In This Issue
Spring Bridge on the US Metals Industry: Looking Forward
March 29, 2024 Volume 54 Issue 1
In this issue of The Bridge, guest editors Greg Olson and Aziz Asphahani have assembled feature articles that demonstrate how computational materials science and engineering is leading the way in the deployment of metallic materials that meet increasingly advanced design specifications.

An Interview with . . . Andy Weir, New York Times bestselling author of The Martian, Artemis, Project Hail Mary, and Cheshire Crossing

Friday, March 29, 2024

Author: Andy Weir

RONALD LATANISION (RML): Today we are joined by technologist-writer Andy Weir. Andy, we’re just delighted to have you with us.

ANDY WEIR: It’s great to be here.

RML: To start, we’d love to hear about your upbringing, how you got into computer programming, and then how you transitioned from writing computer programs to writing science fiction novels.

MR. WEIR: I was born and raised in California. My father was a physicist and my mother was an electrical engineer, so I was pretty much doomed to be a nerd from the start. Although I should point out that my mom did the electrical engineering for the money. It wasn’t her passion. My dad is genuinely a nerd. My mom is much more into literature. I guess you could say that’s how I came to be a half-literature, half-science nerd.

Weir 1.gifI grew up reading my father’s science fiction collection. He had this bookshelf about six feet tall, three feet wide, and two feet deep that was jampacked full of paperbacks from his day. I grew up reading science fiction from the 50s and 60s. My holy trinity were Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke. That’s the kind of work that colored me.

I’ve always been a space dork, but I also always wanted to be a writer. Even when I was a teenager, I was writing crappy short stories and stuff like that. And when the time came to go to college, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go into creative writing or the fairly new field of computer science, because I’m that old.

I decided I liked regular meals, so I went into computer science.  I attended UC San Diego’s BS program for computer science for four years. And then I ran out of money and dropped out, so you are speaking to a high school graduate. That’s my highest accreditation.

But at that time, in 1994, the software industry was just going crazy. They figured if you were clever enough to open the door, you were hired. I worked for various software companies. I enjoyed software and I liked writing programs and computer programming, in general. I’d been doing it since I was kid. I started on my little VIC-20 writing BASIC programs. Once I got into high school, I had an 8086 IBM computer with a 4 kHz processor, and I was writing C and assembly on that.

I worked for Sandia National Labs, which was a Department of Energy installation.  They hired me as a sort of lab assistant. I was fifteen when they hired me.

RML: How did you manage to get hired at age fifteen? That’s child labor, isn’t it?

MR. WEIR: Well, there were child labor laws they had to follow. For instance, they weren’t allowed to have me work more than twenty hours in a week. But it was a work experience program between my high school and the lab. I lived in Livermore, California, where the ­Lawrence Livermore Labs and Sandia National Labs employ the plurality of people.

Sandia did a lot of things with the community, one being a program where they’d hire teenagers with an interest in science to basically be lab assistants. That lab is actually where I started programming computers for real because they said, well, we don’t really need a lab assistant. What we need is somebody to write software or to analyze the data that we’re getting. So they gave me a book that said how to program in C, and there was a computer with a C compiler on it. They said, tell us when you’ve got that worked out, and then we’ll tell you what we want you to make the computer do. And that’s kind of where I got my start.

RML: How did you make the transition from computer programming to writing? Was it because of your interest in the novels that your dad had on his bookshelf?

MR. WEIR: I was always interested in both, I guess I would say. It’s not like I suddenly became a writer. I was writing the whole time I was programming computers. I ended up being an engineer for twenty-five years total. But I was also always writing during that time: short ­stories, novels, web comics, et cetera.  I posted them on my website once the internet became a thing. The Martian was just one of those things that I was writing, but it really took off. Once The Martian snowballed and became a book and a movie and everything, I found myself in a position where I could write full time. That’s what I do now.

KYLE GIPSON (KG): Your journey is super fascinating, especially the fact that you were writing programs and fiction at the same time. Many people would think of writing programs and writing fiction as completely different, even as polar opposites. Are there ways that those two overlapped that might be surprising to people? For example, are there ways that your work in computer programming informed or inspired your writing?

