Science - October 8, 2015

'Mars plants actually need large leaves'

Roelof Kleis

The Martian is currently showing in cinemas. Astronaut Marc Watley (Matt Damon) has to survive on his own on Mars after an accident. Last Tuesday evening, ecologist Wieger Wamelink gave a short introduction in Cinemec about his own attempts at gardening using Mars soil. Of course he saw the film too.

Are there similarities between you and Marc Watley?
‘We are both botanical analysts. The way we work is very similar. We do our best with the limited resources we have and every problem is tackled step by step. The film gives a good picture of the scientific process.’

Is the science right in the film?
‘Of course the storm that leaves him abandoned on Mars is impossible. The atmosphere on Mars is far too thin for such a destructive storm. Marc Watley moves just as he would on earth and that’s not possible either. Gravity is much lower on Mars than here. He also lives above ground but you would have to live at least one metre under the ground on Mars because of the cosmic radiation. Mars inhabitants would become like Hobbits.’

How do you rate Marc Watley as a gardener?
‘Marc grows potatoes and uses human faeces as fertilizer. I would do that too but you would need to disinfect it first. In the film, a chemical method is used to create water but that can be done a lot more simply. There is ice just under the surface of Mars. The plants also look very unreal. Little sprigs with leaves that are far too small. Mars gets 60 percent less light than the earth so plants would actually need large leaves.’

What does this film mean for your research?
‘This is a real bonus, of course. I hope it’ll mean my work gets more attention. We are busy preparing to go crowdfunding. Mars is in at the moment. Especially now that NASA has found traces of flowing water on Mars.’