Shhhhh… Do You Hear That? That’s The Sound Of The World Not Ending

Perfect solstice sunrise by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK)

‘Perfect solstice sunrise’ by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK on Twitter)

Now, call your friends, grab a beer and celebrate the end of the Maya Long Count calendar’s 13th b’ak’tun and the winter solstice. (Sorry doomsayers, I will not be giving you a reference for your post-doomsday interview, you did a crappy job of the Apocalypse.)

Also, send your congratulations to my sister, Colette! IT’S HER 30TH BIRTHDAY! Congrats Sis!!

On a side note, a few of us appeared on the #TWISmageddon 21 hour marathon to talk about the end of the world (or lack thereof), science and the human propensity for believing the Mayan doomsday bunkum. Thanks to Kiki Sanford, Justin Jackson, Scott Lewis, Blair Bazdarich, Nicole Gugliucci and Andy Ihnatko for a terrific Google+ Hangout. Who knew doomsday would be so much fun! (We start at about 1hr 45mins into the Hangout.)

EDIT: Is John Cusack skiing? He’d better be — that’s what he told me during the premier of “2012” in 2009! More: “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.

“Skiing” he told me. Skiing.

Read more: No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide (Discovery News)

About these ads

“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.

2012: Hardcore Disaster Pr0n

2012b

This video made my day.

Fortunately I’ve been hard-wired to Twitter today, so I’ve spotted some awesome links pop up from my ace tweeters. But I wasn’t prepared for the awesomeness that was encapsulated in @jimmynewland tweet titled, “2012: All the Disaster Pr0n you can take!

To be honest, I was expecting the movie trailer for the John Cussak disaster flick “2012” (coming to a deafening surround sound theatre near you), but no… this is better… far better. Take a look, it gets funnier the more you watch it:

As I made all too clear in my previous post on this subject, I made the pre-preview prediction (and I didn’t need a crop circle to predict this) that 2012 is going to be heavy on the CGI, but light on the plot.

Basically, it looks like Emmerich’s wet dream, probably an opportunity he’s been waiting for all his career. If you thought The Day After Tomorrow was an Earth-crunching death-fest, think again, this movie has rolling buildings, flying Bentleys, flying giraffes, spaceships, exploding cities, exploding fireballs, exploding… rocks… Hell, where’s the nukes! We need nukes! I hope Emmerich remembered the nukes.

And this video sums the whole thing up, and I love it. As described by the creator on io9, Garrison Dean:

Every so often I feel a film is just being marketed poorly. This is often laziness and misdirection on their part. Occasionally it is arrogance when they think there is more to their film than is actually there. So, in my own arrogance, I try to help them along. Last year I felt “Hulk” needed some help. Today my mission is one that blends swimmingly with my own love of Disaster. Please enjoy this special holiday treat that I made just for you.

Dean is referring to 2012, and watching it, I can’t help but be entertained and enthusiastic for the movie. He’s done a great re-edit. It now has the 1970’s classic disaster movie atmosphere of Towering Inferno with the cutting edge Big Flaming Balls Of Fire™ we are now accustomed to in modern Hollywood.

It’s not going to be a good film, films kinda need plots. Perhaps the experienced cast might be able to pull it out of the frenzy of tsunamis, burning cities and crying children, but I’m not going for the plot, I’m going for the CGI… and the science errors, of course.

John Cusack? Airlifted Giraffes? Please Tell Me It’s Doomsday

Firstly, let’s set the record straight: I love disaster movies.

I don’t care if the Earth is being invaded by aliens, getting hit by comets, being saved by oil drillers or poisoned by angry trees (yes, my brain even shrank through The Happening). It’s fiction, it’s fun and, let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of global calamity interwoven with a silly plot.

So, today the extended trailer for the November film 2012 has been released (below), and I do admit, I was mildly excited to see what this budding blockbuster had to offer — although I changed my mind when seeing the horridly Hollywooded ‘science’ and the USS John F. Kennedy flatten the White House after surfing a mega-tsunami at the end. That was no cigarette they were smoking in the Sony Pictures cutting room.

