Netflix’s most realistic apocalypse movie reveals controversial science debates
“Is this real? Is this a fucking joke?
Those frantic words, spoken by Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) in one of the opening scenes of Netflix’s upcoming sci-fi comedy, Do not seek, convey the urgency of the situation he is facing and Ph.D. candidate, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence).
Kate has discovered a comet and, according to scientists’ calculations, this comet will hit Earth in six months. Mankind will be wiped out, along with most other species.
âWe have precisely six months, ten days, two hours, 11 minutes and 41 seconds until a comet twice the size of Chicxulub rips through our atmosphere and wipes out all life on Earth,â Kate explains.
So, yeah, it’s real, and no, it’s not a fucking joke. Director Adam McKay’s latest film reveals a controversial debate that arises whenever Hollywood inevitably brings up this familiar plot point: could a planet-killing comet really hit Earth and wipe us out?
Corn Do not seekthe extravagant sci-fi storyline of Also a clever foil for an even more controversial scientific debate: can scientists ever accurately communicate serious threats?
Coil science is a Reverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and series.
McKay wanted the film to serve as a metaphor for climate change, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, Do not seek also highlights the difficulties faced by public health officials in communicating changing information to a skeptical public, misled by the politicization of science and media echo chambers.
The film’s clever use of parody, combined with actual science, effectively highlights three questions facing scientists in film – and in real life.
- Can a planet-killing comet really hit Earth?
- What can we do to stop a comet or an asteroid from hitting Earth?
- How can scientists transmit serious threats to the public?
To answer these questions, Reverse speaks with Amy Mainzer, principal investigator of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission and a leading scientist in asteroid detection and planetary defense. Mainzer served as an advisor on the film.
âThe film is really about the struggle of scientists to say what we are learning about the way the world works,â Mainzer said. Reverse.
Light spoilers ahead for Do not seek.
Has a planet-killing comet hit Earth?
“Are we really about to tell the President of the United States that we have six months until humanity, virtually all species, is completely extinct?” Kate tense asks Randall.
The two scientists were called in to debrief the president on the serious threat of the comet, along with Dr Oglethorpe, head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office – a real department, as shown in the film.
Oglethorpe puts it bluntly: âMadam President, this comet is what we call a planet killer. “
But is this Planet Killer Comet plot scientifically plausible, or is it just a tired Hollywood trope? Mainzer, who designed the fictional comet Dibiasky, explains.
âSo I designed the comet for this movie, and it’s based on a number of other comets that have similar orbital characteristics and come from the outer far end of our solar system,â Mainzer explains.
According to Mainzer, this type of comet is known as a long-lived comet, which is often “just a few months before it comes closest to the sun,” Mainzer explains.
“My team discovered comet NEOWISE last year, and this object has an orbit quite similar to the type of thing we’re talking about in the movie.”
The Mainzer team discovered comet NEOWISE at the end of March 2020, and by the beginning of July, it had already come closest to the Sun.
So the idea of ââa massive, fast-moving comet approaching Earth – perhaps too close for the comfort of scientists – is highly plausible.
âThese things can move very quickly relative to Earth,â Mainzer explains. âThey can move at incredible speeds and they can be very tall. “
But the chance of a planet-killing comet actually hitting Earth is a little less realistic.
âThat said, however large these objects are, the space is incredibly huge,â Mainzer said.
According to Mainzer, it is “very unlikely that a comet like this and Earth will ever be in the same place at the same time.”
While Mainzer says that a planet-killer comet hitting Earth is “highly unlikely to happen in real life,” the luck is not zero. Projects like Mainzer’s NEOWISE mission keep an eye on these near-Earth objects.
“We obviously care about items large enough to cause World Events, even though they are extremely rare, but we are also looking for items that may be smaller, but which could still cause significant damage to the ground,” Mainzer said.
Could we prevent a comet or an asteroid from hitting Earth?
After the president realizes that saving the planet could increase her chances of winning the midterm elections, she mobilizes a mission to launch a preemptive strike against the asteroid using laden decommissioned space shuttles and satellites. nuclear explosives.
“We are going to deviate Comet Dibiasky from its course,” the fictitious president declares confidently.
But is this really what scientists would do in real life? It depends on the circumstances.
“If the object is really, really big, and it’s found without much warning, you’d throw whatever you got at it, in my opinion,” Mainzer said.
So, yes, the film’s flamboyant approach isn’t necessarily unrealistic, but it’s definitely not the preferred science strategy.
âWe would really prefer to have a lot more time to be able to develop other less extreme and perhaps more effective techniques,â Mainzer says.
If you detect these space objects years or even decades from Earth, you can try alternative methods like hitting an asteroid with a spaceship and moving its orbital path away from Earth – an idea known as “kinetic impact.” “.
But the film detects the comet six months later, which may be too late to change its course if it was a real object.
âIt will be really, really difficult in real life because, especially for a very massive object, it only takes a huge amount of energy to push it back,â Mainzer said.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which launched in fall 2021, will attempt to test what the kinetic impact might look like in real life by launching a spacecraft to slightly redirect the asteroid’s orbit. Dimorphos – a pre-test for a real-life asteroid threat down the line.
âWe have the tools to avoid the worst possible outcomes, but we have to make the decisions based on the best scientific evidence,â Mainzer said. âThere is no substitute for this. “
How can scientists transmit serious threats to the public?
In Do not seek, the urgent threat that doom mankind is a comet, but comet Dibiasky is truly a replacement for any scientific subject that is serious, filled with uncertainties and difficult to communicate, whether it is the climate crisis or the Covid-19 pandemic.
âUncertainty is a word that has a very specific mathematical definition in science and we use it to quantify exactly how well we’ve performed a particular measurement,â Mainzer explains.
She adds, âBut if I say something is uncertain, it is generally interpreted to mean ‘I don’t know’ in the public eye, which can inadvertently diminish scientific credibility.
Concrete example: the president of Don’t look at youp focuses on Randall’s claim that there is a 99.78% chance that the planet-killing comet will strike Earth. This idea catches fire in the media, which uses the idea that science is not 100 percent sure as a reason to dismiss Randall and Kate as prophesied the crazy end of the world.
“Who told you that the science is not 100%? Mindy asks in dismay when a reporter tries to dismiss her claims that a massive comet is absolutely going to strike the planet.
âThis scene was really important to me because we were really trying to convey the idea that science is about probability,â Mainzer said.
Speaking with McKay, Mainzer said he was “very keen to make a film that centers on good science and tries to portray scientists as human beings.”
It’s easy to draw parallels between Randall and Kate and real-life scientists who are ignored or demonized by the media, politicians, and society for simply conveying the scientific truth.
Fed up with public apathy, Kate explodes on national television: “Maybe you should stay awake all night, cry every night when we’re 100% sure we’re all going to die.”
Are these the words of a fictional astronomer warning the public that an incoming scientist or a real climate scientist is sounding the alarm on the current threat of global warming? It’s hard to say.
As a scientist, Mainzer sympathizes with Randall and Kate’s communication challenges. But in the end, Mainzer says the film has a “core of hope” and its conclusions are more optimistic than gloomy.
âIf we get to know scientists as people, we can make science-based decisions to avoid the worst outcomes for a whole range of topics, whether it’s climate change, the pandemic or other natural disasters, âMainzer said.
Do not seek is in theaters now and on Netflix starting December 24.