Category Archives: Science

‘The Martian’ Movie is Awesome

I loved the book The Martian, so I’ve been really looking forward to seeing the movie. The teaser trailers made it look like thy would be identical, like Ridley Scott really put thought and attention into getting every detail right and making it just like the book. Plus, NASA was on board!

So I was pretty psyched, and as anyone who reads the book first knows, that can be dangerous. Will the movie manage to live up to your imagination?

I think The Martian does it. It is awesome. That’s the number one takeaway here; it makes Mars missions seem attainable, exciting, and totally awe-inspiring in the deeply Biblical/act-of-God sense.

I mean, look at this promo shot from the movie!

The Martian movie was awesome

from i09

That’s just…gorgeous. It is like a stunning sunset at the Grand Canyon, except the whole set is the Grand Canyon. And I cried when I saw the Grand Canyon, so I’m really saying something here when I say this is just incredible and moving.

Matt Damon (despite all the jokes about our willingness to send him into space and save his life repeatedly) just owned the part. He’s perfect for it. For so much of the movie, he is alone, but it doesn’t feel heavy or hard to watch, the way Moon intentionally did. Just like the book, Watley is light-hearted but determined, and it’s ultimately a story about hope.

The movie makes Mars look cool, makes Matt Damon look cool, makes science look like the amazing problem-solver that it is, and makes humanity in general look pretty good.

I don’t think it was a perfect film. Other fans of the book might notice some glaring omissions—I don’t want to be too detailed for risk of spoilers, but at least two whole crises are cut out completely—but I think it makes sense that they were cut. There just wasn’t enough time for the level of detail afforded by the book, and the book could admittedly get to be a little bit challenging because, well, it turns out surviving alone on an inhospitable planet is hard. But where the movie truly shines over the book is in the ending: it’s far more epic and satisfying–though I do deeply miss that beautiful final paragraph from the last page of the book.

In all, I think the movie is really great, but is best as a companion piece: those who haven’t read the book are missing out on a far richer, more nuanced, experience. But seeing Mars on the big screen is really, really cool!

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Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Martian is a gem, an instant science-fiction classic that will blow your mind and make you long for (and fear) space travel. If this book (and its soon-to-be-produced movie) isn’t enough to reignite interest in NASA’s Mars mission, I don’t know what will.

The plot is simple: Mars astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars after an accident; he is on his own to survive until NASA can figure out a way to pick him up…years later.

What’s particularly amazing is that with any other author, this book could have been an exhausting, emotionally-draining beat-down. It could have focused on how much it would suck to be totally alone on Mars; Watney could have spent the whole book being a pathetic, barely-surviving drag.

But “The Martian” is surprisingly funny, the kind of funny that means you’ll be laughing aloud and poking your spouse to share it with him. Watney is completely sarcastic, a naturally buoyant personality who, when faced with adversity, says, This is going to suck, but I am going to survive, damnit.
And then he’ll name rock formations on Mars after himself and declare himself King of Mars. And maybe institute worship of duct tape.

Another way this book distinguishes itself from pretty much all fiction is how clearly it was written by a science- and math-inclined mind. Author Andy Weir saves the reader from all the equations, but it is no less clear that there is intense math right under the surface; he even provides the variables used, in case another math-inclined person wants to try to figure it out, too. Most science-fiction, it need not be said, is more of the fiction, less of the science. But Weir is a world-class nerd of the best kind, and the hard science backbone to “The Martian” is what makes it so utterly believable.

“The Martian” is an outstanding book. What may make it truly great is its ability to transcend normal book-readers and reach those who care about hard numbers, math, and science, as well as those who could use a good laugh. It’s first-class writing that makes me believe we can send a man to Mars (but hopefully not leave him there).

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The Importance of Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about bones lately. I’ve been thinking about what happens when you break one. A friend is a power lifter; he literally wrestled a bear once (for charity. Both he and the bear were fine). But he fell while trying to fix a toilet and broke his elbow and now has a very impressive-looking brace on it.

