Astronomer Amy Mainzer is no stranger to asteroid-hunting. Mainzer is a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and serves as the principal investigator for NEOWISE, a NASA mission that uses an infrared space telescope to scour the skies for space debris. She'll soon lead the project's successor, the Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, a planetary defense project that aims to find and catalogue comets and asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet.
If Mainzer's work sounds strikingly similar to the premise for Don't Look Up, Netflix's new disaster-comedy flick about a pair of astronomers who struggle to warn mankind about a comet on a crash course with Earth, that's because it is. Director Adam McKay — known for screwball comedies like Anchorman and, more recently, sociopolitical satires like The Big Short and Vice — tapped Mainzer as the movie's science adviser a few years back. In that capacity, she played a major role in helping sculpt the film's dialogue and characters, including astronomer Randall Mindy, who is played with believably neurotic energy by Leonardo DiCaprio. Mainzer recently caught up with Discover about hunting for space rocks, chatting with Meryl Streep via iPad and the invaluable role that scientists can play in an increasingly science-phobic society.
Q: Your research focuses on understanding small bodies in our solar system, like asteroids, and the potential impact hazard they pose to Earth. What got you interested in that?
A: It’s funny, it’s not where I started out. But one of the great things about working on different kinds of telescopes is that you survey all kinds of different things. From an observer’s standpoint, asteroids and comets are a lot of fun because they’re constantly moving. That means there’s a lot of activity and action associated with chasing these objects around the sky. Then from a scientific standpoint, they have a lot to teach us about the formation of the solar system and how we got to be here. And, of course, we like to be able to answer questions about the impacts themselves.
Q: In your work, have there been any near-misses, or asteroids that have come close to hitting us?
A: No, and one of the important things here is to consider the risk of impacts from these objects in the context of lots of other risks. In the spacecraft world, we quantify risk as the likelihood of something occurring vs. the consequence that it could have. For asteroids and comets, the likelihood [of impact] is very, very small. But the consequences can potentially be severe. So, because of that, we would consider this a medium risk. Which means you don’t have to run around with your hair on fire. But we don’t want to completely ignore it, either. From my standpoint, the proper response to this kind of threat is to go, ‘Well, okay, let’s go look for the asteroids and see if there are any specific objects out there that, in the next 100 years, have any sort of chance of having a close approach to the Earth.’
Q: Don’t Look Up follows a long lineage of movies about asteroids colliding with Earth, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. Did movies like that have any sort of impact on you as an astronomer?
A: It’s funny, I’m probably one of the only asteroid scientists who can say I’ve seen neither Deep Impact nor Armageddon; I haven’t watched either one. But it is true that science fiction has a really powerful role to play in helping us to envision the future and think about possible future outcomes. And we can use that to say, ‘We don’t want that future; we want a different future.’ The movie has a very important message, which is that we don’t have to choose this particular future; we can choose a different outcome for ourselves. And it’s not just about the comet impact that’s shown in the movie. This is pertinent to a whole host of issues that we face as a society, whether it’s climate change or the pandemic or extreme weather events.
Q: How did you first get involved as the science adviser for Don’t Look Up? Did the filmmakers approach you?
A: So [director] Adam [McKay] actually got in touch with me about more than two years ago. It’s been quite a while. He reached out and told me he’d been looking for someone to talk to about this movie so he looked me up. He reached out to me through a contact at NASA that I had, who put us in touch. I’m a huge fan of his other work, because he’s such a careful thinker and he’s of course really funny. But we just had a great conversation about making a movie that tackled all of these subjects — about science denialism and the importance of understanding and agreeing what is true and what is fact. As soon as we had that conversation, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m sold. I want to do whatever I can to help out here.’
Q: What was it like working with the cast and crew? Were you on set during filming at all or was it virtual because of the pandemic?
A: Things were so different because of the pandemic. Netflix was super careful about the whole process. And I wasn’t able to travel, because this all took place when vaccination was really rare and hadn’t been widely deployed in the U.S. So I was there on set on an iPad. They just sort of wheeled me around, which was really funny. [Laughs] But it worked really well. Meryl Streep stood for a very long time in front of my iPad. I think they had to ask her to move at one point.
