Last night, my wife Deb and I went to watch the Roland Emmerich movie 2012. Deb fell asleep. She was the lucky one.

I’m joking, it wasn’t that bad, we just had to attend the midnight showing as the earlier showings were all sold out. It looks like the 2012 doomsday phenomenon is still alive and strong.

Sure, the scenes of planetary destruction were impressive, John Cusack did his thing and Beatrice Rosen smoldered on the screen, but as for the rest of it, I have similar criticisms as I had of Nick Cage’s Knowing. Both movies got the science behind doomsday all wrong.

Scary Neutrinos

Unfortunately, I found myself unconcerned for any member of the cast (apart from Rosen), and after 2 hours of getting singed by supervolcanoes, shaken by 10+ magnitude quakes, crashing in planes, cars and personal lives; I couldn’t care less if they lived or died. Was this because I was being distracted by all the CGI doom? Possibly.

Actually, the first-half of the film was entertaining enough, but I was really hoping to have a little more of a Day After Tomorrow build-up to the big explosions.

So, what was wrong with the science? Actually, that’s a huge question. Perhaps I should kick off with “What was right with the science?” but I think this article would be finished in one paragraph.

For starters, let’s get to the purveyor of global doom: What caused the chain of events that eventually turned the entire planet into a steaming pile of Jello?

Neutrinos. Killer solar neutrinos. Yes, you heard me: neutrinos.

I think Emmerich was trying to be “novel” in this attempt to kill the Earth and fortunately he didn’t pander to the doomsday theorists by over-hyping one of their doomsday dreams. Surprisingly, the Mayan calendar also took a backseat and it was little more than a back story for most of the film.

Emmerich opted to used one of the most unlikely candidates to kill Earth. After all, the neutrino is electrically neutral and it has minuscule mass. Also, the sun pumps out a lot of neutrinos — the human body is bathed in 50 trillion solar neutrinos every second — and just as many neutrinos can be found entering the Earth’s crust on the sun-facing side of our planet as there are on the opposite side. The ghostly particles pass through our planet totally unimpeded.

They are extremely weakly interacting particles that have zero effect on our everyday lives. They are very useful to scientists however, and many billions of dollars have been spent worldwide on building neutrino detectors that can sense distant supernovae.

In 2012, scientists discover (in the depths of a copper mine in India) that an increased flux of neutrinos from the sun is interacting with our Earth’s core, causing it to heat up, increasing subterranean pressure.

Planetary Alignment! Solar Flares!

Why is there an increased flux of neutrinos? Planetary alignment of course! This magically kick-starts the sun’s flare activity. And there we have the popular doomsday theory that we will be killed via planetary alignment.

No sign of Planet X though, I’m disappointed.

So Emmerich found a way to kill the Earth using a faux astronomical event (there is no planetary alignment in the year 2012) and by inventing a solar interaction that has never been observed. There is zero evidence that any alignment of any celestial body can influence the activity of the sun as the gravitational effects of the planets on the sun are minuscule.

In the movie, our frightened Indian scientist (Jimi Mistry) explains to our equally astonished U.S. scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that the solar neutrinos have undergone some sinister quantum change, allowing them to heat up the interior of our planet.

This quantum change is a mystery, but I suspect the movie’s science advisers are using the “solar neutrino problem” as the basis of their argument.

ASIDE: Interestingly, electromagnetic radiation generated at the core of the sun can take millions of years to travel from the core to the sun’s surface; the density of matter in the sun causes absorption of the X-rays (at the core), re-emitting photons at lower and lower energies. Eventually, the electromagnetic photons are shifted to optical wavelengths. Therefore, the light we see coming from the sun was actually generated millions of years ago. However, the neutrinos we detect were generated minutes ago. Therefore neutrinos are very useful for us to detect; we can get a direct, near real-time measure of the conditions inside our closest star.

In 2012, this “quantum change” (possibly inspired by the solar neutrino problem, or not, who knows), causes the Earth’s interior to boil. The pressure becomes so much, Yellowstone National Park explodes (taking Woody Harrelson with it).


With this massive pressure build-up comes huge earthquakes. Naturally, Los Angeles is toast. The San Andreas fault has a party and most of the West Coast slips under the Pacific Ocean (bye bye Malibu). John Cusack and co. are in the middle of all this, having just witnessed their neighborhood turn to dust. Happy days.

Now, for the next bit of faux science. Emmerich calls on an old theory that predicts a global “crustal shift,” knocking the entire planet off its axis. The Hapgood Theory might sound like fun, but it has been discredited more times than I’ve had cups of tea. Although Einstein might have supported this theory back in the 1950s, it doesn’t mean the science of geology has been in stasis for 60 years.

Basically, Charles Hapgood had this idea that if the conditions were right, all of the world’s continents could ‘slip’, displacing the axis by many degrees. Cue the next doomsday theory: polar shift.

Did The Ground Move For You?

While in the air, flying in the Russian air transport to China (in an attempt to jump on one of the three high-tech Noah’s Arks), Cusack and co. are surprised to find that the Earth has quite literally moved beneath them … by hundreds of miles.

This sudden continental drift happened over the course of minutes-hours and the world appeared to be in pretty good shape in the aftermath.

If any kind of polar shift happened, it would be as if the entire planet turned the treadmill to MAX SPEED while standing stationary. Everything in contact with the Earth’s surface will have been blended together in one sudden hypersonic movement. In reality, nothing short of a debris field would remain.

I’m also very dubious that any planes would be flying; I think the resulting turbulence will have been a little choppy. But I’ll give that a pass.

Then there’s the tsunamis. Yikes. I’ll leave that peach for someone else. But let’s put it this way, the Great Flood wasn’t a patch on what 2012 recreates. Oh yes, and there’s geomagnetic reversal. The South Pole is now centered over the U.S.

The End

If you’ve read this far, you might have noticed that I’m not too fond of movies which go offroad with science. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy movies that use “out there” plots and it certainly doesn’t mean I hate sci-fi. On the contrary, I love sci-fi.

However, there’s a fine line between science fiction and bogus science. Bogus science uses known phenomena — such as neutrinos — to incorrectly describe the natural world. In 2012, our planet is destroyed by bogus science (i.e. science that, by any stretch of the imagination, cannot happen). And this isn’t just me being “closed minded,” this is me knowing how physics works.

Why is it that movie makers feel the need to use bogus science when the real science is probably more exciting than the made-up stuff?

Well, I think the numbers speak for themselves. On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in $65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.

Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.

Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.


The views expressed here do not represent the official views of Discovery Communications.

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