Netflix’s most realistic apocalypse movie reveals a controversial scientific debate

“Is this real? Is this a damned joke?”

These frantic words, uttered by Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) in one of the first scenes in the upcoming Netflix sci-fi comedy, do not search, conveys the urgency of the situation he faces and Ph.D. Candidate Kate Dibaskey (Jennifer Lawrence).

Kate discovered a comet, and according to scientists’ calculations, this comet will hit Earth within six months. Humanity will be wiped out, along with most other species.

“We have exactly six months, 10 days, 2 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,” Kate says.

So, yeah, it’s real, and no, it’s not a goddamn joke. Director Adam McKay’s latest film reveals a controversial debate that pops up every time Hollywood inevitably features this familiar plot point: can planet killer comet Actually hitting the ground and eliminating us?

But do not searchBizarre science fiction plot Also A clever foil to a more controversial scientific debate: Can scientists accurately inform critical threats?

Real Science he is inverse Series that reveal the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV shows.

Mackay intended the film to serve as a metaphor for climate change, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, do not search It also highlights the difficulties of public health officials relaying changing information to a skeptical public, and being 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 the film — and in real life.

  1. Could a planet-killer comet really hit Earth?
  2. What can we do to prevent a comet or asteroid from hitting Earth?
  3. How can scientists communicate serious threats to the public?

To answer these questions, inverse He talks with Amy Mainzer, principal investigator for NASA’s NEOWISE Wide Field Infrared Explorer (NEOWISE) mission and a leading scientist in asteroid discovery and planetary defense. Mainzer served as a consultant on the film.

“The movie is really about the struggle of scientists to tell us what to learn about the way the world works,” Mainzer says. inverse.

Moderate future spoilers do not search.

Cold comet killer planet hits Earth?

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“Are we really about to tell the President of the United States that we have six months until humanity, essentially all species, will become extinct?” Kate asks Randall nervously.

The two scientists are called in to question the president about the comet’s serious threat, along with Dr. Oglethorpe, chief of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office—a real department, the movie notes.

“Madam, this comet is what we call a planet killer,” says Oglethorpe bluntly.

But is this deadly comet plot scientifically plausible, or is it just a tired Hollywood trope? Mainzer, who designed the fictional comet DiBiasky, explains.

“I actually 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 outermost part of our solar system,” Mainzer says.

According to Mainzer, this type of comet is known as a long-period comet, which is often found “just a few months before they approach the Sun,” Mainzer says.

“My team discovered comet NEOWISE last year, and this object has an orbit somewhat similar to the kind of thing we’re talking about in the movie.”

Comet NEOWISE was discovered by the Mainzer team at the end of March 2020, and by early July, it had already made its closest approach to the Sun.

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So the idea of ​​a massive, fast-moving comet approaching Earth – perhaps too close to comfort scientists – is entirely plausible.

“These things can move very fast relative to the Earth,” Mainzer says. “They can move at unbelievable speeds and can be very large.”

But the chance of a deadly comet actually hitting Earth is less realistic.

“However, space is as big as this stuff, it’s incredibly massive,” Mainzer says.

According to Mainzer, “It is very unlikely that a comet like this and Earth would be in the same place at the same time.”

While Mainzer says a deadly comet hitting Earth is “unlikely to happen in real life,” the chance is not zero. Projects such as the MEINZER NEOWISE mission monitor these NEOs.

“Obviously we care about things that are big enough to cause global events, even though they are extremely rare, but we also look for things that can be smaller, but can still cause significant damage on Earth,” Mainzer says.

Can we prevent a comet or asteroid from hitting Earth?

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Realizing that saving the planet could boost her chances of winning the midterm elections, the president mustered a mission to launch a preemptive strike against the asteroid using decommissioned space shuttles and satellites laden with nuclear explosives.

“We’ll throw Comet Dipasky off course,” says the imaginary president confidently.

But is that really what scientists would do in real life? It depends on the circumstances.

“If the object is really big, and it is found without much warning, you will throw everything you have at it, in my opinion,” Mainzer says.

So yes, the film’s shooting style isn’t necessarily unrealistic, but it’s certainly not the preferred science strategy.

“We’d really like to have more time so we can develop other techniques that are less extreme and possibly more effective,” Mainzer says.

If you discover these space objects when you are years or even decades away from Earth, you can try alternative methods such as an asteroid hitting a spacecraft and pushing its orbital path away from Earth – an idea known as “kinetic effect”.

But the movie discovers the comet six months later, which may be too late to change course if it’s anything real.

“It’s going to be really difficult in real life, because, especially for a very massive object, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to get it out of the way,” Mainzer says.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, launched in the fall of 2021, will attempt to test what a kinetic impact might look like in real life by launching a spacecraft to slightly reorient the orbit of the asteroid Demorphos – a pre-test for a real test. . Life threatening asteroids down the line.

“We have the tools to prevent the worst possible outcomes, but we have to make decisions based on the best scientific evidence,” Mainzer says. “There is no alternative to doing that.”

How can scientists communicate serious threats to the public?

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in a do not searchThe culprit is the urgent threat to decimating humanity, but Comet Dipasky is truly an alternative to any dangerous, skeptical, and hard-to-communicate scientific topic, whether it’s the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Uncertainty is a word that has a very specific mathematical definition in science and we use it to determine precisely how well we are measuring,” Mainzer explains.

“But if I say something is uncertain, it is usually interpreted to mean ‘I don’t know’ in the public eye, which can inadvertently reduce scientific credibility,” she adds.

Case in point: the president in Don’t look yop focuses on Randall’s assertion that there is a 99.78% chance that a deadly comet will hit the planet Earth. This idea has caught fire in the media, who use the idea that science isn’t 100% certain as a reason to reject Randall and Kate as Crackbot predicted doomsday.

“Who told you that science wasn’t one hundred percent?” Mindy asks, bewildered, when a reporter tries to dismiss his claims that a massive comet will completely hit the planet.

“This scene was really important to me because we were really trying to convey the idea that science deals in probabilities,” Mainzer says.

Speaking with McKay, Mainzer said he was “very keen to make a movie that is centered around good science and trying 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 just to convey scientific truth.

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Fed up with the indifference of the audience, Kate exploded on national television: “Maybe you should stay up all night, crying every night when we’re 100 per cent sure we’re all going to die.”

Are these the words of a fictional astronomer warning the public of a coming world or a real-life climate scientist sounding the alarm about the continuing threat of global warming? hard to say.

As a scientist, Mainzer empathizes with the communication challenges that Randall and Kate face. But in the end, Mainzer says the film has a “hopeful core” and fast food is more upbeat than bleak.

“If we recognize 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, a pandemic, or other natural disasters,” Mainzer says.

do not search In theaters now and on Netflix starting December 24.

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