Meet the real NASA scientist behind Netflix’s Don’t Look Up

In the new star-studded space comedy on Netflix do not searchScientists scramble to save the world from a “planetary killer”. In the movie, he’s guilty. In the real world, humans are more likely to conjure up the mechanism of our demise all on our own, whether it be through climate change or patriarchy. The film delves into those thorny topics as well.

It begins with a scene in which a graduate student played by Jennifer Lawrence discovers a comet, something that NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer has. Just last year, Mainzer and her team discovered the Northern Hemisphere’s brightest comet in more than two decades, called NEOWISE. To personify Lawrence and the other scientists in the film—and bring some real science to an end-time movie—the actors took cues from Mainzer.

Mainzer happens to be “one of the world’s leading scientists in asteroid discovery and planetary defense,” according to NASA, and she’s also turned her attention to climate change (she uses remote sensing to find invasive species that fuel wildfires). the edge I spoke 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 A spacecraft was launched to collide with an asteroid To see if it could veer off a path that might hit Earth in the future. how to do it, Arrow ExpeditionCompared to the worst scenario in the movie?

There are a number of different techniques you can try depending on how much time you have, the size of the object, and other details like what it’s made of, etc. What you see in the movie is clearly a worst case scenario. It is also extremely unlikely to happen in our lifetime or even two generations in most lifespans. This is 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 bump into it and try to push it out of the way. This is the simplest thing.

However, all of these technologies depend on being able to find things early on and making sure we know enough about them, their sizes, and exactly where they’re going so that we have a number of different options available to us. That’s what I’m working on is the research and discovery part of it. NASA’s next planetary defense mission is a project I’ve worked on called the Near-Earth Object Survey, which is designed to go out and find a whole host of asteroids and comets, hopefully years to decades before a potentially close approach.

What do you hope people will take away from this movie?

This science is really important in our daily life. Even if we don’t necessarily think about it, it is there. They operate on our lives, the physical processes that determine how the world works. This happens to us. We see it every day with the pandemic, with the changing climate.

We really hope that people take science into account when making their decisions, as individuals and as a society. If we use the tools of science at our disposal, we are more likely to achieve a good result in our daily life.

How did you work with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence on this movie? What was it like?

They were really great to work with because both of them, Rob Morgan [who plays Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, head of planetary defense at NASA]Also, they’re all huge geeks. I mean to compliment. They are really interested in and excited about science. And also, well, I think they were very interested in portraying scientists as fully real human beings. Often, we see scholars as caricatures. Either it’s kind of a joke, or it’s evil or something that doesn’t really represent scientists as people who do work and try to do the job to the best of their ability. So that was really an important part of the movie. I hope people get a little sense of who scientists are like people by watching it. And I think the cast has done a great job of really bringing humanity to the scientists who are just trying to do their jobs to give everyone what they learn.

Oh, my God, we’ve been getting so many Zoom calls. All Zoom calls. We’ve been texting, Zoom calls, phone calls, FaceTime – and really trying to work around some of the logistical challenges. You’ll see in the movie, there’s some kind of controversy over the role of activism. If you are a scientist and you have news to give to everyone that is not good, what do you do? Are you trying to say it politely? Are you trying to protest in the streets? Do you try to work with people in power even if you strongly disagree with them? What are you doing? So we really worked out how to present that in a way that is believable and helps to humanize the characters.

And then, of course, the dialogue. Some of them are very technical, and I have to say, both Leo and Jen are about halfway through their Ph.D. in orbital dynamics at this point. So they really did their best in a very difficult technical dialogue.

The only thing that I really felt about these characters was their feelings of anxiety and fear or panic or whatever it is that happens when you work every day on a possible apocalypse. For you as a scientist, how do you manage this sense of existential crisis when it comes to something like climate change?

Well, I have to say, we watch a lot of comedies in my house. So we hope people enjoy do not search Comedy because humor is partly how we deal with serious news. This is what helps us keep going. So finding good friends and good people to work with is supportive and kind. But also, you know, finding moments of joy and luxury where you can work on a serious topic, is essential.

This is where I think the role of the arts is really important. You know, science teaches us about the nature of the world around us, whether it’s good or bad. But it’s really the arts that allow us to sort of process what we’re learning about it, bring it to other people, and help give it back to them. And then it helps us cope, not just as scientists, but as people.

I can relate to this as a science reporter. Another aspect of the movie that I appreciate is that there are some obvious double standards that Jennifer Lawrence faces as a scientist in the movie compared to her male colleague played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Have you consulted on this aspect as well? How did you feel as a woman working in science?

Jennifer Lawrence did a great job on this aspect of the character. And you can see a number of cases in the movie where you just encounter really institutional misogyny. This is only pervasive, and certainly affects its operation. slows it down. You can see that it’s a real drain on her energy as a person and as a scientist. This, of course, is already prevalent throughout science. he’s there. It’s real. It is in many different areas. And of course, it depends on many aspects of identity, not just gender. The thing that I think is optimistic about the situation – I always try to look for the hopeful thing – is that there has been a lot of excellent work in the social sciences now to try to help figure out the best ways, from a scientific point of view, to combat some of this. In other words, improve the situation using the tools of science. We ourselves can be subjects of study, and other scholars can help us in trying to figure out the best way to mitigate the situation? So this brings me some hope.

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