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  6. Hollywood meets Mars: Canadian Botanist and Mars “explorer” offers insights on The Martian

Hollywood meets Mars: Canadian Botanist and Mars “explorer” offers insights on The Martian

Paul Knightly © Paul Knightly


Paul Sokoloff in his Mars spacesuit at the Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah.

"I’m the best botanist on the planet" – astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) in The Martian.

Ottawa, September 28, 2015—The new Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian, dramatizes the story of an astronaut and botanist stranded on the Red Planet who relies on his scientific skills to survive.

Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, is a real-life example of this character—a research assistant with fieldwork experience in Canada’s Arctic who also happens to have his own Mars “exploration” credentials as member of a Mars Society simulation expedition.  As a training ground, Canada’s High Arctic is recognized by NASA to be the most “Martian-like” environment on earth.

"It’s rare to see the knowledge of a plant expert as central to the success of his character," says Paul Sokoloff, referring to Damon’s reliance on growing potatoes to survive in the desolate Mars environment. "The Martian is a fantastic book, and I’m really looking forward to the movie.  After all, how often does a space botanist save the day?"

Sokoloff has been on five expeditions to Canada’s Arctic, a frontier in its own right that has drawn museum scientists for 100 years, dating back to the seminal Canadian Arctic Expedition.  The Arctic then was a new frontier, much as Space is now.  It is no coincidence that botanists would feature as an integral part of missions to both.   

But along with Sokoloff’s love of botany comes a fascination for outer space and Mars exploration that began in childhood. An admitted space geek (like The Martian author Andy Weir), Sokoloff was thrilled to spend two weeks at a Mars analog site in November 2014 as a crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah.

While Sokoloff and his crewmates will not actually go to Mars, their training is developing the knowledge that others will require to succeed in a real mission, like the one portrayed in The Martian. Sokoloff’s team is among a number of crews that are being evaluated for a potential longer-term mission at the Mars Society site on Devon Island in Canada’s High Arctic – another locale on Earth that mimics the Red Planet’s terrain. Psychological tests administered before, during and after the mission help to assess the team’s compatibility, leadership skills and cohesion.  

During last November’s Utah mission, Sokoloff was part of an international crew of six that did research in a circular pod that provides basic amenities, living space, and lab and computer areas. Dubbed the "Hab" (a term also used by Damon to describe his quarters in the movie), crew members were required to don a space suit anytime they needed to step outside, such as to explore the surrounding terrain—just as if they were stepping out onto the real Red Planet.

During the mission, Sokoloff applied his botanical expertise to survey plants in the area.  While future astronauts visiting Mars won’t need to bring their plant press with them, Paul’s inventory of the MDRS flora will serve as a useful reference for astrobiology and soil science research projects at the station.

"Water, food and safe quarters – these are some of the basic requirements any mission to Mars needs to address. How will it come about, what resources are required, where can a colony best be established? Of course, Mars will truly be an extreme environment, and the more simulations that take place, the better prepared we can be," says Sokoloff.


Information for media, photos or to request an interview:
Dan Smythe
Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.566.4781; 613.698.9253 (cell)

Laura Sutin
Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.566.4793; 613.698.7142 (cell)