Highlights From The Comments On "Don't Look Up"
Lots of people thought I was being unfair to the movie. G. Retriever writes:
I TOTALLY disagree with your reading of the movie. To me it was a description of a social dynamic that makes even very straightforward problems impossible to focus on collectively, a tragedy of the commons where "the commons" is basically "attention". Even the experts get sucked into the vortex, nobody comes out clean, and in the end everyone gets killed.
Hmm .. I didn't come away from Don't Look Up with the message of "Trust The Experts". Rather I came away with a sense of futility that we're doomed as a species due to our inability to discover and form consensus around the truth. I thought the movie did a great job of relaying that, given that humanity is completely wiped out by the end.
If we broaden our scope from the obvious mappings (Female President onto Trump) and admit that pure satires don't make the best cinema, at its broadest, it's a movie about institutional failure. Across party lines (though it skewers one more than the other, sure). It's for this reason it felt fresh to me and that I liked it. Institutional failure, even human failure, is becoming more and more obvious, as it's undeniable that our institutions, from academia to the White House, are more sclerotic and incapable and, well, foolish, than they either were in the past or appeared to be. And to me this movie was like an expression of America's Id realizing that over the past several years.
I’m not so sure the “moral” you’ve imposed on the story is accurate, as evidenced by the contradictions you’ve pointed out. Why pick a moral at all if it obviously doesn’t fit? Maybe this narrative’s purpose was to express the frustration of trying to convince people of inconvenient truths—something we can all relate to I’m sure.
This position makes sense and I’m partially convinced. I think a lot of my unease about the movie came from the moralizing in the press about it. The movie itself never says “BY THE WAY, THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR CLIMATE CHANGE” or “BY THE WAY, THE MORAL IS TO TRUST SCIENCE”. It just presents an interesting story that we can all see some seeds of truth in. My beef is mostly with people who interpret it in an overly facile way, and I can’t even 100% prove those people aren’t imaginary.
Several other people, including Joel A Feingold, had a different objection:
Author, IMHO, really misses the point. Even though the satire bites and the allegory is spot on, Don’t Look Up is a COMEDY. Getting serious about the license it takes on characters and cliches is an error of over-thinking.
Guys, it's just a movie, not a PhD thesis on Epistemology!
Look, there’s a weird game called “movie criticism”, where you take a movie as a jumping-off point to have thoughts on Society or the Human Condition. In the real world, people watch movies because they’re funny, or they have cool action sequences, or because the lead actress is really hot. But the rules of the “movie criticism” game say you have to ignore this stuff and treat them as deep commentary. I agree this game is not as fun as, say, Civilization IV: Fall From Heaven. But I have deliberately limited the amount of time I play that game for the sake of my sanity and my career, which means I need to play other games, and the “movie criticism” game seems okay.
Why the rest of you read this stuff, I don’t know.
Lots of people starting here discussed the really important question: how realistic is it to deflect a comet heading towards Earth? Too many highlights for choosing just one to be entirely fair, but I’ll stick with my usual policy of choosing John Schilling:
I see others have already started talking about this, while I was pulling up the notes from a conference presentation I gave six years ago. And I may add more detail tomorrow, but the bottom line is:
On a time scale of one year or less, there's realistically nothing we could do against anything big enough to be a real problem. We don't have the right specialized systems standing ready, our spaceship-building tools are all designed for one- to two-year lead times, and if you try to rush the process or use e.g. automobile-building tools to build spaceships, too much will go wrong to recover from in that short a time.
We might be able to deflect a *very small* asteroid or comet, the sort where only a single calibrated near-miss by a surplus hydrogen bomb shortly before impact is enough. But we're talking Tunguska Event here, not Dinosaur Killer. And if you're facing the Tunguska Event six months out, you basically just evacuate Tunguska and hire Michael Bay to film the fireworks.
On a timescale of two years, a maximum effort by the United States of America could probably divert a comet or asteroid of up to ~2 km diameter. A long-period comet of 2 km diameter impacting the Earth would lay waste to one average continent, or the coastal regions bordering one ocean, but it wouldn't be an extinction event.
