Don’t Look Up and the Tragedy of Scientists Denial of Public Communication.


In the new movie Do not seek, available on Netflix on Friday, astronomers played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio attempt to tell the world that a 9-kilometer-wide comet will collide with Earth in six months, completely destroying most lives and ending the human civilization. It is definitely not Armageddon but a dark comedy. When astronomers appear on a talk show to get the point across, one host asks if the comet can land on his ex-wife’s house, and the other criticizes astronomers for not being light enough for their morning segment. . Media training is recommended.

It’s a cliché that every disaster movie begins with someone ignoring a scientist because our real disasters start the same way. Do not seek is a thinly veiled critique of society’s weak response to scientists’ warnings about the existential threat of climate change, and has particular relevance now due to the inability of many of us to understand and act on it. that scientists tell us about how viruses work. As an astrophysicist, I have felt sympathy for scientists who attempt to convey these dangers: climate change occurs at scales too large to be easily perceived; viruses are too small to be seen directly. I also smugly assumed that if a mountain-sized comet, clearly visible in the sky, was heading toward Earth at 25,000 mph, my colleagues and I could communicate the dangers.

Do not seek seriously made me question that. No one in the movie understands what to do, including the astronomers. Like everyone who watched this movie, I supported the astronomers who were trying to save the world and booed the talking heads and other idiots who couldn’t see the danger. But as a scientist, I also found myself shaking my head and asking: are we just as unfit to teach?

Scientists are expertly trained to imagine and quantify what might have happened in the past and how the future might unfold, and to plan accordingly. As the movie shows, there really is a planetary defense coordination office at NASA that plans and sponsors telescope studies in Hawaii, Arizona, and around the world. Its mandate in Congress is to find at least 90% of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 140 meters in size (each capable of destroying a city with the energy of an H-bomb). Based on the discovery rate, about half were probably found; none found so far are on a collision course for the next century. Our ability to deflect any dangerous asteroid we discover is limited, but NASA is preparing for the eventuality. In November, he launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission. In September 2022, as one spaceship watches, another will collide with a small asteroid to see how much momentum can be transferred to it (just the momentum of the spacecraft, or the extra momentum from the surface rock. ejected?). We are probably safe for centuries to come. But when astrophysicists extrapolate from familiar examples like the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor or Arizona’s Meteor Crater, calculations tell us that “planet-killer” impacts are inevitable over hundreds of millions of years.

Indeed, they did happen, and the impact of a 10 km wide asteroid near present-day Chicxulub, in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, precipitated one of the largest mass extinctions on Earth, including including the disappearance of all dinosaurs (non-avian). The death of the dinosaurs was an unexplained mystery until physicist Walter Alvarez and geologist Luis Alvarez in 1980 discovered traces of asteroid iridium in a layer of global clay deposited about 66 million years ago. They predicted an impact crater 100 miles wide and 20 miles deep. Incredibly, such a crater was later found buried under 2,000 feet of sediment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Planetologists who study craters on other planets and moons, along with paleontologists, have reconstructed and widely disseminated the events surrounding this impact, and how it led to massive loss of life on Earth. Today everyone “knows” that an asteroid killed dinosaurs. And yet it’s easy to believe Do not seekIt’s premise that the audience didn’t internalize how destructive that would be. As a person working in this field, I wondered, watching the movie, what I would say if I was in the shoes of the characters of Lawrence and DiCaprio.

