Connect with us

Movie of the Week

Science saves the day

How would governments respond to news of a giant asteroid about to destroy the world? The answer comes in Don’t Look Up, the new Netflix Original comedy airing from Christmas eve. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK spoke to astronomer Amy Mainzer, consultant on the movie, about how such an event would play out.



Heading your way right now, may we present the end of the world? Not the fourth wave, but a reimagining of a perennial favourite, a giant asteroid about to destroy the world.

The new Netflix Original movie, Don’t Look Up, releasing today, is a comedic take on the likelihood of such a threat being dismissed by political leaders because it is an inconvenient fact. Jennifer Lawrence, as astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky, embarks on a media tour with Leonardo DiCaprio as her professor, Dr Randall Mindy. The president of the United States is played with profound indifference by Meryl Streep, while the rest of the world plays a public obsessed with social media.

A key challenge for the characters: how to get the world simply to look up. It is not as absurd as it seems. Denial of science and evidence has been turned into an art form, with former US president Donald Trump the poster child – was there ever a more apt term?

A challenge for the movie-makers, on the other hand, was to represent science as authentically as possible, to avoid turning the film into further fodder for the anti-science camp. Enter Dr Amy Mainzer. The real-life astronomer, professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona, was called in by Netflix to advise on exactly how such an event would play out in the scientific world.

Dr Amy Mainzer

Her qualification for the task are astonishing: she has been a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is now principal investigator of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission, a space telescope searching for Earth-approaching asteroids and comets. She is also host and executive producer of a kids’ TV show aimed at teaching science to kids aged 3 to 8.

She told Business Times in an exclusive interview that one of her roles as a consultant to the movie-makers was to advise on just how scientists think, especially when they find out things that are not good news.

“Our job as astronomers is to provide the information to governments, to people, of the world. It’s up to the administrations of all of these countries to do something with that information.”

In short, her task went to the very heart of the factors behind poor responses to the pandemic and the climate crisis.

“One of the distinguishing features of this movie is that the cast and the director are really interested in portraying the science and the process of science as accurately as they can. From a very basic standpoint, how do we as a society grapple with the news when scientists bring us new information? This turns the movie into passionate advocacy for making science-based decisions in society.”

Mainzer does not skirt around the debacle of science denialism of recent years.

“This is a movie that makes a powerful statement about the importance of science in our society. Science is happening all around us, whether we realise it or not. So we need to take that into account when we make our decisions as a society for all kinds of different issues.

“Of course, the pandemic is an obvious one. But there are a lot of other things too, that we grapple with, that really requires a pretty good understanding of science when we make decisions.”

Don’t Look Up is a comedy. But the scientific thinking behind it is no laughing matter.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.