If you've been living under a rock (or perhaps in Utah) for the past few months, you may have missed the fact that a movie called "2012" is opening next week. For the rest of you, I'm sure by now you are heartily fed-up of the barrage of Mayan-inspired pseudoscience whirling around this movie, which posits that the world will suffer a series of planet-shaking catastrophies in a couple of years' time. No? Well, here's some more.
2012 is the brainchild of German director Roland Emmerich. Emmerich is a cinematic bête noire of mine, rivalling that other dollar-guzzling monster Richard Curtis. While Curtis's speciality is cheerily heartwarming tales of middle-class British niceness masquerading as comedy, Emmerich specializes in heartwarming tales of ordinary folk surrounded by the deaths of millions. He has become known as a specialist in end-of-the-world disaster movies, whether through alien invasion ("Independence Day"), climate change ("The Day After Tomorrow"), or giant radioactive lizard ("Godzilla")
My grudge against Emmerich goes back to his Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" (2000). I could forgive him casting an Australian (Mel Gibson) as the only non slave-owning Southern landowner in the 18th Century, or for having another character who was a heroic Frenchman (obviously a foretaste of Emmerich's later science fiction and fantasy films). No, what I objected to was having him turn my fellow countrymen into a bunch of barn-buring Nazis. Sorry, Roland, but it was your army that did things like that, not mine.
However, like Curtis, Emmerich seems to be a nice man, who has been an active campaigner for gay rights; against racism in Hollywood; and promoting awareness of global warming. And it's not really his fault if there are a bunch of wingnuts out there that think his film is true. He has managed to skillfully weave a bunch of genuine geophysical nasties like the Yellowstone Supervolcano, Mega-tsunamis, and "The Big One" into a tale of planet-crushing horror - all that's missing from the mix is a dose of Asteroid Porn. Setting aside the morality of treating the deaths of millions as suitable subject for entertainment (hey, if you don't want to watch, you don't have to go) and Emmerich's formulaic "ordinary-joe-thrown-into-desperate-struggle-for survival" screenplay, it's probably not a bad date movie.
However, it has given a raft of academics from a variety of fields the opportunity to get onto TV (and into the papers, and on-line) and, in doing so, get some real research into the spotlight. How long has Mayan cosmology been waiting for it's day in the sun? But if there's an astronomical phenomenon that needs explaining, my go-to guy is the awesome Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Nova presenter and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at AMNH. Sure enough, last week Tyson sent all staff at AMNH an email circular that pulled no punches:
Now occupying nearly 50-million web pages on the Internet, the 2012 fears derive from nothing more than a hoax of the scientifically illiterate perpetrated on the scientifically uninformed.
Wow - I'm totally going to steal that line and use it at dinner parties. If you change the "2012" to, say, "H1N1 vaccine," "Darwinius maxillae," or "the millennium bug" you'll see that it has broad applicability for a variety of scientific debates. Of course, Tyson then went on to undermine the considerable force of his argument (IMO at least) by giving readers three video links to calm their fears; CNN, Jimmy Fallon, and a video Q&A. All featuring.... Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Some people may fear the impact of a planet-sized body on Manhattan, but as far as I can see a planet-sized ego impacted there some years ago with minimal damage and is still around today.
[disclaimer: after I pointed out Tyson's self-promotional chutzpah to a colleague of mine, I was accused of being a "hater." So, for the record, I think Neil is one of the best popularizers and advocates for science around today. And I am not a "hater." Except where Richard Curtis is concerned]