The last of us, Ph.D.

(Prometheus, Twentieth Century Fox)

I hear tell that there’s another movie in the Alien franchise in theaters, which makes this a fine opportunity to revisit the beauty and stupidity of the last one, Prometheus. In that previous instalment, we watched people who were, allegedly, some of Earth’s greatest scientific minds blunder their way into an alien bio-weapon storage facility only to get eaten by and/or mutated into horrific H.R. Geiger-designed monstrosities.

The behavior of the Prometheus team’s biologist Rafe Millburn is a regular joke on Science Twitter even without millions of dollars of studio marketing to remind us about it — he infamously reaches out to a hissing alien snake-thing that promptly breaches his spacesuit and kills him. Recently, though, that regular discussion landed on an important question arising from poor Rafe’s bad example: what kind of field scientist would do better than the Prometheus team?

So here’s my rundown of the survival strengths and weaknesses of people with experience in some fieldwork-intensive STEM disciplines, specifically in the context of an expedition to a hostile alien planet. Note that I’m trying to focus on skills and personality types that distinguish each area of expertise — so, for instance, I assume that everyone would be about equally likely to have wilderness first-aid training, or the physical conditioning for a long hike with a pack. I’m sure these assessments are going to be off, and biased or distorted by my membership in #TeamAutotroph — feel free to make counterarguments in the comments or on Twitter. [Edit: Well, maybe on Mastodon?]

Without further ado, the list, in no particular order:

Archaeologists. Strengths: Contrary to many popular depictions, archaeologists are good at approaching and exploring mysterious ancient ruins without disturbing them. Weakness: Contrary to the same popular depictions, they do not actually have any experience in dodging elaborate booby traps.

Anthropologists. Strengths: Expertise in cross-cultural understanding and communication, which will help in understanding alien artifacts or actually making First Contact. Weaknesses: That skill set is useless against indestructible parasitoid killing machines.

Microbiologists. Strengths: These folks are the most likely, of anyone on the list, to have heard about the planetary protection protocol, which requires measures to prevent contamination of other planets by terrestrial microbes — measures that also conveniently protect terrestrial explorers from alien microbes that turn their victims into killer xenomorphs. They’ll know the lab techniques necessary to safely study a microbial threat if it does turn up, too. Weakness: You can’t run for your life and use a compound microscope at the same time.

Geologists. Strengths: Geologists will certainly have the best map-reading and -making skills on this list, can find water (which maybe a microbiologist should test before you drink it), and can locate valuable minerals to justify the interstellar expedition in the first place. They also carry tools that can double as weapons in a pinch, like rock picks. Weakness: Having found those valuable minerals, they’re the most likely to argue that you ought to stay on the planet and tough it out when it’s past time to evacuate and nuke the landing site from orbit.

Paleontologists. Strengths: Extensive knowledge of comparative anatomy will help in identifying threats from organisms no human has seen before. Weakness: They’re used to identifying threats that haven’t moved under their own power in millions of years.

Ornithologists. Strengths: Dedicated birders often have well-tuned senses of hearing and excellent experience with camouflage — and ornithologists are among the few people on this list (alongside anyone working in the Arctic) who may actually use firearms in the field. Weakness: They’re prone to standing around trying to resolve ambiguous field marks when they should be fleeing to the safety of a fortified base camp.

Herpetologists. Strengths: Herpers know how to handle venomous snakes and poisonous frogs safely, and those skills probably apply to hazardous alien organisms. Weakness: Their skill set and confidence maybe actually mean they’ll be more likely to try to pick up the hissing slime-thing they find alongside the trail.

Space-botanist Mark Whatney grows potatoes on Mars. (The Martian, Twentieth Century Fox)

Botanists. Strengths: Botanists know how to safely handle organisms that grow eight-inch spikes, secrete irritating oils, or contain any number of exotic toxins — and, in a pinch, how to identify or cultivate edible plants for food. Weakness: They’re used to working with organisms that can’t outrun them.

Entomologists. Strengths: Entomologists are the kind of people who can systematically test and describe the pain of ant and wasp stings and aren’t panicked by the odd bot fly larva. Weakness: Entomologists are the kind of people who’ll let ants and wasps sting them and leave bot fly larvae burrowing through their flesh out of curiosity.

Mammalogists. Strengths: Mammalogists study the clade that contains some of the most dangerous megafauna alive today, so they should be familiar with evading a stalking predator and come prepared bear spray or maybe even a gun. Weakness: They may tend to assume that anything they don’t identify as a homeothermic vertebrate is too slow and stupid to be a real threat.

Marine biologists. Strengths: Experience in vehicles, facilities, and equipment that most closely approximate what you’d actually use on a trip to a different planet. Familiarity with a wide variety of organisms, from algae to vertebrates, that thrive in extreme environments and stretch the limits of human experience. Weaknesses: They’re the team members most likely to have smuggled along a stock of booze, so they’ll be blind drunk and singing chanties at the campfire when the xenomorphs attack. To be fair, there are worse ways to go.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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