Scientist Drills Down to the Science of "The Core"

Mar. 31, 2003

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Of all the things that threaten life on this planet, this is one you probably didn’t consider: Earth’s internal hydrodynamics could go nuts.

Unbelievable, you say? Tell that to the popcorn-wolfing crowds at the local ‘plex, as they enthusiastically take in the Spring’s first sci-fi disaster film, "The Core."

Sure, this movie is a cut-and-paste pastiche of a dozen other disaster films, and yes, it seems to run out of ideas two-thirds of the way through. But nobody’s perfect, and while it would be easy to be rotten to "The Core" based on its disregard for science, this film has enough laughs and forward motion to make it a perfect film to see on an evening when your brain is in "Park."

Imagine this: It’s Green World Day in Boston, and the local populace is innocently cavorting in the streets. Moments later, watches stop, pacemakers freeze, and pigeons turn into feathered kamikazes, all because Earth’s hot and heavy liquid core has ceased spinning. Bummer, huh?

Well apparently it is a bummer, because the consequence of stifling the slow slosh of a billion trillion tons of molten iron is a nasty change in our planet’s magnetic field. You might think this would be of interest only to Boy Scouts still without GPS, but as the experts in "The Core," will solemnly tell you, when Earth’s magnetic field runs amuck, lightning-laced superstorms will be on the loose and "microwaves from space, no longer impeded by a magnetic field, will cook our planet." [Note: you read it here first. Microwaves from space will cook our planet.]

OK, this is all hogwash, but hey, how many times have you seen Rome fried by static electricity? Or watched incredulously as the Golden Gate Bridge drops its span? (This Hollywood destruction of a Bay Area icon is, of course, just one more salvo in the continuing culture war between southern and northern California.)

Clearly there’s a problem. So what does society do when disaster from down under threatens to obliterate all life? The answer is old and obvious: They bring in a group of brilliant misfits; a tiger team of social marginalia who, despite being pretty rough around the edges, have the brains, brawn, and special skills to rekindle fluid flow 2,500 miles below our feet. It’s the Dirty Dozen with PhD’s.

Leader of the pack is Joshua Keyes, a professor at the University of Chicago. He teaches freshman geophysics (is that a required course for freshmen these days?) Keyes quickly points out that "there’s no way to restart the flow. And even if there was, we couldn’t get to the core." Right on both counts, but who cares about that? After all, the heart of this movie is an expedition to tunnel to the Earth’s molten middle, and cure it of its bad behavior. To do this, they’ll use Tinsel Town’s all-purpose cure for any natural disaster: nuclear weapons. Nukes have been lobbed at hostile space aliens, dropped on defrosted prehistoric monsters, and detonated within killer asteroids. Why not use ‘em for spinning up a boat load of hot iron?

Because they won’t do the job, that’s why. I reckon that the kinetic energy of Earth’s liquid core is about ten billion times as much as released by the biggest H-bomb. This is like trying to get the Queen Mary out of port by taping a firecracker to her stern.

"The Core" has a backup plan, in case this quixotic mission fails. There’s a massive, and mildly malevolent secret federal project somewhere in Alaska that might cure our planet of its circulatory problems. This is a tip of the Hollywood hat to HAARP, a real-life research project to use high power radio waves to study the ionosphere. Callers to late-night talk shows love to lambast HAARP as a government conspiracy to cook our brains.

Keep in mind as you watch this battle between good saviors and bad that changes in Earth’s magnetic field happen all the time. The magnetic poles have actually flipped thousands of times over the past few billion years, sometimes rather rapidly (within a millennium or two.) None of this magnetic erraticism seems to have impeded biology’s takeover of the planet.

But that’s science, and movies aren’t about what you would really learn in a geophysics course. This film may play fast and easy with the facts, but it still delivers a good time. Just check your core beliefs before entering the theater.