That doesn't change much if the rest of the world tries to help; the US has more than half of the relevant capacity, and the management overhead of trying to cobble an international effort together would eat up most of the gains. You really don't want to rush your English-to-metric conversions when you're trying to build and launch interplanetary nuclear missiles.
On a timescale of 5 years, a global effort does become reasonable and at that point we could reasonably hope to divert a 10-kilometer dinosaur-killer class comet.
Also, our ability to detect long-period comets is limited to (coincidentally) about two years warning time if we use existing systems but dedicate them to that mission, or maybe five years if we build a large space telescope designed specifically for the job. Six months warning from a random astronomer happening to notice the comet is about right.
And since I have the notes, the probability of a 2 km comet impacting the Earth is ~5E-7 per year, and the probability for a 10 km comet is ~1E-8 per year.
[…] And, since I have some more time:
Assuming this is a 9-km comet of typical composition, "aimed" at a spot 70% of the distance from the midpoint of the Earth to its periphery, with Our Heroes having perfect knowledge of all of this, then deflecting the comet to barely miss skimming the Earth's atmosphere given six months' notice would require approximately 220 megatons of military-surplus thermonuclear weapons. You wouldn't want to use anything bigger than 5 megatons for this, and the biggest weapon in current US inventory is the 1.2 megaton B83, so call it two hundred of those just to be safe.
Detonate them 1.5-2 km from the comet to more or less uniformly irradiate and ablate a large area of the comet's surface; breaking off chunks makes the problem harder. And ideally do this at intervals of a couple of hours to allow the comet to settle down and precisely retarget follow-on shots; that will take a couple of weeks, but we've got six months. Each detonation will give the comet a slight nudge, and if you do it right that adds up to a very near miss of Earth.
Except, this assumes we can Thanos-fingersnap the warheads into existence right next to the comet as soon as Plucky Male Astronomer and Plucky Female Astronomer discover it. More realistically, assume we spend three months building the hardware(*), and two months flying it out to meet the comet with our clumsy slow rockets, conducting the diversion effort only one month before impact. Now we need 1100 warheads minimum. I don't think we've actually got 1100 B83's, but we can throw in enough 475 kT W88 warheads to make up the difference. We're not spacing these out by hours each, obviously, so cross your fingers and hope your models were right.
We could do somewhat better, maybe twice as good, with custom-built thermonuclear explosives, but any plan that involves designing a new hydrogen bomb from scratch in three months is a bad plan.
A B83 weighs 1.1 metric tons. In order to intercept the comet a month before impact, we're going to have to launch them with a hyperbolic excess velocity of at least 20 km/s past Earth escape. There's a slight problem that we don't have any rockets with enough performance to launch even their own burnt-out upper stage at that speed, never mind any sort of payload.
But, OK, let's assume I can design three optimized hypergolic upper stages using one, three, and nine Aerojet XLR-132 engines each and a mass fraction of 0.9, stack them one atop the other underneath the Falcon Heavy fairing, designed built and assembled in three months, and somehow the whole thing actually *works*, OK, that will boost a single W83 to 18 km/s hyperbolic excess velocity with 100 kg left over for the guidance, navigation, telemetry, and midcourse propulsion system. 18 km/s is not 20 km/s, but meh, close enough.
How do you feel about the odds of arranging eleven hundred Falcon Heavy launches, or the equivalent, on three months' notice?
If John has more time, I’m interested in knowing how Starship changes the equation.
And Alex writes:
FWIW, the science consultant on the movie, Amy Mainzer, agrees with [this skeptical take]:
"McKay and Mainzer first connected two years ago, when McKay was writing the screenplay. One issue was Comet Dibiasky’s size, which McKay had imagined at thirty-two kilometres in diameter. “I said, ‘No, no—if it’s too big, people just throw up their hands,’ ” Mainzer recalled. They settled on nine kilometres: big enough to wipe out humanity, but small enough that there was a chance of stopping it. Mainzer had pushed for a longer interval between discovery and impact, since you’d want four or five years to build a comet-busting spacecraft, but, for dramaturgical reasons, McKay stuck with six months. “It would be like doing ‘Jaws’ where the shark attacks take place over a fourteen-year period,” he said."
