blue marble adventure

#3.  The Core

Look Mom, the core is…it’s….doing something?!

Geologic Sin Meter:  Off the Charts

This rating means that this movie literally broke the meter, and I had to repair it while laughing madly.  This movie takes the proverbial cake for bad science movies.

Movie Background:

The premise of this movie is that the the core of the Earth is shutting down, likely taking the entire planet  down with it.  Roughly 3/4 of the way through the movie, it is revealed that the likely cause is D.E.S.T.I.N.Y, a fancy acronym for weaponized seismic waves created by our very own government (with the help of one of the geophysicists tabbed with saving the planet).

Four scientists (two geophysicists ( (Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci)), a geochemist/physicist ((Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo)), nuclear physicist (Serge (Tcheky Karyo)) and two astronauts (navigator Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank), Mission Commander Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood)) are to save the planet by drilling directly to the core of the Earth to detonate nuclear bombs, restarting its spinning motion and restoring the Earth’s electromagnetic field.

Using the collective scientific knowledge of some of the smartest people on the planet, a plan is devised (under complete media blackout) to build a machine capable of getting there, and guiding a crack team of heroes to detonate said nuclear weapons and save the human race (and many other species).

Geology Background:

The Earth is (simply speaking) composed of three general layers.  The crust, which is cold and brittle, forms the surface of the planet on which we trod. The mantle, which is variably liquid and solid/plastic, and the core, which is theorized to be molten iron.

Each of these layers can be further divided into sublayers.  The two most important in regards to this movie are the inner and outer cores.  The inner core is theorized to be a solid, roughly spherical ball of pure iron, and the outer core is theorized to be molten iron, rotating in three dimensions around the inner core beneath the lower mantle.

The core as a whole is thought of as our planet’s engine, providing energy in the form of heat generated from the formation of primordial Earth and radioactive decay.  This drives convection in the mantle, which drives tectonics on the crust.  It also is theorized to be responsible for the creation of the Earth’s electromagnetic field, which acts as a protective shield for our surface.

The solid inner and spinning molten outer core produces energy, electric currents, and magnetic fields.  Working with the Coriolis effect of the Earth (spinning), this creates enough electricity and magnetism to produce a field that surrounds the Earth. This field prevents 99.9% of meteors from hitting the surface, as well as deflects potentially harmful solar activity (solar flares, solar storms) away from the surface of Earth.  Aurora Borealis, more commonly referred to as The Northern Lights, is a product of light refraction from solar flares though the EM field.  Aurora Borealis is typically seen near the poles where the solar rays hit the magnetic field at an angle that produces visible light.

Geologic Sin QnA:

Is it possible that the core of the Earth would start “shutting down”?

Given our current theories on the way the core works, no.  As described in the Geologic Background section, the core is both solid and molten iron emitting that is a highly condensed ball of iron still burning from the formation of the planet.  In addition, the radioactive material found in the mantle decays keeping the fires burning  The half-life of Uranium 293 is 14.6 billion years, meaning that only half of this element created in the Big Bang has decayed into thorium 287 or lead 286. 

The rotation of the core is due to differential pressures, temperatures, convection currents, and, in part, the Coriolis Effect. 

In terms of what this means for Earth, it can be simply said that what drives the heat and rotation in the core and mantle of the Earth, that drive the EM field and lithospheric (crustal) tectonics, remains and will remain intact for potentially billions of years into the future.  In fact, the prevailing theory about what will ultimately kill our planet is the death of our sun, and not the burnout or shutdown of the core.  Current estimates based on the amount of hydrogen present in the sun puts this occurrence at 5 billion years from today.  Plan ahead accordingly.

Could “seismic weapons” be the cause?

Simply: Hell No.  Frankly, most of our knowledge of what the core is and how it operates directly results from sending seismic waves through the Earth and measuring their responses.  It is how we know that each layer of the Earth differs in its mineralogic composition, is ductile, solid, or molten, and how thick each layer is and where the boundaries are.

Apparently these “weaponized” seismic waves, which would have been used to cause earthquakes in enemy territory, somehow differ from actual seismic waves.  Any suggestion that seismic waves of any magnitude or depth would effect how the core of the Earth operates is pure nonsense.

Would the effects of the core shutting down be similar to the effects in the movie?

