Movie tech: The science behind the film 2012

Movie tech: The science behind the film 2012

The Mayan prophecy might be counting down, but the science behind the new film 2012 might leave a few people confused. We look at what the film got right and what is best left to conspiracy theorists.

After months of waiting, PC Authority have seen the film 2012 and the verdict is in: science is not one of the films strong points. Even so, thanks to some rousing special effects, 2012 is destined to be a crowd pleaser.

But what interests us more is how the writing team came up with their end-of-world theories, drawing upon a mixture of fact and mostly science fiction.

Much of the science that powers the plot of 2012 is largely questionable; audiences are bound to get mixed messages in understanding what can and can't happen to the Earth because it all happens so rapidly - especially for a film that destroys just everything on the earth in one of the biggest disaster films of its kind ever made.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Director Emmerich and writer Harold Klosser seem quite concerned about giving 2012 some semblance of scientific credibility, but the plot, which the average movie-goer may fail to decypher any better than the true meaning of the Mayan code - includes the usual pseudo-science babble, which may have more do with the far-right ramblings of online conspiracy websites than the creditible theories of the world's best scientists.

There is a strong humanist element present in the film and Science is given a voice of reason in the film through the character of Adrian Helmsley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a chief science advisor to the US President.

Hemseley devises a plan (and then re-evaluates this plan when the data goes astray) to give the government enough time to ensure human survival - without the human race ever finding out.

As any web surfer probably already knows, there is plenty of conjecture and debate over what the whole 2012 prophecy actually means.  You only need type 2012 into any search engine to reveal countless websites devoted to discussing what is essentially a calendar date change (december, or to some - a major cosmic cataclysm.  

The film's in-joke has John Cusack as failed science-fiction novelist Jackson Curtis, who is racing against time to convince his hapless family that the US Government (in cooperation with G10 members - which should now be the G20 thanks to Australia's recent economic efforts) are collaborating over a secret plan not to let the world know of its impending doom. It's a good laugh, because we all know it just had to be a failed science fiction writer who gets to save his family from the destruction of the world.

If anyone even gets a sniff of the master plan, they're quietly killed off, and so begins an airborne escape to find solace high in the Himalayas - where China, acting as the world's economic saviour, is steadily building the 21st century version of Noah's Ark (several of them in fact), funded by the direct sale of boarding tickets to those who can buy their way onto the Titanic-sized life rafts.

The science of the film: what did they get right?

There are several moments in the film where various scientific theories are bounced around and stretched liked elastic bands. These include:

Super sunspots: 

The film shows sunspots flaring at their strongest in recorded history. The film links magnetic and electrical disturbances on Earth with the spots - which is technically correct, though they would likely disrupt communications equipment and wouldn't induce tsumanis and earthquakes, as the film suggests.

click to view full size image
Solar flares have the potential to cause satellite and communication disruption. Source: Wiki commons.

However, Sunspots do have the potential to disturb communications quite severely. In 1859, international electrical telegraph services were interrupted by a flare that hit Earth and the Aurora Borealis (normally only seen in very high latitudes) could be seen in places as far south as Hawaii.  

George Ellery Hale was among the first scientists to connect magnetic disruptions on earth with periods of intense solar flare activity.

Earth's core heating up:

The film's central plot device resolves around temperatures within the Earth's magma overheating. This sets off a chain reaction of events which causes tectonic plates to break apart, igniting a series of global earthquakes in rapid succession.

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2012 invests a great deal of its plot in the Earth's core overheating.
Image source:: Dailycommonsense

This central theory, which the film bases much of its plot on, has few scientific merits.  The earth's mantle is 1800 miles thick, while the outer core is 1300 miles thick and consists of a sea of molten iron liquid iron.

And while it is true that the convection of the iron fluids of the outer core is what creates earth's magnetic fields, it's a leap of faith to imagine the outer core heating up so much that it would literally tear plates apart in a short period of time. It simply isn't supported by conventional geology.

Magnetic/polar shifts:

After the various cataclysms shown in the film, the south-pole now resides in Wisconsin, USA.  The theories of American Academic Charles Hutchins Hapgood are referenced extensively throughout the film to support this massive earth changing event, and it all comes from a man who is best known for inventing the basic tenants of 'Pole Shift theory' - a discovery the characters are more than happy  enough to credit Hapgood on screen with. 

Hapgood's first book, 'The Earth's Shifting Crust' denies the existence of plate tectonics - which the film tends to heavily agree with, even using Einstein's name as support of the theory, even though Einstein only wrote a foreword for the book and his scientific advice was never sought to back this up.

click to view full size image
A magnetic shift could spell big trouble for Earth - if it were possible

Hapgood contends that the earth's axis has shifted several times before and will shift again. This is not supported by mainstream geology or mainstream science today. It's another piece of pseudo science that only works in the film world.

Alignment of planets: 

Another event predicted by 2012 conspiracy theories is a sudden alignment of the planets, shifting the earth's magnetic poles and destroying the world in the film as a result.  

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Will the planets line up in 2012?  Image source: Wiki commons

This event is used in the film to suggest, that along with problems in the Earth's crust - that our planet is due for a dramatic shift. John Gibbin's 1970 book, The Jupiter Effect predicted the end of the Earth in 1983 due to such alignment - but of course, nothing ever happened. And that's because it simply can't happen.

In reality, it's not actually possible for all the planets to line up in a perfectly straight line, because each planetary orbit is slightly tilted in accordance with the Earth's own orbit.

Dr Donald Luttermoser, of East Tennessee State University, has written about this issue, pointing out there is confusion between the alignment of planets, and the configuration of planets.

According to NASA's estimates, we're not likely to see any kind of planetary line up until the year 2854 and even then, the planets will be off a few degrees and couldn't be considered a true 'straight line'.  

Volcanic eruptions:  Can a small jet really out-fly an ash cloud?

There's one memorable sequence in the film 2012 where a plane attempts to flee an erupting volcano in Yellowstone National Park.

A huge ash cloud descends upon the aircraft, but just at the last moment, the plane manages to break free and skirt away. Aviation experts will probably shake their heads at the event and for good reason: ash is made up of Tephra - which consists of ultra-fine glass and pulverised rock pieces less than 2mm in diameter and because of this, it's particularly hazardous to engines and fuel supplies .

Any attempt by an aircraft to fly through such conditions would normally result in total engine failure, as was witnessed by a British Airways 747 in 1982 when an eruption of Galunggung Volcano in West Java caused a plume of ash to engulf the engines of that plane, just before the crew managed to restart engines after an extremely rapid descent.

The plane would also have to be flying extremely fast. Initial blasts from volcanic eruptions can throw rocks as fast 200,000m/sec. That's extremely quick for a small twin-engine jet to outrun.

2012 opens on the 12th of November in Australia. For more information about the actual film and its incredible effects, be sure to read our exclusive review coming soon.

 Also see: Top 10 movie technologies we're still waiting for


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