Don’t Look Up: A Scientific Review

Don’t Look Up, a film released on Netflix in December 2021, provided a metaphorized take on the relationship between the scientific community, the political sphere, and the public in regard to climate change. In a fictionalized United States, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), an astronomer at Michigan State University, and his PhD student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), try to warn the public about a comet, first discovered by Dibiasky, scheduled to collide with the Earth in six months. Encountering the ineffectual POTUS Orlean (Meryl Streep) anda CEO tech billionaire, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), only concerned with making a profit, Mindy and Dibiasky fail to prevent the comet from striking the Earth, ending in an apocalyptic collision that kills nearly all life on the planet. Lacking a hopeful statement on the future of the fight against climate change, the film primarily attempts to show the frustrations and fight of the scientific community against political and economic inaction. 

The film features an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the comet into smaller, retrievable pieces by un-peer-reviewed drone technology. How realistic is the drone technology? And what is so important about peer review?

Upon discovering that the comet has rare-earth elements worth trillions of dollars, Peter Isherwell, a CEO of a technology company, proposes a plan to President Orlean that involves the use of many small drones to attach to the comet and blow it up into smaller, retrievable pieces that will land in the ocean. The plan seems ambitious and futuristic, but NASA has recently undergone a test project to determine the plausibility of using similar drone technology to crash into an asteroid to divert its course. Similar to Don’t Look Up, the goal of the project is to determine if it would be successful for a “hazardous asteroid” headed towards Earth. The mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, was launched in November 2021. The DART spacecraft isn’t expected to collide with the asteroid, which is non-threatening to Earth, until late September or early October 2022. The spacecraft will collide with the asteroid with a speed of approximately 14,764 mph. The impact that the spacecraft will have on the orbit of the asteroid will be measured by telescopes on Earth, informing NASA scientists on the potential future success of the method against an Earth-bound asteroid. 

Blinded by the profits associated with the drone tests in Don’t Look Up, the president relies on an un-peer-reviewed project for the survival of human-kind. The drones ultimately fail and human life on Earth essentially ends. In real life, the consequences of un-peer-reviewed studies and articles aren’t so drastic, but peer review is nonetheless an essential part of the scientific process. 

Peer review serves two functions, according to a 2014 paper published in the Journal of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Science. Peer review is the process in which an author’s scholarly work is reviewed by other experts in the field before publication. It firstly ensures that the research itself is high-quality, accurate, properly executed, and original, key aspects of a scholarly paper that help to validate its findings. Secondly, peer review improves the quality, in terms of readability and clarity, of the paper itself. In its second use, peer review allows for an additional editing of the paper prior to its publication.

The lack of peer review most likely wouldn’t cause the Earth to blow up like in Don’t Look Up, but it does help to prevent misinformation from poorly conducted and edited scholarly articles from permeating in the scientific community and among popular audiences. For audiences across the world, Don’t Look Up also provides a better understanding of the importance of relying on scientific merit while addressing issues with worldwide repercussions. 

This article was edited by Ashley Schefler and Anagha Aneesh.