“Knowing” How Solar Flares Don’t Work

knowing-flaming-earth

My wife turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, “Can you sue a production company for inaccurate science in a movie?

Hmmm… good point!” I said. “Unfortunately, though, I think it’s just called ‘being creative.’

But that got me thinking.

Knowing not very much

We’d just sat through the Nicholas Cage disaster movie Knowing after heavily criticising the last hour of magical solar flares, prophecies, silly religious undertones and complete disregard for a little thing called “science.” Oh, and there were aliens. Who would have guessed?!

I would say that apart from these things, it was actually a pretty good film… but I’d be lying. Well, a little. I was actually quite impressed by the assorted disaster CGI and the acting (I’m glad Rose Byrne is getting some big roles, as I think she rocked in Damages), but generally, I was disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the director Alex Proyas didn’t have such a contempt for asking a science advisor for… I dunno… “advice.”

In fact, I’m not even going to bother researching whether there was a science advisor in the production crew or not, because either a) the rest of the crew didn’t listen to him/her, b) the science advisor was lying about his/her credentials or, c) the science advisor was stoned/drunk while on the set. Therefore, in my mind, there wasn’t a science advisor involved in the making of this film.

Putting the stupid plot, aliens (double-facepalm), Byrne’s character’s death (there should be a “she’s too pretty to die” policy) and no science advisor to one side, I still cannot understand how they got solar flares so wrong.

Kaboom! Whoooshhh! Fizzzzz….

I’m not being funny, it’s as if Proyas didn’t bother to Google “solar flare,” just to check to see how solar flares really do work. Hell, go to the self-explanatory HowStuffWorks.com and do a search for “Sun.” If either one of these things were done during pre-production, the science may actually have been plausable.

In a totally forgettable scene, right toward the end of the movie, the uber-scary solar flare waits to be blasted at Earth. Cage gets on the phone to his Dad saying something like, “You know it’s been pretty hot lately? Well, it’s about to get hotter!” That’s an epic solar fail already. For some reason, the world had gotten hotter and everyone just shrugged it off as a warm October? I’m thinking the Sun would need to be whacking out a huge increase in energy, and in which case, those bumbling solar physicists or the N.O.A.A. (or “EN-Oh-Ay-Ay” as the cast painstakingly spells out) might have noticed?

I’m a stickler for realism in movies — so this is just a personal gripe — but why weren’t real images of the Sun from SOHO, TRACE, Yohkoh, Hinode or STEREO (let alone the countless ground-based solar observatories) used at all through the entire film? Instead, we see a strange blob of CGI graphic, shimmering like a corporate logo on computer screens, being referred to as “our Sun.” I’m pretty sure NASA would have happily provided some real pictures of “our Sun” if they were asked.

Solar flares or cosmic death rays?

But the best part of the entire movie is when we get hit by the super flare. Oh dear lord. If you weren’t terrified of the Sun before, you will be now. That thing can incinerate cities! It’s radiation can penetrate the Earth a mile deep! Holy cow, it is like a trillion-billion atomic bombs all going off at the same time!!!

Ah, I stand corrected. The production crew obviously did Google “solar flare,” but only read the bit where it says “…an energy of 100 million Hiroshima bombs is released…” That’s big right? Yep, Earth is toast!

Unfortunately, they didn’t read the bit which points out that this huge explosion occurs deep in the solar corona, 100 million miles away (that’s a long way away).

Also, they didn’t realize that even the biggest solar flares and coronal mass ejections (the latter wasn’t mentioned once for the whole movie) are deflected by our planet’s magnetosphere and thick atmosphere.

The only science that was mentioned was that the “flare” would hit our atmosphere, destroying our ozone, thereby killing everything on the planet. In actuality, if you watched the “flare” hit Earth, I’m not sure what the ozone had to do with anything! That “flare” was like a cosmic ray gun, ripping through the atmosphere and the Empire State Building (oh yes, there was a lot of “famous landmark shredding”) as if it was a hot knife slicing butter. I don’t think we need to worry about excessive UV exposure due to lack of ozone when Earth is on fire.

