechanical engineer. His second specialty was not mentioned at all in the movie.

This line occurred after he had begun the process of growing the potatoes to supplement his supply of rations. Let us look at some of the things he did during the course of the book or the movie. He extracted the hydrogen from the hydrazine and then burned the hydrogen to form water. He dug up the RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) and used it as a heat source for the Rover as an alternative to wasting precious battery power. He recovered Pathfinder, got it working, and set up basic communications using hexadecimal notation. Under direction from NASA, he then modified the Rover communications software to permit him to communicate more efficiently. He performed all sorts of modifications and additions to the Rover. This work involving the Rover (actually both Rovers in the book) is spelled out in great detail in the book, but was glossed over in the movie. In the book, he developed small sensors that enabled him to determine the extent of a huge sandstorm and safely detour around it. He also recovered from a rollover of the Rovers caused by shifting sand. Finally, he performed the required modifications to the MAV to permit it to rendezvous with the Hermes spacecraft. Is there anyone that will dispute that those activities should be considered Engineering, as opposed to Science?

I am not going to present a comparison of definitions. I will simply ask you to consider the following quote by Theodore von Karman (1881-1963), who was the leading aerodynamic theoretician of the 20th century and who was, among other things, the first Director of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL):

Scientists discover the world that exists;
Engineers create the world that never was.

(With regard to the above quote, I am aware that at least a half dozen versions may be found online, with minor variations in wording.)

I suppose that the case could be made that by growing the potatoes he proved that it was possible to grow things on Mars. After all, this was one reason that he was sent, as a botanist, to Mars. But I maintain that this result, as a scientific discovery, was incidental to him solving a real, practical problem – keeping himself alive. Everything else he did was Engineering.

I wonder if the person who created the line for the movie was aware of the distinction.

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