The Martian: MacGyverism and duct tape

If you’ve read The Martian by Andy Weir, or seen Ridley Scott’s movie version of this excellent book, then you know that astronaut Mark Watney must MacGyver his way through many life threatening situations and survive. In the book, Watney is stranded on Mars. Matt Damon, playing Watney in the movie, has a memorable line, “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, I’m gonna have to science the sh– out of this.”

I love when film heroes know cool science.  These engineers must innovate if they are to survive.  The TV character, Angus MacGyver is renowned for his MacGyverisms. He disarmed a missile with a paper clip in the TV series pilot, created a magnifying glass using a hairpin and white wine in Episode 3, and used a gum foil wrapper to reconnect a blown fuse in Episode 8.

As a mechanical engineer (and botanist), Watney is also an innovator capable of elegant MacGyverisms. He’s stranded on Mars.  “I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.” Providentially, he knows his science. “If I want water, I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.”

MacGyverisms and Watneyisms are both celebrations of human and engineering intelligence. Like MacGyver and Watney, innovative engineers are able to jury rig all manners of contraptions to be able to get on.

The phrase jury rigged has been in use since at least 1788. MacGyver and Watney thus pay homage to early colonial-era sailors. While crossing the rough and open seas, these sailors had to ensure that their ships remained seaworthy no matter what. Hence, they had to make repairs with the limited tools and materials that happened to be on hand.

Today’s materials at hand include the ubiquitous duct tape. In the book, Andy Weir has Watney say, “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

Neither MacGyver not Watney however resort to jerry building. Presumed to originate in the mid-19th century, the phrase jerry built connotes something that is badly built with materials of poor quality.  Both of our heroes do act in haste very many times but the quality of their engineering is anything but shoddy.

MacGyverisms are about getting things done, which Mark Watney knows full well. “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin.”

You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

That’s the spirit of engineering, isn’t it?


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