In Netflix’s new star-studded space comedy Don’t Look Up, scientists scramble to save the world from a “planet-killer.” In the movie, it’s a comet. In the real world, humans are more likely to conjure up the vehicle of our demise all on our own, whether it’s through climate change or the patriarchy. The movie gets into those thorny themes, too.
It opens with a scene in which a grad student played by Jennifer Lawrence discovers the comet, something real-world NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer has experience with. Just last year, Mainzer and her team discovered the brightest comet in the northern hemisphere in more than two decades, called NEOWISE. To flesh out Lawrence’s character and the other scientists in the film — and bring some real science to a movie about the end of times — the actors took cues from Mainzer.
Mainzer happens to be “one of the world’s leading scientists in asteroid detection and planetary defense,” according to NASA, and she has also turned her attention to climate change (she’s using remote sensing to find invasive species that fuel wildfires). The Verge talked with Mainzer about the end of the world and what to do about it.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
NASA recently launched a spacecraft to slam into an asteroid to see if it can deflect one that might collide with Earth in the future. How does that, the DART mission, compare to the worst-case scenario in the movie?
There’s a number of different techniques you can try depending on how much time you have, how big the object is, and other details like what it’s made out of, and so on. What you see in the movie is obviously a very worst-case scenario. It’s also extremely unlikely to ever happen in our lifetimes or even a couple generations down for most lifetimes. That’s the great news. If the object is small enough and you have enough time, you can try the technique that the DART mission will demonstrate, which is to just bump into it and try to push it out of the way. That’s the simplest thing.
However, all of these techniques depend on the ability to find the objects ahead of time and make sure that we know enough about them, their sizes, and just exactly where they’re going to go so that we have a number of different options available to us. So that’s what I’m working on is the search and discovery part of it. The next planetary defense mission that NASA will be launching is a project that I worked on called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, which is designed to go out and find a whole bunch more asteroids and comets, hopefully when they are years to decades before any potential close approach.
What do you hope people take away from this movie?
That science is really important in our everyday lives. Even if we don’t necessarily think about it, it’s there. It’s operating on our lives, the physical processes that determine how the world works. Those are happening to us. We see it every day with the pandemic, with climate change.
We really hope people will take into consideration science when they make their decisions, both as individuals and as a society. If we use the tools of science that we have at our disposal, we are much more likely to have a good outcome in our day-to-day lives.
How did you work with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence on this film? What was that like?
They were really fantastic to work with because both of them, and Rob Morgan [who plays Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, head of planetary defense at NASA], too, they are all huge nerds. I mean that as a compliment. They are really interested in and passionate about science themselves. And also, too, I think they were very interested in portraying scientists as fully realized human beings. Very often in film, we see scientists as caricatures. Either they’re kind of a joke, or they’re evil or something that just doesn’t really represent scientists as people doing a job and trying to do the job the best they can. So this was really an important part of the movie. I hope that people get a little bit of a sense of who scientists are as people through watching it. And I think that the cast did a great job of really bringing humanity to scientists who are just trying to do their jobs to bring what they’re learning to everybody else.
Oh, gosh, we had so many Zoom calls. All the Zoom calls. We were texting and Zoom calls and phone calls and FaceTime — and really trying to work through some of the logistical challenges. You’ll see in the movie, there’s sort of a debate about the role of activism. If you’re a scientist, and you have news to bring to everybody that’s not good, what do you do? Do you try to say it in a way that is polite? Do you try to protest in the streets? Do you try to work with people who are in power even if you profoundly disagree with them? What do you do? So we really worked on how do we present that in a way that is believable and helps to humanize the characters.
And then, of course, the dialogue. Some of it’s extremely technical, and I gotta say, both Leo and Jen are just about halfway through their PhDs in orbital dynamics at this point. So they really gave it their all on some extremely challenging technical dialogue.
One thing that I felt really humanized these characters was their own feelings of anxiety and fear or panic or whatever it is when you’re working daily on a potential apocalypse. For you as a scientist, how do you sort of manage that sense of existential crisis when it comes to something like climate change?
Well, I gotta say, we watch a lot of comedies in my household. So hopefully, people will enjoy Don’t Look Up as a comedy because humor is partly how we do cope with serious news. And that’s what helps us keep going. So finding good friends and good people to work with who are supportive and kind. But also just, you know, finding the moments of joy and levity where you can work on a serious subject, it’s essential.
That’s where I think the role of the arts is really important. You know, science teaches us about the nature of the world around us, both good and bad. But the arts are really what allow us to kind of process what we’re learning about that, bring it to other people, help bring it home to them. And then it helps us cope, not just as scientists, but as people.
I can relate to that as a science reporter. And another aspect of the film that I appreciated was that there are some obvious double standards that Jennifer Lawrence faces as a scientist in the film compared to her male colleague played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Did you consult on that aspect as well? What has it been like for you as a woman working in science?
Jennifer Lawrence did a fantastic job on this aspect of the character. And you can see a number of instances in the film where she just faces this really institutionalized misogyny. That’s just pervasive, and it absolutely affects her work. It slows her down. You can see it’s a real drain on her energy as a person and as a scientist. That, of course, is unfortunately really prevalent throughout the sciences. It’s there. It’s real. It’s in many different fields. And, of course, it’s based on many aspects of identity, not just gender. The thing that I think is hopeful in the situation — I always do try to look for the hopeful thing — is that there’s been a lot of excellent work in the social sciences now to try to help figure out the best ways from a scientific standpoint, to combat some of this. To, in other words, improve the situation using the tools of science. We ourselves can be subjects for study, and other scientists can help us try to figure out how can we best alleviate the situation? So that brings me some hope.