I was thinking about how, when a bone breaks, it hurts a great deal, and even after it sets it can throb and be sore for weeks. (I’m taking this on faith; I’ve never actually broken one and was unwilling to do it for science’s sake).

But then it begins to heal, and while it heals, a mass of bone surrounds the broken area. As a result, the place where a bone broke is temporarily stronger than it was before it was ever broken.

The effect isn’t permanent, or I imagine every athlete and soldier in the world would be throwing themselves down stairs to try to break-and-heal more, but it’s got me thinking about failure in general.

I was reading one of those stupid lists of “things everyone should do before ____,” and failure showed up there, too. Most of the list amounted to that: fail, and fail again, and learn from failures while you can. It also quotes J.K. Rowling, who famously was on welfare and at rock-bottom before she sold Harry Potter and became a hero to authors and readers everywhere. She told Oprah:

“I’ve often met people who are terrified—you know, in a straitjacket of their own making—because they’d rather do anything than fail. They don’t want to try for fear of failing,” she says. “[Hitting] rock bottom wasn’t fun at all—I’m not romanticizing rock bottom—but it was liberating. What did I have to lose?”

I wonder if perhaps it was her failure that allowed Rowling to succeed?

Resilience is one of the most amazing characteristics of humanity. Did you know that, psychologically speaking, there is a large segment of cancer survivors who say they are grateful for the cancer, as terrible as the experience was? That is failure of the body. There are many kinds of failure, some for which we contributed and some that happen for no reason at all. They all hurt wickedly, and are sore for a good long time after the event. But what if, like with a broken bone, we are stronger after we have healed from a failure? What can we do with the lessons we’ve learned from our failures, and what will we go on to achieve?

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Kids Aren’t Reading (Because They’re Reading All The Time)

Another day, another spate of articles bemoaning the state of today’s youth. This most recent is a bunching of studies that found that kids aren’t reading as much.

NPR put it this way: “Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that.That’s way down from a decade ago.”

GASP! The horror! Let’s trot out the motifs of the way this generation is RUINED FOREVER!

…but wait. It said “read for pleasure.” Hold the phone there. Perhaps there is another, different explanation beyond “the internet/video games/drugs/television did it.”

Terrifyingly, I’m now old enough to be considered part of the “adult” quotient, but I was in high school not too terribly long ago, and I can tell you something: there was a lot of required reading. And I like to read! I read all the time! But, during the school year, my reading fell to being mostly required reading.

And let me tell you, reading the Crucible for the fourth time in the same year (“to really understand the text” *gag*) gets really old and I would not consider that enjoyable!

So that’s me, a kid who loves reading and literally never leaves the house without a book. When I was 17, I wouldn’t necessarily have said reading was “pleasurable” either: I was maxed out, and, yeah, preferred to play video games or watch TV. How must it be for the kids who are ONLY exposed to school reading? They never get the opportunity to develop a fondness for reading because they’ve been conditioned to view it as work full of meaningless “symbolism.” (yes, I’m still scarred from “The Scarlet Letter.” Sometimes a tree is just a freakin’ tree, teach!)

In an increasingly technological society, I find it hard to believe that kids are not reading in general. We’re all reading and writing MORE than ever, with so much communication switching away from in-person or on the phone to texting, email, status updates, and online forums. It’s becoming MORE important, but that kind of reading and writing wouldn’t show up in these studies.

Essentially, I think the problem here is not with teens and reading for pleasure, but with the studies. I DO think there are probably plenty of things to distract kids from reading, but those things could be bolstered not by writing ominous-sounding articles about “kids today” but instead folding more “fun” books into required reading. As much as I loved “A Handmaid’s Tale,” would it kill school districts to allow some trendy stuff–maybe middle schoolers would really benefit from doing an analysis of “The Hunger Games” instead of a nonfiction book for a change.

What do you think? Should we be worried about teen reading levels?

