The Martian Moment

In 1931, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a founder of Bank Street College of Education, wrote the following…

Modern children are born into an appallingly complicated world. A three-year-old in a city environment may be whisked to his steam-heated nursery in an electric elevator, fed from supplies which are ordered by telephone, sent up in a dumbwaiter, and stored in an electric refrigerator: he may be taken to a hole in the sidewalk and borne rapidly on an underground train to a distant place. The forces which move his elevator, warm his nursery, extend his mother’s voice to a grocery store, cook his milk, propel the subway train, are complicated and difficult to understand not only at three, at six, at nine, but even at forty.

Our own age is still more difficult to understand than the one that confronted Mitchell’s hypothetical three year old. The smartphone or laptop on which this essay might be read is fully understood by few if any people worldwide: those who understand the CPU might not understand the screen or the operating system; fewer still would know how each of those components is assembled from raw materials and how those raw materials themselves are extracted or refined. Such is the magic of global capitalism, that thousands of exchanges, coordinated through market mechanisms, allow us to play Angry Birds while waiting at the dentist’s. The end result is less technological than technomagical, as powerful and incomprehensible as Harry Potter’s wand.

For Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the goal of education was “taking in the world with all five senses alert, and lively intellectual curiosities that turn the world into an exciting laboratory.” In our own technomagical age, how would you propose to make the world a laboratory, in which the learner takes things in with all five senses alert?

If you believe the recent book and film of The Martian, the answer is to put someone on a different world altogether. The hero, Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded alone on Mars, must use his knowledge of botany, chemistry, and mechanical engineering to keep himself alive in a series of high-stakes science experiments. Growing potatoes in soil fertilized by his own feces, heating a hot-rodded rover with plutonium, and sealing ruptured habitation canvas with good ol’ duct tape, Watney takes the Mythbusters approach to survival on another planet, and succeeds (spoiler alert!) in reuniting with his crewmates and returning back to Earth. Science rulez!

Throughout The Martian, billions of dollars of equipment is put to ersatz usage in keeping Watney alive. He tears apart the Mars Ascent Vehicle meant for the next mission after his own to make it light enough to carry him outside Mars’s gravity, where his crewmates have doubled the reading on their spaceship’s odometer to come back and meet him. Launches scheduled for other missions are scrapped or repurposed to send Watney and his crewmates extra supplies. The price tag of saving his life is, apparently, hundreds of billions of dollars, and the waste of thousands of human-hours of effort on the projects that were dumped.

Watney justifies this expense (and his possible death) to the viewer as part of larger mission of humanity. He died, if he will die, for something larger than himself, and he is good at what he does. Being good at it is of course the point. The film and book succeed as fantasy precisely because Watney has both the necessity and capacity to survive using his knowledge and wits. We as reader or viewer both accept that his survival is possible and doubt that, in the same circumstances, we could do the same. As Lucy Sprague Mitchell noted, we barely understand the technological processes that surround us, and could still less reconstruct those processes in their absence, as Watney is forced to do.

Accepting not just dependence on other people, but a partial and failing understanding of the technological processes that keep us alive, is a price of adulthood in 2015. What about our kids, though? At the Back to School night at my children’s elementary school, the principal played a video clip made by Google for Education, begging young people to discover, invent, change the world through science and technology, solve all our problems at once by building new things. “Don’t just play on your phone, program it,” President Obama enjoins, in a poster affixed to the door to the computer lab on my children’s school.

Obama’s official pronouncements on science education have been similar in content, though more dire in tone. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he said…

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. If we want to win the future -– if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -– then we also have to win the race to educate our kids. Think about it. Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations…We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.

What made early 2011 a Sputnik moment, if it was one? The immediate pretext for Obama’s remarks was the news that some students in Shanghai had done extremely well on the PISA international examinations in math and science, blowing away the highest-performing European nations as well as the United States. While their performance was remarkable, and it was startling that students in a China that had so recently emerged from deep poverty could outscore much richer nations with more long-standing educational systems, it was unclear how representative of Shanghai itself the students sitting for the examination were, let alone representative of the poorer or more rural parts of China. Moreover, lagging performance on international exams is nothing new for the United States.

Obama’s remarks mirror, however, a way in which Sputnik itself was rapidly repurposed in the public imagination. When the satellite was launched into orbit by the Soviets in 1957, one immediate implication for most adults was that a country that had sent tanks to Budapest the previous year to fire on protesters, and had only begun to distance itself from Stalin’s crimes, could shoot something bleeping and flashing over American cities– and we couldn’t do anything about it. By October 1958, the year following, though, the administration called for a “National Science Youth Month” as the “Answer to Sputnik.” Quickly and mercifully, the nation was able to change the subject from Mutually Assured Destruction to improving children’s science education and getting our own rockets into space. As Tom Lehrer put it, in 1959, “once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?”