There’s a list of things that annoyed me about this movie, and I don’t have the patience to mock all points, but after my wife wondered about suing a movie for bad science, I got to thinking what damage movies do to the perception of science. Oh yes, I know it’s sci-fi, I know it’s “just a movie,” I really do know that it’s not real, but wouldn’t it be fun to have a disaster flick that uses some real science for a change?

Real science is sexy too

As I was discussing with solar physicist Alex Young in last week’s filming of the Discovery Channel 2012 documentary, the real threat of a massive solar flare is actually pretty daunting. Granted, the Sun isn’t about to fire a cosmic death ray at us (and let’s face it, the Sun isn’t going to do anything any time soon), setting the planet on fire, but the real physics would be awesome if used in a disaster movie.

Just imagine if we had a disaster movie that depicted a solar flare erupting on the surface of the Sun, just above a highly active region of clustered sunspots and stressed coronal loops. We could see real movies of intense magnetic activity, and then suddenly the blinding burst of electromagnetic radiation. This flare could be the biggest the Earth has seen in modern times. The X-rays from this event knock out solar observatories, stunning the delicate light-collecting CCDs in their cameras. These X-rays immediately slam into our ionosphere, causing a massive surge of electrons, blocking global communications. This may have the knock-on effect of causing our atmosphere to heat up and swell, increasing the drag on our orbiting satellites.

In the first moment when we see the flare, already we see global problems. But this would only be a precursor to something a lot worse…

I can imagine the scene in the perfect movie: Our brave, and smart solar physicists are looking at live data streaming from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a multi-instrument telescope sitting between the Earth and the Sun. They see an expanding bubble growing well beyond the disk of the Sun. An alert is sent out to the authorities; a CME is coming… and it’s headed straight for us… it will hit in a few hours. Cue the countdown to CME impact (the suspense will be tangible, you won’t be moving from your seat). But wait! Communications are patchy, the ionosphere just blocked the satellite link to the US President… time is running out! Bruce Willis, our hero heliospheric expert, steps in and volunteers to notify the president himself (with a gun in his pocket, as there’s bound to be an assassin or terrorist out there to shoot at).

Planetary mayhem

But the fun would really begin when the CME slams into our magnetosphere. The magnetic field of the CME and that of the Earth’s hit in such a way that they reconnect, flooding the magnetosphere with high energy particles. The Earth’s Van Allen belts become supercharged like radioactive reservoirs. Satellites are overcome by high-energy particle impacts. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) go offline. Communication satellites suffer drag and literally start to drop out of the sky.

And it gets worse!

The solar particles are deflected toward the poles, but the solar storm is so intense, particles penetrate deeper, generating vast aurorae at low latitudes. Even equatorial regions would see vast light shows as the particles flood in from space. Although amazingly beautiful, this has yet another side-effect, our atmosphere just became a huge conductor, where vast currents flow as electrojets. These electrojets generate massive magnetic fields, in turn overloading our national grids.

We now have no power and no means to communicate. We’re blind and unable to function. Governments are overwhelmed. Imagine Katrina-scale events all over the USA… all over the world. Who can help? Suddenly the $2 trillion damage estimate made by NASA seems too small… after all, we’d be plunged back into the dark ages, how can you count costs in dollars when a financial system no longer exists?

Conclusion

I don’t expect movies to be totally scientifically accurate. However, if you are basing an entire storyline on one harbinger of doom, at least get that right.

A solar flare will hit Earth in the future, there’s even a very good chance that we’ll get hit by a “big one” that could cause some collateral damage. In fact, if we are very unlucky, a large solar storm could be considered “civilization ending.” Yes, asteroids pose a clear and present danger to life on Earth, but don’t forget the Sun, it has a history of getting angry when the Earth is in the orbital firing line.

If that isn’t a great plot for a disaster movie, I don’t know what is.

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60 responses to ““Knowing” How Solar Flares Don’t Work

  1. Thank you. I mean it, seriously, thank you. And I sincerely hope some movie producer with half a brain (AKA 'gifted in Hollywood') reads this, actually pays you for your scary plot premise, and then makes a scary, 'makes you think' movie!!Science so rocks.

