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How the science adviser on Don’t Look Up helped keep it real with the apocalypse

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 contend with frustrating indifference from the US government, mainstream media, and society as a whole in order to warn the world of an impending apocalypse. It’s a satirical film that gives new meaning to “hitting too close to home,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence playing the beleaguered scientists who simply want a potential extinction event to be taken seriously.

It’s also a theme that rings familiar — particularly as we approach the second year of a global pandemic — as the film’s scientists struggle to simultaneously convey complicated concepts to the public and make people care about them.

In order to make both the science and the challenges faced by scientists as realistic as possible, McKay enlisted renowned astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer to serve as the film’s science consultant. An award-winning astronomer who serves as the Principal Investigator on several NASA projects tasked with identifying and studying near-Earth objects, Mainzer already has one asteroid named after her and has appeared on various science and documentary series over the years, including the popular PBS Kids science series Ready Jet Go!

With Don’t Look Up currently in limited theatrical release before heading to Netflix on December 24, Mainzer spoke to Digital Trends about what the role as the science consultant on Don’t Look Up entailed, and how closely the challenges faced by the film’s astronomers mirror those of real-world scientists.

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

Digital Trends: Dr. Mainzer, you’re kind of a rock star in my family, because my kids are big Ready Jet Go! fans — but Don’t Look Up feels like it’s aimed at a slightly different sort of science fan.

Dr. Amy Mainzer: Well, first, that’s really, really great. I’m glad your kids like Ready Jet Go! because it means there are more science fans out there. To me, it’s so important to spread the word about the excitement of science. And in a lot of ways, Don’t Look Up is for the 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 science consultant on a film can take a wide range of forms. What was your involvement in the film like?

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

Right? It really does.

Yeah. We’ve been working together for a long time on it. I was deeply involved in lots of different aspects of the movie — everything from the costume design to the basic plot and the dialog with the actors, to simply making sure the culture of science is conveyed properly, as well as the visual effects and even the sound. I feel like they really took my contributions seriously, and I had discussions on a lot of different areas on the film. It was a great experience. There’s such a talented team on it, and they’re so dedicated and sincere in trying to portray science as an important thing.

At the world premier of #dontlookup! 💫

— Amy Mainzer (@AmyMainzer) December 6, 2021

It’s a comedy, certainly, but how closely did it follow your own experiences in dealing with the public and various other entities out there about science and scientific discoveries?

The movie can be interpreted in different ways, but for me, the most important point it makes is that science is real. Science is what we can objectively determine is true about the way that the world and the universe works. And we can either act on that knowledge and make decisions based on empirical science and scientific truths, or we can ignore it — but if we do the latter, it’s at our peril. That, to me, is the core point that the movie is making. That’s the most important takeaway of all.

The film really gets into the problems associated with delivering bad news as a scientist. I’m sure you 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 job?

One of the biggest challenges scientists face is that sometimes we learn things about the world, and the news is not always good. We’re living in this right now with the pandemic, certainly. Scientists every day are trying to bring the best scientific knowledge to everybody so that we can all make the best possible decisions and have the best possible outcomes 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’re bringing 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 are objectively true, that are proven through the tools and techniques of science and stand the test of replicability, which is the gold standard in science. The peer-review process allows us to get to those objective truths, and we have to be able to agree on that to make good decisions.

Don't Look Up (2021)
Don't Look Up
Genre Drama, Comedy, Science Fiction
Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep
Directed by Adam McKay
DON'T LOOK UP | Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence | Official Trailer | Netflix

There are some really complicated scientific concepts in the film that had to be introduced in a way that general audiences can wrap their heads around. What went into making these elements digestible to the average viewer?

All the credit goes to the brave cast, who really tackled a lot of very, very challenging dialog — especially Leo. He had some difficult material to figure out. I would say that he, Jen Lawrence, and Rob Morgan are all halfway to their Ph.D.’s in orbital mechanics at this point. I spent a lot of time talking to them, explaining how we discover asteroids and comets, and walking them through the science. They made a huge push to feel comfortable with the material. But more importantly, a key element of the movie we really talked about extensively was the role of science in society.

There are a couple of moments when the scientists are debating, “People aren’t listening, so what do we do?”. There’s a conflict between the burn-it-all-down style of activism where you go out in the streets and protest versus the “We’re going to try to work within the structures of power, even though the structures have a lot of problems” approach. And there’s a huge debate among scientists to figure out what is the right approach for this particular kind of moment. I really wanted to highlight that conflict, as well as the difficulty scientists face when we try to decide what to do as human beings who are learning the same bad news as everybody else.

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

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

A big challenge is that we use words in science with a particular scientific definition that are the same words people use in everyday life, but with a completely different definition in that context. That contributes to a lack of understanding and a failure to communicate. 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 measurement and comes with a set of definitions that accompany that term.

However, in everyday life, if I say there’s an error with something, that usually means it’s wrong — completely wrong. That’s a totally different definition.

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

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

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

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

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

Currently available in theaters, Don’t Look Up will premiere December 24 on Netflix streaming service.

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