The whole 2012 hype has kept my blogging gene active for the best part of a year, so I know for a fact that 2012 director Roland Emmerich has a lot of material to play with.

According to the CGI-fest of a trailer, have some ancient intrigue with “mankind’s earliest civilization” (the Mayans… a.k.a. not mankind’s earliest civilization) predicting the “end of the world” (are you sure?) with their pesky calendar. We also have something astronomical (yep, Planet X is back) careering toward Earth. We get tsunamis flattening cities, flying giraffe, Noah’s Ark, minivans getting hit by Big Flaming Balls Of Fire™, crying children, earthquakes, fire, more crying children, famine, angry politicians and John Cusack. (What?)

This is going to be oodles of fun if you want to see our planet disintegrate into a tortured dust bowl via computer-generated fury, but could this also be the end of the quintessential disaster movie?

This has been my complaint all along about the insane doomsday scenarios being dreamed up by crackpots and greedy authors: You’re trying too hard! What ever happened to the subtle art of doomsday prophesy?

EXAMPLE: Nostradamus says the world will end some hazy time in the hazy future (get that man a Nobel Prize!); a computer expert says, “Hmm, these microchips might reset when the calendar switches from 1999 to 2000,” followed by the aforementioned crackpots and greedy authors telling the scared populous that we’ll be driven back into the Stone Age… all because of a small, overlooked flaw in computer programming.

I miss those doomsday scenarios. They were simpler times.

Now we have 2012 conspiracy theorists compounding doomsayer dogma, bending science to suit their hopelessly flawed doomsday scenarios. 2012 seems to be a hothouse for every impossible planet killer we could possibly imagine. How the hell Emmerich is going to work Nibiru, Planet X, killer solar flares, polar reversal, galactic alignment and geomagnetic hoopla into the plot I’ll never know.

Impossibly jumbled plot to one side, I will still want to be one of the first to see this movie. I’ve examined the real science behind the proposed end of the world in 2012 since May 2008, and I can assure you, I have yet to come across one single ounce of Planet X matter. No planet-wide calamity is expected on December 21st, 2012, and there isn’t a single shred of scientific or archaeological evidence that suggests otherwise. It will be interesting to see if Emmerich hired a science advisor, to actually add any credibility to doomsday, but if recent examples are anything to go by, I suspect it’s going to be science-lite.

Unfortunately, I am still saddened by Sony Pictures marketing ploy. The Institute for Human Continuity (IHC) viral campaign was very a successful yet short-sighted idea, marketing the movie like a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, but pandering to the anti-science sentiment that flows through the heart of doomsday hoaxers.

All in all, yes, I’ll watch 2012, but I can guarentee I’ll be shaking my head for the most part. The choice of cast is a warning sign. John Cusack as the flawed dad who’ll save the day? Danny Glover as President?? Woody Harrelson? Woody Harrelson?

2012 Is Coming… And All I Got Was This Lousy Fridge Magnet

Screenshot from the Flash animation "The End of the World" by Fluid

Just when I was getting bored of the endless stream of 2012 doomsday hype (tripe), my interest was suddenly reinvigorated when I saw this advertisement:

2012 Calendar Magnet

$2.99 + shipping

Our calendar magnet is a real 2012 calendar. So you can have it on the refrigerator for 3 1/2 years! The calendar magnet is 4.25 inches wide and 5.5 inches long. It is also very clear and easy to read (looks better than the picture above, but is smaller). The shipping cost within the U.S. is $0.79 and for International orders $1.89.

No way. Oh yes. Yes, they did! The most well-known 2012 protagonist website is selling doomsday fridge magnets depicting an Earth plus comet barrelling towards it.

I had to triple-check, just in case this was the doomsday blogging equivalent to Punk’d. No, this is real: fridge magnets.
Continue reading