National Geographic : 2016 Dec
Why did we dress author Andy Weir, the guy who wrote The Martian, in a space suit that actor Matt Damon wore in the movie? To celebrate a launch. This is the debut of a recurring Q&A with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, drawn from interviews for his StarTalk podcast and television show. The first guest: self-described science geek Weir. Geek in Space Neil deGrasse Tyson: So Andy, were you a geeky kid? I have to ask. Andy Weir: Well, of course I was a geeky kid! Do I look like someone who wasn’t? NT: Does that mean you did well in your science and math classes? Were you abused for that? AW: Yes, absolutely. Although I’m not sure if I was abused for being good at sci- ence or because I’m an inveterate smart- ass. Probably more the latter. NT: So, college: What’d you major in? AW: Computer science and engineering. NT: Am I correct in supposing that your English teachers would’ve never said, “Oh, he’ll be a great novelist one day”? AW: Yeah, I think my English teachers would agree I’d make a great mathema- tician someday. I’d always wanted to be a writer, even when I was in high school. But I also liked eating regular meals, and so when the time came to choose a ca- reer, I went with software engineering. NT: How did writing The Martian begin? AW: In 1999, I was working for AOL, and I got laid off when they merged with Netscape. I had a bunch of money in stock options, so I took three years off. I wrote a book, it did not get published, and I just decided writing is going to be my hobby. So I set up a web page, wrote short stories and serials—and The Mar- tian was one of those serials. It did really well, which led me to self-publish it to Amazon. It made it into the top sellers, that got the attention of Random House, and they offered me a book deal. It was like all my dreams coming true. While I was writing the book, anytime I was tempted to take a shortcut and have unrealistic science or physics, I’d say, “What if Neil deGrasse Tyson reads this? He will notice, and he will point it out.” NT: I don’t know if I’m happy or sad that that was your mental state at the time. In The Martian all we care about is whether the main character survives on his scientific wit. I don’t care about interpersonal relationships. I don’t care if his parents are alive or dead, if he’s married, has kids. I just care if the stuff he’s figuring out is going to work. And he’s tapping science, technology, engi- neering, and math: all the STEM fields. That may be without precedent. AW: Well, see, no one would accuse The Martian of being literature, right? The main character, Mark Watney, is exactly the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. He doesn’t undergo any change—no personality crisis, no nothing. And I don’t feel bad about that. I’m completely unrepentant. NT: So at no time are you developing the character? AW: Never. NT: Could you have invented a new genre here? AW: I’ve heard people describe it as competence porn. NT: What I liked about the film was that Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mon- days at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond is available wherever books are sold and at shopng.com/startalk. WILLIAM CALLAN, CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES STARTALK | WITH NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON PHOTOS: DAN WINTERS THIS INTERVIEW WAS EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY.