5 Things Matt Damon Has in Common with the New Mark Watney Plant

By Elizabeth Preston | February 26, 2016 11:30 am

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 10.27.22 AM

The hero of The Martian, one of the films up for Best Picture at this weekend’s Academy Awards, isn’t unusual because he’s a scientist—he’s unusual because he’s a plant scientist. Books and movies rarely even try to make botany seem cool. Yet Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is definitely meant to be cool. “I am the greatest botanist on this planet!” he declares after being abandoned on Mars.

Real plant scientists are thrilled to see a cool botanist on the big screen. Chris Martine, a professor at Bucknell University who studies plant reproduction, called the movie “perhaps the finest paean to botanical science (and botanical field work) that Hollywood has yet presented.” And he marked the occasion fittingly. When Martine discovered a new plant species in the Northern Territory of Australia, he named it after Mark Watney.

The plant, Solanum watneyi, is a kind of bush tomato, a flowering shrub that lives in dry parts of Australia. Bush tomatoes are related to potatoes—the plants that keep Watney alive on Mars. Solanum watneyi also has a few things in common with Matt Damon himself:

Hangs out in reddish soil

In its native Australia, Solanum watneyi lives in reddish, Mars-like dirt. After filming on the dusty red sets of fake Mars, of course, Matt Damon got to go home. (The movie also used footage from Wadi Rum in Jordan to stand in for the Martian landscape.)

Good genes

The bush tomato is a close relative of the potato. It’s also in the same genus as the tomato and the eggplant. Some other Solanum plants are extremely poisonous. Matt Damon might not have any dangerous family members, but like the bush tomato, he does seem genetically fortunate.

“Prickles sparse, straw-colored, straight”

When naming a new species, real-life botanists have to describe every last detail of the plant. The description above is what Martine and his coauthors gave to S. watneyi‘s tiny prickles. But it could also fit the grody beard that Matt Damon wore near the end of the movie.

“Firm” when mature

S. watneyi has yellow berries that the scientists describe as firm at maturity. This is one of the traits distinguishing the new species from its close relative S. eburneum, which has “soft, squishy” fruits filled with liquid. Matt Damon, 45, seems to exercise a lot and appears quite firm onscreen. (A scrawny body double shows up near the end of The Martian to portray an undernourished Watney, but doesn’t fool anybody.)

Thrives on buzz

Martine and his coauthors speculate that S. watneyi‘s flowers are likely “buzz pollinated.” This is when bees shake pollen loose from a flower by holding tight and vibrating their bodies. Matt Damon and The Martian, for their part, were already generating Oscars hype before the movie came out.


Images: Left, Christopher T. Martine. Right, NASA/Bill Ingalls (via Wikimedia Commons)

Martine, C., Frawley, E., Cantley, J., & Jordon-Thaden, I. (2016). Solanum watneyi, a new bush tomato species from the Northern Territory, Australia named for Mark Watney of the book and film “The Martian” PhytoKeys, 61, 1-13 DOI: 10.3897/phytokeys.61.6995

MORE ABOUT: Ecology, Plants
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Proxy Hibernian terrorists stole the potato (papa, amkha) from gentle caring matriarchal egalitarian agrarian socialist Quechua-speaking Peruvians. Every Irish man and woman must pay compensation for cultural rape, forever. That descendants of transported English felons continue to culturally transgress is obscene. Deport the lemons to Norwich. (Cf. tomatoes in kind, Econ. Bot. 2(4) 379 (1948).) The world desperately needs more butterflies. Exterminate caterpillars that feed on their plants.

    • Erik Bosma

      I think that the Great Potato Famine in the 19th Century was Karma enough, don’t you?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        There was no famine. Ireland was growing more than ample grain for English landlords who exported product. If you are going to die anyway, why are you dying like sheep? Support evolution – shoot back.

        History shows the strong exploiting the weak vastly improves the world for everybody, including the weak. The worst of India today better than pre-British empire. Social Justice can never be repaid! “Fair representation” is not average or majority, Fair representation is 100%, by fiat, then Birnham Wood comes to Zimbabwe.

  • polistra24

    The most commercially important part of science gets no credit at all from media or books.


    The last truly original invention was the laser in 1956; before that the Audion in 1908. Other recent “inventions” are either implementations of much older ideas or improvements in manufacturing techniques. Both are made possible by the patient unheralded work of Materials Science.

    We like to credit the quantum quacks for the transistor. Nope. It’s an 1840 idea that became possible after Materials Science developed new ways to manipulate the molecular structure of germanium and silicon.

  • Jewels

    Actually, what Watney *says* is, “I don’t to come off as arrogant here…but I’m the best botanist on the planet.”

    This is in reference to NASA trying to ensure he really can grow the amount of food he needs to survive until a probe can be sent to him. The entire quote is, “NASA has a whole room full of people trying to micromanage my crops. It’s *awesome* having a bunch of dipshits on Earth tell me – a *botanist* – how to grow plants. I mostly ignore them. I don’t want to come off as arrogant here…but I’m the best botanist on the planet.”

    (By the way – if you haven’t listened to R.C. Brey read “The Martian” – do treat yourself. Even if you’ve read it. The format lends itself perfectly to being audiobook. I normally cannot stand being read to – but I *love* listening to “The Martian”. Audible has a deal where you can get one audiobook free. I highly recommend it.)



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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