How many cubic feet of soil can you fertilize with your excrement? This is the kind of problem that has to be solved if you're stranded on Mars and have to grow food to survive.
To say that Andy Weir's The Martian is an exploration of math, Mars, and feces is a slight simplification. I doubt that the author would have any complaints, though.
Many analytical thinkers partake in the delightful pastime of situational fantasy. We think up a situation (e.g., I'm stuck in an elevator with a spatula) and imagine how we would resolve it. The Martian is exactly that. Weir takes us through one of the most detailed and well-explored situational fantasies possible: being stranded on Mars.
Before you begin to imagine what you would do -- and I know some of you have already started -- lets expose all our variables. In this novel, we have already had a few manned missions to Mars, leaving behind materials and tools. We have set up a location for our next visit. Our stranded astranaut, a botanist, has to survive until the next manned mission arrives.
I don't want to give away too much of this splendidly amusing book, so I'll keep my summary fairly vague. The book follows along as our protaganist tackles one problem after the next. He starts with the most basic needs: food, shelter, and water. Each is broken down into its most basic math. He calculates exactly how many calories he'll need per day to survive and where he can source this many. The same goes for water and air.
Unfortunately for our hero, nothing is as simple as you would hope. Each resolution brings another problem to the forefront. For example, if you had a tiny amount of Earth soil, you could seed some Martian soil to cultivate the bacteria necessary to grow plants. Now that you have figured out how to seed the soil, you will need enough water to sustain this life. Exactly how much moisture does 63 square meters of Martial soil require to be usable? Where do you get this water? How do you harvest and contain it?
At times, the writing seems somewhat formulaic: A problem is identified, the math is broken down in detail, and a solution proposed and attempted. Despite this style, the novel kept me riveted. In my opinion, this is how math should be taught in school. Forget long worksheets full of nonsensical equations that don't mean anything. Give us a real problem that needs to be solved, and show us the math behind it.
I would highly recommend The Martian to any science fiction enthusiast. Engineers will find the book particularly refreshing in that it simply breaks down each problem to the math. There is no deus ex machina -- only one man, some math, and whatever tools and materials he can scrounge.
— Caleb Kraft, Chief Community Editor, EE Times
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