Last night I settled down into a cushy high-backed chair, got comfortable, turned off my brain and let my mouth hang open for three hours, while Hollywood spoon feed me a sweet gruel made of the worst dialogue, cheesiest moments and most unnecessary (but awesome) special effects they had to offer. I got to see a preview screening of 2012, the latest in a long line of terrible end-of-the world blockbusters. And you know what? Not that bad! Not nearly as bad as The Day After Tomorrow which was bad even as far as bad things go. But 2012 was pretty entertaining because it totally realized how ridiculous it was and then it featured some really amazing images.
Let me say something kind of controversial: 2012 was not very scientifically accurate. I know. I realize that you probably just let out a very loud "Whaaaaaatttt??" and now people in your office are coming over to see what you are gaping about, and then you show them that sentence and they all lift their eyebrows at this controversial blog you are reading. But it is true.
So I am not here to review the scientific accuracy of 2012. To do that would take up this entire blog plus a livejournal and even then I would not have enough room to explain all the ways in which 2012 is not even logically accurate (and I should point out that contrary to what the above trailer says, the Mayans were not even close to being the earliest human civilization. The Mayan culture peaked about 1350 years ago*). See? And if I took the time to point out all the inaccuracies then everyone would wonder why the hell I did that because who cares? It's a movie. It was fun. It was totally ridiculous and utilized every end-of-the-world-movie cliche that exists, but whatever. So I don't want to analyze the whole movie, but I thought I'd take a whack at the first four minutes.
There are no plot spoilers here, as if anyone cares about the plot in a movie like this. Actually, I guess I already told you that I will spoil the first four minutes, but this movie is over two and a half hours long, so there is still plenty of unspoiled movie (insert joke about how this movie is already spoiled). Really, I should tell you what happens in the last half hour and then you can just get up and leave the theater at a time when this movie should have ended. But I'm not actually going to do that.
The movie 2012 is hinged on the (fictional) idea that the Mayan calendar says that the world will end in the year 2012. First of all, the Mayan calendar doesn't actually say that. Problem solved, this movie is never made. Roll credits.
Just kidding, this movie is made. Know why? Because a movie doesn't have to be scientifically accurate to be made. Thank you, America! But what is troubling about this particular falsehood is that there are people out there who believe this stuff, and there are people who hear the craziest folks screaming the loudest and don't know what to think (even when we have wonderful, clear debunkings of all the bull). Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures decided to capitalize on people's real yet unfounded fear by launching realistic looking ad campaigns about preparations for the end of the world in 2012. Very nice, Columbia and Sony.
But again, just so we are clear, the world will not actually end in 2012.
Sigh. Ok, let me just say this little bit. There is a line in the movie that goes something like "We have all these fancy machines and the Mayans saw this coming." That statement sort of encapsulates the point of view that makes people think the 2012 shenanigans might be right. Yes, scientists can be wrong. Sometimes fancy machines fail. But science doesn't come down to fancy machines, it comes down to an unwavering methodology. With science you always have the opportunity to find out why you are wrong because you can apply your methodology as many times as you want, and with a little creativity, you can find different ways to arrive at the same place. Mystical predictions don't give you that. It might be comforting to think that we could get the answers to all our questions from a crystal ball, but it wouldn't be half as much fun, and doesn't actually seem like the most efficient way to get information. Like, the conspiracy theorists say the Mayans knew about the end of the world but they didn't know about antibiotics or electricity? The Magic 8 Ball just skipped over those, I guess. With science we are listening to nature in a way that is most reflective of nature's own processes. It actually seems very unnatural to think that such predictions of the future would reveal themselves in any way other than how all of natures mysteries unveil themselves - through cause and effect.
OK, now we can get on with having some fun with this movie. 2012 starts out with some really beautiful images of the planets and flares on the surface of the sun (I could have watched 2.5 hours of that and been fine). Then the movie goes to India where two scientists who are friends (established by horrible dialogue) go down into a very deep mine shaft where one scientist is looking for neutrinos. So far so good - neutrino projects are often underground because neutrinos travel right through the Earth, but the cosmic rays that can mess with neutrino detectors do not. Put it underground and you get less disturbance from those cosmic rays and other particles. (Shown - the MINOS project rests in Minnesota's deepest iron mine).
So for a moment, the neutrino science is accurate. Scientist 1, who is running the lab, tells visiting Scientist 2 that the neutrino count hitting the Earth has doubled because of solar flares (neutrinos do come from the sun and from solar flares!), and now they are seeing the largest solar flares in human history!
Initially I thought this was a silly thing to say - assuming that we could only know about solar flares as far back as we have been watching for them, and that prior to the satellite age, people couldn't detect them. And for very small flares, that's true. But it turns out that some solar flares do leave traces on Earth.
