Reviews

Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Films

The Core
Directed by Jon Amiel
Paramount Pictures
Opens March 28, 2003


Microwaves from the sun wreak havoc on the Golden Gate Bridge in The Core. It is a gripping scene but one of the less credible moments in a movie that generally pays a lot of respect to the spirit of science.
Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Earth's core has stopped rotating. A collapse of the planet's magnetic field is imminent. Migrating birds circle madly, electronic devices go haywire, and the worst is yet to come: If the field fails entirely, charged subatomic particles from space will crash down unfettered, spawning giant lightning storms and eventually frying the planet's surface. Somehow, humans have to travel 1,700 miles down to the core and get it moving again.

This is the premise of The Core, an inventive and tautly paced reworking of the old science-fiction disaster movie. Much of the fun comes from the deft way director Jon Amiel sneaks real science into the Hollywood dramatics. Earth's magnetic field really does collapse when the poles reverse places, a process that has occurred every 200,000 years on average in recent epochs. The last reversal was 780,000 years ago, and some researchers have speculated that the recent weakening and redistribution of the field could be a sign that another reversal is on the way. J. Marvin Herndon, a real-life geophysicist whose work was covered in Discover last August, served as an adviser on The Core. His input may explain why fictional scientists Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) do a credible job explaining to a group of perplexed politicians and military leaders how molten flows in the outer core normally create a dynamo that constantly regenerates the geomagnetic field.

The Core also conveys the tremendous difficulty of exploring Earth's inner landscape. The world's deepest borehole, on Russia's Kola Peninsula, required more than a decade of drilling using a purpose-built rig, and yet it penetrates barely more than seven miles into the crust. To get all the way down to the core, the filmmakers have to resort to make-believe. A maverick scientist (played with welcome restraint by Delroy Lindo) has created a material that is not only impervious to heat but actually grows stronger as the temperature and the pressure rise. In a sly reference to sci-fi lingo, this improbable substance is called unobtanium. Researchers and engineers from around the world join forces to build an earth-boring ship, a hotshot young space-shuttle pilot (Hilary Swank) joins the crew, and the expedition is off and running.

The crew's fantastic voyage through Earth's interior is both an homage and an apology for earlier science-fiction films. "As a child I saw movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth— even then I knew them to be ridiculous, but I loved them," says Amiel. This time around, the special effects are gently beautiful, especially once our travelers enter the mysterious realm of Earth's outer core, a vast ocean of 7,000-degree-Fahrenheit nickel and iron. The movie's characters rise above the old movie-scientist stereotypes. Stanley Tucci's Zimsky, a renowned researcher who occasionally lapses into self-conscious bombast, knowingly echoes the late Carl Sagan. Aaron Eckhart believably portrays a brilliant graduate student forced to decelerate into a go-nowhere academic position. The Core presents its explorers as fallible heroes who need time to interpret data, such as when new information about the density of the outer core threatens to scuttle the whole mission.

Inevitably, moments arrive when drama trumps science. There is a boilerplate subplot suggesting that military intrigue, not natural processes, caused Earth's core to go stagnant. The Core also stumbles briefly into B-movie territory while trying to puff up the disastrous consequences of a magnetic-field collapse. Contrary to what you see here, the geomagnetic field does not save us from deadly solar microwaves— they are not affected by magnetism. At any rate, these low-energy rays are easily absorbed by the atmosphere. Nobody knows the exact consequences of a magnetic reversal, but they are probably mild: The fossil record shows no correlation between reversals and mass extinctions.

The movie's embellishments ultimately matter less than Amiel's generous affection for the way scientists view the world. Before starting work on The Core, he spent time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory interacting with the researchers there. "Film is as magical to them as what they do is magical to us," he says. That sense of magic, far more than the showy special effects, is what makes The Core a guilt-free pleasure— even for geophysicists and other science cognoscenti.


