Don’t Look Up, the latest film by Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short) finds Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jonah Hill facing down the impending end of the world due to a 9-km-wide comet that is due to hit the earth in six months and 14 days. Though the action involves the president of the United States (played by Streep) and the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office of NASA, it actually centers on academics: DiCaprio’s astronomy professor Randall Mindy and his advisee, Lawrence’s grad student Kate Dibiasky, who discovers the comet that comes to bear her name during a routine telescopic survey.
The disaster satire, which has widely been read as a climate change parable, grapples with audiences’ short attention spans, capitalist greed, political incompetence, media sensationalism, and the importance of good science communication. It also features some plausible science. (In fact, the movie hired a University of Montreal grad student to be DiCaprio’s hand double as he writes out equations for calculating the path of a three-dimensional object in the solar system, so they would look legit.)
We wanted to know just how plausible Don’t Look Up’s astronomy was, so we went to one of Haverford’s experts in the field: Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center Karen Masters. Masters is an astronomer and astrophysicist who studies galaxies and is a part of a team of hundreds of astronomers across the globe working to map the Universe via the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. She spoke with us about whether an extinction-level comet is possible, if you could keep such a thing a secret, and the role of amateur astronomers in comet discovery.
HAVERFORD: How much did the plot–that there’s a 9-km-wide comet heading for the earth, and we only see it six months in advance–ring true for you, or did you have to suspend your disbelief as a scientist to enjoy the movie?
KAREN MASTERS: Both of those things are possible. The comet that we think killed the dinosaurs was about that same size. So they are out there, and they can hit Earth! But, the bigger they get, the rarer they are. So it’s not very likely at all that one of that size would come and hit us. We’re also a very, very small target. We think of the Earth as being massive, but it’s really very tiny compared to the scale of the Solar System. … And it’s also possible that there are ways that a comet could approach us that it would be very hard for us to spot in advance. If it’s coming from the direction of the Sun, for example, we can’t track the sky in that direction very well because the Sun is there. If it’s coming very dead on towards us, ironically, it wouldn’t move very much with respect to the background stars, so it would be harder to see. … And [NASA’s] Planetary Defense Coordination Office really is a thing that monitors the skies.
The thing that was unbelievable to me was that [DiCaprio] would sit at the blackboard and do these calculations, and then believe them. If I calculated the orbit of a comet based on a couple positions, and calculated that it was going to hit the earth, I would be like, “A. I’ve done something wrong with my calculations, let me double check it. Or B. the baseline’s not long enough to know that for sure.” Really, I’d send the data to the NASA PDCO and have them run the numbers, since that’s what they do. I wouldn’t be doing media about it on the basis of blackboard calculations.
H: Did the plans that they came up with to mitigate the comet seem scientifically sound?
KM: It’s complicated because we don’t always know how solid [comets] are. So the idea from the movie of putting very large rockets on it and moving it very quickly, it’s not clear that that wouldn’t break it up. Not all comets are solid. Some are more like loose collections of rubble than solid things. So I think the initial plan, the one they ended up not doing, where they were going to nudge it slowly, that’s probably the best hope. If you reach the comet quickly enough that you can move it with a very low acceleration–as I said, we’re a very small target–so you only have to move it a bit for it to just miss us. So I think that’s the best plan, as far as I know at least.
H: I know that the Planetary Defense Program as depicted in the film is real, but do you know if they actually have public plans for recourse if there was a comet or asteroid coming our way?
KM: Yeah! I know there was a recent mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), where they were practicing things like this.
H: I read that one of the most glaring errors in the film is that the government tries to keep the comet a secret, but that would be impossible given how many people across the globe, from professionals to amateurs, would see it.
KM: I think that’s right. There’s a lot of amateur astronomers out there, someone would probably see the comet. Unless it was incredibly faint, you could argue that this was a very large telescope [that Mindy and Dibiasky] were using, and it would be too faint to be seen by amateurs. But certainly once it gets brighter, you’d definitely get a gazillion observations of it. Also, astronomers are not that organized. I mean, there’s a number of conspiracy theories where we’re supposed to be hiding aliens and things like that, but it’s like… no. As soon as you’ve met a group of astronomers, you know they couldn’t hide something like that.
H: What kind of equipment would you need to spot a comet like this? Is that something I could do if I had a telescope at home, or do you need to be at the Green Bank Observatory to see it?
KM: You need multiple images. You need to spot that it’s moving, so you need a good reference image, so you know what should be there. People have found comets just using catalogs. Thinking back to the early days, one of my favorite astronomers, Caroline Herschel, was famous just for finding comets with the naked eye. So you don’t necessarily need a big telescope, you just need to survey the sky, do it repeatedly, and then the images get run through software which picks up moving things. There’s a big initiative to do this kind of thing in astronomy. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which is currently being built, its main mission is to image the sky over and over again. But that’s not to say amateurs can’t help. There are amateurs who get involved in tracking comets, and also tracking variable stars, which get brighter and dimmer. People do find them, but also more by luck than anything else. It used to be a thing to scan the sky and notice differences, I’m sure people still do it. If it is a comet, it will be slightly fuzzy, which is unusual. Charles Messier in the 1700s made a list of fuzzy things that aren’t comets, so he didn’t have to worry about those while he was looking for comets. The Messier catalog is full of interesting things like galaxies and nebulae, so it’s definitely a thing in amateur astronomy circles to try to observe everything on Messier’s list, just because they’re some of the most attractive objects you can see with smaller telescopes.
H: In many ways, the film is about the importance of good science communication, which is something that you are committed to as spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and as the author of two 30-Second books for general audiences. I was wondering what you thought of that aspect of the movie–the fact that people couldn’t take in this alarming information about the end of the world because it was delivered by scientists.
KM: I liked that part. It made me giggle in a few places. Leo’s character was so bad [at talking to the media] initially. But he got better with a bit of training! And Jennifer Lawrence’s character, I think, could’ve been really good, but I think she just got caught up in the emotions of it, which they say isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but clearly, in her case, it overshadowed her message. There was a moment where Leo said something about aliens, and I was like, “Oh, are we gonna do the science communication thing where if you’re an astronomer and you mention aliens, suddenly everything else gets ignored?” But they actually didn’t do that, which tickled me! But I thought they did an interesting job portraying the challenge of science communication where scientists want to be incredibly precise, and it comes across as sounding incredibly boring and hides the important parts. I liked that part, and it was very deliberately done to reflect on climate change communication, but I think we see it in all aspects of science communication. The stereotypes we have about scientists get in the way of people listening to scientists, and that’s a real shame.
H: There’s a gulf between what the public thinks “certainty” means and what the scientific community thinks it means. Scientists couch discoveries in language that mean, to the general public, “This is possible,” as opposed to “This will happen,” since a scientist would never say for sure something will happen.
KM: Yeah, it’s kind of a joke, “Can you persuade a scientist to say that the Sun will come up tomorrow?” Because it really is going to, but there are very unlikely things that could happen that would prevent it… Just like a comet hitting us! I can’t say, “No, that would never happen,” but I can understand how unlikely it is, and I hope I can try to communicate that.