December 2011 Articles

On Course: Doomsday Geology

 By George Dila 

On Course Geology

Illustration by Jason Marz

“San Francisco is in ruins,” a voice on the radio reports breathlessly. “The whole West Coast is off.”

And those are only two of the disasters that befall our planet in the 2003 movie The Core. When the Earth’s core stops spinning, the electromagnetic shield begins to deteriorate, exposing the surface to the unfiltered solar radiation that will incinerate anything and anyone exposed to it.

But in the movies, there’s always a solution. In this movie, a team of the world’s most gifted and bravest—and best-looking—scientists travel to the Earth’s core in a subterranean craft to detonate a nuclear device that will, hopefully, start the core spinning again.

Possible? Absurd fantasy?

According to Assistant Professor Pedro Marenco, who teaches the course Geology in Film, The Core is the movie that has led to the liveliest classroom discussions.

“The film shows microwave radiation cooking the Golden Gate Bridge and lightning storms destroying the Coliseum,” says Marenco. “We do know that the magnetic field protects us from solar winds that contain charged particles and radiation. However, we are much less certain about the nature of the damage that would result.”

Geology in Film is designed to help students think critically about how science, particularly the Earth sciences, is depicted by Hollywood writers and directors, whose main objective is to entertain, not teach. Several Hollywood blockbuster disaster films are screened during the quarter, followed by in-depth discussions of how the Earth sciences are used to tell stories in popular films, how scientists are portrayed, and the misconceptions about science and scientists commonly represented in popular Hollywood fare.

Said freshman Jessica Shum, who has taken the course, “We have to view the movie differently than if we had watched it as the average audience. There are some really interesting concepts about geology and non-geology, so it’s very intellectually stimulating.”

The course has attracted students who are well read in the natural sciences, as well as students from the humanities and social sciences.

“They all have different ideas to contribute,” says Marenco, “but they all seem to enjoy talking about film.” Marenco obviously does, as well.

The films to be screened and discussed are Volcano, The Core, 10.5, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012.

“I think the biggest mistake many of these films make when representing Earth science is the anthropo­morphizing of natural phenomena,” says Marenco. “They actually turn Earth into a villain who is out to kill people. In 10.5, during an earthquake, a rupture forms and chases a train along its track, even around bends, until the train is swallowed. In Volcano, deadly sulfurous gases shoot out of the Earth to kill people and then are sucked back into the ground once the killing is done, as if the gases had a purpose. Giving natural phenomena human-like attributes leads to serious science issues.”

So is it possible that a volcano could erupt in the heart of Los Angeles, raining a storm of deadly firebombs and an endless river of white hot lava on the stunned city? Can brave and dedicated emergency management director Tommy Lee Jones, and plucky seismologist Anne Heche save the day?

“I actually like the way Dr. Amy Barnes (the Anne Heche character) is portrayed in Volcano,” says Marenco. “She is so normal that she could be your next-door neighbor, and yet she is intelligent, witty and successful.”

Marenco’s least favorite character is Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton from The Core. Although Braz is portrayed as absurdly intelligent, the writers revive the old stereotype of the mad scientist.

“I think such portrayals do a public disservice in that they make it look as if to be a scientist you have to be a crazy loner,” says Marenco.

In 10.5, a chain of massive earthquakes threatens to wipe the West Coast off the map. In Deep Impact, a comet is on a collision course with Earth. In The Day After Tomorrow, abrupt global warming results in a new ice age.

But no disaster—volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, the polar ice caps melting, fire from the sky—can match the cataclysm of 2012, which actually leads to the end of the world, dooming the entire human race. If this narrative sounds strangely familiar, even Biblical, it will come as no surprise that the spaceships intended to save a few human survivors are called “arks.”

“In 2012, everything goes wrong—volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes—and nothing can save us,” says Marenco, which is why he chose 2012 for the final film the class sees. “I figured that is a good vehicle to summarize what we learned during the quarter.”