But it was a great experience. These are really legendary actors for a reason; they’re really smart and capable at portraying the humanity in the characters they play. I had a lot of really great conversations over the couple of years with all of them. In particular, I spent a lot of time talking with Leo [DiCaprio] and Rob Morgan about their characters. As the scientists, they had a really important role to represent science, and to represent how scientists think. I thought they did a great job.
Q: Yeah, I've read that you spent a lot of time talking with DiCaprio in particular. What was the focus of those conversations?
A: One of the things we talked about a lot is that scientists will knock themselves silly trying to get the word out. Because that’s what we do. A really big part of science is replicability and peer-review; you’ll hear that mentioned over and over again in the movie. Scientists really want people to look at their work and confirm it; that’s a big part of science. We talked about ways that you can see the characters struggling to be clear and get the word out and talk to other scientists.
And it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes things can happen that can subvert that process. We talked a lot about how scientists can get marginalized by special interests; by conspiracy theories; and how frustrating that is — when you have news that’s important that you have to share because you know you can solve problems if you can just get the word out about it and get other people to take action. We had dozens and dozens of conversations about this; about how scientists feel when they are ignored.
Q: Can you see the remnants of any of those conversations in the actors’ dialogue or performances?
A: All of those pieces of dialogue that you see, we went over and over and over. You see Leo or Jennifer [Lawrence] or Rob trying to … there’s a couple of really big moments in the movie for them as scientists where they have their big speech where they really get to say what’s on their minds. There’s a lot of me in there.
Q: From a scientific or technical perspective, was there anything you wanted to make sure the cast or crew understood correctly? Say, when it came to the proper way of searching for comets, or the terminology, or anything you wanted to make sure was represented accurately on screen?
A: Leo, in particular, did a fabulous job with some very complex technical material. They had to learn quite a bit about how asteroid discovery works and how to characterize orbits and all of that.
But, fundamentally, I think the thing that they did very well, and that I was really interested in making sure that they knew, is that science tries to tell the truth. We really try. We try to tell the truth about the way that we see the world working around us, based on empirical evidence. In any given situation, scientists are going to try to get the truth out there. They’re going to try to tell what we know. They’re going to try to make sure that other scientists can replicate the work. That’s a strength of science. And that’s a unique way that science operates — it self-corrects.
And it may be messy. We may not always get the right answer the first time, but we’re going to get more data and that’s going to allow us to refine our answers. To me, it was really important that they all understood that. And they all got that immediately and really infused it into their characters.
Q: Is there anything that director Adam McKay or the actors asked you about? What questions did they have for you as science adviser?
A: One of the things we talked about a lot is science denialism — what do you do? If you’re a scientist, and you have information that needs to be shared, and people ignore you, what’s the right thing to do? So you’ll see that debate played out in the movie, and there are a few key scenes where this happens. You’ll see the scientists debating [things like], ‘Do we go out and protest in the streets? Or do we try to engage with people who are in power?’ Because very often, scientists are not empowered to make change based on the knowledge that we gain. We can learn about what’s happening, and we can make recommendations, based on the science, that we know are likely to work. But we, personally, are not the people who are empowered to be able to do this.
Q: Are you pleased with what ended up on screen in terms of the movie’s adherence to scientific accuracy and the overall messaging? Where does it diverge from real-life?
A: We very quickly veer into the realm of science fiction. We don’t know of any giant comet hurtling toward Earth, and that’s a really good thing. Right off the bat, we’re in sci-fi territory.
That said, there are a few places where you’ll see that the movie is obviously science fiction, and it postulates technology that we don’t have yet and that isn’t quite there. But it’s also not the main point; the main point is that I hope people see scientists portrayed as human beings, in all of our flaws and all of our glories. And I hope they come away from it knowing science a little bit better. That knowledge, hopefully, will help in building trust in science as a process. Yes, it’s obvious science fiction, but I think it has some important points to make about the value of science in our lives.
Q: The filmmakers and actors haven’t been shy about the fact that the movie was conceived as a parable for climate change. There are also some striking similarities to the past few years during the pandemic. With that in mind, what else do you hope audiences take away with them after the credits roll?
A: I hope people take away from this movie that the situation is not hopeless. And what happens next, with regard to climate change, or the pandemic, or a host of issues, is up to us. If we make good, science-based decisions, both in our lives and as a society, we can have better outcomes. We can directly impact the future in a positive way; we don’t have to choose the negative path. We can choose a better way. That’s up to us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.