MR. WEIR: Several ways. For starters, being a computer geek allowed me to write software to double check the math in my fiction. So all the orbital trajectories in The Martian are accurate. Also, while writing fiction, I do tons of spreadsheet work, because during my computer programming career I got pretty good at Excel. And working in computer programming gave me the technical skills to write very technically accurate prose.

Another thing is that my writing style is similar to my programming style. When I’m designing software, I come up with the top-level ideas: okay, we’re going to have this class that does this, this class that does that, this layer that does this. I’ll abstract that out and so on. While I’m writing software, the code is when I go, okay, now we’re going to get into the specifics of the design.

When I’m writing fiction it’s pretty much the same thing. I have the top-level idea of the story, but it’s while I’m actually writing the story that I come up with the detailed level. Oftentimes, same as in programming, when I’m implementing it, I realize there’s a better way to do something, and then I delete what I’ve done and work on a different approach.

When you have an engineer’s mindset and you enter the world of literature, you’re used to turning in a project and then being given a list of bugs.

But I would say the main way that being an engineer has helped my writing is that I’m known for being extremely easy to work with. That’s what you’re used to as an engineer. I’m like, so here’s a rev of the program, and then people say, well, here’s like 150 bugs we found. You’ve got to fix them. Okay, I’ll fix them. Here’s the next round, and so on.

When you’re working with people in the publishing world, and you give them your first draft and they give you a bunch of notes, the programmer mindset is to say, okay, I’ll fix those bugs. And publishers are like, wow, that writer is really easy to deal with.

Because of my programming background, I also take deadlines very seriously. I’ll admit, software engineers are not particularly famous for their people skills. But I never really had a problem with that. I really enjoy working on teams. In fact, that’s what I miss the most about being a programmer. Writing is very solitary.

Weir 2.gifRML: You focus a lot of your writing, maybe most of it, on things related to space, lunar, Mars exploration, and survival. That must have taken a fair amount of homework on your part to be able to write a meaningful novel. The Martian is what I’m talking about, obviously. I’ve seen the movie twice.

MR. WEIR: Tons and tons of research, math, prep work, and so on. But that is the stuff that I enjoy, because being a space dork and geekery is my hobby. We’re all good at doing the things that interest us. We’re all knowledgeable in our hobbies. If you’re really into model railroads, you know all about model railroads. You know how to put together a landscape, you know how to make all the parts fit. If you really enjoy gardening, then you’re going to know a lot about horticulture, even though you are not a professional. I’m really into space and space travel. I started off with much more than a layman’s knowledge of those topics because it was my hobby, and I had enough knowledge that I knew how to google whatever I didn’t know. And doing that research is fun for me. I really enjoy that stuff, so that’s not even work at all. I really love the research and math parts of my books. It’s that pesky writing that I have to do at some point that’s unpleasant.

RML: But I mean, for example, I know that in The Martian you talk about producing water by essentially splitting hydrazine, using the catalyst iridium. How did you know that chemistry?

MR. WEIR: This is the fun part. When I’m doing my research is when I discover problems for Mark Watney (the protagonist of The Martian) that I didn’t realize he would have. I didn’t go into writing the novel with an idea of like, oh, he’s going to need to make water. Initially, I was like, oh, well, this original mission was intended for six people, so it would definitely have some sort of water recycling system in play, and he wouldn’t have a problem with drinkable water. But it was while I was researching that I discovered, okay, what do you need to make ­potatoes? You need, among other things, a certain minimum soil moisture percentage. I did the math on that, and I was like, wow, he’s going to need like 600 liters of water, and there’s no way they would have brought that much.