 
Instruments

Olympus Mic-D Microscope
(Requires PC with Windows 98 or later) $995


Photograph courtesy of Olympus.

The Olympus Mic-D digital microscope turns amateur microscopy on its head. The main lens of the Mic-D points up, not down, and an LED attached to an ingenious rotating arm can be set to project light on a specimen from almost any angle. Best of all, the Mic-D plugs into your computer, so the microscopic images pop up on the monitor. You can record these images as digital photos, then crop them, change their light properties, and add text. You can even document something that changes over time— say, organisms swimming in a drop of pond scum— by imaging the specimen in real time and creating a digital movie.The Mic-D software package includes user- friendly tutorials and a digital library of specimen images.

The magnification power of the Mic-D, which can show specimens at up to 255 times their actual size, is less than many classroom microscopes. But the Mic-D will dramatically expand your view of an unseen world because you don't need to fit every specimen onto slides or use slide covers. I immediately began scouring my office for objects to scrutinize— a CD, the hands of my watch, even salt crystals that looked like gigantic white cubes when magnified.

— Maia Weinstock


 
Exhibits

Dead or Alive?
An edgy exhibit explores the basic elements that define life

By Jennifer Kahn

Traits of Life
The Exploratorium,
San Francisco
www.exploratorium.edu



An Exploratorium exhibit reveals how bacteria can transform their own chlorophyll, carotenoid, and bacteriorhodopsin molecules into pigments, resulting in this organic palette of colors.
Photograph: © The Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu.

Animals featured in museum displays typically have glass eyes and stuffed insides and are frozen in poses supposedly lifelike. The San Francisco Exploratorium favors a more realistic approach. In one of its displays, four small animals— frog, chick, songbird, mouse— lie dead inside a glass terrarium. Flies and carrion beetles nibble the bodies, giving visitors a real-time study of decomposition and the ongoing cycle of life and death. Tiny vents in the terrarium's lid let viewers lean over and catch the whiff of decay: the smell of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and skunky mercaptans, according to the accompanying text. "Some adults have asked how we can show this to children," says Charles Carlson, the biologist who created the terrarium. "But it's the adults who find it unsettling."

Founded more than 30 years ago, the Exploratorium is an influential and rich repository of highly interactive exhibits that have been copied by museums from Paris to Beijing. Although the Exploratorium stays current— this spring's artist-in-residence is Eduardo Kac, whose previous work includes a glowing transgenic cat— many exhibits remain brilliantly low tech. For instance, a popular permanent exhibit called Mercator Your Face reveals how various standard map projections distort a curved surface— in this case, the mug of each museumgoer who stares at the display. Such is the magic of the Exploratorium: Even simple geometry astonishes.

The dead critters in the terrarium are part of an omnibus effort by the museum to address the question, What defines life? "In the end, we got the answer down to four things," Carlson says. "Reproduction, evolution or growth, energy consumption, and cells." From there, Carlson and a rotating roster of biologists, chemists, and physicists spent five years coming up with a list of interactive experiments and cutting-edge science displays. In one of the resulting exhibits, DNA is extracted from a banana using dishwashing detergent and alcohol. In another, museumgoers get a close-up look at a newly discovered single-sex microbe. "Some of our exhibits are so current that we sometimes have to run in and add the results of a new discovery," says the director of programs, Kathy McLean.

The upshot is an edginess rarely found in museums that cater to both children and adults. To explain genetic engineering, one demo showcases mutant eyeless flies; another injects a worm with the luminosity gene from a jellyfish. Many of the exhibits are a mix of art and science. One hanging hydroponic "planter" has been built to look like a spaceship, its glowing Lucite arms ferrying nutrients to four struggling seedlings. Another exhibit showcases the accidental "paintings" produced by bacteria, which synthesize pigments from simple molecules found in mud. Once colonized, the mud changes from black to a collage of earthy colors.

The only problem with the bacterial paintings is that museumgoers can't touch or smell them. "The exhibit is not as interactive as we usually like," McLean acknowledges wistfully. "But it's gorgeous."


