What a Times reporter learned from his ‘Don’t Look Upward’ moment

One of the theoretical duties so far of the astronomer is to inform the public that something very big and horrible is about to happen: the sun is going to explode soon, a black hole has just s ‘Straying on the way to Earth, hostile aliens have amassed an armada right behind the moon.

In the new Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up”, two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, take on this responsibility when they discover that a “planet-killer” comet is heading straight for Earth and must spread the new. .

It is not going well. The President of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, is more concerned about her numbers in the polls. Television hosts ridicule scientists. Wealthy oligarchs want to mine the minerals in the comet. “Don’t Look Up” is perhaps the most cinematic fun of the end of the world since Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy in 1964, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Watching him reminded me of my own experience of reporting very bad news. In March 1998, I was the Times ‘new associate science editor, and my doomsday audience was small but elitist: The Times’ top editors. I had only been in post for a month. No one really knew me. My direct boss, the science writer, had taken a week off, leaving me in charge.

And so, late afternoon on March 11, I walked into the 4:30 p.m. press meeting where the editors present stories for the next day’s front page and announced that we have a story. last minute report from distinguished journalist Malcolm Browne. – It’s a pretty good story, I say. “This is the end of the world.

The source was Brian Marsden, director of the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams, which is the information clearinghouse of the International Astronomical Union for Cosmic Discoveries, as well as its Minor Planet Center, which is responsible for tracking comets and asteroids. He had just calculated that a recently discovered asteroid, a mile-wide boulder named 1997 XF11 (now asteroid 35396), would pass within 30,000 miles of Earth on October 26, 2028 – and had a small but real chance. to hit our planet.

“In over 40 years of computer orbits, I had never seen anything like it before,” Dr Marsden later said. He felt he had a duty to share this with the world in an IAU circular.

The front page meeting dissolved into a determined pandemonium. I spent the rest of the night answering questions from colleagues in the newsroom who wanted to know if they should continue paying their mortgages, and answering questions and suggestions from top writers. Astronomers sent images of the asteroid, a blurry spot in the dark. I was taking an adrenaline-fueled crash course in scrutinizing a front-page article in the newsroom before it could be published.

I didn’t want to come home that night, but I finally did, in a nervous donut. The next morning it was all over. Images of the asteroid from several years earlier had appeared overnight, and Dr. Marsden had recalculated the orbit and discovered that the 1997 XF11 would miss Earth by 600,000 miles. It was still close to cosmic standards, but harmless to civilization.

In the days that followed, Dr Marsden was publicly berated by his colleagues and the media as a “little chicken” who had made “naughty calculations” without consulting other astronomers who already knew the asteroid did. no risk. NASA has called on astronomers to pull themselves together before blinding the agency and the public with news of an apocalypse.

Dr Marsden apologized for generating such fear, but noted that he had helped raise awareness of the danger of asteroid strikes and extinction.

“While the incident was bad for my reputation, we needed such a scare to bring attention to this issue,” he later wrote in The Boston Globe. “I also think that for us not to make the announcement like we did would have led to condemn the fact that science was deprived of its essential openness,” he said.

I felt bad for Dr. Marsden, an ironic, cherubic presence that I had known during 20 years of astronomical reporting. (He passed away in 2010.) And I felt bad for myself. How often do you manage to cover the possible end of the world after only a month of work? The next day when the New York Post ran the headline “Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye!” I took it personally.

But the incident was indeed a turning point, according to Amy Mainzer, an asteroid expert at the University of Arizona who was a science consultant on “Don’t Look Up.”

In 2005, Congress ordered NASA to find and start tracking at least 90% of all asteroids over about 500 feet wide that approach Earth. (They neglected to provide a lot of money to pay for research until years later.) Word was we live in a cosmic shooting range.

NASA now spends some $ 150 million a year on this endeavor. “We’ve come a long way since 1997 XF11,” said Donald Yeomans, a comet expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who criticized Dr. Marsden in 1998.

Computers these days sort asteroids and comets, automatically calculate orbits from new observations, compare them with known objects, rate them for their dangerousness, and send the results to astronomers. Anything within three million kilometers of Earth is considered a potentially dangerous object, or PHO.

“We didn’t have all of that back then,” Dr. Mainzer said. “We have learned a lot as a community.

“Don’t Look Up,” directed and co-written by Adam McKay, arrives Friday – by the way, less than three weeks after NASA launched a mission to see if asteroids could be diverted from their path. But the film is less about asteroids and more about humans’ tendency to dismiss bad news from science and embrace disinformation. It was intended as an allegory of failure to act on climate change. “A lot of people don’t want to hear it,” Dr. Mainzer said. “As a scientist, it’s terrifying.”

However, the film was shot, very carefully, during the pandemic, and the parallels to the current health crisis are hard to miss.

“Scientists don’t have the power to make changes,” said Dr. Mainzer. “How do you get people to act on the basis of scientific information? Should they “work within the system,” she asked, even if that means they have to deal with purveyors of disinformation?

Humor helps, Dr Mainzer added, “We say it doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to go down that road.

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