5 Things “The Martian” Teaches Us About Science

Chad PaavolaToday’s guest blog comes from Chad Paavola, Ph.D., senior research advisor at Lilly. He worked at NASA for 10 years, helping develop new technologies to create lighter, lower power and more durable space flight hardware. Chad joined Lilly in 2012 and now works to improve insulins and other diabetes medicines.

It’s almost Oscar time! The 2016 Academy Awards will be presented on February 28, and there’s a lot of speculation about which movies will win.

"The Martian," one of the films nominated for Best Picture, is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, and the incredible challenges he faces after being left for dead on Mars. Although some of the scenarios are far-fetched, we can learn a lot about science and technology from the film. (Read no further to avoid spoilers!)

1. In science and engineering, you solve one problem, then the next, and so on.

2. Multiple disciplines often contribute. Watney, a botanist, grows potatoes on Mars. Another character, chemist Alex Vogel, builds a bomb with materials onboard the spacecraft to alter its trajectory and rescue Watney. While Watney’s efforts to stay alive until he is rescued demonstrate ingenuity and determination, it takes teamwork to rescue him.

3. Sometimes, someone looking at a problem from a different perspective makes a game-changing observation. A young astrophysicist played by Donald Glover has an idea and performs the analysis to determine that his daring plan might just work.

4. Unexpected complications, such as the blown-out airlock in Watney’s habitat, often occur. Scientists have to work through complications as best we can.

5. Lives may hang in the balance. In “The Martian,” that means the lives of Watney and the astronauts in the rescue spacecraft. In the pharmaceutical business, thousands or millions of lives can be affected.

Those of us working to discover and develop new medicines encounter these scientific realities every day: Science is about solving one problem after the next. Teamwork and collaboration are essential. Sometimes an observation from an unlikely source is a game changer. Unexpected complications must be overcome. Finally, and most important, our work has the potential to make life better for millions of people around the world.

Sure, “The Martian” is fiction, but it tells us a lot about how real scientists approach problems and about the creativity and value of our work.

Mars - Thinkstock


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