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Friday, September 13, 2013

Core and The Core: Loosey Goosey

Core novel cover The Core movie poster

The last time I looked, the Wikipedia stub “Core (novel)” notes that my novel Core was published in 1993 and says, “A 2003 film, The Core, was loosely based on this novel.”

Pretty loose, all right, since I never heard of the movie until I saw the poster in a multiplex. But that’s a relief: in a 2009 “poll of hundreds of scientists about bad sci-fi films,” in a National Academy of Sciences initiative led by actor and former chemist Dustin Hoffman (Wikipedia again), “The Core was voted the worst.”

It would be nice to shake the association, although that’s not easy. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and neither can ideas. In the case of a novel, what can be copyrighted are the words, and The Core doesn’t use Core’s words. There are, however, an unusual number of coincidences.

In both novel and movie, the plot is set in motion by the unusually rapid collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field, an event that usually takes thousands of years, occurs infrequently, and is often followed by a reversal of the magnetic poles. In both novel and movie, scientists address this monumental inconvenience by drilling a hole to Earth’s liquid outer core — in Core they use drilling tools, in The Core they ride down in a ship.

In both novel and movie, a new kind of hard, refractory material is essential to the effort — Core calls it hudderite after its inventor, The Core calls it “unobtainium,” which made some people think the movie was an intentional comedy. (Probable inspiration: the temporary names given newly discovered elements, element 117 being ununseptium, 118 ununoctium, and so on.)

And in both novel and movie, the collapsed magnetic field is restored by setting off nuclear bombs in the liquid iron core — in Core to trigger vortices and restart the geodynamo, in The Core to re-spin the solid nickel-iron inner core (a puzzling approach, since the inner core’s very slow spin does not contribute to the magnetic field).

As far as I know, the quick collapse of Earth’s magnetic field had never been used in fiction before I wrote Core. Reversals of the field’s polarity were, however, a lively subject in geology. Rob Coe, Michel Prévot, and Pierre Camps had been studying magnetic orientations frozen into the thin layers of iron-rich basalt that make up Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon (an area I know well) and, two years after the novel appeared, they published in Nature “New evidence for extraordinarily rapid change of the geomagnetic field during a reversal.”

Earth’s magnetic field deflects many charged particles from the solar wind and cosmic rays, which would otherwise not only expose the planet to more particle radiation (although most shielding is from the atmosphere) but impact the ozone layer and expose the surface to more ultraviolet radiation as well, particularly at high altitudes.

What would happen if the field suddenly collapsed? Here’s where the coincidences between Core and The Core take divergent paths.

In the novel the chief threats are burns, radiation sickness, and eventually cancer, particularly at high altitudes, and occasional solar flares that wreak havoc on communications. One minor incident involves an iron shed and a flock of confused pigeons, which depend to some extent on the magnetic field for navigation; elsewhere, and offstage, some Boy Scouts get lost.

What would not be the consequences? Failed pacemakers, lightning storms, mass bird suicides, or planes falling from the sky. At one point in the movie, geophysicists Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) list some of the dangers they expect:

Keyes: So now you get all this high weirdness. We’ve got electromagnetic pulses that fry pacemakers, overload bird navigational senses…. As the EM field becomes more and more unstable, we’ll start seeing isolated incidents – one plane will fall from the sky, then two, then, in a few months, anything, everything electronic will be fried.

Zimsky: Static discharges in the atmosphere will create superstorms with hundreds of lightning strikes per square mile…. The Earth’s EM field shields us from solar radiation. When that shield collapses, microwave radiation will scour the planet.

Last I heard, airplanes aren’t held aloft by magnetism, and lightning strikes are electrical (not magnetic) discharges. The chief dangers to pacemakers are strong magnetic fields, so one might ask how the absence of Earth’s relatively weak field could “fry” pacemakers. Not to mention that the sun’s microwave radiation (as opposed to energetic ultraviolet radiation) wouldn’t bother a fly.

But wait! Keyes and Zimsky aren’t talking about the magnetic field after all. They’re talking about something they call the EM (electromagnetic) field. Whatever that is, it’s not the geomagnetic field whose collapse we’ve carelessly assumed is causing their problems.

Whatever it is that actually collapses in The Core, it takes a heroic journey to fix it. More on that in the next post.

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