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Andy Weir’s new space odyssey

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Andy Weir at his home in California on April 23, 2021. The author of “The Martian,” returns with a new work of fiction full of science. (Photo: NYTimes)
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When Andy Weir was writing his new novel, “Project Hail Mary,” he stumbled into a thorny physics problem.اضافة اعلان

The book’s plot hinges on a space mold that devours the sun’s energy, threatening all life on Earth, and that propels itself by bashing neutrinos together. He needed to figure out how much energy would be produced by two of those subatomic particles colliding.

“I was having a really difficult time finding information on that, and the reason is because people don’t fully know. I mean, we’re getting to the edge of human knowledge on that one,” Weir said in an interview last month from his home in Saratoga, California. “Neutrinos are the smallest, and most difficult to deal with, subatomic particles that we have ever actually managed to prove exist.”

Most sci-fi writers would err on the side of fiction rather than science. But Weir has never been satisfied with fictional solutions to scientific quandaries. He eventually figured out the number he needed for a single sentence — 25.984 microns — and, in the process, learned a lot about neutrinos.

“You have something like 100 trillion neutrinos passing through you, personally, every second,” he said excitedly. “Just being emitted by the sun.”

This is how conversations with Weir, 48, tend to go. A question about a plot point will provoke a mind-warping answer, a barrage of arcane facts interspersed with self-effacing jokes and casual profanity.

 When he was writing his blockbuster debut, “The Martian,” he built software to calculate the constant thrust trajectories for a spaceship’s ion engine, studied NASA satellite images to map out his astronaut character’s 3,200-plus-kilometer course across Mars.

For his second novel, “Artemis,” a thriller about a heist that takes place on the moon, Weir figured out how lunar settlers could make oxygen and aluminum by smelting a mineral called anorthite, and calculated the cost of shipping various goods to the moon ($4,653 per kilogram).

“He literally does the math for the idea first and then builds the drama around it,” said Aditya Sood, a producer who worked on the 2015 film adaptation of “The Martian.”

For a sci-fi writer who prizes facts over fiction, Weir is taking a leap further into the speculative with his new novel, which Ballantine publishes on Tuesday. Set in another solar system, “Project Hail Mary” opens as the narrator, Ryland Grace, wakes up in what looks like a hospital room, with the remains of his two crewmates. He figures out he’s on a spaceship, and as his memory returns, Grace realizes the magnitude of his mission: Earth and its inhabitants are facing extinction as the alien microorganism devours the sun’s photons, and to save humanity, he has to find a cure in another solar system.

A self-described “lifelong space nerd,” Weir grew up in the Bay Area, where his father worked as a particle physicist. After his parents divorced when he was 8, Weir and his mother, who worked as an electrical engineer, moved frequently, and he entertained himself with computers. He studied computer science at the University of California, San Diego, but ran out of tuition money before completing his degree. Looking for a steady income, he went into programming, and worked at the video game company Blizzard Entertainment and at AOL.

When he got the idea for “The Martian” in 2009, Weir was living alone in Boston, working for a mobile game company. He started to think about what it would take for a person to survive, completely alone, on a hostile planet. 

“One of the main reasons that isolation is such a recurring theme in my books is that I spent a lot of my life alone and not wanting to be,” he said. “I was lonely, and so that ends up being a factor in my stories.”

After its release in 2014, “The Martian” sold some 5 million copies in North America. The movie adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, grossed more than $630 million worldwide and received seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture.

After “The Martian” and unsure of what to do next, Weir started another project before abandoning it and coming up with his new novel’s premise: a character who wakes up alone in a spaceship and has to solve the mystery of how he got there.

Some early readers of the novel have found the story to be eerily resonant: a rampaging pestilence, forced isolation, a global effort to develop new lifesaving technology.

“People said, ‘Oh, this is clearly a book that is an analogy for COVID,’” Weir said.

He didn’t mean to write a pandemic parable — he finished a draft of the book months before the COVID-19 became rampant in the US — but he agrees that the parallels are a little unsettling. “It’s a coincidence, but yeah, isolation sucks,” he said.

Weir isn’t as lonely now as he was when he wrote “The Martian.” After it was published, he met his wife, Ashley, in a restaurant when he was in Los Angeles to pitch a television series. He’s become a quasi celebrity among the astronauts and astrophysicists he idolizes, and is plugged into a network of NASA scientists and particle physicists who answer his emails and phone calls and invite him to give lectures. He’s part of the production team that’s developing the “Project Hail Mary” movie.

“The real world is a far richer and more complex tapestry than any writer could invent,” Weir said. “By sticking to real science and real physics, I have plots presented to me that I would never think of.”

Read more Books Review.