Adam McKay’s newest movie Don't Look Up (now on Netflix), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, tells the fictional story of a comet set to destroy Earth in six months — but could that really ever happen?
Dr. Amy Mainzer, an astronomer and advisor on the movie, said it’s “really, really unlikely.”
“The good news is a really major event like what's portrayed in the movie, we know that, that can't happen very regularly…because we're here,” Mainzer explained to Yahoo Canada. “If that sort of thing happened on a regular basis in our time span, compared to the span that humans have been on the planet, well we wouldn't be here."
“The last such major event was the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. So we know that this is a very infrequent event, that said, smaller events can happen more frequently. So that's why we go out and we look for the objects and try to figure out where they are.”
Mainzer and her team actually discovered Comet NEOWISE in 2020, the brightest comet in the northern hemisphere since Hale-Bopp in 1997.
While Mainzer started working on Don’t Look Up before NEOWISE was discovered, some aspects of the comet in the movie were modelled after this particular real-life comet.
“It had a pretty good set of orbital characteristics for what we were looking for, for the movie,” Mainzer said.”In fact, I even think I took some of the discovery images of comet NEOWISE.”
“I looked at a bunch of different comet orbits and kind of picked one that I thought best represented what we were looking for in terms of the plot.”
Women in the male-dominated field of astronomy
The movie starts when astronomy graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a massive comet, under the supervision of her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). While there’s excitement about the discovery, it turns out that it’s on a direct course to collide with Earth in six months, which would destroy the planet.
Kate and Randall try to alert the public and government officials about the severity of this comet, but are just met with pushback, and even comet deniers who spread misinformation about the severity of the situation.
Mainzer worked with both Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio on making their characters as authentic as possible, but specifically, Mainzer had several detailed conversations with Lawrence about being a woman in the male-dominated field of science and astronomy.
“It's a historical fact that this field has been extremely male-dominated throughout most of its existence, and it is changing, more and more women are getting into the hard sciences, which is great to see, but we still have a really long way to go,” she said.
“The movie, I think, touches on this in a couple of important ways, there are a couple of scenes where you can just sort of see Kate's face fall when she's not acknowledged for her important work in a couple of spots.”
'A plea to make decisions based on the tools of science'
Ultimately, Mainzer hopes that people who watch Don’t Look Up will understand that scientists are “knocking [themselves] out” trying to bring their research and knowledge to the public.
“The movie, hopefully, is a plea to make decisions based on the tools of science,” she said. “Science-based decision making is really at the core of this movie and the future, how we live as humanity on this planet, is very much up to us.”
“So if we make good science-based decisions, we can avoid the worst outcomes, we can make them less bad. So let's do that.”
In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, in particular, Mainzer said it is “absolutely frustrating” when scientists are sounding the alarm bells, but are met with pushback and counter arguments based on misinformation.
“We are kind of hardwired…to fear the thing that's right in front of us, it's hard to sometimes grasp the immediacy of a problem with a gas that's invisible, or a virus that you can't see with your own eyes,” Mainzer explained. “Yet, it doesn't make it any less real and that's why I think we really want scientists to be seen as human beings.”
“We do science because we love it and I hope that people take away from this is that we are trying to bring you the best and most accurate information that we can, even if the news isn't always good.”