So he’s going to be short on water. And I had to come up with a solution. How does he get the water? I scratched my head a bit. I started thinking, well, what does he have to work with? Bear in mind, I get to cheat a little bit because I’m the writer. So, I said, alright, I’ve decided that the Mars Descent Vehicle used hydrazine fuel, same as the Apollo landers. And hydrazine fuel releases enormous amounts of hydrogen, so he can get some hydrogen from that. He gets the oxygen by just collecting CO2 from Mars’s atmosphere. But Mars’s atmosphere is like 99 percent carbon dioxide, so he collects carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, runs that through the Hab’s (the crew’s manmade Martian habitat) oxygenator, which is made to turn exhaled carbon dioxide back into oxygen. He gets a bunch of oxygen that way and the hydrogen from the hydrazine, and he can mix them to make water.

That was an interesting little interlude in the book that I hadn’t planned at all, which I included because of what I discovered while researching how to grow ­potatoes.  Nobody would have given me any problems if I just hadn’t had that scene at all. People would have said, okay, he brings soil in from outside and then he has potatoes. But I went down this whole rabbit hole of interesting problem solving.

RML: I’m just curious, what is NASA’s reaction to that whole scenario? You need water to survive. The character in the book finds a means to survive by being clever enough to know that you could split hydrazine, and you could take the hydrogen and react it with oxygen to produce some water. Has NASA given any comments on that?

MR. WEIR: As an entity NASA didn’t make an official comment on it, but many NASA engineers have talked to me about the book and how much they enjoyed it. Some chemists pointed out, well, there were a few little issues here and there with that process. For starters, hydrazine is incredibly toxic. So being in an enclosed room with it would not be great for Mark. Second off, the process I describe by which he reduced the hydrazine to release the hydrogen is very exothermic, right? In fact, in the book, he has a little explosion while he’s trying to do that. But, one guy did all the math and said, given the dimensions of the Hab, the internal pressure it has inside, et cetera, I can calculate how much the temperature inside the Hab would increase as a result of him doing this hydrazine reduction over the amount of time that you said he did it. And it would increase by like 300 degrees Celsius. He would have baked himself alive. I didn’t know that. Had I known that at the time, I would say, well that’s becoming a problem, so Mark turns off the heating elements so that the base is rapidly losing heat in Mars’s extremely cold environment. There are ways that he could have done it. He could have reduced the hydrazine slower, and so on.
Weir 3.gifRML: The reason I’m so interested in hydrazine is that much of my work has been on water chemistry for ­nuclear power plants. And hydrazine is one of the chemicals that’s often used in water chemistry control to remove oxygen. It’s N2H4, a sort of ammonia derivative that has the effect of adjusting the pH and, at the same time, removing oxygen, so it’s actually very useful in secondary water chemistry.

KG: One thing that I think is so fantastic about your work, speaking of The Martian, is that it can appeal to experts such as NASA engineers or Ron but also people like me, who have no idea about any of the science behind events in the book, but who find the experience of reading the book so enjoyable and the story utterly plausible. Going back to the research process, are you always trying to sort of track recent developments that you might incorporate into your science fiction?

MR. WEIR: Well, not compulsively, but that is an interest of mine.  I’m always tracking recent developments in science because I’d like to hear about them. And sometimes they spur story ideas or subplot ideas.

RML: I’m curious, what will you work on next? You’re obviously very interested in space travel. But what about AI and all the other evolving technologies?

MR. WEIR: I’m working on my next book now. AI plays a significant role in it. But I’m doing it my way, not writing a story about robots falling in love or anything. Writing a story that involves AI is kind of in my wheelhouse because I know how computers work. And I know more about machine learning than most fiction writers, I think. So yes, I’m having some fun with that. Although my writing process has been slowed down dramatically by the appearance of a child in my household who just keeps running around wanting my attention.

RML: That’s wonderful! What is your general reaction to AI? It’s evolving so quickly, at an almost-meteoric pace.

