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The Physics of Disaster (Movies)

The Physics of Disaster (Movies)
At Science Study Break sessions, faculty members explain the real science, pseudo science and utter nonsense behind popular entertainments. Here’s physicist Sacha Kopp’s synopsis of 2012, a 2009 movie that purports to depict what happens when the Mayan calendar turns a big page:

“In this story, the Earth is basically destroyed. There’s a giant solar eruption and this eruption releases this incredible burst of particles called neutrinos, and these neutrinos come whizzing through the universe and bury themselves like, I don’t know, termites in the core of the Earth. They heat up the core of the Earth to such a degree that it causes the core of the Earth to melt, and actually causes huge volcanic activity, plate tectonic motion, and there’s floods and everything and a lot of computer simulations. And everyone’s dead.”

Kopp, an associate professor in the Department of Physics who knows a thing or two about neutrinos and particle physics, was speaking at the first Science Study Break of the academic year.

At Science Study Break sessions, faculty members explain the real science, pseudo science and utter nonsense behind popular entertainments. Past study breaks have viewed House, Numb3rs, Spiderman, Ironman and 24. The Life Sciences Library sponsors Science Study Breaks.

Kopp had previously done a Science Study Break on the movie Angel and Demons, which was based on the book written by Dan Brown. The Angels and Demons plot included a stop at the Large Hadron Collider, the international physics project in Switzerland.

“Doing these talks about movies is a great way to introduce people to a little science, and also make it an enjoyable experience,” Kopp says.

Kopp has a long interest in the teaching part of his career and he recently became associate dean of curriculum and programs in the College of Natural Sciences.

Science fiction, he says, provides a common starting point for talking about science.

“If I say the word ‘antimatter,’ chances are that many people will remember that it was mentioned in the ‘Star Trek’ television episodes,” he says, “and had something to do with producing energy or combustion. Now that’s not the whole (scientific) story, but it’s enough of a starting point for me to tell people the facts of antimatter.”

In 2012, neutrinos are the key plot device.

Even if neutrinos mutated, as one of the scientists in the movie suggests, it’s unlikely they’re going to gather in the core of the Earth, Kopp told the audience.

He said the sun and other stars produce neutrinos (as well as other particles) and send them traveling throughout the universe.

“So many neutrinos come at us from the sun that there are about 10 trillion hitting your body every second just from our sun,” he said. “Now add up all the other stars in the universe. There are a lot of neutrinos passing through you.”

Kopp, Professor Karol Lang, and their students and postdoctoral fellows are involved in the MINOS project, which involves sending high-density muon neutrino beams underground from the Fermi Lab near Chicago to a particle detector in a former iron mine near Soudan, Minn.

As a movie fan, Kopp says he prefers independent films, documentaries and comedies.

But when students told him about 2012, he couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about it.

“I thought Hollywood had done me such a favor in giving me a second blockbuster movie to talk about that I had to do this,” he says. “Any time I can get a good chunk of the public or the students at UT to come to a science lecture, I’ll take that opportunity.”

He watched 2012 four times, “taking notes on what might provide good material to talk about, and where I might be able to poke a little (light-hearted) fun.”

The world of particle physics, he says, is strange and beautiful, but it can be abstract.

“The nice thing is that the movies give us specific, colorful images to talk about,” he says. “Even if those images are incorrect, doing the talk allows me to paint a contrasting picture of what is correct.”

By Tim Green, originally published at his blog, Further Findings.
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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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