When Sci-Fi Goes Wrong: Physicist Explains the Non-Science of The Core

Wednesday, 02 July 2014 - 10:59AM
Science of Sci-Fi
Wednesday, 02 July 2014 - 10:59AM

Remember 'The Core'? That terrible movie with Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart where a team of scientists travel to Earth's core to save humanity? No? That's all right, it skipped our minds, that is until we read this hilarious interviewin which physicist John Ortberg analyzes the "science" in this ridiculous B movie.


A little background on the premise: The Earth's core has stopped rotating, which will cause the magnetic field surrounding the Earth to dissolve within a year. In order to make the core start rotating again before humanity is irradiated, a group of scientists needs to detonate atomic bombs at the center of the Earth.


It's true that the core of the Earth is responsible for its magnetic field, which protects us from solar wind, a stream of plasma released from the Sun that would strip away our atmosphere if our magnetosphere were weak or not intact. However, according to Ortberg, it would disappear instantly, not within a year. And although there is not a definitive consensus in the scientific community, "the conventional belief is that we wouldn't exist without the magnetic field's protective bubble," Ortberg says.


According to the film, an EMP device that was intended to start earthquakes in the Earth's core for a top-secret government mission called Project DESTINI (Deep Earth Seismic Trigger INItiative) caused the core to stop rotating. When asked if this was realistic, Ortberg said, "In the movie, they describe how something as small as a human EMP device could stop the earth's core from rotating by saying how something as small as a wrench can stop an engine. But this is a horrible analogy – it'd be more accurate for them to say it's like how a small fan can dissolve a thunderstorm. Which it can't – kinda like how an EMP device can't stop the earth's magnetic field."


He also discussed the movie's depiction of the effects of the loss of the magnetic field. It was realistic that there was aurora borealis in low latitudes, but ludicrous that pigeons started falling out of the sky. In Ortberg's words, "They use the magnetic field to help with migration, but they can still fly without it. Like remember that one time we went to Maine [the interviewer is Ortberg's sister], and Mom said it felt really weird that the ocean was to the east, but she didn't start uncontrollably heaving herself into large objects? It'd be like that."


He also derided the movie's portrayal of the scientists having the ability to send and receive messages from the Earth's core to the surface without significant delay: "Any signal that could go through 4000 miles of rock would also go through any antennae you used to receive it at the surface. Imagine you're in a crowded gym with no cell service, and you need to get a message to your friend who's all the way on the other side (and you can't play "telephone" with the people cause they represent rocks in this analogy). Anything you send the message on that's going to get through all those people – say, a bullet – is also going to go through your friend."


There is also a scene in which a "hole" in the magnetic field appears over San Francisco and microwave radiation melts the Golden Gate bridge. But somehow, while the huge metal bridge is collapsing, the roofs of people's cars stay perfectly intact. Then, if they roll down their windows, they are instantly burned to a crisp. You don't really need to be a physicist to know that this scene is preposterous.


Obviously, since the magnetic field would disappear all at once, it doesn't make sense that there would be some kind of "hole" over San Francisco. Ortberg compares it to a "whirlpool" rather than a "bubble," as it is portrayed in the film. He also explains that there wouldn't even be any microwave radiation under these circumstances: "A magnetic field can't stop microwave radiation in the same way water can't stop waves. Now there would be some crazy high energy ions coming through if this magic hole could exist, but they would mostly just interact with the upper atmosphere (and make pretty colors).


"Even granting the movie some magic, the metal in the Golden Gate Bridge would last way longer than the dinky roof of your car. [Yeah, we figured.] BUT while the roof of your car stayed intact (not long at the intensity they showed) it would protect you."


There was also a scene in which the scientists find a geode filled with amethyst crystals thousands of miles below the Earth's surface: "This was the dumbest part of the movie in my opinion. I'd liken this to a hollow eggshell staying intact with a rhino laying on it." But it sure is pretty.


In the end, (spoiler!) the scientists manage to outrun the nuclear blast because their ship can convert heat into energy. When asked if it's possible to turn heat into energy, Ortberg succinctly replied, "No – that's the whole '2nd law of thermodynamics' thing."


He also had an extremely scientific opinion about this character:


[Credit: Paramount Pictures]


(This quotation pretty much sums up the scientific integrity of this film.)


"Yeah, what the heck was with that guy? They had him in the beginning like he had a huge role, and then disappeared until the end when they had him do something completely unrelated to what his role was supposed to be. It's like someone in the production had a really cool idea for a character after the movie was written, and they wanted to be nice so they just threw him in during the filming. And the casting director owed the make-up guy a favor so he let his nephew with no acting experience play the part."


And finally, his comments on a scene in which the two "brightest minds in physics" are trying to find the correct placement for the nuclear bomb in light of new information about the core's density: "I distinctly remember Aaron Eckhart's character saying 'Okay, torque equals r cross F, but you have to integrate over volume. What's the bulk modulus of liquid iron?' Like they just had him say barely relevant physics things.


Let's say [two literature professors] found a collection of undiscovered Shakespeare plays/sonnets/whatever in a treasure chest somewhere (cue Zelda 'found item' sound) and had to go through them and try to connect details about his personal life and why they were never released in his time. Then you say, 'Okay, so rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyming for a poem, but each poem has different words. What's literary allusion again?'"

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