Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Does Mark Watney dream of red potatoes?


Before we get down to business ...

As commander of this blog post, I order you to read The Martian by Andy Weir before you even watch the trailer for the upcoming movie. If you watch the trailer before you read the book you will ruin your life. Plain and simple. I can't even imagine what horrible things will happen to you if you see the whole movie without reading the book first.

Do not deprive yourself of this head trip. There is just no way this film will walk you through this astronaut's brain like the book does. Movies can be wonderful, but this is one of those reading experiences (of which there are infinitely finite) that cannot be matched on screen. 

You'll notice that I'm not linking the movie trailer here. I'm not even pasting a picture of Matt Damon in this post, knowing full well that it will get me more clicks and will beautify this screen, because I don't want anyone looking at any of that until they've read the book. If you're really hearing me, stop reading this blog post and don't come back until you've read the book. Do you read me? Over.

Layers at the base of Mount Sharp (source)
With the movie  The Martian opening this Friday, many people will soon be familiar with Mark Watney and his incredible ordeal. 

This is not a book review. I'm done with those for the time being. The last one I did turned out to be a bit of a disaster.  

I just have a few thoughts about Mark Watney's Martian diet that need to escape through my fingers and out onto your computer screens.

To survive on Mars and to think his way to salvation, he eats a lot of venison, kale, and blueberries.

Psych! He eats a lot of potatoes. You know, the "problem" food that causes disease. The food that so many trademarked diet plans avoid, like the Paleo Diet. 

There was some pre-made, pre-packaged NASA fare for Watney, but no way would it last as long as he needed if he was to try to get off Mars. So he actually grew potatoes. A shitload of them. With a shitload of astronaut shit as fertilizer. 

The whole spirit of the book is one that inspires us to think our way out of problems. To remember that possibility is a state of mind. To be skeptical of our inner skeptics who speak of impossibilities. And it's with that skepticism that I wonder about those potatoes.

Let's forget our questions about soil volume, nutrients, and moisture  (mostly because I don't know how to usefully critique the thorough explanations that Watney provides for his decisions about these things). 

And let's drop the question that drove me crazy until the very end of the book when Watney finally explained that he was microwaving the potatoes and thereby getting more calories from them than he would by eating them raw. Given all the calorie-calculations he ran through while sciencing, the chance that Watney might be eating raw potatoes was slowly killing me (and, potentially, him). 

Now I'm curious about something more fundamental: would potatoes grow the same on Mars as they do on Earth given the gravity's different? Could Watney's Earth botany translate as well as it did on Mars?

His training and thinking might not translate well on Mars if we're talking about making a different kind of tot. I'm fond of this paper hypothesizing how difficult it might be to extend the evolution of our own species, extra-terrestrially. Earth's gravity may matter a whole lot to human reproduction, especially those earliest stages of development. 

link to paper

We're not potatoes, sure, but potatoes aren't yeast. Given that there's less gravity on Mars, can we assume that sciencing all those Earth potatoes in Martian conditions is as straightforward as Watney makes it sound?

I don't think anyone knows the answer to this, however, tons of anyones (like Andy Weir) have more informed guesses than I do. Indeed, it is possible to grow spuds on the space station. So maybe my gravitational question lacks gravitas.  

(That groaner was for you, Mark.)

But one thing is for sure. In The Martian, as in life on Earth, a diet based primarily on potatoes fueled a human for quite some time. Maybe not all humans could handle this, and maybe not all humans could be as extraordinarily brilliant while eating mostly potatoes for so many cold and lonely days. But the potato industry has got to be thrilled. 

Not only is one of humanity's best (fictitious) members existing as one of humanity's best members thanks to potatoes, but the food's public image got a separate but related boost recently. Potatoes, and other similar carbohydrate sources, might have been crucial to our lineage's brain evolution. 

Anthropologists have known for a good while now that "underground storage organs" or USOs, like potatoes past and present and many other species, have probably been a big deal during the last several million years of human evolution. But a recent review paper in the Quarterly Review of Biology argues, based on up-to-the-minute cross-disciplinary findings, that cooked starches were crucial to the evolution of our big glucose-sucking, calorie-burning brains. Here's the paper's abstract:

source (and see Zimmer's write up)

So, Paleo dieters and potato-haters of the world, you have just been publicly flogged by both science fiction and science faction. What do you do now?

Well, if you haven't read The Martian, I'll plug it one last time. 

When you're on about page two you might be cursing me. By then I was cursing the book and everyone who liked it. I nearly gave up at the start for reasons to do with the style of writing (gasp! a blog! Ugh!) and my narrow-minded expectations of astronauts, but I'm so glad I dominated my inner bigot and turned the page. All the pages. To the last page. In solidarity with my new favorite Martian blogger, I'm moved to thank you for reading this gasp! a blog! Thank you. Now get to reading Watney's.

P.S. If you can't access the two articles I reference, email me and I'll send them to you: holly_dunsworth at

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