At Plant Science Today Mary Williams is looking forward to the release of The Martian, a film that could have a major effect on the perception of botany. She notes that it has two major features, botanist as the hero – and the botanical work is a key element of the film.
There is a precedent for this. Archaeology had a big increase in student numbers following the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Physics has had an increase in student numbers after The Big Bang Theory made physicists seem likeable.
Likeability is often overlooked, but I think it’s crucial. Physics hasn’t suddenly become more useful, or gained major new fields of study. It always been important, so why is it more popular now? It now has glamour and the physicists people are exposed to regularly are people that students might want to be. The fact that some of the physicists are fictional is irrelevant.
Plant scientists in contrast have a different image. I’ve certainly seen a few plant scientists in television programmes and films recently, but never in a positive way. If a murder mystery shows them actually working in a lab then you can pretty much end the programme there. The only way the plant scientist could possibly look more guilty of murder would be if they were also a butler in their spare time.
It would be peculiar if the constant drip of negative role models in popular culture didn’t have an effect on recruitment, so Matt Damon as a botanist is valuable simply as a positive anchor for botany. It helps to say “I’m a botanist like Mark Watney in The Martian” than “I’m a plant scientist like Dr Slimy McCoward in They Murdered her to Death“.
Of course if it turns out the film itself is tedious then it’s not so helpful, but hopefully The Martian will be watchable. If so, then it could be the foot in the door that enables Botanists to get an audience for outreach efforts.