This original Sputnik moment is perhaps best dramatized in Homer Hickam Jr.’s memoir, Rocket Boys. Confronted by Sputnik flashing across the 1957 sky and the prospect of their mine closing in a few years, a West Virginia coal town comes together to help five boys learn the science and craft of rocketry and win a national science fair. A central theme of the book is the contrast between the hard-headed practicality of the town’s older generation– the adults who, between trips down into the mine, help the boys identify safe launch sites, obtain the right kinds of steel for the rockets and nozzles, and do the actual building of the rockets in the mine’s machine shop– and the boys’ high-minded experiments with improving their designs and learning the calculus behind rocketry.

The shift that Hickam sees in his small town– from practicality to abstraction, tinkering to theory and design– is arguably representative of a real secular change in the relative abilities of children and adults. While the famous psychometric Flynn effect shows a gradual increase in the measured abstract reasoning abilities of tested children over years and decades, most science and technical hobbies have faded considerably since 1957. Chemistry sets and model rockets, woodworking and auto repair are all much less popular than they once were, in part perhaps because of the availability of other distractions, in part because of concerns about the dangers of “real” chemistry sets and model rockets, in part because contemporary cars and devices are so much more difficult to understand. In Danny, the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl suggests that, in 1975, a child who could take things apart and put things together again was beginning to be a wonderful thing:

We were in the workshop, I remember, on my fifth birthday, when the talk about school started. I was helping my father to fit new brake linings to the rear wheel of a big Ford when suddenly he said to me,
“You know something interesting, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world.”
This was the greatest compliment he had ever paid me. I was enormously pleased.
“You like this work, don’t you?” he said. “All this messing about with engines.”
“I absolutely love it,” I said.
He turned and faced me and laid a hand gently on my shoulder. “I want to teach you to be a great mechanic,” he said. “And when you grow up, I hope you will become a famous designing engineer, a man who designs new and better engines for cars and aeroplanes. For that,” he added, “you will need a really good education. But I don’t want to send you to school quite yet. In another two years you will have learned enough here with me to be able to take a small engine completely to pieces and put it together again all by yourself. After that, you can go to school.”

Tinkering has become even more unusual since Danny rebuilt his engine in the 70s (or since I failed to blow anything up with my chemistry set in the 80s). This past summer, a Texas teenager was arrested after putting a store-bought clock into a pencil case and turning it on to beep and flash in his English class. 9th grader Ahmed Mohammed’s “bomb clock” showed just how much tumult a kid can cause these days by unscrewing a few screws. The story became a national obsession for a few days, and reactions to Mohammed’s arrest were predictably polarized by national politics– either he was an unheralded savant, headed for MIT (if Islamophobia didn’t get in the way) or he was deliberately eliciting a reaction to support his Sudanese father’s faltering political career. Lost in either perspective tended to be the idea that he might be just a regular kid, playing a prank that got out of hand. Tinkering of any kind is so outside the norm it can only be described as malevolence or genius, and not just normal adolescent curiosity and playfulness.

The decline in science as a hobby for young people, has occurred in spite of several decades of educational policy targeted directly at increasing their curiosity and capacity for individual exploration. As one of many science education initiatives of the early 60s, NSF’s Elementary Science Study focused on topics like growing seeds, experiments with gases and air, bones, batteries and bulks, kitchen physics, and the behavior of mealworms– ways of using inexpensive and familiar materials to allow children not just to proceed through a hackneyed scientific method but to be the scientist themselves, given small pieces of the living or nonliving world they could observe in their classrooms. The “New Math” reforms, memorably satirized by Tom Lehrer (“it’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child could do it!”) were similarly focused on the ability of children to investigate and “discover” mathematical principles for themselves.

While the educational reforms of the first Sputnik moment probably benefited white and middle class communities most, they extended well beyond them. In James Herndon’s memoir of teaching in an all-black Oakland school during the 1958-1959 school year, The Way it Spozed to Be, he recalls considerable support for him teaching science, even though he came to the school to teach English:

With the second semester, for instance, we finished with Social Studies in
7B and began a semester of science. Opal Jameson now came into her glory
as caretaker of our equipment for the miraculous experiments and
demonstrations which I painstakingly figured out in theory from the manuals
and which Opal herself actually made work. Under her capable hands and air
of exasperation the coil and nail magnets worked like they [were supposed] to, the
balloons inflated and deflated over the fire, the gas bubbling in the pan
actually turned out to be oxygen or hydrogen or carbon dioxide, the wood
splinters flamed or went out, the gallon cans crushed themselves inward.

Even in his troubled 7th grade English class for low-scoring readers and completely illiterate non-readers, “7H”, Herndon ended up showing lots of science movies because they were the best available in the 1959 school:

We began to see all kinds of films– at first, of course, all them science movies. They were by far the best of the school films, being often quite new and usually in color. We saw films about rubber plantations, about farm machinery, floods, rockets,
geology, animals–everything.