 
Books

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
By Bernd Heinrich
Ecco, $24.95

How does the golden-crowned kinglet make it through winter? Day after frigid day, the tiny bird— 3.5 inches of fluff— furiously pursues its life-or-death quest to take in enough fuel to survive another night. What does it eat? How does it handle the cold? Exploring the woods outside his Maine cabin, biologist Bernd Heinrich pries into the lives of his wild neighbors— torpid turtles, hibernating squirrels, foul-weather flockers— to ponder the surprising resiliency of winter life. The watchword is energy: how to obtain it, retain it, and conserve it.

In Winter World, Heinrich offers glimpses into the obsessions and occasional setbacks of a field biologist. For example, he discovers a caterpillar that serves as the kinglet's primary winter nourishment. Unable to identify the species of caterpillar with any certainty, he tries to raise a few to the moth stage so he can study them more closely. In his first attempt, the caterpillars are retrieved alive from the freezer six months later, only to be eaten by a hungry spider that has crawled into their home. The next winter, one caterpillar pupates and then drowns in the condensed moisture lining its glass container. The following year's attempt yields— at last— the moth, Hypagyrtis unipunctata, and one more piece in the kinglet's puzzle falls into place.

Humans have much to gain from understanding the smart adaptations of other species. Bears, during their months of hibernation, experience no bone loss, produce no waste, and lose virtually no muscle mass. Discovering how they accomplish these feats could affect the study of aging and treatment of illnesses. Yet, Heinrich laments that with "biology becoming ever more applied, research relating to such questions of how to harness hibernation will be increasingly funded in preference to those inquiries motivated purely by intellectual curiosity. That is unfortunate and shortsighted." And it would never drive us to solve the kinglet's riddle.

— Margaret Foley


 
Books

All Together Now: Clap
How nature often follows the beat of the same drummer

By Larry Marschall

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
By Steven Strogatz
Hyperion, $24.95

Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age
By Duncan J. Watts
W. W. Norton, $27.95


Photograph by Jens Mortensen.

Between 6:30 and 7 p.m. on December 16, 1997, as if struck down by a biblical plague, at least 600 Japanese children simultaneously became ill. Some vomited, others had seizures; a few stopped breathing for a while. All had been watching an episode of the animated series Pokémon, and all had seen a bomb explode on the screen, followed by a succession of colors that pulsed on and off at about 12 flashes a second.

That specific frequency, which is identical to the brain's alpha rhythm, somehow caused many watchers' brain cells to misfire in synchrony, like the twang of a plucked string. Although no one understands which cells respond to pulsing light, how their collective throbbing induces illness, and why some people are more susceptible than others, such "photosensitive epilepsy" has become an emerging recreational hazard in the age of computer games and strobe lights.

Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University, has been studying the spontaneous synchronization of everything from brain cells to lightning bugs for more than a decade. His delightful popular exposition, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, describes dozens of sights and sounds that arise from collective, synchronized behavior— the lockstep clapping of an audience, the coordinated pulsation of muscle cells in a beating heart, the tendency of women sharing an apartment to menstruate on the same day— all of which are downright puzzling. Such groups are combos without a leader, individual drummers that somehow manage to groove together. How does collective discipline arise from what should be anarchy?

Part of the answer, Strogatz intimates, can be found by studying how individual actors in a group respond to stimuli from their neighbors, a phenomenon long familiar to physicists under the name of resonance. Two pendulum clocks hung side by side on the same wall will eventually swing in harmony from the accumulation of small nudges they give each other through the brackets, screws, and boards in the wall that connects them. Members of an appreciative audience nudge each other in a similar way: They adjust their own handclaps, slowing down or speeding up to match the loudest sound they hear. In an audience that begins clapping more or less at random, at least a few adjacent people will applaud to the same beat, and because two pairs of hands clap more loudly than one, they will influence others to join them, until every hand moves together as if connected to a master puppeteer.