MR. WEIR: Yes. And there’s a lot of doom-and-gloom talk about it. Or a lot of, oh my God, this is going to put so many people out of work. And I’m like, every new technology ends up putting a lot of people out of work. I think that AI will be no different. I think a lot of people are going to have these arguments like, oh, what about AIs that can now create art? The artists that they learn from—should those people get some sort of payment? I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from angry artists, but I feel like human artists look at other artist’s work to get better at what they do, and nobody expects the human to pay the artists who influenced them. Some comic book artist that was extremely influenced by Rob Liefeld doesn’t have to then pay Rob Liefeld because he used Liefeld’s works as a reference point for learning how to be a better artist, right? So why should AI technology be different? Well, because there’s a limited number of humans on this planet, and it takes a long, long time to get really good at art. Whereas the AI art generator can generate entire work of bespoke art in a fraction of a second and on command. So it’s going to affect a lot of things—in, for instance, advertising. Entities that need art and don’t particularly care who it comes from or about the caliber or name recognition of the artist. It’s going to be disruptive.

I also think people still dramatically underestimate how disruptive self-driving cars are going to be. And I mean disruptive in a good way. How much it’s going to change our society. Something like fifteen to twenty percent of every major urban center is dedicated to parking. Imagine if that didn’t have to be the case. Everything would get a little bit cheaper because there would be more real estate for other businesses to be in the city centers. Also, entire industries would disappear, like truck drivers and ­cabbies. But, at the same time, things would become cheaper. Goods being delivered across the country by truck will become cheaper. And probably about 50,000 people a year won’t die from drunk driving accidents and other automobile accidents. Dying in a car crash will become as rare as dying in a plane crash. Also, it will start to become a question of, why should I own a car at all? Why not just always use a car service? Some driverless car comes and picks me up and takes me where I need to go. I just type it into my phone.

And then you fast forward in time twenty or thirty years and the children of that era will be like, can you believe people used to have an entire huge room in their house dedicated to storing a car? A car you spent ninety-nine percent of your time not using? You spend most of your life not driving. But your garage is like 400 or 500 square feet of your house.

To get back to your question about AI, if you give me a hammer, I can build a house, or I can murder someone. The hammer itself is not the issue. It’s the person who is using it. Someone could use AI to help cure cancer. Or someone could use AI to develop a ­custom virus that only attacks an ethnicity they don’t like.

I consider all technology to be a tool. AI is no different. A tool is a tool. What matters is how people use it.

RML: To me, that’s a good demonstration of the compromise we’re dealing with in a technologically intense world. Just think about the internet. It was intended to be a platform to provide information throughout the globe. And it does that wonderfully well. But it’s also been abused by people who wish to make it abusive by spewing misinformation.

MR. WEIR: I think the misinformation thing is overstated. I mean, yes, it’s an issue, but I think the much worse stuff that people have misused the internet for is distributing child porn and scamming people. It used to be much harder to scam people before the internet.

Now they take advantage of elderly people. You can be in another country on the other side of the world scamming elderly Americans or Canadians. There’s really no way of dealing with that within the legal system. A little bit of misinformation about a political party you don’t like is the minor leagues compared to the bad things that happen on the internet.

That said, it’s a tool. And I guess I’m a bit of a ­Pollyanna, but I think humanity is inherently good. For every one bad actor, there’s 1000 good actors.  Pick a technology that, overall, you feel has done more harm than good to humanity. Because it’s very difficult to think of a technology that has done more harm than good. And the reason is because technology is a tool, and, I believe, humans are inherently good. And we have an inherent desire to, when you see a new tool, figure out how you can use that tool to help people.

RML: I think that there’s a very important message in what you’re saying, Andy, and that is that science and technology should be used to help people.

MR. WEIR: It should be, absolutely. Try to name a technology that’s done more harm than good. You say nuclear bombs; I say nuclear power. How much coal dust is not in the air? How much pollution and emissions are not in the air because nuclear power plants exist? How many people did not die in coal mines over the past fifty years?

RML: How does a writer’s mind work? How would you put what we’ve just been talking about into science fiction?

MR. WEIR: For starters, in science fiction, one of the most generic plots is to think of a new technology, then think of the bad actors and have them be the ­antagonists, and then have your protagonist out there trying to put a stop to them. You pick a technology and say, what could an organized group of bad people do with this tech­nology? And what would the good people do to stop that?