    • My pleasure, thank you for your nice comment :) I think I got a little carried away with this one, but it was fun to write.This is the biggest issue Hollywood is facing at the moment. Sure, creativity and poetic licence will always be more important than scientific accuracy, but Knowing based its science on religious fear and misunderstanding of nature. It's almost as if it skipped 50 years of solar research!Ah well, at least it makes for great fodder for us scientists to rip apart. I'm very excited for the science fail in 2012, as these seems to be an abundance of it just in the trailers! :)Cheers, Ian

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  3. Watch the movie Sunshine. Its about a group of people who have to reignite the sun after it starts to fizzle out threatening life on earth. Its by the same guy who did 28 days later, which is also good.

  4. I think you just wrote a blockbuster script. I was glued to the edge of my seat, reading through to the end. Seriously! You get a standing ovation and an Oscar nomination – wait, let's make that an Ian nomination- from this movie-goer. ;)

    • Aww, thanks Tavi! This is one thing I keep saying all along, there's nothing more astounding than REAL science. It bewilders me when bad science is invented just for the “wow” factor. Nature has enough “wow” to make the best CGI look pedestrian!Cheers!Ian

  5. Ian O'Neill:

    In fact, I’m not even going to bother researching whether there was a science advisor in the production crew or not, because either a) the rest of the crew didn’t listen to him/her, b) the science advisor was lying about his/her credentials or, c) the science advisor was stoned/drunk while on the set. Therefore, in my mind, there wasn’t a science advisor involved in the making of this film.

    I think it is option “b”; the 'science' advisor was probably from the Thunder[bollocks].info group!

    • The guy is a douche. 95 percent of all movie scripts are not legit. That's what makes them MOVIES. If Hollywood applied a little more actual science in their movies then nobody would want to watch them. Most people watch movies as a form of entertainment. They don't watch them to become more educated. I think people should stick to what their good at. Let Hollywood writers write their scripts (because they know whats going to sell). Let over-educated physicists stick to studying the sun and masturbating. (his wife is really his hand with a tattoo of the sun on it.)

      • “If Hollywood applied a little more actual science in their movies then nobody would want to watch them.”Nonsense. If movies were more in tune with basic science, they would make more sense and actually open room for plenty of new ideas that are currently beyond most screen writers' grasp. Being sent back to the Dark Ages by a massive CME, something that could really happen and is based on solid science, is not a good apocalypse flick? Have you flipped your lid?“Let Hollywood writers write their scripts (because they know whats going to sell).”Yes, this is exactly why about 9 out of 10 movies barely recoup the money it took to make them over several years. You don't know very much about the movie business, do you? You don't have rooms of wise marketers and writers who know what sells by years of statistical analysis. Most movies are relatively random crapshoots undertaken by movie execs who got wind of the project through nepotistic connections. Oh and by the way, the critics agree that Knowing was a crap movie. When we factor in the 50/50 split with theaters, it actually lost money.“(his wife is really his hand with a tattoo of the sun on it.)”Pardon me sir, your jackassery is showing…

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  7. “Coronal mass ejection” is never mentioned verbally in the movie, but it is shown on a computer screen during the exposition sequence about solar flares. I guess they just didn't want to bother the audience with a phrase they'd never heard before.

  8. Oh yeah? What about that pathetic hound dog that had a “chunk” of brown dwarf impact the moon, which began spiralling in towards the earth. Until they used an atomic bomb to blast the offending sliver back out into space thus restoring the moon to it's rightful orbit and saving the earth.The producers of that one should be sent to the moon themselves. Without a helmet.

  9. Hey, you have some good points. But, and there is a but…Such a solar flare is possible. Unlikely, I think you need to watch more discovery channel or get a science degree.Almost, but not quite.

    • You know, it seems that skeptics get these random calls to get an education in areas where they already either have educations or professional expertise. Phil Plait sometimes gets told to study more about space (he's an astronomer). Ian gets told to get a science degree (he's an astrophysicist). I get told to learn more about computers from singularitarians and transhumanists (I did a long stint in IT dev teams).Could it possibly be that people who make these calls just don't take the time to, oh, I don't know, pay attention? Get their facts straight? Figure out that there are bloggers who have professional qualifications to write about certain things?Or is it just my opinion?

