No surprise that this past weekend Ridley Scott’s (and Matt Damon’s) The Martian topped box-office charts. Given the widely publicized discovery last week of water on Mars, it almost seems as though NASA were staging a promo for the new film.
I certainly don’t accuse the nation’s top scientific thinkers of being on Hollywood’s payroll. But it’s true that aerospace scientists and those who love them are rooting for The Martian’s success. There’s nothing like a terrific outer-space movie to inspire public excitement about space exploration. In fact, Andy Weir, the author of the novel on which the film is based, was recently an honored speaker at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where engineers and scientists were thrilled to hear about a story with a serious science bent.
One JPL’er with more than a casual interest in The Martian is Randii Wessen, who has a most unusual sideline. Randii holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, a master’s in aerospace engineering, and a PhD in operations research. He’s been in the field for thirty years, and now boasts the mysterious title of Team Lead Study Architect at the JPL Innovation Foundry. He’s also active in the JPL speakers’ bureau, which has sent him as far as Australia. (Hey, it’s not Mars, but it’s still a long way away.)
In his spare time, Randii is associated with something called The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This organization was founded by filmmaker Jerry Zucker in conjunction with the National Academy of Science. Remarkably, it provides free resources to any screenwriter who wants to ensure scientific accuracy. If you’re a TV writer who needs to know all about crystal meth production (for professional reasons, of course), this is a good place to come.
In addition to fielding questions from young writers, Randii has lucked into a few paying gigs. Two are with Disney: he has consulted on both an animated series called Miles from Tomorrowland and a TV movie known as Invisible Sister. It’s his mission, he feels, to make sure that nothing in these fanciful shows violates a natural law. On Miles from Tomorrowland, in which characters travel through space, he wants to make certain the writers understand the concept of gravity as it applies to the moon. For one episode, the writing staff suggested that the Dad-character put anti-gravity powder into pancakes, so that they float. Randii’s query: why don’t the eaters of the pancakes float too?
Like most scientists and engineers, Randii had his imagination sparked at an early age by sci-fi movies. He once thrilled to Lost in Space, E.T., and Forbidden Planet. Now he appreciates movies that are accurate in terms of physics: Apollo 13, Contact, even 2001. Regarding recent outer-space flicks, he has mixed emotions. He found Gravity, for instance, “beautiful and exciting.” It made him wince, however, when astronaut Sandra Bullock propelled herself through space with blasts from a fire extinguisher, since realistically she would not be able to control her direction as she does on screen.
Does Randii aspire to write his own science-fiction screenplay? He admits that at school he was a solid C student in English. Still, as an unexpected second twin, he was named after a Remington Rand typewriter. (It’s a long story.) And he’s not short on imagination. He wonders about what sunrise and sunset would be like on Uranus, whose tilted axis suggests nights that are 42 years long. On Titan, so cold that its water would be rock-hard, he pictures ethane gasses producing “slow rain.”
So maybe there’s a writer in him just waiting to come out.
This year’s JPL open house, a hands-on introduction to the wonders of space, will take place on October 10-11. It’s free of charge, and fun for all.