Netflix’s star-studded satire Don’t Look Up is now available to stream, sharing Adam McKay’s vision of an astronomy-based disaster movie for 2021 with the world.
Despite mixed reviews, the film’s dark humour and presentation of a world resistant to the facts of a ‘planet-killer’ comet hurtling towards them has struck a chord with viewers, alongside its stellar cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet and others.
The film throws a lot of science and technology at its audience, from maths equations to near-Earth object tracking and cryogenics – but just how much of this is accurate, or even realistic? And how does Don’t Look Up compare to some of Hollywood’s previous space-related endeavours?
Metro.co.uk spoke with Zac Ross, a postgraduate researcher at the Open University studying exoplanet astronomy and astrophysics, to get an expert’s view on some of the film’s scenes.
He notes in his overall opinion of the film how – away from the science – McKay doesn’t shy away from making a point with the difficulty DiCaprio and Lawrence’s astronomer characters face in being taken seriously by the government, the media and society at large.
‘Parts of Don’t Look Up are quite realistic. I mean, if you asked me a few years ago, I probably would have said the public response was very unrealistic, but now…’ he laughs.
How likely is it a comet would hit Earth?
Let’s dive straight into the movie’s key scenario, whereby a comet is spotted approximately six months out from hitting Earth. Just how likely is that to happen?
‘Probably not very. Comets don’t come into the inner solar system all that often,’ Ross explains. ‘And you tend to know about it when they do because as they get closer, you get the massive, long tails, which makes them really visible, so you tend to have a bit more warning about them. And they tend to be much, much further out in the solar system than say, asteroids.’
Ross also flags that near-Earth objects (which include both comets and asteroids, and anything that’s not a form of planet or natural satellite) are being tracked by agencies including NASA and ESA.
‘There’s thousands that that they’re tracking – and those are just the ones that they can see. They’re normally not especially close to Earth. Most of them are in between Jupiter and Mars [where the asteroid belt is], so they’re a bit quite a bit further out.’
The movie’s maths
Let’s talk the movie’s dramatically frantic maths, scrawled on a whiteboard – it turns out the complexity has been rather overlooked, and certainly the issues with the room for error Mindy (DiCaprio) and Dibiasky (Lawrence) give on the comet’s size.
‘The maths that they do on the board is… I mean, you could do it, it would be really hard and you wouldn’t get anywhere near the accuracy to actually say that it’s going to hit Earth. You might be able to say it’s going to cross Earth’s orbit when Earth is nearby, but they had an error on the size of it between five and 10 kilometres. So that’s a two-and-a-half-kilometre error when it’s six months away, so probably out past Jupiter.
‘Them calculating, extrapolating that to say that it’s definitely going to hit Earth is pretty unlikely, based on if they’ve got that large of an error on the size of it, then they’re not going to be able to calculate the path that accurately to say that it’s going to impact Earth.
‘You’d need quite a lot of observations, and probably from multiple observatories, to really pinpoint the location of it and track its orbit well enough to say where it’s going, which they do do – but I don’t think you could do that on a whiteboard, 10 minutes after you’ve taken the observations!’
Our expert also has an issue with Professor Mindy’s area of study, because it turns out that sort of maths is pretty darn tough and almost certainly outside his area of expertise.
‘He said that he’s an extra galactic astronomer. I don’t know why he’d know orbital mechanics. I mean, I don’t know that and I deal with exoplanets! I can work it out, but you’d be more likely to pass the results on to someone who’s an expert in that sort of thing as opposed to someone who’s an expert in some complete other part of astronomy.’
‘Solar system astronomy is very different to extragalactic astronomy,’ he adds.
One of Ross’s bugbears with Don’t Look Up is how the telescope is used.
‘One of the first things I noticed about it was the telescope moves really, really quickly. Telescopes don’t move quickly, they move really, really slowly! The telescope they’re using is probably about six metres in diameter, and you’ve got all this really highly sensitive equipment, and they seem to just swing it completely across the sky and point it at something, and that would probably take about 10 minutes in real life.’
‘Obviously that’s not as fun for a film,’ he concedes.
How discoveries are actually made
It’s unlikely nowadays that discoveries would be made by human observation – too much manpower is required, so software and potentially even citizen science are more likely to flag anything unusual.
To spot what’s potentially moving and on a collision course with the planet, Ross says ‘you have to take thousands of pictures to try and spot the tiny dots of light moving around’.
‘Essentially, what you do is you take a picture of the sky, in one spot, and then you take another picture of the sky, sometime later, and then you subtract the two pictures from each other. So that you get rid of all the background, and then anything that remains is something that’s moving relative to the background.
‘Obviously, if you’re doing that, if you take 100 pictures a night, every night, you don’t have the manpower to look through those all of those. You’ll have some software that someone’s written that will sort through all these and pick up anything obvious, or it will be citizen science [via a sitel like Zooniverse], where you have all these images and you’ll get the public to trawl through them and spot anything that they think is of interest.’
