Don’t Look Surprised

January 4, 2022

I just watched Don’t Look Up! on Netflix. While the movie has a number of flaws, on the whole I recommend it for the insights it contains in its parody of human attention deficit disorder.

The premise is that astronomers discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth, due to hit in six months’ time. The world has difficulty assimilating this information, quickly polarizing into the all-too-familiar pattern of believers and deniers. Moneyed interests, techno-optimism, and old-fashioned failures (by non-Americans, of course) thwart mitigation efforts, leaving the entire globe in mortal peril.  Even at a public event dedicated to the planet-killing crisis, the highlight was a pop star’s performance featuring dazzling lights and costumes. How ’bout them priorities!

Yes, it’s complete fiction, so we need to be careful about drawing lessons from the storyline—just as I would caution against forming opinions of space travel from the big screen. Aside from a list of technical nitpicks, I suspect that something as predictable/certain as a comet slamming into Earth would be taken far more seriously and be more universally accepted than are the more nebulous threats we currently face like limits to growth, climate change, and even COVID-19.

This post lacks a single overarching message, but explores a few worthy themes that the movie brings up for me.

Firstly, a 10 km direct-impact comet is about the most extreme version of an existential threat that could be credibly conjured for the story. Such events have happened in the history of the planet, although having it fall during humans’ technology window may be one-in-a-million odds. Falling in from the Oort cloud, as posited in the movie, the comet would be traveling about 45 km/s by the time it hit the earth. Depending on direction of impact, Earth’s 30 km/s velocity could add to or subtract from this number. Taking 45 km/s as a representative closing velocity, the 10 km comet’s kinetic energy would be about 5×1023 J, or about 100 million megatons of TNT-equivalent (about one modern nuclear bomb for every 80 people on the planet—plenty of annihilation to go around!). Yes, that’s seriously deadly.

But What’s Our Comet?

The purpose of the movie was obviously not to warn us of the literal threat of an inbound comet. It was about more realistic threats that get shoved aside in favor of more fun pursuits. In fact, the Presidential staff in the movie rattled off all the existential threats that they’ve felt justified in waving aside: economic collapse; loose nukes; rogue AI; car exhaust killing the atmosphere; drought; famine; alien invasion; population growth; the hole in the ozone. But which threat does the movie really represent? Is it climate change (probably, in the minds of those who produced the movie)? Is it COVID? Is it nuclear war? Is it something else, or does it even have to be identified? Maybe it’s an apt stand-in for any or all of the challenges we face, and focusing on what the threat is “supposed” to be is a pointless distraction.

But this intended substitution exercise is one place where the movie risks losing impact. Consider that the cometary threat:

  1. had a well-defined date that was only six months out;
  2. was of a pretty unambiguous nature (look up!);
  3. promised total devastation—not a matter of degree;
  4. was consistent with prehistoric events that have unambiguously caused mass extinctions on Earth.

Present-day threats are a bit murkier, lacking all four of these qualities.  Stood up side-by-side, our real perils may elicit mere shrugs.

But in another sense, the movie’s message is grim indeed. If we can’t acknowledge and confront a threat as clear as a cometary impact, then what hope do we have of mounting a meaningful response to the slow-burn, debatable, milder, and unprecedented (unproven) existential threats we currently face?

Of course, the movie itself does not prove anything about how we would actually respond to a comet, but it does highlight some real tendencies that are apparent in today’s world. Reaction to COVID may be the most glaring case, which has shown that we are not collectively intelligent enough to defeat a virus whose transmission mechanism is well understood. Economic and political concerns overpowered smarter plays that science would recommend. So the death toll (and economic toll, ironically) slowly mounts and has become a new normal.

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Part of the root problem is that too few people have the ability to independently assess looming threats, and so must rely on what others tell them. For many, knowledge is static: handed to them and filed away. As an astronomer, I have heard many folks complain to me that they learned in school that Pluto is supposed to be a planet—often complete with drilled-in mnemonics to prove it. It is very discombobulating to have to “unlearn” something, or deal with a retraction. To me, this reveals a fundamental difference in how different people process information. When exposed to debate about whether COVID, climate change, limits to growth, or any other threat is serious or real, I suspect that many people tune it out as unsettled noise: when it’s not clear where to file information, it sits in a disregarded, decaying pile—especially when the message is unpleasant. People like certainty, and—unlike scientists—do not have much training in holding/using uncertain information.

