Scientists As Heroes

“The Core” presents ideas about the fate of the Earth which may be close to reality

by Michelle Evans, April 2003


Humanity has placed footprints on the lunar surface and sent emissaries beyond the boundaries of our own solar system. Yet, we have never penetrated more than a mere seven miles beneath the surface of our own planet.


Beyond that is nearly 4,000 miles of crust, mantle, and core that has been explored only in absentia by sound waves, cracking earthquakes, and the imagination. How can we hope to understand the inner workings of other planetary bodies throughout our solar system and the universe beyond when we know so little about the place on which we ourselves reside?


Books, teleplays, and movies have sought to unlock some of the secrets through science fiction. Most have been wide of the mark but have supplied us with food for thought. Most notable is still Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Professor Von Hardwigg and his party descended into a volcanic crater on Mt. Sneffels in Iceland, following the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm, who had completed his own journey three hundred years previously. In the book, they never got close, but leave it to James Mason and Pat Boone to complete the quest in the 1959 movie of the same name.


Today, a new contender takes us on a crushing journey deep within the interior of our planet. The Core purports to give us the most advanced scientific view yet of the interior of the Earth, while at the same time providing a rousing action-adventure/science fiction story about scientists who set out to save the Earth from doomsday.


When people die as their pacemakers suddenly quit, and birds go crazy because they can no longer navigate, the government understands that something is terribly wrong, but it is the scientists who must make the fundamental breakthrough as to what has actually occurred. The core of the Earth has stopped rotating, thus causing the imminent collapse of the electromagnetic field that surrounds our planet. This field serves as our last line of defense against an onslaught of horrors trying to bombard us from outer space.


Using the unlimited resources that would become available if there is nothing left to lose, the heroes embark on a journey into the bowels of the planet where the temperature can reach 9,000 degrees and pressures are millions of pounds per square inch. The plan requires the detonation of five 200 megaton nuclear devices at the interface between the inner and outer core in hopes of jump-starting the stalled rotation.


Admittedly, at first glance the film’s scenario sounds a little too far-fetched to be anything other than pure fantasy, let alone good science fiction. But in reality, the basic premise has its roots well established in geophysical science. In fact, by an amazing piece of serendipity, parts of this supposedly outlandish idea have recently played out in the pages of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS, vol. 100, no. 6, March 18, 2003].


For years, geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon, Ph.D., believed that the most recognized theories about the core of the Earth were embedded with fatal flaws. The prevailing theory was that the Earth’s interior was growing and cooling. This provided the basic mechanism required to energize the magnetic field of the planet.


Instead, Dr. Herndon presents an alternate theory. “There is very strong, very convincing evidence that there is, in fact, a nuclear reactor at the center of the Earth,” he said with great conviction. He has uncovered critical evidence in support of his theory. “For the last 33 or 34 years, scientists have been measuring Helium 3 and Helium 4 in lavas that come from deep inside our Earth. It has always been a mystery, because Helium 4 can be produced by radioactive decay, but not Helium 3. There is no known mechanism to produce substantial quantities of Helium 3 deep within the Earth, until I first suggested in 2001, that it would be a fission product from a nuclear reactor.”


Dr. Herndon and Jon Amiel, director of The Core, became acquainted following an article concerning his theories that was presented last August in Discover magazine. The movie’s principle photography had been completed by this point, so Dr. Herndon was not involved in the story process. However, he was able to offer technical advice on certain special effects that would be seen as the “terranauts” descended deeper than any camera has yet documented.


Dr. Herndon was impressed with Amiel. “First of all, the director told me that he wanted to put science back into science fiction. That rang a real chord with me because so many things that are billed as science fiction have no relation to science in any way, shape, or form. Then he said that new science should be debated, and that people should discuss things and they should do experiments to either prove them or refute them. It should be a matter of controversy.


“The scientific community changes and it oscillates,” Dr. Herndon added. “We’re sort of at a moribund stage in geophysics. People have this one consensus view of the Earth and if you don’t agree with them they don’t want to hear about it. So I was really refreshingly impressed with the attitude of the director. [This was] an attitude I’d like to see most scientists have!”


So there was a certain amount of synergy between the story presented in The Core and Dr. Herndon’s theories, but what of the primary plot point in that the core suffers an aberration which causes the ultimate collapse of the electromagnetic field? Here, Dr. Herndon offers a very scary scenario that had a chilling effect on many people who are aware of his work.


