Space travel, Brad Pitt, and the South African physicist ready to live on Mars

Award-winning theoretical physicist, Dr Adriana Marais.
Award-winning theoretical physicist, Dr Adriana Marais.
Photo: Kate Shaw


Ilan Preskovsky interviewed award-winning theoretical physicist, Dr Adriana Marais about space travel, science fiction movies and a daring experiment that she will be leading in 2021.

Cape Town - In cinemas right now is Ad Astra, a cerebral science fiction film that is set in the near future and sees a fearless astronaut (brilliantly played by Brad Pitt, who also lends some commercial clout to the film) heading across the solar system to chase down his father (Tommy Lee Jones, in suitably scraggly form), a space-travel pioneer long assumed dead, to stop him from conducting an anti-matter experiment that threatens all of human life.

It’s punctuated by some impressive set-pieces, but it’s a slow, philosophical movie that owes a huge debt to Apocalypse Now, and reaction to it has been decidedly mixed. One thing that no one can argue about, though, is that it is an incredibly persuasive look at what space travel might be like in the not-too-distant future – mixing the awe-inspiring with the frankly terrifying, all framed around the stunning cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema.

It’s no wonder, then, that 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film, has partnered with a woman for whom space travel within our solar system isn’t just an inevitability but is something in which she hopes to take an active part.

Dr Adriana Marais is a theoretical physicist who, during her time in academia wrote numerous articles based on her own research of theoretical quantum physics and won numerous awards for her work, but in recent years has concentrated her efforts on taking practical steps towards a goal that has been driving her since she was a young girl: to travel to and even live on other planets.

Award-winning theoretical physicist, Dr Adriana Ma
Award-winning theoretical physicist, Dr Adriana Marais.

Along with being the only South African to be among the one hundred individuals shortlisted for the currently-defunct Mars One expedition and working towards her second doctorate – this time in economics in resource-constrained environments – Dr Marais founded #ProudlyHuman, an organisation dedicated to “research and technology for a sustainable and proudly human future on Earth, above and beyond,” in May this year. As this mission-statement suggests, #ProudlyHuman is as much about ensuring that our world remains habitable and sustainable for generations to come as it is about taking practical steps towards founding colonies on the moon and other planets. Remarkably, though, what sets ProudlyHuman apart is the way it is using each of these goals to further the other. 


A case in point is the organisation’s Off World initiative, which, in its first phase, will see a team led by Dr Marais heading to Antarctica for the entire winter of 2021 to live on an "off-world settlement simulation experiment" that will reproduce, as closely as possible, the experience of communal living in a habitat almost entirely hostile to humans. The expedition will use the least hospitable place on the planet to give a group of experts in the relevant fields an idea of what it would take to live in "extreme environments, both on- and off-world".

This would include using the latest technological advancements in sustainable energy to power and heat the colony, while the latest developments in agricultural living will be employed to provide food and water for the deadly winter months that the team literally cannot leave the confines of the colony. A particular emphasis for the project, though, is on communal living under such circumstances so along with the crucial role of a medic/doctor, the colony will need psychologists and others trained in the mental well-being of groups of people.

Along with Dr Marais – whose second doctorate is very much rooted in understanding the economics, psychology and practical consideration of living in such an environment – the team already includes Akshay Nayak and Julie Graham as heads of engineering and communications, respectively. The intention is to enlist a further nine experts in their fields from across the globe to take part in the mission, as well as a filmmaking crew who will capture the experience for a planned ten-part documentary. The intention is also to have a webcam constantly running to enable those interested to drop in on the experience in real-time.

Like everything else about #ProudlyHuman, the Off-World initiative is all about imagining solutions to improving the lives of those living in poverty; preventing and, if necessary, cope with the effects of climate change; and, of course, imagining a future for humanity beyond our planet. As to where Dr. Marais finds such inspiration, it’s perhaps not all that surprising to learn that a good portion of it comes from science fiction.

Her wish to be an astronaut and to enter the sciences arose at such a young age that it’s unlikely she drew much direct inspiration from any actual science fiction stories and certainly not from more adult-oriented fair like Alien or the Matrix, but as she grew up, she found herself drawn more and more to this oft-derided genre. "Science fiction brings forth new ideas that turn into actual science. The influence of science fiction cannot be overstated. Just look at how often real-world inventions like the iPad, the airlock show up first in stuff like Star Trek long before we actually develop them in the real world."


I, unfortunately, only managed to speak to Dr Marais before both of us managed to see Ad Astra but she points to two recent films, in particular, that are particularly good at providing this sort of inspiration: the Martian and, another film to which Ad Astra owes a tremendous debt, the non-less-controversial but actually far superior, Interstellar (which was also shot by van Hoytema, not so coincidentally).

Brad Pitt in the movie 'Ad Astra'.
Brad Pitt in the movie 'Ad Astra'.

"When the Martian [the book] first came out, I was already on the shortlist as one of the 100 candidates for Mars One, so I read the book and was super excited to see it made into a movie. I think the impact it made on the public discussion was really important. I often use these sorts of movies when giving talks to children... I give them homework to go and watch them because they provide informational content about how stuff happens in space, how some challenges might arise and be overcome (with a bit of flare) but, most importantly, because they open the mind and imagination to what might be possible."

As for Interstellar, a poetic and philosophical film that is as much about space travel as it is about father-daughter relationships, human consciousness, and our perceptions of time, it could so easily have relied on impossible or pseudoscience to make its point. Many great science fiction classics that are more interested in exploring Big Ideas than the nitty-gritty of scientific realities have done precisely that to great effect.

Instead, as Dr Marais points out: "[renowned theoretical phycisist] Kip Thorne and his team got together seven years before the movie was released and at the meeting, along with producers and the director [Christopher Nolan], there were planetary scientists, astrophysicists and a bunch of other consultants to explain whether anything in the movie has already been proven wrong. The only things that would be shown on screen would be expanding on things that haven’t been scientifically proven true or false. They wouldn’t show any false science. They actually published scientific journals based on the design of the wormhole in the movie, which is a perfect example of a movie inspiring new ways of thinking."

It’s an inspiring way of looking at films that most of us might see as great entertainment, even great art, but it takes a scientist like Dr Marais to see just how inspiring science fiction can be.

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