The inability to internalize unfamiliar, uncertain, or unsettling news was on frequent display in the movie. I have often encountered a similar phenomenon in what might be called “hope insistence.” One could imagine the talk show hosts in the movie insisting on the “upside” to any scenario as a way to close out the segment and soften the blow: otherwise the viewer may be left in a state of concern, heaven forbid. Even mostly-grim documentaries almost universally end in a feel-good hopeful way. It is as if humans are incapable of receiving inconvenient views without an antidote at the ready to counteract lasting concern. How can that be a good sign that we will accept and confront upcoming global hardships?

Exaggerated Competence

This movie bugged me in a way that is all-too-common in the entertainment world: it grossly misrepresented how competent humans are. Pulling the Space Shuttle out of mothballs/museums, ready to take flight alongside an armada of rockets on new launch pads in a matter of months is beyond the pale. The world does not work like that. Likewise, the idea that industry could design and manufacture never-before-attempted comet drones to rip apart and manipulate cometary fragments on a similarly short timescale is just bonkers.

By the way, separating the comet into multiple pieces does not diminish the catastrophic energy delivered upon impact. Only by substantially slowing the fragments could the energy be dialed down, and a few dozen house-sized probes cannot possibly contain enough “reaction mass” to alter the momentum (speed) of the fragments in any meaningful way. So that whole scheme is horrendously bogus.  The only real hope is early/prompt orbital deflection or blasting the mass to dust-sized debris that the atmosphere can slow down.

What I mainly dislike is that the vast majority of folks who don’t know any better (having never built new technology themselves) might come away with a false impression of our technical prowess. This could be important when big challenges appear. “Can’t our scientists and engineers just…?” When the only exposure most people have to technology development is from the entertainment industry, we can expect highly distorted impressions of what is possible, and that can be dangerous as a source of unfounded optimism and complacency.

In fact, I was hugely disappointed by the movie’s ending, as comical as it was. First, if it’s hard to revive the Space Shuttle in six months, and harder still to design and build a comet dissector from scratch, imagine the stupendously impossible task of designing (and building!) a cryogenic stasis ark ship for 2,000 people capable of surviving tens of thousands of years, finding a habitable planet, and successfully landing pods on said planet (which we haven’t even do on Earth). No! Yet there it was on the screen, leaving the chaotic debris-strewn Earth environment. I expected a random remnant of civilization (like the Wall Street Bull that drifted through at one point) to rip through the spacecraft and smite its hubris dead on the spot. But no, it powered on, somehow visiting whole other galaxies on its journey before arriving at a suitable destination after 22,000 years. I was hoping, hoping, hoping that the thing would just be an inert, unresponsive lump of scrap metal at that point: a total fail. A panicked, rushed job of that magnitude would be expected to have cascading failures that rendered it kaput six ways to Sunday. Having never tested the survival of semiconductor electronics for even 0.5% of the purported timescale, I would not expect a single circuit board to still function after such long exposure to galactic cosmic rays, among other forms of decay.

Oh well, it’s a typical movie in that regard: yet another misfire on technological competence. It’s just disappointing that even so cynical a movie can’t bring itself to assault our tech hubris. That ground must be sacred indeed. On the other hand, I suppose that portraying our technical skills in a negative light could backfire, giving viewers the wrong impression that in the “real” world, we’d manage such feats with much more grace and therefore dismiss the threat as overblown.  Maybe you have to speak the audience’s language and cater to their already-warped perspectives.

Miscellaneous Nitpicks

I don’t typically write movie reviews, and if I haven’t already convinced you that I shouldn’t, the next part should do the trick. I’m difficult to satisfy when it comes to scientific accuracy. Generally, I set aside such qualms and just enjoy entertaining, effective storytelling. My friends have learned not to ask if some bit of a movie was accurate. A “yes” answer is not unknown, but frustratingly rare. If I were being thorough in reporting obvious inaccuracies, we’d be here all day. I’ll spare us all such a waste of time and just highlight a few things here.