    • Your comment is intriguing. Please, explain to us how such a solar flare is possible. Your only constraint: You are bound by the laws of physics and can use no magic, pseudoscience, mysticism, wizardry, sorcery, or paranormal explanations.You can do it – we all have faith in you. In 3…2…1… GO!

    • I know, I feel as if I've missed my calling in life. I'd better start watching some Discovery Channel. Hell, I think I might get educated too! It seems so obvious now … ;)

  10. I got stuck watching “Knowing” on my last visit to my parents' house. I laughed uproariously throughout the film and kept thinking “Ian is going to come unglued if he's ever in my position.”Maybe I'm clairvoyant! Hm..

  11. Sounds like a brilliant pitch. I would see it.I remember seeing a docu-drama type thing on discovery a while back that kinda followed this plot….there was some strange subplot about an administrator who refused to shut down a power plant in NY. I remember it as being pretty well done but I am probably looking at it through tinted glasses, no pun intended.

  12. Thank you, next time my friends harass me about why I don't like movies like this, that treat science so cavalierly, I'm going to direct them to this.Great, or even good, science fiction/action/etc. stories are based in real science. That's why we've managed to actually create things that writers made up ages before we had a clue how to.And any good writer, fiction or not, researches the material before writing about it. It's really that simple. This applies to any genre except perhaps pure fantasy, but even fantasy is better when it's rooted in tradition, and that requires research.Unfortunately, most people don't have the education to understand what is actually possible on even the most basic level. Still, it's a much larger problem that the people with the voice to move them to get educated don't bother learning themselves.

  13. They do make movies in which they attempt to keep the science accurate. They're called documentaries. Unfortunately hardly anyone ever watches them as they tend towards the dull and tedious for non-scientists. So they make more interesting movies for the rest of the population in which they relax the requirement for scientific rigour. They're called fiction. I am afraid that its just something you and your wife are going to have to learn to deal with.

  14. you have a strong point, but I believe the point of the movie wasn't to be scientifically correct. The plot might be dense, but it is very well though, generally consistent and very well directed. Proyas' objective was not to just make another disaster movie, the disasters are side eye candy. Notice that the time on screen about the actual flare hitting is very low compared to other key moments in the plot. To put your realistic flare in the movie it would take a lot of time just to 'end' the movie. Yes, the flare is the aftermath after the climax, would you see a movie that had a hour long aftermath? guess not.What matters the most in all Proyas' movies is the symbolism and that's why he gladly favours style over science. If you think the plot was silly or stupid, then clearly, 'Knowing' is not a film for you, and that's ok.Btw, the movie was filmed in Australia with a very low budget compared to what Hollywood employs these days. They spelled NOAA in a strange way possibly to avoid confusion with the guy from the Bible (that would be Noah).”The solar particles are deflected toward the poles, but the solar storm is so intense, particles penetrate deeper, generating vast aurorae at low latitudes.” <<< I actually would love to see that in Knowing (I actually expected it), unfortunately you can't have everything.

  15. Maybe scientists shouldn't be allowed to watch movies…When watching movies I am able to suspend disbelief and take into consideration that this is an imaginary world where such things can happen even if they could never possibly happen in our world.

  16. One of my favorite bad science moments was doing some cg graphics for an episode of Stargate SG1 years ago. Our heroes had found a connection to a planet in the galactic center and had traveled there to make observations of the hypothetical massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Due to the proximity of the other stars to this system they'd traveled to (galactic center = greater density of suns) there was no true night due to all the light from neighbouring stars. Kind of okay so far, right?…but then it turns out that they want to be there at a specific time to make observations – when an eclipse causes global darkness on the planets surface… Which I'm pretty certain would mean that every sun near the system they were in would have to be eclipsed by something, or several hundred thousand somethings all at the same time. …which teaches us by inference that an eclipse is when it's suddenly spontaneously night time. This is the kind of definition of an eclipse that a caged parakeet might come up with when trying to puzzle out the system behind a blanket being put over it's cage. The producers on this show were a bit smarter than a cat, except for the visual effects producer…who was quite a bit dumber…