The neighborhood of the first school I taught in, a middle school in the south Bronx, was already majority black and Hispanic when the school was built in the early 60s. The classroom I taught in would, in the school’s early days, have been an impressive place to learn science, a huge room with sinks and gas lines all around the perimeter and a huge demonstration table at the front. But times change. By the time I got there in 2000, the gas lines had long ago been permanently shut off. The faucets were hacked off at the base, leaving jagged pieces of metal coming out of the lab benches. The sinks were choked with debris and, in some cases, emptied not into plumbing but directly into the cabinet below, so that when young Jose and Arthur tried out their model volcano, a flood of baking soda-and-vinegar lava coursed across the floor. The chemical cabinets were empty, except for decades of old dittos and worksheets, several nests of mice, and one unstoppered bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid, the fumes of which had gradually made the locker that held it as full of rusty metallic dust as the canyons of Mars.

The scene that greeted me in my first classroom is representative of many similar, high-poverty schools. The extent to which traditionally underrepresented groups are welcomed by science at all levels and supported in their science education is of both public policy importance and broad cultural interest. Some of this interest can feel superficial and hypocritical. In the Google for Education video that was played at my kids’ school, the narrator repeatedly asks who will solve the scientific challenges that confront us, and then, showing grainy photos of old uncool white guys, says “Will it be him, or him? Nope!” before switching to montage of vibrantly diverse children solving scientific and technical problems.

The Martian does not entirely evade these issues of diversity and representation, especially in its conversion from book to film. The race of Mark Watney in the book is not explicit, although most readers would probably assume he is white, and like most blockbuster movies these days, large sections of the film could be seen as paeans to a white man’s physical and mental resourcefulness (with the obligatory lingering shots of Matt Damon’s hairless and buff torso.) Some scenes back on Earth, of huge crowds of “regular people” in major cities cheering on the rescue of a lone white man at great social cost, embody only too well critics and activists’ belief that our culture values white male lives more than those of the rest of the planet. That such concerns arose for the filmmakers as well is probably clear from some of the casting decisions and plot changes between book and film, most of which were probably intended to increase the sense of diversity and representation in the film, but some of which have themselves caused controversy by altering the races of two of the book’s three Asian-American characters.

The Martian has been commercially and critically successful nevertheless, and it is clear how thrilled NASA staff are at the prospect of a major movie presenting their organization and its mission so warmly and well, mentioning the film even during the quasi-historic press conference announcing the presence of liquid water on Mars. It is facile but tempting to link the fall and rise of American interest in science education to NASA’s own troubles and triumphs. Undoubtedly, though, many at NASA hope the film will bring increased public and Congressional support for eventual manned Mars missions, after funding for the real-life Ares V mission was cancelled by Obama in 2010, and resurgent interest in space exploration in general.

The 2010s have already, it should be said, been a great decade for space exploration. I can date my six year old son’s obsessive interest in space from the launch of the rocket that brought the Curiosity rover to Mars, but this decade has also seen a Chinese probe on the moon, an unmanned Indian mission to Mars, Voyager’s data from the edge of the Solar System, the oodles of extrasolar planets identified by the Kepler telescope, the European Space Agency’s probe on a comet, the New Horizon spacecraft’s up-close pictures of Pluto, as well as the aforementioned liquid water on Mars. The Internet age gives a satisfying intimacy with space exploration, with photographs and videos that don’t merit mainstream headlines still available on NASA’s website, and a seemingly endless supply of potential designs, future missions, and discussions of funding woes available to those who care. A “public domain organization,” as The Martian reminds us, NASA puts the universe before us virtually, in better resolution and with greater interactivity with every year.

The virtual world is both help and hindrance in engaging kids in science. Computer technology has become a tantalizing investment for principals and grant agencies, at the expense of science supplies and equipment. But children at home already spend an inordinate amount of time absorbed in devices– some surveys have suggested a troubling nine hours a day. For most school-aged children I know, Minecraft is more real than Mars; even several years ago, when I would run discussion groups with middle schoolers, the one topic of predictably collective interest and engaged conversation was video games.

Lucy Sprague Mitchell might, were she to be teleported to our time, remind us that a film rendered in 3D through computer generated imagery is a suspect method of engaging children in our real natural environment or the workings of the human-made world. When we watch a movie like this, is our response to “take in the world with all five senses alert”– or retreat further into our virtual cocoon? The Martian as book and film suggests that sciencing the shit out of stuff– blowing up hydrazine, shooting off rockets, even growing potato plants– still thrills us. Whether it will impel any of us- child or adult- to try it out for ourselves, rather than leave it to the guy on the screen, remains to be seen.

8 thoughts on “The Martian Moment

    1. Sure, at least in theory there’s an enormous amount of technology to understand as well as to use as components in different kinds of creativity that wouldn’t have been available a generation ago. But I do wonder if somethings become essentially more unavailable over time, and I also wonder if school makes things worse, by emphasizing the abstract over the concrete. The “Flynn Effect” in other words probably has some costs as well as benefits.


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