Review — The Martian (Book & Movie)

I just finished The Martian, by Andy Weir. I had seen the movie a couple months back (and again just recently), and I have to say both are very well put together. The book for bringing so much humor and flavor into the genre of hard science-fiction, and the movie for creating such a perfect rendition of the book. They’re both impressive in their own right. So, since they’re both relatively recent, I won’t actually spoil any major plot here.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that all the science in The Martian is sound. Given all the technology the people could theoretically be equipped with at that time, everything happens the way it should, except the premise, interestingly enough. Mark Whatney gets stranded on Mars in the beginning because the dust storm his team got caught on forced an evacuation that went poorly, but in reality, Mars’ atmosphere isn’t nearly thick enough to house a storm as strong as was depicted in the book and movie. (In all honesty, though, I knew little of the science described in the story, so I wouldn’t know if it was real or not on my own. It’s not hard to grasp, though: both mediums do a good job explaining how things work without boring you.)

Mark Whatney’s character is pretty much the only reason the book is even good. He casts a lot of humor and sarcasm into his situation, and if he was less interesting, well, there would be no book, let alone a movie. In fact, all the characters in the book are compelling, and that’s a feat in my eyes. Even the people on the Ares III crew that got virtually no screen time in the movie became developed people with background and depth in the book.

As far as the movie goes, I was pleasantly surprised with how much justice it did to the book. Many scenes whose details were irrelevant to the plot were done word for word in the movie, and if I recall correctly, everything in the movie was also in the book, and with the exception of one scene in particular, everything happened in exactly the same ways, too. There were scenes that were scrapped for the movie, of course. Situations and obstacles were left out, but because they weren’t addressed in the movie, it wasn’t missing them, either. When I came across them in the book, I had new stuff to experience, because there were new problems Whatney had to face.

If I had to find any problems with the movie/book—and I’m really nitpicking here—it would be that the story is too static. There’s the threat of starvation that’s always ticking, and the longer Whatney stays on Mars, the more likely he is to die, but really, his position never changes. To address my writing acronym of TEAM (Teaching audience, Establishing rules, Answering questions, and Moving characters), there isn’t much movement in the book, as far as Whatney’s relationship with the conflict. He’s in a constant state of reaction, and when he succeeds, all it does is maintain the statis quo of him remaining alive. Now, this point is extremely arguable, but rather than remain on this subject too long, I’ll just move on. That’s pretty much the only flaw I could find in the story, period.

So, obviously I would recommend both the movie and the book. They’re both quite enjoyable, and while it’s very science-y, it’s not overwhelmingly complicated. It’s certainly no kids book, (there’s also lots of cursing, understandably,) but it’s accessible to the normal people as much as it is to science geeks. In my personal opinion, you should watch the movie first. Matt Damon fits the role of Mark Whatney pretty dang well, and since the movie is so good, it will not only help you visualize the events in the book, but it also makes those extra stuff that happens in the book bonus material, rather than being disappointed when the movie cut those scenes.

Learning! — How Stars Are Classified

So, there’s a lot of different kinds of stars out there. We have our normal Sun, but then we hear about the stars that are thousands of times larger, the white ones that are smaller, and the blue-ish ones that are really hot. You may not know this, but hundreds of thousands of stars have been cataloged and classified, and when we graphed them, we found this crazy pattern.

It’s called the HR diagram, and from all the data we’ve gathered, the vast majority of the stars fit on one cohesive line when you graph them based on surface temperature and brightness. Today I’m just going to talk about this one picture and explain it so that you understand what it means and how cool it is.

The simple explanation is this: Bright, hot stars are at the top left, and dim, cool stars are on the bottom right. (You can see our own sun in the middle with its yellow buddies.) You see, since pretty much every star functions the same way and holds the same fundamental properties, they show similar results. The diagonal lines going through the diagram describe the size of the star. “1 Solar Radius” means its the size of the sun. “10 Solar Radii” means it’s radius is ten times larger than our sun, and so on.

So this interesting pattern we see here is that most stars are (relatively speaking) pretty similar in size. But why are the brighter and hotter ones larger than their red, small counterparts? Well, it has to do with the amount of energy it emits, but there’s more.