Let’s assume for a moment that the core did actually shut down (stop rotating).  What might happen?  To be honest, the effects depicted in the movie might actually be relatively accurate.  The shutdown of the core, and the resulting failure of the EM field would cause widespread phenomena that could potentially be extremely destructive.  

The pigeons losing their minds at the beginning of the movie?  Not far-fetched considering that many birds, mammals, and amphibians use what are known as magnetoreceptors in their brains, using the EM field to navigate.  The lightning storms that destroy much of Rome?  Quite possible considering that changing EM fields in the atmosphere due to the breakdown may result in enormous, spectacular, and very dangerous lightning storms.  People’s pacemakers simultaneously stopping?  A severe spike in the EM field frequency could wreak havoc with any device that runs on electricity or magnetic fields including cell phones, computers, watches, and yes, pacemakers.

Could a machine be built to access the core?

With our current technology, no.  The furthest below the Earth’s surface penetrated by humans is 6 miles by a Russian oil drill.  In the movie, the machine built by Lindo’s character Dr. Ed Brazzleton out of “Unobtanium” (a fictional metal that can convert heat to energy and withstand pressures found at the core) does the job.  This element does not, and potentially will not ever exist or be discovered/created.

Furthermore, it is quite unclear in the movie who Dr. Brazzleton is working for or where he might get the funding to work on this kind of a project.  Any good academic knows that in order to do anything that requires money and time, grants must be applied for and received through painstaking and competitive review processes.  It is nearly improbable that Dr. Brazzleton used his own money to develop this material without the knowledge or funding of any outside entity.  That is one hell of a pet project. 

He unveils his prototype from under a dusty tarp in a lab set up in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, a highly remote and inhospitable place where experiments of this kind would almost certainly never take place.  Area 51 you say?  My friends Area 51, although it is located in the wilds of the Nevadan Mojave Desert, is one of the most high-tech, state-of-the-art, clean research facilities in the world that is funded (in the tens of millions $/year) by the federal government and employs many scientists, engineers, and specialists.

As far as can be gathered from the film Dr. Brazzleton is working solo in his dusty garbage heap of a lab without any federal funding or knowledge.  The military General (Gen. Thomas Purcell) in charge of the mission quips “Do you know the potential applications of this material?”, thereby indicating that the federal government and military (the only two entities who would or could fund a project like this) has no prior knowledge, which leaves very few options for money and purpose.  What am I missing here?  Oh right, the fact that this is completely ridiculous.

Would a package of nuclear weapons “restart” the spinning of the outer core?

Theoretically, this is not completely bogus.  Calculated nuclear explosions detonated at specific times in specific areas may provide the energy that would be necessary to induce a convection current in the molten metal that could potentially restart a slowdown in the core’s rotation (if we once again assume that any of this is legitimate).  

Eckhart and Tucci make these calculations on the fly when they realize that the original plan they made did not account for the density of the material in the core, which is found to be less than they had planned for.  I don’t have to tell you that these calculations could take weeks or months with exact measurements and empirical observation (experiments), not mere heated moments.

Can lasers melt, or perfectly blast though rock?

Once again current technology points to an answer of “no”.  And once again, Dr. Brazzleton has discovered and developed this technology with no discernible financial support or research purpose.  The machine made of Unobtanium is fitted with a laser that essentially vaporizes rock (except diamonds?), but does not effect living things as demonstrated by “Braz” and a small mouse in a metal box.  

Maybe one day our progeny several generations down the line will laugh at us for being as primitive as to not have this kind of technology, but in 2016 (and certainly in 2003) we do not have this capability, crazy genius one man shows aside.

What would a trip through the mantle actually look like?

This is where the movie starts (or continues) to play fast and loose with the idea that all of our knowledge of the mantle and core is generally theoretical.  From giant geodes to giant floating diamond fields, their trip through the mantle is nothing short of a wild adventure.

Let’s begin with the geode where their ship crashes after having nothing to blast through and becoming marooned by giant quartz crystals.  A geode is a geological oddity of sorts that has a solid outer shell and a hollow center typically filled with quartz crystals.  They form in sedimentary and igneous environments where a cavity is created (by gas bubbles in magma/lava or erosion of limestone or sandstone) and then filled as quartz (SiO2) precipitates through the solid shell into the hollow center.  