Ross isn’t particularly convinced by the logistics of the depiction of Earth’s (eventual) reaction to the planet-killer comet, spearheaded by US President Orlean (Streep) with the heavy influence of tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Sir Mark Rylance).
‘All the [shuttle] launches at the same time, felt a bit like that wouldn’t happen. I don’t think there’s that many launch pads in Florida. I also expect that you would have a collaboration between all the space agencies – and I don’t think that you could really refurbish a space shuttle in six months that hasn’t flown in 10, 15 years to actually use!
‘They seem to leave out quite a lot too – there’s very little from Roscosmos, who were the only people launching people into space for the past 10 years until SpaceX had their launch a couple of years ago.’
He namechecks China and a few other private companies and countries as having the ability to launch people too, outside the more well-known efforts of Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin.
Tech billionaires’ impact on space
So what is the impact of real-life Isherwell’s Musk, Bezos and others having on space?
‘I’d say, definitely a mix. I mean, making spaceflight cheaper and more accessible is definitely going to provide a lot of benefits, especially with launching satellites, which can be used for lots of good purposes as well as not-so-good ones. But a lot of it seems to be somewhat unnecessary.’
One definite downside is the interference of satellites with telescope images.
‘All these massive satellite constellations that they’re trying to launch, especially Musk with his Starlink satellites, they essentially ruin loads of telescope images because you’ve got all these satellite streaks going across images and making them in many cases unusable. So one of the one of the largest issues at the moment is trying to correct all these satellite streaks, so you can remove them and it doesn’t impact your data.’
*spoilers below for Don’t Look Up’s mid-credit scene*
Credit scene cryogenics and spaceships
‘The idea that they could build this giant spaceship without anyone really knowing is very, very far-fetched, especially given current technology. We’re probably at least 50 years – at an absolute minimum – away from anything on that sort of scale.’
Adding a practical fuelling point, he continues: ‘I also don’t think it would be possible to launch something of that size. Because the bigger you make it, the more fuel it takes to get it into orbit. So something of that size, 99% of the fuel it uses is going to be spent trying to lift the thing off the ground in the first place, so something like that would almost definitely have to be built in orbit.
‘And you’re definitely not going to be able to do that without anyone noticing!’
The scene also shows Orlean, Isherwell and others who have escaped Earth’s destruction awoken from a deep sleep in cryogenic chambers thousands of years in the future, in order to re-start civilisation on a new planet.
Ross has ‘seen some stuff on that’ as medical science trials look to attempt to slow down damage to a body by replacing blood with a really cold saline colution, which slows down the metabolism.
‘But even then, that’s to get someone from say, a car crash to the hospital and have them make that journey, as opposed to travelling thousands of years on a spaceship!’
Some frogs have the ability to ‘freeze’ themselves in winter too, Ross explains, adding: ‘So it is theoretically possible, at least for frogs. But for humans, I doubt it! At least not for probably hundreds of years.’
Don’t Look Up vs Interstellar vs Armageddon
Now we come to crunch time – when has Hollywood really got it right with a space-based film?
‘I can’t think of one, off the top of my head, which is hugely accurate. I know that Interstellar did a pretty good job – the black hole that they had in that, they published a paper on it because they wrote some actual code that produced one of the most accurate models of a black hole to date.’
This is entirely true and resulted in the paper ‘Gravitational lensing by spinning black holes in astrophysics, and in the movie Interstellar’ by Oliver James, Eugénie von Tunzelmann, Paul Franklin and Kip S Thorne, published in 2015.
He concludes: ‘They looked into quite a lot of the science quite well – obviously there was a lot in it [too] which is very far-fetched!’
How about the ol’ nutshell of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, in which a team led by Bruce Willis drill a hole into an asteroid approaching Earth and insert a nuclear bomb into it to detonate and split the asteroid in half?
‘The idea of trying to blow up an asteroid or something that’s heading towards Earth – the consensus is generally that that’s not a great idea. Instead of having one big rock heading towards the planet, you’ve just got lots of slightly smaller rocks still hurtling towards the planet. You’re going to spread the impact area out, [and] you’re not going to do much else apart from that.
‘Most current efforts for how to deal with these sorts of things are redirection. I have seen some interesting ones – there’s one where you try to paint one side of the asteroid white so that it reflects more light, which means that if the sun’s radiation causes something to happen, it changes its course slightly. Or you can fly another spaceship near to it and the very small gravitational pull of the spaceship changes the trajectory of the asteroid to alter slightly, which means it would miss the planet.’
Just FYI, for any movie producers reading.
One thing Ross is clear on: ‘I don’t think firing nukes into it is a good idea – you then just end up with a radioactive asteroid hurtling towards the planet!’
Don’t Look Up is streaming now on Netflix.
Credit: Original article published here.