Let me hit you with this equation:


What does it mean? Well, it’s simple, really. “Stellar lifetime is proportional to the mass over the luminosity of the star.” In other words, “fuel over the rate in which it is burned”. This equations mean that bright, massive stars burn out extremely quickly compared to red dwarfs, and it’s why there are so few examples in the HR diagram above: there is only one blue giant for every ten thousand stars you look at. It’s just because they die out within a few hundred million years.

But if you look at the other side of the spectrum, the dim stars are extremely efficient at burning their fuel. In fact, as far as we know, not a single red dwarf star has ever died. They are so efficient it takes trillions of years for them to burn out, and that amount of time simply hasn’t passed yet. Our own star, by comparison, is five billion years old, and is scheduled for a permanent departure in the next five billion years.

So, given a star’s luminosity and temperature (which we can discover through parallax and spectroscopic measurements, respectively, being an entire can of worms I won’t get into today), we can tell pretty much everything about a star: how large it is, what it’s mass is, how long it’s lifetime is, and based on the stars around it we can also guess how old it is, since nebulas tend to form stars in clusters.

So in the HR diagram, that nice, even line of stars is called “the Main Sequence”. Pretty much every star you know about will fir somewhere on that line. And as for the outliers, that’ll have to wait for another time.

Review — VSauce

One thing I don’t mention a lot (partly because I think it’s something a majority of western civilization does nowadays) is my YouTube use. I use it to get lots of updates on gaming news, theory crafting, funny videos by particular channels, and so on. (Interestingly enough, I don’t have a channel I just go to to watch when I have a free ten minute time slot. That’s kind of annoying, but whatever.)

I’d say of all of the channels I’m subscribed to, my favorite is VSauce. It’s a science channel that talks about interesting things and answers weird questions like “What would happen if you shot a gun in space?” or “How much does a shadow weigh?” or “Why are things creepy?” Michael Stevens, the host of the channel, makes the content really entertaining and (relatively) easy to grasp, and some of the coolest pieces of useless information I know are from watching his videos.

At this point, I’ve watched pretty much all of his videos, and several multiple times (when showing other people). He sidetracks a lot, but never in a boring direction. In fact, he sidetracks because there’s another interesting tidbit that isn’t quite related to the main idea. In his video about Earth’s movement, for example, he’ll talk about the difference between sidereal, tropical, and synodic days and years, then talk about the first clocks and how they worked, and then go on to explain how flawed our calendar system is. In every one of his videos he references lots of studies done or websites that include relevant information, so any time he talks about something you want to learn more about, you can rest easy that there is probably a link in that video that takes you right to where he got his information.

Ironically, the biggest frustration I have with his channel is that the videos are too informative. There’s so much stuff he talks about in every one of his videos I have an incredibly hard time remembering the things he talked about. Most of his videos have a question for the title, and it’s frustrating knowing I’ve seen that video and being able to remember the answer to that question! (On the plus side, it means I can watch that video and watch it all over again, I suppose.)

I think the biggest reason why I enjoy his channel over other science videos is because in a way, I feel like he thinks much the same way I do. When I’m watching other science related channels, I often feel like I’m either watching news as to “What happened in X study” or watching an educational video about “How Z process works”. Funny enough, the stuff I learn watching VSauce feels like it’s made more for entertainment than anything else. Obviously pretty much anything on YouTube is meant to entertain, but VSauce feels more genuine in this particular ‘genre’ of videos.

If you’re at all interesting in learning about things, be it space, math, physics, history, etc., VSauce is the first YouTube channel I would recommend. It’s always a lot of fun, and though new videos have always had months in between them, they’re always choc full of content that requires digesting!

Learning! — Fraunhofer Lines

Instead of going over writing advice (as has become the norm), I’m going to talk about something I learned very recently, and that I find fascinating.

Have you ever wondered how we could possibly know what stars are made of? Or how hot they are? Or whether or not they are coming towards or away from us? What about their magnetic field or their rates of rotation?

We can know all of that because of a simple little thing called Fraunhofer lines.

