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Ready for Launch: Our New Q&A With Neil deGrasse Tyson

Join the noted astrophysicist and host of TV’s StarTalk as he speaks geek-to-geek with Andy Weir, author of The Martian.

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This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Why did we dress author Andy Weir, the guy who wrote The Martian, in a space suit that actor Matt Damon wore in the movie? To celebrate a launch. This is the debut of a recurring Q&A with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, drawn from interviews for his StarTalk podcast and television show. The first guest: self-described science geek Weir.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So Andy, were you a geeky kid? I have to ask.

Andy Weir: Well, of course I was a geeky kid! Do I look like someone who wasn’t?

NT: Does that mean you did well in your science and math classes? Were you abused for that?

AW: Yes, absolutely. Although I’m not sure if I was abused for being good at science or because I’m an inveterate smart-ass. Probably more the latter.

NT: So, college: What’d you major in?

AW: Computer science and engineering.

NT: Am I correct in supposing that your English teachers would’ve never said, “Oh, he’ll be a great novelist one day”?

AW: Yeah, I think my English teachers would agree I’d make a great mathematician someday. I’d always wanted to be a writer, even when I was in high school. But I also liked eating regular meals, and so when the time came to choose a career, I went with software engineering.

NT: How did writing The Martian begin?

AW: In 1999, I was working for AOL, and I got laid off when they merged with Netscape. I had a bunch of money in stock options, so I took three years off. I wrote a book, it did not get published, and I just decided writing is going to be my hobby. So I set up a web page, wrote short stories and serials—and The Martian was one of those serials. It did really well, which led me to self-publish it to Amazon. It made it into the top sellers, that got the attention of Random House, and they offered me a book deal. It was like all my dreams coming true.

While I was writing the book, anytime I was tempted to take a shortcut and have unrealistic science or physics, I’d say, “What if Neil deGrasse Tyson reads this? He will notice, and he will point it out.”

NT: I don’t know if I’m happy or sad that that was your mental state at the time.

In The Martian all we care about is whether the main character survives on his scientific wit. I don’t care about interpersonal relationships. I don’t care if his parents are alive or dead, if he’s married, has kids. I just care if the stuff he’s figuring out is going to work. And he’s tapping science, technology, engineering, and math: all the STEM fields. That may be without precedent.

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Cans full of film reels surround Andy Weir in a storage vault at the 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles.

AW: Well, see, no one would accuse The Martian of being literature, right? The main character, Mark Watney, is exactly the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. He doesn’t undergo any change—no personality crisis, no nothing. And I don’t feel bad about that. I’m completely unrepentant.

NT: So at no time are you developing the character?

AW: Never.

NT: Could you have invented a new genre here?

AW: I’ve heard people describe it as competence porn.

NT: What I liked about the film was that for the first time in my life experience, looking at storytelling in film, science was a character unto itself.

AW: That was part of the goal. I didn’t set out to say, “People need to understand science more.” I was just like, “This is really cool to me. I want other people to feel that feeling.”

NT: The movie takes place in 2035. That’s not a random time, presumably.

AW: No. I calculated all the orbital trajectories that the spacecraft Hermes has to take to get from Earth to Mars and back, based on an ion propulsion drive that can provide a constant two millimeters per second per second [mm/s²] acceleration—which, as I’m sure you know, is way more than we can do right now.

NT: These are real launch windows if we were actually to do this? So you have far more accurate information in this story than most people will ever know.

AW: Yes. And in fact, some orbital dynamicists actually double-checked my calculations, and I was only off by about 2 percent. That’s pretty big when you’re talking about interplanetary stuff …

NT: But for fiction purposes …

AW: It will do.

NT: Right. So now you’re on Mars. Do you say, “I have to invent some nonrealistic stuff to tell my story. I did everything else right, now give me some latitude”? You know what scene I’m thinking of in particular.

AW: You’re talking about the sandstorm.

NT: The dust storm. It’s never a sandstorm, because the air is not thick enough to carry sand.

AW: Right.

NT: For those who might have not seen the film: You have a spaceship that wants to take off, and there’s a dust storm—very common on Mars—whose pressure is so great that it’s tipping the spaceship. But the Martian atmosphere is so thin, and the mass of dust that it carries is so low, that a dust storm can’t tip over a spaceship.

AW: It cannot possibly. It could barely tip over a piece of paper.

NT: And I’ve defended you, by the way. I’ve said, “Look, he needs it to tell the story. At least he got the fact that Mars has dust storms.”

AW: Before I had the dust storm, I had a different idea, but this is a man-versus-nature story, so I wanted nature to get the first punch in. That was the most fun part: coming up with stuff to throw at him and figuring out how he’d solve it.

NT: Did you feel at any point in the novel, “OK, this will actually kill him”?

AW: Oh sure. There were lots of places where I came up with a problem that was so severe there was no way for him to survive. In those cases, I would either give him some piece of technology that enables him to solve the problem or I’d just have that problem not occur.

NT: For me it didn’t matter whether I knew he was going to die or not. I’m invested in, Can he solve this problem?

AW: That’s because you’re a geek, like me. It would’ve been a helluva shock if he had died at the end, right? It’s like a James Bond movie: He’s in constant life-threatening peril, but you don’t actually think he’s going to die. You’re really just curious how he doesn’t die.

NT: Exactly.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mondays at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond is available wherever books are sold and at shopng.com/startalk.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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