The likelihood that there are geodes being created and preserved in the mantle is, shall I say, not bloody likely.  The pressures, temperatures, convection currents, mineralogical compositions (lack of oxygen and silica), and lack of liquid water to seep and precipitate quartz all add up to a lack of opportunity for a geode to form.  In geologic terms, this mantle geode is akin to saying that sand dunes can form without wind, or that coral reefs can form with no calcium carbonate.  The conditions and elements necessary for this geode to be created simply do not exist in the mantle.

Now, onto the giant floating diamond field that damages the ship and costs our dear Dr. Brazzleton his life.  Diamonds form in the upper mantle at very specific temperatures and pressure (roughly 2000F and about 150km below the Earth’s surface).  They are then brought to the surface by deep-sourced eruptions into vertical tubes called kimberlite pipes, an igneous feature.  

Diamonds are mantle xenoliths, or chunks ripped from the mantle in these eruptions and deposited in the kimberlite pipes.  So, the presence of diamonds during their journey to the core is not wholly ridiculous, and even the fact that they might be mobile and unpredictable is not ridiculous.  And who knows?  The diamonds gathered at the surface may just be tiny pieces of enormous diamonds residing in the mantle.  Again, this is where the movie plays fast and loose with the term theoretical.  

My real gripe here is with the laser’s inability to blast through them.  Since we’re making things up, why stop here?  I suppose some writer got a sense that there needs to be some kind of restraint and boundary, and of course you need some sort of contrived plot device to ensure that Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart’s characters are left alone on the ship together.

To answer the question, nobody really knows exactly what this journey would look like, least of all me, a humble sedimentary geologist that only cares about surface processes.

Are geophysicists famous jerks like Stanley Tucci?

Dr. Conrad Zimsky, portrayed by the great Stanley Tucci, is an unapologetic, self-righteous, self-serving, chain-smoking egomaniac.  Although he does make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the human race that does redeem him to a point,  Dr. Zimsky is a one-note character that gives even the most pompous research scientists a bad name.  

The funny thing is that throughout the movie, it is clear that he is a research-stealing glory hound who is, in fact, the cause of the core shutdown with his weaponized seismic waves (research that he apparently swiped from Dr. Brazzleton, who can officially be called the greatest scientist that ever lived).

I have met and worked with several geophysicists, none of whom remotely resembled Dr. Zimsky.  From his autograph signings to his “do you know who I am?” speeches, this character is simply another razor thin plot device to make Eckhart’s humble-genius-that-gets-the-girl character look all that more likable.  The bottom line here is that most scientists are devoted to their research and to the Earth and not on some fame-seeking quest (even geophysicists, who don’t even like rocks).

Final Word:

The Core takes quite a bit of deserved flack.  My theory on this, and you can decide for yourself, is that it seems to try to present this far-fetched plot as being valid.  I have heard people invoke Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and other Sci-Fi movies as comparisons, and on this I could not disagree more.  Those are fantasy movies, and this movie tries to represent itself with geologists, geophysicists, astronauts, and chemists, not Wookies and Hobbits.

Even if you want to make those comparisons, you still cannot ignore the little voice in your head during this movie that says “I can’t believe I am actually seeing this…”  This movie is not a fantasy Sci-Fi movie, but rather a movie that tries to represent itself under the guise of plausible science.  All scientists can typically laugh at and enjoy other geologic disaster movies, particularly the ones on this list; but there is something about The Core that just arouses some deep-seeded vitriol.

It is because one of the opening scenes of the movie depicts Eckhart’s character as a true Man of Science, lecturing at a prestigious university and conducting a valid demonstration on sound waves?  It is not a Jedi Knight swinging a laser sword or a Wizard with a long stick pontificating about “The One Ring.”  The Core portrays Stanley Tucci’s character as a celebrity scientist, highly respected, lauded, and sought.  There are no small green beings in swamps or ogres swinging axes in epic battles for “Middle Earth”.  It includes highly-skilled astronauts, mathematicians, computer programmers (hackers), and well-heeled military personnel, not heavy-breathing masked men dressed in black or William Shatner.

All of this adds up to the backlash against The Core.  Although it is on this list, I suspect it is here because it is a truly terrible movie with actually bad geology in all its glory.  That being said, it is also important to realize that movies intend to dazzle and entertain, not to inform us on reality, which seems to be a line that is consistently blurred in Hollywood.  If you want excellent special effects, cool action sequences, and a predictable happy ending, then this is your film.  If you want real science, watch a documentary you nerds!

May The Goat be always with you

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