The largest example is the 1859 solar storm. This massive solar flare, noted by an observer on the ground as a bright white spot (I do not fully understand how he was looking right at the sun) sent a bubble of hot, charged particles soaring toward Earth. Normally the Earth's magnetic field can deflect charged particles, but this flare was too great. It sent positrons careening down magnetic field lines to Earth, which made the norther Auroras visible as far south Florida. It also short circuited telegraph wires, causing a lot of fires. A less intense solar flare in 1989 caused a blackout in Quebec. This one was more than three times as powerful. Besides the bubble of charged particles and the neutrinos, solar flares can also pummel Earth with radiation; usually it's low frequency X-rays that overlap with high frequency radio waves, interfering with anyone using those radio waves to communicate.
In a New Scientist article on March 23 2007 titled "Solar 'superflare' shredded Earth's ozone,' Kelly Young writes about the evidence and records we have of the solar storm of '59. From the article:
For roughly two days after the flare, high-energy protons entered the atmosphere through the polar regions, channelled there by the planet's magnetic field lines.
The protons ionised nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, which then formed nitrogen oxides.
The nitrogen oxides rained down as acid rain, and traces were found many decades later in ice core samples.
So because of these deposits on ice cores, paired with the human documentation, we know that this solar flare did occur. So I guess it's possible that we would be able to determine when the most powerful solar flare occurred, possibly even before human civilizations.
But let's be clear that while solar flares can definitely cause damage, they can hardly lead to the end of the world.
So Scientist 1 tells Scientist 2 that they have seen an increase in neutrino counts and the largest solar flares ever. Then the two scientists have an exchange that goes something like this:
Scientist 1: Normally, the neutrinos pass through the Earth because they don't interact with regular matter.
Scientist 2: That's right.
Scientist 1: But now the neutrinos are changing; they are interacting with the Earth's core.
Scientist 2: That's impossible.
Yes, it is. Surprise, this movie is four minutes long. Roll credits.
Just kidding. This movie is two and a half hours long, remember? Scientist 1 continues to explain how the neutrinos are not only interacting with matter, but they are acting like microwaves and heating up the Earth's core! VERY DRAMATIC MUSIC! Scientist 1 opens up what looks like a submarine hatch and inside is...BOILING WATER WITH WEIRD LIGHTING BEHIND IT! WHAT?! DID YOU JUST OPEN UP A SAFE THAT CONTAINS THE CENTER OF THE EARTH?! IS THE CENTER OF THE EARTH A WITCH'S CAULDRON FROM A CHILDREN'S HALLOWEEN PARTY?!
And then my logic drowned in an avalanche of questions (like why would the particles heat up the Earth's core, but not first heat up the oceans?) and I realized I was not meant to win this battle and I let my brain go to sleep and enjoyed watching Woody Harrelson play a crazy conspiracy theorist living in Yellowstone National Park. Which brings me to the meaning of this post title:
I know we have established that the remaining four hundred hours of 2012 are pure fiction, but please DO NOT CLIMB OVER FENCES IN YELLOWSTONE PARK THAT SAY KEEP OUT. Most of the time it is not a government conspiracy that you should investigate, but a warning that the area contains hot springs and the ground is weak. No matter how much the park tries to keep it safe, people still die in Yellowstone and nearby wild lands because they go walking in areas they shouldn't, the ground gives way and they fall into hot springs. It's very sad and worth noting for safety's sake.
On a happier note, I promise to write a post about the physics of geysers very soon.
I leave you with Carl Sagan in autotune.
*As was pointed out by you wonderful readers, my post skipped over the fact that the real victims in all of this 2012 hoopla might be the Mayans themselves, and I'm sorry didn't do justice to their history. The Mayan civilization included peoples living from what is now southern Mexico down through the Yucatan Penninsula. They were extremely advanced in math, science and language, having come up with the concept of 0 very early on, one of the earliest and fully developed written languages of the Americas, and yes, some very intricate calendars. The roots of this culture go back to 2600 BC (thanks, Richard). My comment above referred to the peak of Mayan civilization, which took place between 250 and 900 AD and I apologize because my past tense (since edited) did imply that they had ended, when in fact they carry on to this day (thanks, HP). Plus, and I'm not an expert here, but there are some sources which argue that Mayan culture was intact before 200 AD and began to disintegrate under the force of some totalitarian leaders shortly thereafter. Various factors may have lead to break up of the Mayans, including political revolt and ecological disasters, but mysteries also remain about why the Mayan people began to abandon some of their largest cities. Spanish explorers arrived in that area in the 1500's and began a long history of repression and mistreatment of all the native people there, as well as destroying text that might have answered many questions about Mayan history. Still, the Mayans persevered and their culture survives and carries on to this day. I found one article online in which a Mayan elder talks about having to field questions about the 2012 ridiculousness, and I think there should be more of that. Thanks so much you guys for keeping me on my toes and helping to fill in the conversation.