I would like to remind people that there was no warning. Until the moment the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere, entering at a steep angle from the northeast at 25,000 mph, it was probably a perfectly normal night in the Cretaceous. Everything changed in the blink of an eye. No triceratops had time to contemplate a rock from space rushing through the air, dragged by smoke, and to contemplate its imminent disappearance; rather, literally a second later, the Mount Everest-sized asteroid had buried more than a mile below the seabed. The earth’s crust stopped the planetary bullet, but tremendous energy was released in an instant, with up to 100 million H-bombs exploding simultaneously. Over a million billion tonnes of rock have been launched into ballistic orbits. Seismic waves have passed through the earth’s crust in all directions. Much of the Earth is said to have experienced magnitude 9 earthquakes, stronger than those felt by any living person. Then came the fall of all the rocks ejected into the earth’s atmosphere. A shooting star that shines in the warmth of its return to school is pretty; the incessant glow of trillions of shooting stars has turned the sky into an oven and the fern forests of the whole world to ashes. Finally arrived the winds generated by the explosion, sweeping all the continents at hundreds of kilometers per hour, then tsunamis higher than skyscrapers which would have crashed on all the shores of the world. In the years it took for the ashes from the impact and the forest fires to dissipate, no sunlight reached the ground. Will this convince the public of the impossibility of surviving a comet impact? Or would media consultants explain to me that these numbers are just too unimaginable and meaningless?

Perhaps I could conjure a response by telling the story of what happened to the creatures at one place, like the Tanis site in North Dakota, the location of a remarkable find announced by paleontologists in 2019. Sixty-six million years ago a river flowed there in the shallow sea cutting North America, 2,000 miles from Chicxulub. Chicxulub’s seismic waves generated 30-foot-high waves of water called cuttlefish, which piled local freshwater fish and saltwater fish miles away in heaps on the shore. There are hints of a triceratops carcass in the jumble of tangled bones. As the fish lay there, out of breath, the rock entering Earth’s atmosphere fell in the form of white-hot molten glass marbles. As the Tanis fossils reveal, these glass beads got stuck in tree sap, filled ant nests, and accumulated in the gills of dying fish. At this one site alone, the painting of death was buried and preserved in the sediment soon after, before hurricanes and wildfires, but this destruction was repeated all over the world. Almost everything was killed, including almost all four-legged animals over 50 pounds. Only 25 percent of all plant and animal species have successfully left offspring. Would that get people to take action? Or would media consultants berate me for being too pessimistic?

If I’m honest with myself I doubt I would do better than the astronomers of Do not seek. The denial is just too strong. Mammals are just lucky creatures whose ancestors survived the impact of Chicxulub, but it is human nature to blame dinosaurs for their own demise and to believe that our own ascension was intended or deserved. If they really wanted to live, maybe the dinosaurs should have developed social media and a space program. (How would a Tyrannosaurus hold their smartphone anyway, with those tiny arms?) We forget which evolutionarily perfect killing machine T. rex has been. It was the largest predator in the Americas, and when it evolved, all medium-sized predators were extinct. He was master of his environment, and mammals were not, until that environment disappeared.

Astronomers, planetologists and paleontologists have studied the impact of Chicxulub and know what a comet impact would involve today. It is not the bailiwick of non-scientists. In Do not seek, politicians calculate exactly how the comet will affect their medium-term chances, billionaires are making business plans to cash in on the comet, and media analysts are testing the effectiveness of comet polls. Their denial is the dark joke that rings darkly true. But the denial of scientists is just as tragic. Their own life depends on their ability to convince politicians and the public what to do, but they have no idea how to craft and test a message in the market. They are constantly urged to take basic media training, but they seem to ignore it, oblivious to its importance. They think the message is enough; he never seems to register with them that they need to learn How? ‘Or’ What to reach people. They do their best to engage the audience, but they’re not very smart about it.

Scientific training prepares us to have excellent clarity of thought about the physical world; we are masters in understanding the physical environment. But the power to change the physical world depends on collective effort, and therefore on changing hearts and minds in the human sphere. Politicians, industrialists, the media are masters of this human environment until this environment disappears.

I am not ready to say that the difficult alliance of these factions which we call human civilization will work in the direction of the dinosaurs. But as Do not seek reminds us that our inability to act effectively against threats from climate change to pandemics means that we are a civilization of dinosaurs, each of us has perfectly evolved to work with impressive efficiency in an environment that could disappear overnight.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.


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