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You’re Incompetent and You Know It (Clap Your Hands)

I discovered a really awesome model of learning recently. It’s known in psychology circles as “The Four Stages of Learning”  and is frequently shown as a little four-part box. (Personally, I prefer a list, because it’s a progression, not a hopscotch situation.)
The four stages explain what it is like to learn something new: you move from not knowing how much you don’t know to eventually being completely proficient.
The four steps are:
  • Unconsciously Incompetent- You have no idea how hard something is because you’ve never tried it.
  • Consciously Incompetent– You’ve tried something and found out it’s actually not that easy. This is a potentially embarrassing place to be.
  • Consciously Competent– You’ve worked hard and now you know you’re actually doing it pretty well.
  • Unconsciously Competent– You’re so good that you don’t even have to think about it anymore, it just happens naturally.
As a writer, my guess is you spend at least some time feeling Consciously Incompetent, especially when there’s a deadline approaching and you have writers’ block and it all sucks. But with time and practice, you’ll be Consciously Competent, and that’s sort of an amazing and magical feeling.
I feel like Ira Glass’s quote about creativity strongly reflects this growth (I’ve marked the stages in brackets):

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.[Unconsciously Incompetent] But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. [Consciously Incompetent] A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, [Consciously Competent] and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Plus I have a feeling the folks who hear you’re a writer and say something idiotic like “oh, well you just stay home and write stuff all day, that’s not real work at all!” are just Unconsciously Incompetent. If they ever dared sit down and try to do it, they’d quickly realize that gap, too.
It’s good for our brains for us to move through these steps by trying new things. It’s also really hard. Do you make an effort to stretch yourself and learn something new? (I’m taking swing dance lessons. I am SO consciously incompetent right now!)

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If You “Don’t Read,” I’m Judging You

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 23% of Americans did not read a single book in the last year.
And I am judging every one of them.
(Okay, actually, not all of them. America has a surprisingly low literacy rate for a developed nation, and it’s absolutely tragic how people in an industrialized country like ours could have been deprived of this vital skill, which basically dooms them to minimum wage jobs. NPR had a brilliant report on it. I tried to volunteer for an adult-reading program, but apparently this kind of work wasn’t compatible with my 9-5 job.Those people? I do not judge those people. I am sorry we failed them as a community.)
If you are a competent, reasonably educated person–as most folks in America are–then I 100% judge you and think you are less competent if you aren’t opening a book, turning on a Kindle, or otherwise taking time to read something other than your work emails.
The Atlantic article shows that the 23% non-book-reading rate has actually held from the last time the poll was completed, so in 2012 AND in 2014, about a quarter of the population hadn’t read a single book in a year.
The reddit conversation about this report raised good questions: What counts as a book? Are we just talking adult fiction? Would the training manual for work qualify? How about “Hop on Pop” that I read to my kid?
I don’t know the answers to that, but my answers would be: maybe yes, if you actually read it and didn’t skim; and probably no, but chapter books should totally count.
Another set of comments suggested that it didn’t matter because people were reading more than ever, just not books–reading news online, reading personal correspondence, reading magazines. They contend that therefore, it doesn’t matter that people aren’t reading books. I disagree. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The study also reports that only a quarter of people said they had read more than 11 books in a year–not a high sum, and that means that most people (about 50%) have read between 1 and 10 books in a year, far less than one a month.
Last year, I used Goodreads to track my reading, and surprised myself to find that I read more than 30 books last year. I didn’t even find it to be that hard; after all, I’m a fairly busy person. I guess the only thing I do differently from others is that I don’t watch TV…but even then, I watch a show or movie on Netflix several times a week, so I still have an affinity for the boob tube.
(The Atlantic story dug in a little deeper to suggest that because more people are graduating college, more people will likely be readers later on. Maybe. I certainly hope so.)
But–all those non-readers: I’m judging you. I am judging you for your shallow appreciation for fine literature, for an experience that literally takes you out of yourself and teaches you to empathize for others; to allow you to be anyone you could imagine (or can’t imagine!); to teach you new words and concepts that are beyond your ken. Reading unlocks worlds, both within you and outside of you, and I think you are a pathetic person if you can’t be bothered to even read ONE BOOK in a year.
I don’t even care what it is–Young Adult books have seen a surge recently, and it ain’t just kids reading those. Some YA books are my favorites! It’s a great way to escape adult pressures.
Why don’t magazines and online reading count? Basically, they are too short and don’t provide that escapism or empathy portion that you get from complex storylines in a novel or nonfiction work. There isn’t sufficient complexity. I mean, the average newspaper (and magazine) is written at the 8th grade level. That’s not a very high bar. You can do better! Stretch your mind! It will make you more interesting. I am full of random tidbits and knowledge picked up in a book somewhere along the lines!
And the time thing isn’t really an excuse; you’re just not trying. I read before bed. I also bring a book to lunch with me, in case my coworkers are busy. Reading while eating is far better than just eating alone because you got ditched for a meeting!
One of my favorite college professors recently declared on Facebook that she read 177 books a in the last year! That’s incredible! I mean, I felt accomplished with 30! I told her that Stephen King claims to read 70 books a year, so clearly she needs to start writing.
Reading is good for the soul and the mind. Go pick up a book, you lazy louts.

