think we should check this out. This doesn’t look good.”
-- Beck, pilot of the drill craft Virgil, in “The
Photo, graphics courtesy of Paramount Pictures
When Hollywood ventures into Earth science,
you know what the results will be.
Gravity gone berserk.
Molten lava flowing through the streets of Los Angeles.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you ...
Geology As Disaster!
Paramount Pictures followed this trend with its latest
science fiction feature, “The Core.”
In the movie, the Earth’s core stops spinning. As
a result, the world’s magnetic field begins to fail.
A band of “terranauts” uses a subterranean craft
to travel toward the center of the Earth. To put things right, they
hope to set off a nuclear explosion that will restart the core.
If that plot sounds a little strange to you, it sounded
strangely familiar to J. Marvin Herndon, an independent geophysicist
in San Diego.
Herndon has developed and promoted the theory that
a natural uranium reactor exists at the Earth’s core.
He believes this natural georeactor provides heat
to drive geological processes, and also powers our planet’s magnetic
What’s more, he thinks the reactor is failing.
“After I heard about this movie I decided I’d give
the director a call and introduce myself,” Herndon said, “because
he was getting into my territory.”
The End of the World
Through his investigation of the Earth’s core, Herndon
was able to determine how and when all human life could end.
But first, a little more about the movie.
A disaster epic, “The Core” survived its own brushes
with disaster. Herndon noted that Paramount delayed the film’s original
release date for almost five months before finally premiering it
in late March.
Hollywood rumor said the movie needed to beef up
its special effects scenes.
Some scientists speculate that a disruption of the
Earth’s magnetic field would cause birds to lose their way, because
they (the birds) use the field to navigate.
It’s possible that birds getting lost and flying
into buildings did not represent enough of a catastrophe for a major
Also, the dialogue (with apologies to the spotted
owl fans) would have sounded something like:
“Flap, flap, flap ... Whap!”
“Dang! There goes another one!”
As a finished product, “The Core” contains multiple
and significant disasters, in addition to confused birds.
How did they get the Golden Gate to do that?
Photo, graphics courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Yes, it has all the standard disaster-film gadgetry,
including wonderful pressure suits. Not only do these suits withstand
temperatures up to 5,000 degrees and pressures of 15,000 psi, they
also appear to be made of easy-to-clean, lightweight nylon.
A coming-attractions trailer shown in theaters in
early 2003 included scenes of a NASA space shuttle nearly crashing,
when the magnetic-field variation causes navigation errors.
Soon after, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke
apart and burned while entering the atmosphere.
Paramount had to withdraw the trailer to edit out
the disturbing shuttle footage, according to movie industry reports.
And critics didn’t hesitate to pounce on scientific
lapses in the film. The general scientific reaction could be summed
up in one word:
Not everyone hammered on “The Core,” however.
“I thought it was a good movie,” Herndon observed.
“They put a lot of science in the science fiction.”
Total Annihilation 2
Herndon said he received a doctorate in nuclear chemistry
from Texas A&M University, then conducted post-doctoral research
at the University of California-San Diego.
He described himself as “fortunate” to study under
two renowned scientists -- Harold Urey, who had received the Nobel
Prize for chemistry, and Hans Seuss, who advanced carbon-14 dating.
His theories about the composition of the earth’s
core took shape when he studied enstatite chondrites, a somewhat
rare, low-oxidation type of meteorite.
Other scientists had analyzed more common meteorites
to postulate the make-up of the earth.
“They really didn’t understand the enstatite chondrites
because they have strange minerals and there aren’t very many of
them,” Herndon said. “The fact is, they are more like the interior
of the Solar System.”
He refined his theories, published a paper suggesting
a nickel silicide core for the earth, and waited for the scientific
“It was like a cloak of silence fell,” he said. “I
found that all of my grant proposals weren’t getting funded.”
Frustrated by the lack of response to his ideas,
Herndon still pursued his alternate view of the core.
One of his sons read that Jupiter radiates about
twice as much heat as it receives, and mentioned it to Herndon.
He thought the offered explanations made little sense.
Instead, Herndon envisioned a planetary formation
process in which the elements with greatest mass would sink to the
center. Jupiter could have a natural reactor at its core, he realized.
And the same concept applied to Earth. Herndon began
to imagine a U238 breeder reactor at the center of the world.