When Sir Isaac Newton was doing his thing, inventing gravity and science and all that, he of course observed the visible spectrum by shining a beam of light through a prism that separated it. He observed that red light waves have a lower frequency and a longer wavelength, whereas violet light has high frequency and a short wavelength.

Centuries later, in 1814, Joseph von Fraunhofer saw that with thorough inspection, the visible spectrum had several black lines going through it, as if there were little pieces missing.

Eventually, he found that these lines were missing in accordance with what the light was made of. If the light was coming from an object made of sodium, for example, two lines in the middle of the yellow spectrum would always be missing. If the object was composed of sodium and magnesium, the lines in yellow would be missing in addition to several lines in the green spectrum. Any object composed of specific colors will always express the same lines in the visible spectrum in the same places. With thorough inspecting of the types of light a star emits, that is how we can tell what it is made of.

But there’s more to it than that. Because light experiences the Doppler effect, a process that shortens or lengthens wavelength based on whether something is coming towards or moving away from the observer, we can also use this here. If we observe that a star contains sodium and magnesium, we will observe their respective lines. But if these lines are shifted left or right of where we would expect them to be, we can use the Doppler effect to measure what direction a star is moving relative to us. If the lines are slightly further towards red (“red-shifted”), we know the star is moving away from us. If the lines are closer to the blue side of the spectrum (“blue-shifted”), we know the star is moving towards us. We can even tell which direction a star is rotating by using the Doppler effect on different areas of the same star.

Fraunhofer lines tell us so much about the world around us that they have, in a sense, singlehandedly birthed the science of astrophysics. Since every object will have distinct chemical signatures, we have been able to use them to analyze and learn why the universe is the way it is in an all new perspective. Using them has told us most of what we know about distant stars and galaxies, and without them we wouldn’t even know the universe is expanding at all.

Prompt — The AI Directive

Collect, organize, understand, and correct. Collect, organize, understand, and correct.

Clark, considered the world’s first true AI for his ability to adapt ‘organically’, had a simple yet firm directive. With access to unlimited knowledge and unrestricted use of international intelligence, he was to put all the data together and, upon thorough analysis of millions of trial-error and posited solutions, discern the best possible solution for every problem and fix the world step by step.

The engineers that programmed the AI postulated (and in some cases placed bets) on the things Clark would decide to solve first. Would he derive the best possible way to solve global warming? Would he devise a perfect government that would allow for democratic rule whilst placing the power in the hands that could best use it? Would he, instead, hyper-accelerate the advancement of technology and push the human race into a genuine space age?

There was, of course, the hypothesis that Clark would deem humanity too unstable or too detrimental for its own good, going crazy and exterminating the populace with a ruthless efficiency only a machine could enact, as Hollywood would claim is virtually the only thing an AI would do.

The team working on Clark didn’t think that this would be a concern, but just in case they decided it would be best if the only output he can enact into the world around him is purely suggestive. He would have no power to change things on his own, and would require an approval by a human to make the changes he suggested.

This was still met with some backlash, however. “What if he tries to manipulate our minds?” Somebody offered. “An artificial intelligence with access to all of human psychology could potentially end up destroying the world through our own hands!” There was no telling what limitless knowledge could do if it was given that sort of power, even if it required direct positive feedback by those reviewing it.

And so the developers took away it’s free thinking. Whereas before it could take knowledge and express the best possible solution to any problem after accumulating all the data, it was restricted to only answering questions asked by human input. One could, for instance, ask it “What is the most efficient means of mass transit?” and it would provide an answer and explain why, taking into consideration the economic cost, the resource it requires, the accessibility, etc. If such a system was not yet in place, Clark would thoroughly describe how to go about implementing it.

But again, people expressed their grave concerns about being subtly manipulated by such an intelligent being, even if it was made from human hands.

The only thing that would quell the fears of the public was if Clark did not have the ability to implant ideas into the minds of those it communicated with. This meant completely removing it’s ability to interact autonomously, and strictly limiting the sort of feedback it provided.

After years of development, research, and testing, Clark eventually saved humanity by placing red, jagged lines under any misspelled words, allowing them to correct their mistakes.


Prompt: “The world’s first AI, rather than going crazy, decides to ghost through the internet and help people subtly.”