The President's chief of staff looked alarmed as he studied the computer-projection map. “You're telling me the North Pole is now in Wisconsin?" he asked.
“Actually, that's the South Pole,” corrected the scientist standing beside him.
Those memorable lines—uttered, of course, in an underground bunker—scarcely hint at the mad, mad world created by a blast of solar neutrinos that disastrously overheat the Earth's core in the movie 2012. Pamelia and I saw that mind-bending, science-defying box-office blockbuster (worldwide gross: nearly $800 million) on pay-per-view the other night. Watching the planet shake, quake, volcanically erupt, launch thousand-foot tidal waves and rain Hummer-sized fireballs onto unsuspecting citizens brought back memories of the evening news, which had immediately preceded it.
This movie ought to be shown in Earth-science class in high schools. First, because no kid would tune out—the action and special effects are nonstop—but, more important, because it raises good, brain-teasing questions about physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, oceanography, seismology and—my field of interest—popcornology.
For example, on a really, really bad day, could the South Pole actually end up in Wisconsin?
The North and South poles have in fact swapped positions (or reversed polarities, so that a compass would point to the South Pole) tens of thousands of times over the last few billion years. These reversals can be "read" by scientists based on the direction in which certain volcanic rock has been magnetized. The orientation can even help them determine the age of the rock. However, it is safe to say that polar bears and penguins have never, and will never, set foot on the famous "frozen tundra" of Green Bay. And despite the allure of Schlitz beer and between-innings sausage races at Brewers games, there is no evidence that either pole has ever stopped in Milwaukee.
So what about sea level rising to the top of the Himalayas, as it does in the movie?
Let's see, that would be a rise of about 29,000 feet. To allay the fears of doomsayers (and disappoint all those sherpas who hoped to be surfers), disasterologists already did the math: If all the ice melted at both poles and in every glacier and, I guess, in every ice machine at every chain motel in every two-bit town around the globe, sea level would rise only between 200 and 250 feet. Given that oceans have, in past millennia, covered much, if not most, of what is now the United States (at The Naturalist's Notebook we have a slab of sea fossils from inland Maine, and similar evidence has been found in places like Kansas and Ohio), a 200-foot rise seems entirely plausible. But it doesn't make for a 2012-scale movie spectacle or splashy advertising copy ("A film that's ...very plausible!"—Chicago Tribune).
All right then: Yellowstone National Park. Is it really sitting atop a supervolcano?
That one is true. It explains the geysers, the hot springs and the other features that are also found all over—cue the ominous music—Iceland. The Yellowstone volcanic caldera (a cauldron of hot stuff) covers 1,316 square miles. It has been estimated that a major eruption at Yellowstone could bury half the United States under three feet of ash, darken the sky and plunge the world into what the BBC has described as "the equivalent of a nuclear winter." Enjoy your vacation!
What's the deal with the year 2012 and the Mayan prophecies of the world ending on December 21 of that year?
They didn't prophesy that. But if we started seriously analyzing all the things that certain cultures and religions did or did not predict—and how ludicrous most of those predictions are in the first place—we'd lose a lot of good movie plot lines. And keep in mind that the Mayans couldn't even predict their own collapse as a civilization.
One last question: What exactly are neutrinos, anyway?
They're tiny particles produced by the Sun, and more than 50 trillion of them travel through your body every second. They do no harm to you. They do not cause the Earth's core to overheat. Still, as a popcornologist, I wondered whether 2012 director Roland Emmerich might have made even better use of the roasting power of his Hollywoodized solar particles. Maybe this would have been too Spielberg, but why not a foretelling scene early on in which the awkward teenage boy working the concessions stand at a movie theater suddenly sees his popcorn popping itself? Here come the neutrinos! We're all cooked!
By the way, for all his cataclysmic movies (he also made the alien-invasion film Independence Day and the global-warming-themed The Day After Tomorrow), Emmerich professes strong support for environmental causes and says he'd really like to save the planet. Though he did say jokingly in an online Q-and-A that because Maine voters (narrowly) repealed the state's gay-marriage law last year (Emmerich is openly gay), he might have to wipe the state out with a tidal wave in a future film.