  17. If you actually think that the general public would find anything accurately scientific…entertaining, then you obviously don't have a grasp on reality at all! The truth doesn't make money. Why do you think it is altered so much by those who wish to profit from it?Besides I liked the movie and I'd be the first to say it isn't accurate. Some of these movies that just lack accuracy are pretty fun to watch. You've just got to stop thinking like a geek and start thinking like a movie goer out to enjoy the movie.What else do we have? Nothing. The movie companies aren't about to start writing fiction based on actual truth and reality. That doesn't make money. It can and has, but it's rare but the fact still remains that people don't want to see anything based in reality. They want to see fictional explosions, fire, death and destruction.

  18. If you actually think that the general public would find anything accurately scientific…entertaining, then you obviously don't have a grasp on reality at all! The truth doesn't make money. Why do you think it is altered so much by those who wish to profit from it?Besides I liked the movie and I'd be the first to say it isn't accurate. Some of these movies that just lack accuracy are pretty fun to watch. You've just got to stop thinking like a geek and start thinking like a movie goer out to enjoy the movie.What else do we have? Nothing. The movie companies aren't about to start writing fiction based on actual truth and reality. That doesn't make money. It can and has, but it's rare but the fact still remains that people don't want to see anything based in reality. They want to see fictional explosions, fire, death and destruction.

  19. I don't think simply being drunk would let any science advisor off the hook. When the host of our TV show (astronomyforeveryone.org) asks me a question that wasn't in the outline, and i have to make one up, i come up with much stupider stuff than when i'm just drunk. Maybe, when i'm drunk, i take my time. But i think more to the point, being drunk affects your judgment, not your grasp of facts.I'm a stickler for good science too. Which is why i enjoyed Harry Potter, and Men in Black so much, both of which were completely factual. (cough, cough).

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  21. Solid analysis, and I agree, the super flare in the film was sensational.Remember that most of the population has no patience, a numbed sense of drama and pertinence (i.e., large explosions required), and little intellect with which to appreciate scientific accuracy in film.I feel perfectly comfortable subsisting in a world without power and global communications, and the collapse of global finance, while inconvenient, would be refreshing in a strange and difficult way (e.g., Fight Club).For this reason I wilfully suspended my disbelief with alacrity and I found Knowing's ending to be pretty potent. The religious metaphors were intense and inspiring.And finally, how often do producers dare to kill *everyone*?Cheers,AndrewChiocca -(at)- inbox.com

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  23. ok i really feel stupid now. I thought it would be easier to have a solar flare hit the earth than I just read here lol. Thank you for writing this.

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  25. I just watched this movie last night. Now I am not bothered by aliens, far fetched science or blatant science fiction. Infact, I love the creativity of it all. Still, the whole time I watched this movie I was saying, I really don't think a solar flare could be so bad as to wipe everything off the whole planet. I am not an expert by any sense, but I do try to be a little informed. I was sure that a solar flare could wipe out all our modern conviences and cause panic, death and the break down of government, but not strip the whole Earth in a blazing fire. Thank you for posting this so people like me can do a little research and seperate fact from fiction.