In my stories, I tend to like person-versus-nature plots, where there is no bad guy. There are no bad actors at all. In The Martian, it’s just all of humanity or a group of ­people working together to try to solve a problem, but there’s no antagonist other than Mars. In Project Hail Mary, my latest book, a non-intelligent, monocellular pathogen is the main problem.

RML: And what is the origin of Project Hail Mary?

MR. WEIR: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Between The Martian and Artemus, I had a contract to write a book for Random House. I was writing a book that was going to be called Zhek, and it was more of a soft science fiction book. At the time I started it I was like, this is going to be my magnum opus. The Martian is going to be seen as my entry into the world of literature. But this is going to be a book series consisting of five books, and it’s going to be Game of Thrones level in terms of awesomeness.

I got 70,000 words into Zhek—for reference, The ­Martian is 100,000 words—and I realized it just wasn’t good. The plot was too complicated. The characters were interesting, but everything was meandering around. I was still in the first act. I thought, this is going to be some giant 600-page tome that nobody wants to read.

I ended up bailing out of that project, asking Random House very nicely for an extension, and asking if I could write a completely different book instead. Then I went on to write Artemus. I’m really glad that I did.

But Zhek had in it a few really good ideas. It was like a big pile of garbage with a couple of diamonds in it. So I plucked those ideas out and I recycled them into Project Hail Mary, and one of them was mass-conversion-based fuel.

In Project Hail Mary, there is a technology called black matter, and what it does is absorb any electromagnetic radiation. That’s why it’s black, because it doesn’t reflect anything. And it turns that energy into mass in the form of black matter. If you had a little bit of black matter, you could get more and more. And then it could release that in the form of gamma rays whenever you wanted, and you could use that as propulsion because light can be used for propulsion if you have enough of it. And that’s mass conversion as a fuel source. And I thought, that would be really cool. But what if modern-day people had this fuel? What if we invented black matter not in some distant, complicated future, but right now?

The first thing I thought was, wow, we could easily colonize the solar system. It’s basically a perfect battery source. Life on Earth would get a lot better. Energy transportation would be easy. There would be no power grid issues. A developed nation like the United States could drop off a big package that could power a developing nation for years, their entire power grid. It would be a tremendous benefit.

And we could explore the solar system. We could ­colonize Mars, the Moon, everything, if we had this tech­nology. But I didn’t see any way that we could invent this technology in the modern day, and I didn’t want to make the story take place like 300 years in the future because then I would have to explain all the shit that happened between now and then.

So how could I make this happen today? Alright, option number one: we find some black matter on an alien ­vessel or something that crashed on Earth millions of years ago. That might work. It’s a little unsatisfying. It’s sort of a bullshit way to introduce a technology. It’s a trope, right? It’s been done. What if scientists on Earth invent black matter? And I was like, even if I create a Dr. Emmett Brown-equivalent genius scientist, it’s still too much for plausibility that one guy just comes up with this. And so I said, well, what if some black matter ended up in our solar system, not via an alien ship, but we just find some on the surface of a planet somewhere. We don’t know where it comes from. Well, then everybody reading the book is going to want to know where it came from.

And I thought, what is black matter anyway? How does it even work? I was like, well, it takes energy and makes more of itself. That sounds like a lifeform. And I said, okay, what if I just make black matter a lifeform? It’s a lifeform that collects enormous amounts of energy. Why? Because it’s interstellar. It’s basically mold that grows on the surface of stars and then spores out in all directions to try to reach other stars. It doesn’t have an agenda or anything. It’s literally just mold that spores. That’s why it exists. That’s why it has to store up so much energy, because it uses that light energy to travel from one star to another. Yes, I thought, this all makes sense. And let’s say we acquired some of that and then we started using it as a fuel source. In the back of my head I was like, oh, we’d have to make sure none of that got into the Sun because that would be disastrous. It would breed out of control. I thought, that’s the story. The shit just shows up in our solar system, and it’s breeding out of control on the Sun, and now humanity is like, well, what do we do now? And so that’s how I stumbled into that plot – bit by bit, thinking about the details of Astrophage, which is the name of the star-eating bacteria.

