"The good news is, we don't know of any asteroid or comet that's barrelling down on the earth right now." We speak to astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer about new disaster movie, Don't Look Up - SciFiNow

“The good news is, we don’t know of any asteroid or comet that’s barrelling down on the earth right now.” We speak to astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer about new disaster movie, Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up finds a planet-destroying asteroid hurtling its way to earth. We speak to Dr Amy Mainzer who worked on the movie’s science with the cast and crew about what in the movie could happen and whether we’re prepared for a giant asteroid hitting our planet…

Don't Look Up Amy Mainzer

When astronomy grad student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) make an astounding discovery of a comet that is a direct collision course with Earth, they didn’t think their most pressing problem would be convincing the world and its governments to care about its existence in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up

With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media obsessed public before it’s too late proves shockingly comical — what will it take to get the world to just look up?!

Wanting to keep the science in the film as close as possible, Adam McKay enlisted the help of astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer who lent her expertise on the scientific elements of the film and with the film’s cast on portraying the scientists desperately trying to tell the world of impending doom. We spoke to Mainzer who let us in on what could actually happen in the movie, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and why this movie is so important right now…

So, Dr Mainzer, we only discuss genre films here at SciFiNow. Should we even be discussing Don’t Look Up with you?

Oh, this is clearly a science fiction film because the good news is, we don’t know of any asteroid or comet that’s barrelling down on the earth right now. So that’s the great news. So right off the bat, we are in sci-fi territory, just within the first few minutes of the movie. So we are squarely in your territory [haha]!

Oh that’s good news! How did you first get involved in the movie?

A couple of years ago Adam connected with me through a mutual acquaintance at NASA and when I first talked to him, it just seemed like we had a lot in common. He’s very interested in science and its impact on society. Of course, that’s something that science fiction does with devastating precision, is exploring the impact of science on society. So right off the bat, we were both interested in the same thing. We had a great conversation and I thought ‘I am so excited to work on this because it has such a powerful message’.

How early on in the script-writing process were you involved?

I saw a very early draft of the script, and we had a lot of conversations right off the bat. I had to make a few alterations to the object. Adam wanted it to be larger, a lot larger and I said no, it’s too big. There’s no reasonable chance of really deflecting it and truly large comets like that are actually very, very rare. What we’re already talking about is a rare situation, and you’d be making it even more rare. I think he wanted it to be an asteroid but we switched it to a comet and he was actually really gracious about it.

The only thing I pushed him on that he wasn’t able to do is [timings’. I thought we would really like to have more than six months to be able to build spacecraft because in real life, it usually takes us quite a bit longer, but he said ‘it’s gonna be kind of a boring movie if it spans five years!’. He’s probably right, if we had five years of design review meetings in the movie, that would have been really boring haha.

Where did you begin with your research for the movie?

The good news was the premise of the movie is similar to the work that I’m doing right now professionally with my team. So from that standpoint, it wasn’t too bad to look it over and basically say, ‘okay, here’s the places where we can add some scientific realism’.

The process of discovery that’s shown in the first few minutes of the film is pretty realistic. The only real difference is we would probably use a computer faster, but in the movie, the professor’s teaching his students, so he’s trying to work the problem out on the whiteboards, old school style, so you get a little bit of a flavour of that. But overall, that’s pretty much how it works. So that part of it I would say is very realistic and, of course, it really quickly veers into sci-fi territory because obviously they find that the object is about to hit the Earth and that in real life, fortunately, for us is extremely rare!]

Though they may not use whiteboards in real life, the opening few minutes in Don’t Look Up is pretty realistic.

Why do you think it was important for Adam McKay to keep the science as close to reality as possible?

Well, there are a couple of things. There’s actually trying to anchor the comet and asteroid science in some realism because that helps with making the story more believable and more plausible for everybody. I’m a huge sci-fi fan myself, and being able to suspend disbelief is so important to our being able to really lose ourselves in a story. So that’s one thing.

The other thing that was really important for Adam, and one of the reasons it was so good to work with him, is that he really wanted to portray scientists as human beings and try to figure out how we think and how we react. Especially when we have to give bad news. He really wanted to make a movie that talks about scientists as human beings trying to do our best, to deliver what we see as the right approach to solve problems. We had a lot of great conversations about it. We also had a lot of great conversations about the role of activism as scientists. What do we do? I mean, do we go outside and protest? Do we try to work with people who are in power who we may profoundly disagree with? What’s the right approach? There’s not always a simple answer.

How important was it for you to portray scientists as realistic as possible in the movie?

I think it is extremely important because if you’re looking at the history of film and how science is often portrayed, or scientists are portrayed, a lot of times they’re either caricatures, like a joke. They’re portrayed as funny, or they’re villains a lot of times. So there tends to be these tropes, these existing stereotypes about scientists, and for me, I think it’s important that part of what helps people to trust science is to know scientists as people who they can relate to. So I’m hoping that the movie does some work to humanise the scientists that it portrays and hopefully that is a little bit of the basis for trust.

Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned that he worked with you in creating his character Dr Mindy, what was that like?

Yeah, his character undergoes a really big arc of transformation. We really tried to talk about, what would he do? How would you react when you’re thrown into a situation that your PhD training really doesn’t prepare you for? To deliver really bad news and try to do it in a way that that people who are in power will actually act on?

You see him struggling in the movie trying to figure out; how do I affect change? What’s the right way to do it? Do I try to work with the people who actually have the power? Or do I try to protest? What is the right thing to do? So you see him struggling with that, and we had dozens of conversations about this because it is a complex issue.

His character has a problem trying to convey the seriousness of the situation without delving too much into scientific jargon…

Yeah, that’s a huge problem for science! There’s so much jargon. I mean, that’s true in just about any field, but it’s really a problem in science. There are even words in science that we use that have specific mathematical definitions that we use in everyday life, and the definition is actually quite different. So take the word ‘uncertainty’. To a scientist ‘uncertainty’ is a mathematical quantification of how well we know a measurement. It’s a precise mathematical definition. It’s telling us how much we know about this measurement. But if I say I’m ‘uncertain’ about something in everyday life, it usually is taken to mean ‘I don’t know’, which is completely different!

That’s just a tiny example of some of the challenges that we face in communicating and understanding each other about complex scientific topics. So some of that you see in the movie, to try to represent that it’s pretty tough.

It’s a big challenge. So we tried to show some of that in the movie.

The filmmakers and Amy wanted the scientists to come across as human and as realistic as possible in Don’t Look Up.

Was there any element in the movie that you specifically wanted to show as realistic as possible?

There are a few. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there was a scene specifically at the end where we did a lot of work on with the visual effects department to make sure that it was portrayed in as accurate a way as possible, but also as respectfully as possible.

It’s not your stereotypical Hollywood ending in a lot of ways, so we did a lot of work. I have a whole PowerPoint presentation that I gave to the VFX team about what things would look like and what would be a reasonable representation and what would not be reasonable. So we spent a lot of time on that. They did a great job.

What specific part of the movie springs to mind where the science has been stretched a little?

The movie is a slightly exaggerated technological society. The technology is just a little bit better than what we have today and in certain cases, it’s very sci-fi. The ending, of course, that’s very science fiction. That’s far beyond our current capabilities.

There is a scene where they’re trying to launch missions to deflect the comet and normally, it would take us a long time to build spacecraft. I mean, I imagine if there really was an emergency, we would do our absolute level best. But in the movie we compress the timeline a little bit in terms of building and constructing all these spacecraft that can go knock the comet off its course.

If the situation in Don’t Look Up was to happen in real life – what would be the process?

What we would actually do in real life depends on very great deal on what we know about the objects and how much time we have. That’s the critical ingredient. Time. If you only have a few months, your options are very few.

So, ideally, we want to try to discover these objects when they’re years or decades away from any potential close approach to Earth. That’s why my focus has been on the search, discovery and characterisation aspects. So in other words, we can’t do anything if we don’t know where the objects are.

We would really like to know where they are years to decades before they have any chance of a close approach. If we do that, then we have lots of different options that we could try that would most likely work. In other words, we could push the object out of the way. You can just simply bump into it. That’s called a kinetic impact. You could even try to drag it away by the force of gravity with a massive enough spacecraft. But that again takes time. All of these approaches take time. So the focus from my point of view should be on really trying to find the objects early and doing a good job of characterising them and keeping track of them.

Do we have the technology to see asteroids that big right now?

We have a lot of work to do still. We found where most of the really big asteroids are. That’s the good news. We know about 95% of the kilometre class and larger-than-Earth asteroids. Not comets, but asteroids.

But for the smaller objects, which are still plenty big enough to cause what I would call very severe regional damage, we only know about 30 to 40% of those today. And the smaller ones which are still enough to destroy a city or something, it’s hardly any.

So we have a lot more work to do and even though this is a very, very rare thing, it’s not something we should completely ignore. In my opinion, the right thing to do is to do more comprehensive surveys and just go look.

Fortunately, we are trying to do that. I am working on a new project with NASA called the Near Earth Object Surveyor, where we’re hoping to build a much better telescope, a more sensitive telescope. We’re going to try to fill out that fraction of objects that are large enough to cause severe regional damage. So we’re hoping to get that launched in 2026.

What do you want for audiences to take away from the movie?

The movie has at its core, I would say, a message of hope. That the future really is up to us. We can choose it and we can choose the science-based path if we want to. That’s up to us. We can choose a path that will give us the best possible… or a better… outcome. But we really have to do the work to push for that. So I’d say to folks ‘don’t get sad. Just get out there and get active and vote for politicians who will listen to science’.

Don’t Look Up will be in UK cinemas on 10 December 2021, and coming to Netflix on 24 December. Read our long-read article with writer and director Adam McKay and its stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill here.