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The Battle of the Sexes Will Be Won By Robots

A dude promoted his book last week by publishing a long, bloated, purple prose opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday Review that set out to solve the gender gap in who has to do the housework.

His brilliant “answer”? Men don’t want to do housework because housework sucks, so women should just not care about whether the housework gets done or not. No one wants to do it, so women should just do enough and then stop whining.
Unsurprisingly, that answer didn’t sit well with a lot of folks.

Rosie the Robot Poster by Tim Goldman

Beautiful poster from timgoldman.com

But I’m a fan of speculative fiction, so I have the answer: Robots.

Obviously we aren’t quite there yet, but pretty much everyone can agree that basic, boring house chores are both essential and absolutely craptastic to have to do. If men don’t want to step up (plenty do, book-selling NYT guy!), and women are sick of doing it, we need a third option.

If you haven’t yet seen “Robot & Frank,” head out and rent it/Netflix it pronto. That’s the kind of robot I’m talking about. Or basically a non-sassy Rosie. Or a super-powered Roomba. Something that will clean the floors, remember to do the dishes, wipe down the countertops, dust the shelves, maybe water that peace lily you cherish. Nothing fancy.

Sure, we’ve made some art/movies/books about how these domestic robots would be a problem, but really, I think they’re the answer. They wouldn’t replace many jobs — in fact, it may elevate those butlers and housecleaners to a higher-pay position, because having a human housekeeper would become a status symbol. And we’re a really long way off from autonomous robots, so the first tiers of these helper-bots would be pretty limited, and therefore not a serious threat to human jobs.

But if we want that — and I think we can agree, we ALL want that — we are going to need some clever lady engineers to get on that for us.

Why lady engineers, do you ask? Before you cry sexism, just look at history: most of the time-saving housekeeping products we rely on today were invented by women (even if they themselves didn’t do much in the way of housework).

  • Cannister Vacuum, Nancy Perkins, 1987
  • Cooking Stove, Elizabeth Hawk, 1867
  • Dishwasher, Josephine Cochran, 1872
  • Electric Hot Water Heater, Ida Forbes, 1917
  • Mop-Wringer Pail, Eliza Wood, 1889
  • Refrigerator, Florence Parpart, 1914
  • Washing machine, Margaret Colvin, 1871
  • The Practical Kitchen layout, Lillian Gilbreth, 1920s
  • Scotchguard, Patsy Sherman, 1952
  • Improved Ironing Board, Sarah Boone, 1892
  • Vacuum canning and oil burners, Amanda Jones, 1880s
  • Gas heating furnace, Alice Parker, 1919

Really, I don’t care who invents our perfect butler-bots, but history implies it’s going to be a woman. Ladies, just let me know when I can place my order, okay?

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