Matt Damon in The Martian. (Photography by Aiden Monaghan, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Projected lives

UChicago at the movies.

The Oscars are around the corner and this year some of the Best Picture nominees have a UChicago twist. There’s Richard Thaler’s playful cameo in The Big Short, which finds the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at Chicago Booth sitting at a blackjack table with Selena Gomez. Playing himself, Thaler helps explain to lay viewers how a synthetic CDO (collateralized debt obligation) works. The bit is smart and illuminating for those, like me, who have never taken an economics course. It made me wonder—not for the first time since arriving on this campus—how I might have liked being an economist.

The other notable big-screen Maroon this season is Mark Watney, the marooned botanist-astronaut played by Matt Damon in The Martian. Near the middle of the Golden Globe–winning film, Watney drops a reference to “the University of Chicago, my alma mater.” It feels just right in a story that valorizes creative thinking above all; in the face of seemingly fatal obstacles, brain power saves the day. At one particularly thorny juncture, Watney says, “I’m going to have to science the [redacted] out of this.”

I saw The Martian over the holidays and walked out thinking, I’ve made a mistake. I should have been an astrophysicist—like one of the Jet Propulsion Lab scientists who contributes to the rescue plan, characters in the mold of Ed Stone, SM’59, PhD’64, who directed JPL from 1991 to 2001 and received last year’s Alumni Medal. With a minimum of glamour, the movie’s eggheads make science seductive. But how accurate was the science?

The University of Chicago to the rescue. In January Doc Films and the Science on the Screen film series hosted a special screening of The Martian. When the lights went up, UChicago geophysical and planetary scientists kibitzed for the audience about what the movie got right, and what’s science fiction. The movie earned mostly good marks, despite neglecting to script in the surface radiation that astronauts would be exposed to on Mars and other consequences of the planet’s thin atmosphere. (Read more at “Mission: Improbable.”) Most amazing to me? How much the panelists could tell us about a place that’s so far away. Wait—is it a planetary geologist I should have been?

None of us can do everything in life, but covering UChicago—and, I hope, reading about it—lets one vicariously experience a lot: vita excolatur.