Science

Don’t Look Up and the tragedy of scientists’ denial about public communication.

In the new movie do not search, available on Netflix on Friday, astronomers played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio are trying to tell the world that a comet 9 km wide will collide with Earth in six months, completely destroying most of life and ending human civilization. This is definitely not disaster But a black comedy. When astronomers appear on a talk show to get the message out, one host asks if a comet could land on his ex-wife’s house, and the other berates the astronomers for not being light enough for the morning part. Media training is recommended.

It’s a cliché that every disaster movie begins with someone ignoring a scholar, because real-life disasters begin the same way. do not search A veiled critique of society’s poor response to scientists’ warnings about the existential threat of climate change, it is especially relevant now because of the inability of many of us to understand what scientists tell us about how viruses work and act. As an astrophysicist, I have sympathized with the scientists trying to convey these risks: Climate change is happening on scales that are too large to be readily realized; Viruses are too small to be seen directly. I’ve also reasonably assumed that if a mountain-size comet, clearly visible in the sky, slammed into Earth at 25,000 miles per hour, my colleagues and I could report the hazards.

do not search It made me seriously wonder about it. Nobody in the movie knows what to do, including the astronomers. Like everyone watching this movie, I’ve researched astronomers trying to save the world and booed talking heads and other goons who couldn’t see the danger. But as a scientist as well, I found myself shaking my head and wondering: Are we unable to learn?

Scientists are expertly trained to imagine and determine what might happen in the past and how the future might unfold, and plan accordingly. As depicted in the movie, there is actually a Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA that plans and sponsors telescope surveys in Hawaii, Arizona, and around the world. Congress’ mandate is to find at least 90 percent of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 140 meters in size (each capable of destroying a city with the force of a hydrogen bomb). Based on the rate of discovery, about half may have been found; None have yet been found on a collision course in the next century. Our ability to deflect any dangerous asteroid we discover is limited, but NASA is preparing for the possibility. In November, it launched a double asteroid redirection test mission. In September 2022, while one spacecraft is observing, another will collide with a small asteroid to see how much momentum can be transferred to it (just the spacecraft’s momentum, or the extra momentum from ejected surface rocks?). We may be safe for centuries to come. But when astrophysicists extrapolate from familiar examples like the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteorite or the Arizona meteor crater, the math tells us that “planetary-killer” impacts are inevitable over hundreds of millions of years.

They have already occurred, and the impact of a 10-kilometre-wide asteroid near present-day Chicxulub, in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, led to one of the largest mass extinctions on Earth, including the demise of all dinosaurs (other than birds). The death of the dinosaurs was an unknown mystery until in 1980 physicist Walter Alvarez and geologist Luis Alvarez discovered traces of asteroid iridium in a global layer of mud deposited about 66 million years ago. They predicted a crater 100 miles wide and 20 miles deep. Incredibly, a crater like this was later found buried under 2,000 feet of sediment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Planetary scientists who study craters on other planets and moons, together with paleontologists, have compiled and published widely the events surrounding this impact, and how it led to the massive loss of life on Earth. Today, everyone “knows” that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. However, it is easy to believe do not searchThe premise that the public did not understand how devastating it was. As someone who works in the field, I found myself wondering, as I watched the movie, what I would say if I were in the shoes of Lawrence and DiCaprio’s characters.

I would remind people that there was no warning. Until the moment the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere, coming at a steep angle from the northeast at 25,000 miles per hour, it was probably a perfectly normal Cretaceous night. Everything changed in the blink of an eye. number Triceratops He had time to look at a space rock rushing through the air, trailing smoke, and to think of its imminent demise; Instead, literally one second later, an asteroid the size of Mount Everest had buried itself a mile under the sea floor. The Earth’s crust stopped the planetary bullet, but in an instant, massive energy was released, as 100 million hydrogen bombs exploded simultaneously. More than a million tons of rock were launched into ballistic orbits. Seismic waves thrust through the Earth’s crust outward in all directions. Much of the Earth had experienced continuous earthquakes of magnitude 9, stronger than any quakes felt by any living person. Then came all the ejected rocks falling back through the Earth’s atmosphere. A star meteor glows from the heat of its beautiful return; The unrelenting glow of trillions of stars falling around the sky into a furnace, and fern forests around the world into ashes. Finally came the winds from the explosion, scouring every continent at hundreds of miles an hour, then a tsunami longer than the skyscrapers that would have hit every coastline around the world. In the years it took for the ash from the collision and the wildfires to subside, not a single light from the sun had reached the ground. Will that convince the public of how impossible it is to survive the comet’s impact? Or will the media consultants explain to me that these numbers are unimaginable and meaningless?

Perhaps I can evoke a reaction by telling the story of what happened to the creatures in one place, like Tanis in North Dakota, a wonderful discovery site that paleontologists announced in 2019. Sixty-six million years ago, a river flowed there in the shallow sea that intersected with America North, 2,000 miles from Chicxulub. The seismic waves from Chicxulub produced up to 30 feet of water called Seiches, which accumulated local freshwater fish and saltwater fish from miles away into piles on the beach. There are hints of Triceratops The carcass in a mess of tangled bones. As the fish lay there gasping for breath, the boulders returning to Earth’s atmosphere fell in the form of white molten glass beads. As excavations at Tanis revealed, these glass beads got stuck in tree sap, filled ant nests, and collected in the gills of dying fish. At this site, the death plate was buried and preserved in the sediments soon after, before hurricanes and wildfires, but this devastation has been repeated all over the world. Almost everything was killed, including all four-legged animals over 50 pounds. Only 25 percent of all plant and animal species were able to leave any descendants at all. Does hearing that motivate people to act? Or will media consultants criticize me for being too gloomy?

If I’m honest with myself, I doubt I’d be any better off than the astronomers in do not search. The doctrine of denial is very powerful. Mammals are just lucky creatures whose ancestors survived the influence of the Chicxulub, but it is human nature to blame the dinosaurs for their demise and we believe our rise was predestined or deserved. If they really wanted to live, perhaps dinosaurs should have developed a social media and space program. (How could a tyrannosaurus carry its smartphone anyway, with such tiny arms?) We forget what an evolutionarily perfect killing machine is. T-Rex I was. It was the largest predator in the Americas, and when it evolved, all medium-sized predators became extinct. He was the master of his environment, and mammals weren’t—until that environment vanished.

Astronomers, planetary scientists, and paleontologists have studied Chicxulub’s impact and know what a comet’s impact might have today. This is not the authority of non-scholars. in a do not searchPoliticians calculate exactly how a comet will affect their chances in the medium term, billionaires make business plans to profit from the comet, and media analysts test how well comet polls are. Their denial is the grim joke that sounds real. But the scientists’ denial is equally tragic. Their private lives depend on making politicians and the public know what they have to do, yet they have no clue how to craft a message and test it in the market. They are constantly blamed for getting some basic media training, but they seem to blow it up, ignoring its importance, seeing the message as sufficient; It never seems that recording with them needs to be learned how 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 of understanding the physical environment. But the ability to change the physical world depends on collective effort, and thus on changing hearts and minds in the human sphere. Politicians, industrialists and the media are the masters of that human environment – until that environment disappears.

I am not prepared to say that the uneasy alliance of these species that we call human civilization will go in the path of the dinosaurs. But as do not search It reminds us that our inability to act effectively on threats from climate change to pandemics means that we are a civilization From Dinosaurs, each of us perfectly evolved to function with amazing efficiency in an environment that could disappear overnight.

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

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