Friday, September 20, 2013

Core and The Core: Why Not Brazzletonite?

cutaway-EarthIn 1947, while teaching a graduate course in physics at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi famously posed the question, “What is the deepest hole that may be dug into the Earth?” Since it was an experiment that had never been done, he didn’t have the answer, but it sure got the students thinking.

The first thing you’d need is a material that can penetrate the very hard, very high-pressure, very hot deepest mantle. In the movie The Core, an ingenious inventor, Edward Brazzleton (played by Delroy Lindo), comes up with superhard, refractory “unobtainium,” based on boron nitride, to sheath a drill ship that can propel itself through Earth’s mantle, while not baking the people inside it to a crisp.

Personally I think the script writers missed a great opportunity by not naming unobtainium, which obviously was obtainable, brazzletonite instead.

“Everybody knows that boron nitride crystals are six times harder than diamond,” Brazzleton says. Well… boron nitride is certainly an interesting compound, and at least one crystalline arrangement is a little harder than ordinary diamond, but some rare forms of diamond are harder still.

Boron nitride is indeed refractory – it’s used to line crucibles in steel mills; diamonds, on the other hand, catch fire at 800 degrees Celsius, roughly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Brazzleton boasts that unobtainium can withstand 9,000 F. Unfortunately, the temperature of the liquid iron core rises from 8,000 to 11,000 F. As insulation, unobtainium would fail.

In Core the novel, the composition of hudderite, invented by Cyrus Hudder, is hinted at – “ice-seven lattices, diamondlike lattices, beryllium fluoride interprenetrating silicon oxide” – but never specified. No such material will ever be created, even in theory.

Brazzleton does have the right idea about launching his ship from dry land, however. Unfortunately he’s overruled by geophysicist Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci).

Zimsky: We need to cut our actual digging time as much as possible…. We’re digging a hole, why not start with a hole? Marianas Trench in the Pacific. Six miles below sea level….

Once under way, the drill ship will reach a vertical speed of sixty miles per hour. Says Zimsky, “We’ll be through the crust in fifteen minutes and into the mantle. Twenty-four hours to the core….”

The ocean launch in The Core takes place during a hurricane and involves a dive of over six miles. So how much time did they save by carrying their whole project across the Pacific?

The oceanic crust averages about six miles thick. The continental crust averages about twenty miles thick. Had the ship been launched from the comfort and stability of Brazzleton’s solid-ground desert site, the additional fourteen miles through the softest layer of the planet would have cost just a quarter of an hour. The crust is nothing; the 1,800 mile journey through the mantle is the real challenge.

In Core, the novel, the drill site was in West Texas. But coincidentally (no doubt), there is also a deep ocean dive in the novel. Before joining the CORE drilling project Queenie Toubou, a Tongan, was an oceanographer and made a dive to the bottom of the Tonga Trench. Luckily she was not aboard the submersible on a later mission when it imploded, but the experience led her to become expert at engineering structures capable of withstanding extreme pressure. She and Brazzleton would have had lots to talk about.

There are many other odd coincidences between Core the book and The Core the movie. One that’s not odd is that they both stretch scientific likelihood to the breaking point and beyond. A ship (movie) or a drill rig (novel) that can drill straight down at sixty miles an hour? Come on….

My novel tries to distract from its cheats with sleight of hand. The movie trumpets its absurdities, apparently because it doesn’t realize how absurd they are.

The most discouraging thing about watching The Core in the theater was not the mangled science — that disaster was evident right from the opening scene that featured fried pacemakers — but the waste of a superb cast, including Lindo, Tucci, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and others. What could they have done with a script whose base was, perhaps, a little less loose?

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