Extraterrestrial botany has hit the Hollywood mainstream. In The Martian, Matt Damon plays an astronaut and botanist who gets stranded on Mars and uses his green thumb to help himself survive. The film raked in awards at the Golden Globes on January 10, including best comedy and best director.
Paul Sokoloff. (Photo courtesy the Canadian Museum of Nature)
Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, is a real-life example of Damon’s character. Sokoloff has participated in a Mars Society simulation expedition and conducts research in the most Martian-like environment on earth: Canada’s high arctic. Here, he offers his thoughts on the movie and his own research.
How do you feel seeing a botanist getting the spotlight in a big-budget Hollywood space movie?
I think it’s great that the ability to understand and work with plants is a core theme in the movie: plants are the reason Earth can sustain life, and on an extended space mission, plants may be the key to “bio-regenerative life support systems.”
I was really pleasantly surprised to see how much of the “hab” (Matt Damon’s Martian abode) resembled aspects of the various analog research sites here on Earth. This was a neat connection for me personally, and I think really reinforces the fact that these sites serve as valuable test beds and training sites for future Mars missions.
How does your own research relate to what the movie was showing?
During my time at the Mars Desert Research Station, I did a complete survey of the plants and lichens in the surrounding area. This inventory will serve as a useful reference for astrobiology and soil science projects that frequently take place at the station. I found it to be a neat intersection between low-tech natural history and high-tech space exploration research.
At the museum, my botanical specialty is Arctic research — I study the plants on extended expeditions to Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Working in these remote environments in small teams is a great analog to space exploration, and space agencies currently use these remote locales to train their astronauts.
Can you describe what it was like trying to do botany research while being in a space suit at the Mars camp?
Difficult! The helmet would often fog up, and the gloves were cumbersome, but that’s the point. Learning about the necessary techniques and technologies we need to use on Mars here on Earth will prepare us for the real thing when the time comes. Mars simulations serve as a valuable (and very cost effective) dress rehearsal.
Botany in all its various incarnations will likely be vitally important to all deep space exploration. Learning how to grow food from crop plants, and how to generate energy using cyanobacteria are just some of the avenues of research currently being explored as ways to keep ourselves alive both on exploration missions and future colonization efforts.
How close are we to this potential future?
Space exploration and research is a necessarily painstakingly thorough process, but I suspect the pace of our efforts to get to Mars are accelerating, and certainly expect to see a manned mission there in my lifetime.
Did this movie/book cause you to look at anything different within your field?
That with a sense of humour and good attention to detail, anything is survivable — a good lesson for me to remember on cold Arctic field days.