Friday, January 6, 2012

Bad Science in the Movies: 2012

We are entering the year 2012. The year in which, if you weren't already aware, the world is going to end. That's right, the Mayans warned us that December of this year is the end of the world.

Of course, we all know what will really happen on December 21, 2012 - millions of undergraduates around the world will panic with the realization that finals week really is going to happen (at which point they will run to facebook to complain about their dire situation).

Hollywood, however, has thankfully told us what's really really going to happen on December 21, 2012. Back in 2009 the (un)lovable John Cusack, under the talented direction of Roland Emmerich, gave us the cinematic masterpiece "2012". While I would love to criticize the plot, acting, soundtrack, and just about everything about this movie I won't. This is, after all, supposed to be a science blog so I will stick with the bad science in the movie. 

NASA calls this movie an "exceptional and extraordinary" example of bad science in Hollywood movies, and even has a website1 dedicated to correcting public misunderstandings generated by the movie. Apparently they were inundated with questions by people thinking this plot was actually plausible. 

I could chose just about any scene from this movie as an example of bad science in the movies, but I have chosen only two. The first example for bad science is arguably the most egregious example of bad movie science in all of cinematic history. The second is a bit of bad science that apparently only bothered me; I found no other mentions of it online even though I remember laughing out loud in the theater when I heard it2.

Bad Science #1 - Neutrinos

Instead of pretending I know enough about neutrinos to explain them to you, I'll let this youtube clip do the work for me:

Ok, so the important part to remember: Neutrinos interact very weakly with matter. In fact, even the largest neutrino detector can detect 0.0000000000000016% of the neutrinos that pass through it3.

In the movie 2012, the earth is coming to an end. The only scientific explanation we get is one scene in which several scientists (dubbed "WHITECOATS" in the script) discuss how neutrinos are starting to act like microwaves. Let me say that again NEUTRINOS ACTING LIKE MICROWAVES 4. So, not only do neutrinos start interacting with matter (for some unknown reason of which there is no attempt to explain) but they interact with matter enough to make this happen:

Bad Science #2 - She just can't take the pressure, captain

This next bit of bad science is subtle one. As I mentioned before, I didn't find a single mention of it online (and there are many places that list all the science faux pas found in 2012). Let me set up the scene:

Life as we know it is coming to an end. Luckily, the collective world government (based in China and commanded by American generals) has planned for such a dilemma. Inside a secret military base in China, large vessels have been prepared to save humanity. Our protagonists make their way (miraculously) to this ultra secret base and hop aboard as easily as catching the A train to JFK airport. Part of the group makes it to the bridge (because that's where passengers go, apparently) just before a massive tidal wave bombards the ship. We then hear this ominous warning from one of the officers:

"Collision pressure just below 80 Pascal, captain!"

I re-watched this part of the movie just today to make sure my memory of this hilarious line was correct - it was. It's really unclear in what context the officer meant that statement, but in any case it makes no sense. Does the collision pressure refer to the force of the water hitting against the ship or the pressure inside the ship after it had sealed to prevent  water from pouring in? Let's assume the former, since the latter would kill everyone on board5

While a barometric pressure of 80 Pascals would kill everyone inside, an officer needing to report an exterior collision of "just below 80 Pascal" is laughable. 80 Pascals is equivalent to 0.0116 pounds per square inch (PSI) - you fill your car tires with roughly 2,500 times more pressure. 80 Pascals is roughly the pressure that an adult mouse would exert by standing on the surface of the ship. This force, however, was so important that an officer had to interrupt his captain to report the problem.

To finish up, let me make one last thing clear. I enjoy this movie. It's the perfect combination of laughable science, bad acting, and liberal use of special effects. The fact remains though: it's full of bad science and many people actually bought into it. I hope you weren't one of them.6

UPDATE: If you liked this post check out one of my other Bad Science in the Movies!

[1] Also, if you're really worried, NASA has a website for tracking asteroids - just to make sure none are headed for earth a la Armageddon
[2] Ummm...I paid to see it in the theater because my wife likes these kinds of movies...ya....that's it. My wife... 
[3] This fact was calculated from information at this website, which is full of cool facts about neutrinos. 
[4] The idea of neutrinos acting like they do in 2012 makes me think of Wolfgang Pauli who is quoted as saying "That's not right. That's not even wrong". 
[5]  At the peak of Mt. Everest, the standard barometric pressure is 48,000 Pascals (not Pascal, captain). Even at this pressure, your body is unable to deliver oxygenated blood to your body - only 20% of hemoglobin in your blood is oxygenated (normal percentage would be around 98%). I don't want to imagine what it would be like below 80 pascals. 
[6] As a special treat for actually reading through the notes ( I know, I got sidetracked a lot), enjoy this "How It Should Have Ended"