Strogatz believes that understanding how individual members of a complex system react to messages from other individuals in the system is the key to understanding all sorts of group behavior, from the patterns of the rings of Saturn (which are made up of billions of moonlets orbiting around it, reacting to gravity) to the ebb and flow of traffic on a freeway. Such systems resemble a community in which citizens engage in some mass response to hearing news ("school's closed"), which is conveyed over phone lines randomly and spontaneously. Although Strogatz focuses on how the individual reacts, he also points out that it is important to understand how the wires that carry the messages are connected. Does the cricket hear all the crickets equally well or just a few dozen in its vicinity? How can individual heart cells constrict in just the right pattern to push blood through the body when they only feel the nudge of a nearby neighbor? Or is there some communication with more distant cells?

These connections between individuals in a network are a more central theme in Six Degrees, written by one of Strogatz's former Ph.D. students, Duncan J. Watts, now an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University. The title of Watts's book, of course, refers to an item of contemporary wisdom that seems too startling to be true: You are connected to everyone else in the world (including the most popular example, actor Kevin Bacon) through a chain of no more than six people who recognize each other by name. Are there really only six steps of separation between a New Guinea hunter-gatherer and a Nova Scotia lobsterman? Watts has constructed mathematical models of such groups and finds that, while close friends and relations tend to cluster together, there are always enough random long-distance connections to make short paths inevitable.

Both Strogatz and Watts believe that the calculus of connectivity, along with an understanding of how the elements of a network react to stimuli, is the next big idea in natural and social science. If you want to find information on the Internet, explain the fad appeal of low-rider jeans, or predict the epidemic spread of influenza, you'd better understand networks. As with all next big things, some caution is advisable. Many appealing ideas, like chaos and catastrophe theory, were welcomed as ultimate solutions to similar complex phenomena but turned out to be no more than useful tools as their implications were more intensely explored.

Watts is conducting a large-scale e-mail experiment to see how closely connected we actually are. The results may show that mathematical conclusions need to be modified or even abandoned. But there's no denying that he and Strogatz are exploring entertaining and powerful ideas and that these are books worth recommending to your family and friends, whose friends may even include . . . Kevin Bacon.


 


Science Best-sellers

1. Faster than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
By João Magueijo,
Perseus
2. The Universe in a Nutshell/illustrated Brief History of Time (boxed set)
By Stephen Hawking,
Bantam
3. The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story
By Richard Preston,
Random House
4. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
By Antonio Damasio,
Harcourt
5. The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega— the Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe
By John D. Barrow,
Pantheon
6. The Life and Death of Planet Earth
By Peter Ward and Don Brownlee,
Times Books
7. The Universe in a Nutshell
By Stephen Hawking,
Bantam
8. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Steven Pinker,
Viking
9. E=mc2: The Great Ideas That Shaped Our World
By Pete Moore,
Friedman/Fairfax
10. The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2002
Edited by Natalie Angier and Tim Folger,
Houghton Mifflin
This superb anthology includes several Discover contributors.
* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

 

We also like... Books

The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements
Philip Ball, Oxford University Press, $24.95

Ball brings the periodic table to life in this follow-up to his biography of molecules, Stories of the Invisible. Readers learn why gold has such universal appeal and how silicon, a once obscure element, helped give rise to our computerized society.

Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer
Kathleen Crane, Westview, $27.50

Crane recalls her adventures in such far-flung locations as the Galápagos Islands, the Arctic Ocean, and Micronesia. Most intriguing is a terrifying phone call she received from the FBI on the eve of a recent expedition to Russia. Her insights into the roles that espionage and cold-war politics have played in international scientific research are sobering.
Maia Weinstock


 




Preview scenes from The Core at www.thecoremovie.com.

For more about the Olympus Mic-D microscope, go to www.olympusamerica.com/seg_section/ seg_product.asp?p=4&product=188.
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