RML: How do you plan your day when you’re working? Do you work late at night or do you get up early and work in the morning? And what’s your typical work schedule when you’re writing?

MR. WEIR: Lately, it’s very chaotic because of the toddler. But on a typical workday I get up in the morning and, after I’ve had my breakfast, I’ll generally spend the morning hours dealing with non-writing work-related things, like answering fan mail. I always have multiple deals kind of floating in the air. So I answer email. I write work-related emails to my agent, my film agent, or emails directly to companies or about scheduling. I don’t have a personal assistant or anything, so it’s all just me. In the morning I’ll do my maintenance work. And also research. I’ll do some of that.

After lunch is when I try to do my writing. And when I’m working on a first draft, when I’m really nose to the grindstone, I give myself an objective of 1000 words per day into the draft. And I kind of self-enforce that by giving myself a list of things that I cannot do until I’ve achieved my word count. For example, I’m an amateur wood ­worker and metal machinist. That’s one of my hobbies. I’ve got a workshop for all that. I am not allowed to do any of that fun stuff until I’ve written my words for the day.

I’m also not allowed to watch any form of video entertainment, no YouTube, no movies, no TV. And I’m not allowed to go to certain websites where I just zone out and waste my time. That sort of thing.

KG: To shift gears a little, The Martian was turned into a movie, which Ron and I are big fans of, starring Matt Damon. And, as I understand it, Project Hail Mary is ­slated to be turned into a movie starring Ryan Gosling. I’m wonder­ing, what’s it like seeing a book you wrote turned into a movie? What are some things you are hoping a movie gets right or that you’re thinking about when a movie that’s based on your book is made and goes out into the world?

MR. WEIR: Well, it depends on what role you have to play in the movie production. For The Martian, they just bought the rights and said, bye-bye. So my only job was to cash the check. I didn’t have a say in anything. They chose to include me to get my input, but it was non­binding. They also used me as a technical expert. For instance, they’d say, could Mark Watney do this on the surface of Mars? And I’d say, no, that wouldn’t work, but he could do this instead. I was consulted as a kind of advisor. But they definitely didn’t have to pay attention to anything I said.

This meant that I got to read the screenplay in advance, so nothing was really a surprise to me. The Martian was also a very true adaptation. It follows the book very closely. There’s a lot that got cut because the movie would be six hours long if everything that happened in the book happened in the movie. But the stuff that they cut is stuff that I would have cut if it had been up to me.

Project Hail Mary is a different matter. I’m actually a producer on that. The reason I’m a producer on it is because, when I put the rights up for sale, the book was selling very well. There was already one movie based on a book I wrote that made a lot of money, so studios were very interested.

And so, this time, I said that I wanted gross participation, which means I want a percentage of the money that the movie makes. Most of the studios said, we don’t do that for writers. MGM said we don’t do that for writers, but we do it for producers. We’ll make you a producer so we can give you what you want, and we can get the rights to your book. And I said, that sounds great. I’ll stay out of the way of the real producers who actually know what they’re doing. So I am technically a producer on the movie based on Project Hail Mary, which means they had to get my approval to cast Ryan Gosling, which is funny. I was like, yes! So this time I do have a little bit of sway. I’ve seen the screenplays. They look very good to me. I’m pretty excited about how this is going to go.

KG: Is there a projected release date for the movie based on Project Hail Mary, or is that still up in the air?

MR. WEIR: The release of the Project Hail Mary movie will probably depend a lot on the 2025 movie season. Supposedly, we’re going to start shooting in June of this year, so I would expect the movie to come out in 2025. When exactly it comes out will depend on what other films are coming out and when.

KG: That’s very exciting.

MR. WEIR: It’s pretty cool.

RML: I think has been a wonderful discussion, and I’ve enjoyed this tremendously. I can’t thank you enough for joining us today.

MR. WEIR: Thanks for having me.

About the Author:Andy Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of The Martian, Artemis, Project Hail Mary, and Cheshire Crossing.