According to Dr. Herndon, if the center of the Earth is actually a giant nuclear reactor, then certain things must be observed. The initial result that supported his theories were the numbers on Helium 3 and Helium 4. What happens as a reactor uses its fuel is that the Helium ratios change. The younger the reactor, and thus the more fuel yet to consume, the lower the number. An average number in the mid-life of a typical reactor might be in the range of 8. As the ratio number rises, we can infer that a reactor is close to the end of its useful lifetime.


Dr. Herndon explains: “In basalts from Iceland and Hawaii [where the newest materials are being forced to the surface so they can be studied] they are getting some high ratios, 20, and one of even 37. The evidence is very convincing that yes, we are near the end of the geo-reactor lifetime. Those high ratios of helium are indicative of that.”


“Now think about this,” he continues, “the geo-reactor is the energy source for the magnetic field, so when the energy source dies, soon thereafter the geomagnetic field will die. And unlike times in the geologic past when it started up again, there will be no energy to power it. What you’re seeing as the scenario in the movie with the birds flying into buildings and so forth, will be a reality. Humanity will have to face this at some point in time.”


Even though Dr. Herndon was brought onto the project after filming was completed, many cast and crew members of The Core expressed from the beginning that they wanted to do service to real science, along with telling a great story.


When asked if he liked putting real science into the story, director Jon Amiel answered: “I really love it. I think that science has been forgotten as one of the great sources of drama. Scientists tend to get relegated to demonic, world-domineering maniacs, or geeks. I think the process of scientific thought is really fun to watch and it’s great drama if it’s done right. I love to come out of a movie feeling I know a little bit more about something than when I went in.

Hopefully, in a fun and entertaining way, this movie is going to give everyone a little some-thing more than they knew before about this planet that they live on.”


Delroy Lindo plays Dr. Ed Brazzleton, the scientist and inventor that makes the journey a possibility. When asked his feelings on science, his answer sheds light on how dedicated the filmmakers were to not just making a movie, but to give something back to the community.


“Because we live in an increasingly technological age, I think it is really critical for young people to have a much firmer grasp of the sciences than I ever did as a student. One of the really positive outgrowths of my involvement in this film is that the studio agreed that the premiere will benefit three organizations that work with African-American youth in order to encourage them toward a more serious study of the sciences, if not a career in science.”


Although originally slated for release on November 1, 2002, finishing the massive special effects for The Core required a slip until March 28. One of these sequences involves a crash landing of the space shuttle Endeavour. With the loss of Columbia still fresh in our memories, it was asked if anyone thought this sequence should be cut from the film so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the audience.


Without exception, everyone who responded said that there was never a thought of removing the sequence. Although a shuttle reentry is shown in the movie, the accident bears no resemblance to what happened in reality on February 1 in the skies over Texas. As Amiel explains:


“No lives are lost in our shuttle crash. They are all saved by the ingenuity of the crew. We felt our sequence stood as a testament to the courage of the astronauts [aboard Columbia], and for that reason, and that reason alone, the sequence deserved to stay. More importantly, that sequence, and indeed many other elements of the movie, stand as an important reminder that these guys are not just flying a plane up to space and back again. So, if this movie serves to remind people of the intense fragility and danger of pushing back the extreme frontiers of knowledge, then I’m very glad that we made this movie at this time. Hopefully it will remind people of exactly what these people are doing and how damned dangerous it is.”


Aaron Eckhart, who plays Dr. Josh Keyes, agrees. “Science is going to go on and these people gave their lives with that risk. They won’t go unheralded. I think this movie has that message in it.”


Thoughts provoked by movies like The Core, and through theories of scientists such as J. Marvin Herndon make us face the possibility of a dire future for the first time.


“The geomagnetic field is quite literally the Earth’s deflector shield,” Dr. Herndon states. “So when that shuts down, we are in a world of problems. I think the movie kind of underestimated what the real consequences would be. Totally without a magnetic field, we would see auroral displays, the likes of which no one has ever seen. It would burn out all the transformers in the world with the currents that would be induced in power lines. No satellites would survive. There would be no communications. Heaven forbid what it would do to human and animal life.


“Ultimately, that’s the peril that all of humanity will have to face. We don’t know when it will occur. The uncertainty is great. [However,] what I’m optimistic about is that two things will happen. In the first instance I believe that people will begin to understand that we are particularly special in that we have a place to live where we’re safe. Then we’ll realize that we’ll have to reconfigure or redesign the outside of the whole planet to shield against this new onslaught. So it has huge ramifications.”


Scientists as heroes. This is a message that permeates the film. Yes, The Core is an exciting roller coaster ride to the center of the Earth. But in the end, we also come away with a new view of our own planet and the people who attempt to make our lives better. It also allows us to think and ask questions about what could happen if something like this truly does occur in the future. Maybe because of this we will hopefully be better prepared to handle what may come.