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21 March 2008

"There... That wasn't so good now, was it?"

Accretionary Wedge #7: Geology in the Movies

The portrayal of science and scientists in popular culture is always a rich topic, as Hollywood loves stereotype and simplification almost as much as it loves money and giving itself awards (see? I can stereotype with the best of ‘em!).

When this topic was announced my first thoughts went to The Core, which is a whole dissertation topic of its own (though it was amusing watching Hilary Swank land a Space Shuttle in the LA river). I saw this film movie flick the weekend it was released, you know, because as a geology teacher it's part of my job -- like watching South Park.

In my first semester of teaching I got a call from a guy who said that he was researching what he described to me as a “disaster movie about a group of scientists trying to save the Earth when something goes wrong with the core.” He wasn’t sure at the time from what they would be saving it, and he was calling geologists to figure out the “technical stuff.” He had some ideas but wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to write a movie with some real science scattered across a fantasy landscape (Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact) or a movie whose only connection to the real world is that the cast is predominantly bipedal (Volcano, Armageddon).

We talked for about 20 minutes about angular momentum and rotation, the dynamo effect and the magnetic field, cosmic rays and the aurora, the geothermal gradient and pressure (I recall describing a diamond anvil cell and may have defined gigapascal). By the end of the call he had concluded that he would be writing a completely fantasy movie.

I never got the guy’s name, so I’ll never know if it was one of the credited writers, an uncredited writer, or if it was even someone associated with the same project. The phone call may have been entirely a coincidence and had nothing to do with the movie.

The plot is pretty simple: the military has developed an “earthquake weapon” that somehow draws energy from the rotational velocity of the Earth’s core. Since the core contains (I believe) 10-20% of Earth’s angular momentum, I can’t imagine what the quakes would be like…

If my math is right, the rotational energy in the core is ~1035 ergs. If we could draw energy from the rotation of the Earth, we could power the entire human race and have no more effect on the planet's rotation than the Voyager did on Jupiter's orbit when it stole a bit of angular velocity to boost itself into the outer solar system...

Somehow just the testing of this weapon leads to a significant loss in rotational velocity within the core, exposing the planet to laser-like beams of microwave energy from space that slice the Golden Gate Bridge in half, giant lightning bolts that destroy the Colosseum in Rome and causing a flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square to go all Hitchcock on the tourists.

It was interesting that the lost of 10% of the planet’s angular momentum had no discernable effects on the rotation of the surface, as the people at the surface being fried by laser beams from the sun seemed to be experiencing 24 hour days. What really struck me though was that the kick-start the core needed to get spinning again came from setting off a series of nuclear bombs.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, nuclear tests and radiation served the same purpose that toxic waste did in the 70’s and 80’s and genetic engineering does today: turning animals and human beings into monsters and/or superheroes. Today, the minds that can’t imagine entertainment greater than The Hills Have Eyes II, 10,000 BC and Semi-Pro also cannot conceive of a problem that a strategically-placed nuke can’t solve.

Besides jarring the core back into motion, nukes can be used to start earthquakes (both in the 1978 version of Superman and in A View to a Kill) and stop earthquakes (10.5 – to quote Leonard Pinth-Garnell again: “Exquisitely awful”). A nuke planted 100 meters beneath the surface of an asteroid or comet will break it cleanly in two (both Deep Impact and Armageddon) and change the trajectory of the fragments enough that they miss the Earth entirely, even if the bomb is not detonated until the bolide is within a few hundred thousand kilometers of the Earth…

Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that the only flick in which a nuclear bomb wasn’t up to the job was Independence Day (starring Bill Pullman, who I always get mixed up with Bill Paxton, the swashbuckling meteorologist from Twister) – but why send a few hundred kg of enriched uranium to do a job that can be accomplished with a virus written on a late 90’s vintage Apple Powerbook?

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