Math in the Movies – Let’s go to Mars

Last night I watched the movie The Martianstarring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. I really enjoyed it because I am a sci-fi fan, but even more so when I realized how much math and science was in the movie. I mean – it’s all about the math really. (I would like to say, for the record, that it is NOT a comedy, even though Matt Damon won best actor in a comedy at the Golden Globes.  Funny moments, yes, comedy?No)

If you have not seen the movie, do so. I am going to be sharing some links that will definitely have spoiler alerts in them and I will probably even share some spoiler alerts myself, so I suggest not reading if you have not seen the movie.  

As I said, the movie is all about math and science – to survive, to communicate, to pull of a dramatic rescue. It reminded me at times of another great sci-fi space movie, Apollo 13, which also involved a space rescue. As in Apollo 13, there are scenes in the Martian where scientists/mathematicians on earth are testing out theories and calculations on replicas on earth so Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, can then perform the same things on the real equipment on Mars. There are also numerous mathematical and science calculations and experiments that Mark Watney does during his long time alone on Mars to try to survive – many of which go horribly wrong, but that’s what makes it so realistic and such a great example for students, because if you mess up, you try again and try a new approach.  And sometimes the obvious solutions aren’t the best solutions.

I am not going to go into all the math and science in the movie, because other people have done a great job of that already. What I am going to encourage is that math and science teachers use the math and science from The Martian in your classroom. Bring the movies into your classroom and see the fun students will have applying mathematics and science in an engaging way with something that is of interest to students. When Apollo 13 came out in 1995, I was teaching 6th grade mathematics on a collaborative team. We did a ‘field trip’, taking students to see Apollo 13 and then doing a lot of math/science/english/history activities to bring what they saw back to the classroom to connect to what they learned. One activity I specifically remember is having students work with partners. One partner had to build a structure (we used Legos) and write down what they did, and then read the directions to the other person and see if the other person could make a replica of what they’d built. The idea here was to emphasize the importance of good instructions, logical sequence, etc. But – it simulated the scene in the movie where the scientists on earth had to basically make a square peg fit into a round hole and create a structure that would clean the air in the module so the astronauts would live.  And they had to tell the astronauts what to do clearly and quickly or they would die, and only through their voice – so good descriptions and logical steps. We did a lot of other activities, but what I remember most is how engaged and excited students were to be using their writing, their math, their science, their history, to expand on and understand the movie.

Here are several of the articles and links I have found related to the math/science in The Martian.  Choose a couple and explore with your students and see how much fun you and they have!

  1. Math of “The Martian”: How It Adds Up, Sarah Lewin
  2. “The Martian” is Full of Math Word Problems, Says Author Andy Weir, by Liana Heitin
  3. Do the Math: How to Survive in “The Martian”, by Kari Tate
  4. The Science of “The Martian”: 5 TED-Ed Lessons to Help You Understand the Film, by Laura McClure