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Communicating the Apocalypse

Chelsea Zukowski
Hyunjin Kim
November 30, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

There is overwhelming evidence that a comet will one day crash into the planet and destroy life on Earth.

Despite this, the all-too-familiar characters in Don’t Look Up, embodied by an A-list cast, absolutely refuse to believe the science. The disaster comedy from director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman, Vice) is fictional, of course, but feels all too real. While there's currently no comet or any other celestial object aiming for Earth. That we know of. But the film’s satirical spin parallels the stubbornness and purposeful ignorance often seen among the public during real-world science and health crises like the ongoing pandemic.

“A lot of the movie is making us think about how we communicate the science we’re learning to the public—the difficulty of communicating really complex technical information,” said Dr. Amy Mainzer, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and the film’s science advisor.

The star-filled film centers on an astronomy grad student (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) after they make the terrifying discovery that a comet is on a collision course with Earth––a relatively common device in global disaster movies. The refreshing twist here? No Bruce Willis, no Steve Buscemi, and no Gerard Butler. This time, with six months until a devastating impact on Earth by a comet the size of Mount Everest, the heroes of the story are met with doubt.

The two scientists, desperate to get their message to world leaders, find themselves at the White House meeting with the unconcerned president (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill), who tell them to “sit tight and assess” the incoming planet-killer situation.

The duo also appears on a stereotypically upbeat TV network morning show with hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry to try to grab the public’s attention. Of course, getting society to care and ‘believe the science’ is laughably difficult amidst a 24-hour news cycle filled with moral panics, viral videos, and social media influencers.

For Mainzer, the film can also help try to “convey the challenges scientists face when we express what we’re learning…in a way that isn’t confusing, that is clear and that is accessible.”

“The movie is basically about how do we, as a society, grapple with the scientific knowledge we are gaining? and how do we use that knowledge to make good decisions?” she said. “But in the end, it’s a comedy—a lot of things are going to go off the rails. But we hope it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you laugh.”

For Don’t Look Up, Mainzer’s job was to anchor the film in real science and communication––from how astronomers discover, track and categorize asteroids and comets to how they translate and communicate their complex findings to the rest of the scientific community and to the public.

“Science is a very human process. It’s carried out by people, and we’re doing our best, but we can do better,” she said.

Mainzer is also a former senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was the principal investigator of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Basically, she and her team were the ones to discover the comet NEOWISE that dazzled parts of the Northern Hemisphere in summer 2020.

Mainzer said the fictional comet featured in Don’t Look Up is “loosely modeled” after Comet NEOWISE.

“For this particular movie, one of the things I did was to kind of design the comet,” she said. “What would the circumstances look like, how it would reasonably be discovered, where it would be discovered, how it would move through the solar system, how it would get to the Earth. And what trajectory it would follow.”

When Comet NEOWISE passed by the Earth in late summer 2020, it did so at about 64 million miles away. Scientists like Mainzer and her team were able to determine that NEOWISE is about 3 miles across and contains 4.6-billion-year-old particles from its formation at around the beginning of our solar system.

Comets, also known as the snowballs of space, are typically placed into two different categories depending on how long they take to orbit the Sun. A comet like NEOWISE is thought to be from the Oort Cloud—believed to be a massive spherical shell of space debris surrounding the most distant areas of our solar system.

NASA describes the Oort Cloud as “a big, thick-walled bubble,” containing billions or even trillions of objects that can be as big as mountains or even larger.

For Don’t Look Up, Mainzer said the film’s comet roughly represents a “typical long-period Oort Cloud comet.” Mainzer said comets from the Oort Cloud have extremely high orbital speeds and “occasionally they make their way in” to the relatively closer-to-us parts of the solar system. 

“Fortunately, space is really, really big, and it’s incredibly unlikely that a comet and the Earth would ever be at the same place at the same time,” she said.

“These impactsare very, very,very unlikely.”

While viewers can sit back and enjoy Don’t Look Up for its “based on actual events…that haven’t happened” laughs, the film and other disaster flicks like it can still help push the importance of science and science-based decision making in our lives.

“Whether we like it or not, science has a very strong control over what happens to us. That’s a really big theme in the movie,” Mainzer said. “Hopefully this is a chance to look at the situation and see some of the ups and the downs the world has brought us…and hopefully how science can help us find solutions for these issues we face.”

Besides teams of astronomers like Mainzer’s NEOWISE group and others whose expertise is in tracking and categorizing asteroids in our solar system, NASA has also been planning and executing missions to further study and monitor rogue celestial objects and how to affect their trajectories.

On Nov. 24th, NASA launched a spacecraft atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket that will intentionally crash into an asteroid––all in the name of planetary defense. The DART mission––Double Asteroid Redirection Test––features a spacecraft about the size of a golf cart traveling to a space rock 6 million miles away and basically shoving it to see if and how its trajectory changes.

While the targeted asteroid for this mission––named Dimorphos, which is orbiting a much larger asteroid called Didymos––poses no threat to Earth, the mission is a chance for NASA scientists to test a defense method in the event a space rock targets a collision course with our planet.

Armageddon director Michael Bay claims the idea was similar to what finally occurred in his film. It isn't. During the DART mission's launch, NASA said that Bruce Willis could not be reached for comment or participation. No indication that Ben Affleck was contacted.

Chelsea Zukowski
Hyunjin Kim
November 30, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)