And Andre Infante:
Interestingly, nuclear-scale impactors hit earth every couple of years! A 170 kt tnt-equivalent asteroid blew up over the Bering sea in 2019. They generally miss populated areas (or, more rarely, air-burst high enough up to avoid mass casualties, as in the case of the Chelyabinsk Oblast bolide, which was about a half megaton and injures a bunch of people).
But we are just sort of blithely rolling the dice every few years that one of these things isn't going to hit Manhattan and kill three or four million people in five seconds.
Interesting! - I never heard about the Bering Sea event. But “rolling the dice” is meaningless unless you know how many faces your dice have. Given that no asteroid has substantially damaged a city in recorded history, the per year rate seems pretty low, even granting that much more land is urban now.
I should point out that in real life, I’m not that worried about asteroid/comet impacts. There haven’t been any planet-killers since Chicxulub in 65,000,000 BC, and there haven’t even been any planet-annoyers since 10600 BC at the latest. That suggests a per-century rate of 1-in-a-million for the former and 1% for the latter. And a century from now, we’ll either enough new tech to trivially solve the problem, or something else will have killed us already.
Philosophy Bear writes:
I had written out a comment about how the fundamental thing this review is not "getting" is that this is a leftwing movie, not a liberal movie. The message is perhaps a little closer to something like "Virtually everyone with any power whatsoever is bad, but the closer that power is to money, the worse it is". But I see someone already made that point, and also made the point that David Sirota, who was one of the writers, is a notable dirtbag leftist [and Bernie Sanders’ speechwriter!] If anything he hates the NYT reader set more than he hates conservatives.
I'm torn. On the one hand I'm tempted to offer a critique of this community for often not "getting" the left/liberal divide, but on reflection, that seems unfair. The left are so culturally insignificant everywhere except Twitter & Podcasts that compacting them into the liberals is probably fair enough. (Sadly). In the odd case of this film though, not understanding the difference will confuse you.
And Franco L Mij:
Yeah, I feel like a lot of people just completely gloss over Sirota’s role and how the movie fits his sort of worldview perfectly. If you think everyone but Bernie Sanders is a corrupt hack that knows nothing, your work will “punch” in all directions, but for all the wrong reasons.
There’s a discussion starting here of the role of “peer review” in the movie. In short: the reason Male Scientist doubted Tech CEO’s plan to surgically disassemble the comet was because it “wasn’t peer reviewed”.
Commenters unanimously made fun of this, and I agree.
Peer review is a really trivial bar; all sorts of awful homeopathy and ESP and psionics studies have gotten “peer-reviewed”.
But also, Tech CEO kind of randomly builds a starship, complete with a 2,000 person passenger capacity and working cryosleep pods, in the space of six months. Was the starship peer-reviewed?
If some comet disassembly mission is run by a bunch of Nobel-winning scientists and led by a guy who builds starships as a hobby, I feel like asking “okay, but did he also do a Google search for ‘journal with low standards’ and then get Reviewer #3 to sign off on it?” is not a high bar.
Peter Robinson writes:
I took [the starship] as a fantastical addendum which was not intended to be judged by any rational process whereas the movie itself is fair game for being analysed rationally.
Yeah, yeah, just a movie, okay, but part of my feeling like this was trying to trivialize the difficulty of interpreting science came from the attempt to use “peer review” as some sort of weird Legitimacy Totem - as if it were a reliable test to separate good science from bad.
My movie-watching group debated who Tech CEO (Peter Isherwell) was based off of. Most of us thought Elon Musk, given his space adventures. But Urwin on ACX Discord proposes a dark horse candidate: Apple VP Craig Federighi. Side by side:
Why choose this random second-tier tech titan? Federighi is famous for giving wacky product demos like the one Isherwell is giving when we’re introduced to him:
But my favorite comment was by Panama_Camel on the Discord:
'22,740 years later, the people who left Earth before the impact land on a lush alien planet, ending their cryogenic sleep'
[imagine having the] intelligence to achieve that, but not the wisdom to just do a loop and come back to earth a while after the comet thing.
I have to admit I didn’t think of that.