Taken as a whole, science fiction-movies are so absurd that it hardly seems possible for one to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. And yet Roland Emmerich's 2012 - in which John Cusack and Amanda Peet narrowly survive a geological apocalypse caused by mutant neutrinos which melt the Earth's core - has just been named the most absurd science-fiction film of all time by Donald Yeomans, who runs NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous program.
In the film, a special alignment of the planets causes the sun to release huge quantities of super-powered neutrinos, which in turns heat the Earth's core and cause a massive realignment of its tectonic plates (and, indirectly, a rejuvenation in the marriage of Cusack and Peet). The movie apocalypse happens on 12/12/2012, an important date in the Mayan Calendar. In real life, however, neutrinos are super-small and super-fast, and can travel through matter almost undetected. (Physicists construct huge underground devices in hopes of detecting only a few.) Even huge quantities of them would be incapable of melting the Earth's core.
This is, of course, only the nerdiest of the many implausibilities depicted in the film. But the movie created enough buzz that NASA started getting mail about it. Yeomans told The Australian: "The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before." NASA has a special section on its website, "2012: A Reality Check, and has even created its own video about it. In the video, Yeomas laboriously debunks the "2012 myth," and explains that his only plan for December 12, 2012 is to "lay in an extra supply of egg nog."
As absurd as the movie is, public fear about the "2012 phenomenon" is even more so. The film's trailers, which ended by encouraging audiences to search the web ("Find out the truth: Google search 2012"), must bear part of the blame - but so must the hordes of overheated Googlers who hurtled into NASA's inbox. Perhaps they're the cataclysm we ought to be worrying about.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.