  26. I agree with Anonymous. I don't attend movies to determine what I can and can't shred as fact or fiction. We all have our areas of expertise and even when I view a movie that misrepresents my line of work, it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the movie for me. At best my co-worker-friends and I simply chuckle about the lack of reality the movie protrayed as it relates to our profession. We just don't take it personally and we aren't offended by the lack of credibility. I don't view producers or directors as owing my profession anything and I don't expect them to know about what I do or how it is done. It's not their area of expertise. In addition I don't know their profession and all that goes into making a movie and editing, etc. I do know that my area of expertise is not foremost on their minds when they write us into a script. We are written in for purposes of the glamour only so that it translates to entertainment. Sometimes that translation works and sometimes it doesn't for an audience. I enjoyed this movie. This movie served as a basis of long conversations among me and family, friends and colleagues. It seems there is a slight undertone here that is not being talked about (religion-Genesis) in terms of perhaps how much it adversely affected many of you. This is what really drew me in and I will not down-play that aspect of the movie or pretend that it wasn't the highlight for me. I find it amazing that as scientists you haven't figured out that the movie wasn't meant to be about science as much as it was meant to be about God (who knows more about science than any of us will ever know, since HE invented it). For those who are unaware, many people of Faith have wanted to get their screenplays/scripts out to the public, but have been shut down at every turn in Hollywood. Finally some writers and producers devised a plan to conceal their message in their scripts by using science-fiction and other movie categories. Science-fiction works so well because it is FICTION and obviously its easy to mesh aliens (angels) with the supernatural. It may help to know that the sci-fi portion is usually “backended” into the main story just to get it approved by Hollywood executives. Otherwise these writers would have no desire to tread on “your” waters. It has proven to be an excellent niche for those who are trying to reach audience members who are moved by the real message in these story lines. The movie may not have done well, but it wouldn't have made it off the paper had they not taken this creative route. I often times must remind myself that my profession is not a priority in everyone else's world when I wonder how someone didn't deliver something to me in a timely manner. I think the same goes for this scenario. They didn't deliver facts because it wasn't about the details of solar flares, massive corona ejections, radio bursts or a solar tsunami. This was a movie about faith & even in the context of faith it was still just a movie. I don't think your minds are capable of grasping and enjoying these simplicities which is why you are the great scientists that you are. Something has to give with a brain that is designed like yours and I suppose this is it. It's like music. My wife cannot enjoy anything but classical and certain types of jazz because she accuses the arrangement of being so simplistic and basic. I am able to enjoy everything from classical to hip hop to country while realizing the drastic differences in formal trainging versus pop-world training. The bottom line is I don't enjoy any one type of music less because they are all poeasing to my ear for different reasons and for different moods. Interesting blog by the way. I hope you reach a place where you can switch off the inner scientist long enough to appreciate the beautiful subtle things in life that are founded in the goodness of the spirit of something (a behavior, an act, an object, entertainment, etc). Its not always about you, me or us. Your minds are too great and capable to miss out. In your quiet moments I ask only that you open your hearts…

  27. I am actually in the process of writing a book, based on this very scenario. A friend at NASA recommended me to your site when I was doing research. I live in Canada, which for some reason, means that nobody knows nothing about anything!!! I have been trying to research this thoroughly, so that for once, the science could be real, although at a very worst case scenario…no building shredding, just people and civilization as we know it trying to pick up from the beginning again. I can get all types of hoopla on line, especially from the States, but very few are willing to give me any solid, scientific answers. Any suggestions on who would be an ideal science advisor to contact?

  28. I guess the author of this story has God like knowledge of what is possible. The silly notion that the sun behaves the way they think it does given the small amount of data they have collected is pretentious to the extreme. Perhaps the event is triggered by some unknown process, such as a star collapsing into a black hole sending a focused intense gamma ray that hits the sun and causes instability. Instability which results in a cme of unfathomable scale. It should be illegal for ignorant science experts to refute any conceivable scenario since THEY REALLY do not know.

  29. June 2012 NASA pub two papers, both referencing Kepler info.
    One pub first covers super flare stars in general, with lots of super flare stars found. Most had close-in super Earth which NASA says pulls the magnetism out until stretched so far it snaps back.
    25% of sun-like stars had no super Earth yet still flared.
    Later that month NASA released data from 2011 Kepler info that shows a super flare in actual occurance. Shots of the super Earth that the previous year by Kepler fail to show any atmosphere on the super Earth, but amazingly Kepler caught masses of hydrogen being blown off the super Earth by a super flare. so I wonder if that hydrogen is from the sun instead of the super Earth. Perhaps the super Earth had already been stripped of all its atmosphere?

    .

  30. Saw some of “Knowing” on FX just last night. My question is: have we ever even caught an otherwise stable sunlike star going “BRRRREPPP!!!–excuse me!”?

  31. That’s the problem?inaccurate description of solar flares effects ?the part where someone knew about all catastrophes in the last 50 years and in the future in detail is not important(90/100 of the movie).why do scientists go to movies I don’t know ,when it’s known that scientists don’t have imagination?

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