How Don’t Look Up Kept The Film’s Apocalypse Science Real

Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay’s latest dark comedy, Don’t look up, follows a pair of astronomers who discover a massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and must deal with the frustrating indifference of the US government, mainstream media, and wider society to warn the world of an impending apocalypse. It’s a satirical movie that gives new meaning to “hitting too close to home,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence playing embattled scientists who simply want a potential extinction event to be taken seriously.

It’s also a familiar-sounding theme, especially as we approach the second year of a global pandemic, as the film’s scientists struggle to simultaneously convey complicated concepts to audiences and make people care about them.

To make the science and challenges scientists face as realistic as possible, McKay enlisted renowned astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer to act as the film’s science consultant. An award-winning astronomer serving as principal investigator on several NASA projects tasked with identifying and studying near-Earth objects, Mainzer already has an asteroid named after her and has been featured in several science and documentary series over the years. , including the popular PBS. Science series for kids Ready Jet Go!

With Don’t look up currently in limited theatrical release before heading to Netflix on December 24, Mainzer spoke to Tips Clear about what the role is as a scientific consultant at Don’t look up involved, and to what extent the challenges faced by the movie’s astronomers mirror those of real-world scientists.

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from Don't Look Up.

Tips Clear: Dr. Mainzer, you are a rock star in my family, because my children are grown up. Ready Jet Go! fans – but Don’t look up It seems like it’s aimed at a slightly different kind of science fanatic.

Dr. Amy Mainzer: Well first, that’s really cool. I’m glad your kids like it Ready Jet Go! because it means there are more science geeks out there. Spreading enthusiasm for science is very important to me. And in many ways Don’t look up It’s for kids who grew up to be science fans, because it’s trying to make some points about the importance of science in our daily lives.

Working as a scientific consultant on a film can take a wide range of forms. How was your participation in the film?

In my case, I have been working on this project with Adam. [McKay] for about two years now, and even before that, starting in the “old times”, before the pandemic, which really seems like a million years ago.

Correct? It really does.

Yes. We have been working together for a long time on it. I was deeply involved in many different aspects of the film, from the costume design to the basic plot and dialogue with the actors, to simply making sure the culture of science is conveyed correctly, as well as the visuals and even the sound. . I feel like my contributions were really taken seriously and I had discussions about many different areas of the film. It was a great experience. There is such a talented team in it, and they are so dedicated and sincere in trying to present science as important.

At the world premiere of #dontlookup! ???? pic.twitter.com/ysqfXWBkh2

– Amy Mainzer (@AmyMainzer) December 6, 2021

It’s a comedy, to be sure, but how closely did you follow your own experiences in dealing with the public and various other entities about science and scientific discoveries?

The movie can be interpreted in different ways, but for me, the most important point is that the science is real. Science is what we can objectively determine to be true about the way the world and the universe work. And we can act on the basis of that knowledge and make decisions based on empirical science and scientific truths, or we can ignore it, but if we do the latter, we run our risk. That, for me, is the whole point of the movie. That is the most important conclusion of all.

The movie really delves into the problems associated with delivering bad news as a scientist. I’m sure it helped shape that element of the story, so what have you learned as a working scientist in the public eye about that part of the work?

One of the biggest challenges scientists face is that sometimes we learn things about the world and the news is not always good. We are living through this right now with the pandemic, no doubt. Every day scientists try to bring the best scientific knowledge to everyone so that we can all make the best possible decisions and have the best possible results and try to weather this particular crisis. And one of the challenges we face is: What do you do when people don’t want to hear the news you bring because it’s difficult and unpleasant?

Well, we have to be able to talk to each other. We have to be able to discuss things that we agree on that are objectively true, that are proven through the tools and techniques of science, and that pass the test of replicability, which is the gold standard in science. The peer review process allows us to arrive at those objective truths, and we have to agree on that to make good decisions.

There are some really complicated scientific concepts in the movie that had to be introduced in a way that the general public can understand. What made these items digestible for the average viewer?

All credit goes to the brave cast, who really tackled a lot of very, very challenging dialogue, especially Leo. It had material that was difficult to decipher. I’d say he, Jen Lawrence, and Rob Morgan are halfway through their PhD in orbital mechanics right now. I spent a lot of time talking to them, explaining how we discovered asteroids and comets, and guiding them through science. They went to great lengths to get comfortable with the material. But more importantly, a key element of the movie that we really talked about extensively was the role of science in society.

There are a couple of times when scientists debate, “People aren’t listening, so what do we do?” There is a conflict between the burn-it-all style of activism in which you take to the streets and protests against the “We are going to try to work within the power structures, although the structures have many problems.” “Get closer. And there is a lot of debate among scientists to figure out what the right approach is for this particular kind of moment. I really wanted to highlight that conflict, as well as the difficulty that scientists face when trying to decide what to do as human beings who are learning the same bad news as everyone else.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from Don't Look Up.

People forget the fact that scientists are people too. What are some of the lessons that your experiences as a scientist have taught you about communicating with people outside of the scientific community?

A big challenge is that we use words in science with a particular scientific definition that are the same words that people use in everyday life, but with a completely different definition in that context. That contributes to a lack of understanding and a lack of communication. Take the word “error”, for example. In science, the word “error” has a specific definition mathematically and statistically. In statistics, it quantifies how well we know a particular measure and comes with a set of definitions that go along with that term.

However, in everyday life, if I say that there is a mistake with something, it usually means that it is wrong, completely wrong. That is a totally different definition.

So even the words that we all use can be misinterpreted or interpreted in a totally unintentional way outside of their scientific context. And that’s just one example of some of the barriers we face when communicating, especially when talking to people outside of the scientific community. We are all guilty of not wanting to heed the bad news as well. The pandemic and climate change, for example, are things that deserve our time and serious consideration, and we must analyze these problems with the tools of science in order to make decisions about what to do. But the problem is that sometimes it is very difficult to want to think about those things.

The cast of Don't Look Up represented in the film's Oval Office.

What would you say to anyone who watches the movie and comes out of it feeling depressed about its message, or what it says about the society we live in?

One of the most important roles in science fiction is that it allows us to act out a scenario without having to live it. In other words, we don’t have to choose that future. Our future depends on us to choose. If we want a better future, we can make decisions based on sound science on all kinds of issues, such as climate change and the pandemic. We can choose a science-based approach and we can go out there, get to work, and do it. That is up to us. It is not absolutely useless.

This is not a time to give up in despair. This is the time to get down to business and solve problems.

Currently available in theaters, Don’t look up It will premiere on December 24 on the Netflix streaming service.

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