Bill Nye, Eat Your Heart Out
Question #1: How is The Martian like Breaking Bad?
Answer: Both works of art take science out of the musty lab and into the world of high drama, higher stakes, and highest entertainment factor.
Question #2: How is The Martian worlds apart from Breaking Bad?
Answer: Hoo boy. Let us count the ways.
Not only does The Martian take place literal worlds apart from Albuquerque, but its treatment of science is pretty much the Good Cop to Breaking Bad's Bad Cop. The Martian's science is the metaphorical white (purity, goodness) to Breaking Bad's metaphorical black (depravity, evil)... or maybe we should say The Martian's science is the red (planet) to Breaking Bad's blue (meth).
After all, The Martian that contains this dang line:
"It just goes to show," Teddy said. "Love of science is universal across all cultures." (19.58)
Basically, The Martian makes even the world's most hardened lit nerds—us—want to run out and enroll in a physics/botany/interstellar space awesomeness program. It makes us think that science is the glue that keeps humanity together. And although Mark Watney might have his own theories on what the most magical thing in the world is—
Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped. (17.50)
—we finished The Martian with the opinion that it's science, not duct tape, that should be worshiped.
The Nuts And Bolts (And Duct Tape)
But don't worry: it's not just that The Martian makes science seem like a life-and-passion-and-faith-in-humanity-giving force. It also makes science seem like just about the most useful and fascinating thing ever. This book charts, in a crazy-detailed way, how to navigate solo life on Mars by harnessing the (say it in a booming voice) Power Of Science.
In fact, you can sum up a good chunk of the book like this: Something catastrophically bad happens. Mark fixes it... with science. (And in case you think that sounds boring, we could also paraphrase Star Wars by saying: Something catastrophically bad happens. Luke fixes it... with the force.)
Mark Watney doesn't have superpowers, but he has something better than superpowers: a knowledge of some uber-advanced science. And author Mark Weir, who describes himself as "one of those guys that’ll nitpick every little physics problem in a movie," didn't just make up some science-ish stuff. He had help from a bunch of enthusiastic experts in the field:
As the serial [version of The Martian] progressed, he picked up around 3,000 readers, who would send corrections if he got the science slightly wrong. "I had chemists, electrical engineers emailing me, and a reactor tech on a US nuclear submarine, just telling me how this stuff works [...]" (Source)
In fact, one of the reasons that people are going nuts about this book is its accuracy:
[Weir] meticulously researched every aspect—from the chemistry to the number of daily calories Watney would need to stay alive—and says he’s earned praise from NASA engineers for his efforts. "If people don’t like the book and say it’s because of the main character, well, that’s a matter of opinion," he says. "But what bugs me is when people say there are scientific inaccuracies when there are not." (Source)
We're not going to hit you with equations and charts and diagrams here, but we are going to send you over to a few folks who can. Like, you know, NASA.
Giggling with excitement at those articles even though you normally prefer The Martian Chronicles and Red Mars to, uh, real science? That brings us to...
Science Is Exciting, Dang It
It's one thing to have written a scientifically accurate book. It's another thing to have written a scientifically accurate book that's exciting enough to top the bestseller list, get made into a film directed by Ridley Scott, and get credited with saving the space program.
But that's The Martian. Science in this novel doesn't just represent the global bond of humanity and the very real powers that humans can harness. The portrayal of the science going down in The Martian is also thrilling and captivating enough to
[...] [have] given NASA an enormous PR boost [...] The Martian doesn’t make a compelling political or budgetary case for sending humans to Mars. But it does make a human landing and perhaps even colonization of Mars seem plausible at the nuts-and-bolts, airlocks-and-solar-panels level. (Source)
Andy Weir was a programmer, but as an author, he wanted science to be interesting—to everyone. This sci-fi chart topper has converted thousands of math-and-science-fearing luddites into sci-fi—and just plain science—enthusiasts. How's that for a book that started as a blog?
There you have it, folks. The real-life symbolic resonance of The Martian's use of science might just be that science and literature, working together like a true Dynamic Duo, have the power to change the world... and maybe even the solar system.