What could the Space Shuttle possibly do? Its highest orbit is 600 km, which the comet reaches 15 seconds before impact. The aborted mission was months ahead of impact, at which time the comet would have been inaccessibly far away.

The first naked-eye sighting of the comet promising our doom would not have been from the original discoverers in an urban setting. Even harmless puffballs on the edge of visibility are keenly sought from remote locations enjoying dark skies.

In the final minutes, the comet was shown burning and leaving a smoking trail as if barreling through the atmosphere on its journey to the surface. Yet, almost all the mass in the atmosphere is within 10 km of the surface, which is the diameter of the comet. Also, at a velocity of tens of kilometers per second, it only interacts with the atmosphere for a fraction of a second. It’s more of a BAM than a burning, trailing wreck in the sky: no time to savor the spectacle.

On a related matter, I can imagine that some would object to seeing the comet’s tail (when still far away) streaming off to the side if it’s coming straight for us. But that can happen. The comet is not losing its tail by rushing through air, leaving a wake along its path. The tail is in relation to the solar wind direction and to the direction toward the sun (those two are not aligned), which can be at a significant angle (tens of degrees) relative to its direction of travel.

I feel a bit stupid getting in a huff about this next one, but it’s for a good cause. One of the most comedic elements in the movie surrounded the algorithmic prediction of the manner of one’s death—playing off the scary amount of data “big tech” collects about many aspects of our personal lives. In one case (Mindy), the algorithm was perfectly wrong, and in the other case (the President), it was impossibly (and hilariously) correct. The reason to bring it up is that I think many folks place too much faith in algorithms, without fully understanding the “garbage in, garbage out” caution. In this context, think of algorithms as providing the rules to navigate a flow chart. If it’s not on the flow chart, the algorithm won’t send you there. The algorithm in the movie actually got it wrong for 8 billion people, because a planet-killing comet was not present on the flow chart. It also can’t lead to a result that defies understanding (what the hell is a “bronteroc?”), because only understandable outcomes are built into the flow chart in the first place.

So the point in bringing this up is that we can easily fall victim to predictions of future paths that fail to build in all possible outcomes, and tend to be based on “more of the same” assumptions. Don’t put too much reliance in projections (for economic growth, world population, CO2 emissions, etc.) when major disruptions that are not represented in the model might throw everything off. How did near-term projections from late 2019 turn out, for instance?

Finally, I’ll end on one they got right. The opening scene was at a telescope, whose sleek, shiny blue finish instantly told me it was the Subaru Telescope, on Mauna Kea (having visited/touched it myself). Then the external shot showing the laser coming out of a boxy dome was again the actual Subaru facility (showing the twin Keck domes in the background)—an unusual bit of self-consistency! But I was truly impressed when a later scene said that the astronomers discovered the comet using the Subaru Telescope. This seldom happens in movies. I also appreciated the side comment by one of the talk show hosts: “I had no idea that Subaru made telescopes,” as if Subaru was the brand of the telescope. This is a common reaction I’ve encountered before, and loved the fact that the movie captured this amusing misunderstanding. Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters: a conspicuous star cluster in Taurus (notice that the car also uses this asterism in its logo). The Subaru Telescope is a national facility of Japan, and not associated with the car company. We also “ford” rivers and streams and admire Saturn in the sky, without reference to automotive manufacturers. As far as I know, we never Chevrolet anything, unless it’s a cooking technique of which I am wholly ignorant.

Final Thoughts

I very much liked that the movie occasionally interposed scenes from nature, reminding us that it’s not all about us. I also liked the line: “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for,” describing the holders of power.

Like most movies, this one has serious problems. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. On balance, I think it calls attention to important failure modes in our societal preferences and norms. It beautifully plays on themes of greed, materialism, disinformation, denialism, hero worship, celebrity obsession, and tribalism. They’re not making that stuff up out of whole cloth, and we would do well to tame those tendencies for the tough times ahead.


Teaser photo credit: From Pixabay/Comfreak

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.

Tags: art as social change, climate denialism, cultural stories