Soft Core? Hard Core?
As supporting evidence for his theory, Herndon sought
out measurements of the helium isotope ratio in ocean basalts.
Helium-3 is a fission by-product, Herndon noted,
and rock from depth shows a higher helium-3 to helium-4 ratio than
For comparison, he turned to Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s
computer simulation of nuclear reactors. Herndon wanted to find
out what 3He/4He levels would result from a natural georeactor operating
for 4.5 billion years.
In the basalts, “all the range of values are the
same values that are produced by a nuclear reactor,” he said.
Herndon published his findings in March in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, in the paper “Nuclear Georeactor
Origin of Oceanic Basalt 3He/4He, Evidence and Implications.”
Ocean basalts near spread zones show a helium isotope
ratio about eight-times that of air, but younger lava typically
shows a ratio more than 20 times higher, according to Herndon.
Because a nuclear georeactor would have increased
3He output as it nears the end of its life-cycle, Herndon theorized
that Earth’s core reactor may be failing.
As a consequence, the planet’s magnetosphere powered
by that reactor could soon disappear, he said.
In this, Herndon sees a decided resonance with the
movie “The Core.”
“The incredible parallel is, in the paper I just
published, it says there exists tremendous evidence that there is
a natural reactor at the center of the earth,” he said.
“Second, it says that reactor is dying.”
Herndon continues to feel that the broad scientific
community ignores his work and views. But his theories won popular
notice last year in “Nuclear Planet,” the cover story of Discover
magazine’s August 2002 issue.
You can also read more on his Web site, NuclearPlanet.com.
The Final ‘Survivor’
The Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of the solar
wind, a stream of ionized gases emitted by the sun.
Disappearance of the magnetosphere might have severe
negative effects, exposing the planet to incredibly destructive
forces, wiping out human life and eventually scouring away Earth’s
(On the positive side, reality TV would be a thing
of the past.)
Suppose the magnetosphere did begin to weaken. What
could save humankind?
Photo, graphics courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Hilary Swank (left) and Bruce Greenwood
(plus Stanley Tucci in the background)
in “The Core.”
If you answered, “The actors Aaron Eckhart and Hilary
Swank, with a subsurface laser vessel,” you’ve probably seen the
And that’s how human life could end.
Herndon said the earth’s core reactor probably has
consumed about 75 percent of its original fuel.
Narrowing down the window, he now believes the georeactor
and the earth’s magnetic field could fail at some time in the next
100 to 1 billion years.
“It could be 100 years. It could be a million. The
point is, we just don’t know,” he said.
Most scientists believe the earth has a solid core
made up mostly of iron, surrounded by a liquid core of iron, nickel
and lighter elements.
Geophysical studies tend to support the solid-liquid
view, without providing much information on the core’s content.
Estimates of the earth’s mass are educated guesses.
Meteorites provide some clues about the deep inner
planet, but more work remains to be done, as the saying goes.
Right now, no one knows for certain exactly what
exists at the core.
It could be a combination of several other minerals.
It could be Hilary Swank, although that’s less likely.
Yet no less likely than Bruce Willis leading a bad-hat
crew of oil well drillers and geologists into space to blow up an
asteroid, in Hollywood’s version of “Armageddon.”
Originality, the Sequel
With “The Core” already released, we might worry that
other studios won’t develop lesser, copycat productions.
Hollywood watchers predict other Deep Dirt movies
to follow, including one called “Inner Earth” and several scripted
versions of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
Herndon said he was invited to visit the production
company that made “The Core.”
“I had a really good rapport with all the people
I met there,” he said.
He didn’t serve as a consultant on the film. By the
time he showed up, “the movie was already in the can,” he explained.
He did get an invitation to the movie’s premier,
however, which turned out to be the traditional, gala, Hollywood
event. All the big stars were there -- and some little ones, according
to press reports.
“This was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “I
wasn’t expecting it, but the limousine let me off at the end of
the red carpet.”
He got to take the star’s walk into the theater,
stopping every few feet to pose for flashing cameras.
Herndon said he especially enjoyed meeting and talking
with the film’s director, Jon Amiel.
“He has an attitude that I wish more scientists had,”
Herndon said. “He thinks new ideas should be brought to the forefront,
to be discussed and debated.”