Beware of Movies! Energy Resources

The Beware of Movies! series is meant to point out some of the scientific inaccuracies of popular movies, specifically in points related to the geological sciences.

This post will point out the major inaccuracies portrayed in movies about the Earth’s resources, especially for energy. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many movies that really touch on this topic, so this will mostly be a short essay about energy resources.  How do we get oil and coal? Continue reading

Friday Headlines: 2-1-13

Friday Headlines, February 1, 2013




Do I really need to say more? It’s an intestinal parasite…


…in fossil shark poop.

It poopeth!

Fossil shark poop.



Two related headlines here:



Comet, asteroid, and meteor impacts have been blamed for several of the Earth’s greatest extinctions, including the one at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) Boundary that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs (and later dominance of mammals). It’s only natural then, when an extinction is identified in Earth’s history, to take a moment and look for evidence of an impact.

The Clovis culture disappeared from North America about 9,000 years ago. That’s similar to when many of North America’s ‘megafauna,’ or giant animals, went extinct, like the woolly mammoth and giant ground sloth. For the extinction of the megafauna, most arguments hinge around human over-hunting or climate change, because that was about the same time that humans made it onto North America and it was also the end of the last glaciation.

There are some, however, who argue that an impact event caused the extinction of the megafauna and then also the demise of the Clovis culture. There was even a Nova documentary about it. Alas, the newest and best evidence soundly rebuts this idea. There are no impact craters from that time period (though it’s been argues that the comet hit the ice cap). There’s no shocked minerals either. Minerals take on the appearance of being disrupted (or shocked) due to the force of impacts. Shocked quartz is common from the K-T boundary event, but there is none associated with this 9,000 year old event. No impact occurred.

The downside is that we still don’t know what happened to the Clovis people.

Beware of Movies! Fossils and Paleontology

The Beware of Movies! series is meant to point out some of the scientific inaccuracies of popular movies, specifically in points related to the geological sciences.

This post will point out the major inaccuracies portrayed in movies about the science of paleontology. I’m a paleontologist. This oughtta be good…

Commonly, about two seconds after I tell someone I’m a vertebrate paleontologist, they ask me what I think of Jurassic Park. Then I laugh. It’s either that or they ask me if I carry a whip like Indiana Jones. Then I snarl something about how 1) Dr. Jones was an archaeologist and 2) Indiana was the dog!

Continue reading

Beware of Movies! Meteorites and Magnetism – More on the Earth’s Interior

The Beware of Movies! series is meant to point out some of the scientific inaccuracies of popular movies, specifically in points related to the geological sciences.

This blog post will point out the major inaccuracies portrayed in movies about the Earth’s composition and its magnetic field.

Today (January 15, 2013) I presented a Beware of Movies lecture at a local retirement community. The focus was on the Interior of the Earth, and was the topic of an earlier blog post. It was a wonderful experience. (I love doing those things!) In the process of preparing, then delivering, the presentation, I did realize that I left a few critical things out. Hence, a new blog post!

Meteorites — What do they have to do with the Earth’s interior?

One of the big problems that arises with bad geology movies is that they get the composition of the Earth all wrong. There aren’t amethysts in the mantle. Diamonds and rubies would not co-exist. We know that the mantle of the Earth is composed of mafic and ultra-mafic rocks (think back to Bowen’s Reaction Series). That means it’s mostly low-silica, high iron and magnesium rocks down there. Even deeper, we know that the core is composed mostly of iron and nickel.

As we stand on the Earth’s surface, such minerals and rocks are rare. It’s easy to think that most of the rocks of the Earth should be felsic things like granite, with tons of quartz. This is simply not the case.

But why? How can we make the assumption that the mantle is mafic and the core is iron and nickel. We know some of this because there are a few places on Earth where mantle rocks have been exposed at the surface (usually due to tectonic events). We can hypothesize some compositions based upon how seismic waves refract through the body of the Earth (seismic waves travel at different rates through different materials).

We can make some assumptions about the overall composition of the Earth based upon studies of meteorites. We assume that the bits of rock and dust that collected all those billions of years ago to form our beloved planet formed from the same bits of rock and dust that make up meteorites. If you take a meteorite and grind it up, you find it to be of mafic composition, with low silica, and high concentrations of iron, magnesium, and nickel. Some meteorites are almost pure nickel and iron. Others are more rocky. This is assumed to be the starting point for the Earth’s composition.

A Chondrite – a very primitive stony meteorite. Photo by H. Raab

A polished surface of an iron meteorite – photo by Opsoelder

Over millions of years, these mafic pebbles that came together to form the planet fused, and then underwent a process called ‘differentiation,’ which is just a fancy way to say ‘the heavy stuff went to the middle.’ Thus, the nickel and iron are at the core of the Earth, surrounded by the mantle of mafic rocks. Felsic rocks, like granite, tend to be light and naturally ‘float’ to the surface, which is why they are what we usually see in the rocks around us!

Magnetism — The Earth isn’t exactly a giant bar magnet, but it’s similar.

Here’s the neat thing about the core. It’s iron and nickel. Iron is a conductor. If you have an electrical current, you have a magnetic field. And voila! The Earth has a magnetic field.

The core is divided into two parts, the liquid outer and the solid inner. The mantle is also solid. Because the Earth rotates, flow is set up in the Earth’s liquid outer core. With that flow, and a little nudge, an electric current is set up. The flow is thought to be in several isolated cylinders surrounding the solid inner core. This is where the ‘bar magnet’ analogy fails, because each cylinder has it’s own field, and these combine to form the magnetic field of the Earth. This is referred to the geomagnetic dynamo.

Geomagnetic dynamo. All this is happening in the core.

Because of the dynamic nature of flow in the core, the magnetic pole never quite lines up the the Earth’s rotational axis. In fact, the magnetic poles move around quite a bit, sometimes even reversing themselves (though this takes more than a single human’s lifetime). There are lots of questions regarding how the magnetic field forms and how it might reverse itself, and is an active field of research in geophysics.

Beware of movies! The basis of the entire movie “The Core” is that the flow in the liquid outer core has stopped, thus causing the Earth’s magnetic field to fail. If we did lose the magnetic field, there could be repercussions, however, the magnetic field on Earth has gone essentially to zero multiple times in Earth’s history. Every time the magnetic poles reverse themselves, the field goes to zero first. While there is some evidence that this might have caused problems for certain single-celled organisms, large animals have not been affected. The cataclysms that are shown in the movie would not be expected. So don’t worry.

Bad Geology Movies: Dinosaur, 2000



D.B. Sweeney, Julianna Margulies and Samuel E. Wright

Premise: What would happen if a dinosaur was raised by lemurs?

OK. This is totally a kids’ movie. I won’t say anything about talking dinosaurs. And I know there has to be tons of artistic license. Fine. Nevertheless, there are some things about this movie that are terribly inaccurate.

But I only took two pages of notes, and, admittedly, the pencil was blunt and there were pictures. So there’s not too much.

Dinosaurs that I recognized: Iguanodon (e-K), Carnotaurus (l-K), An Oviraptor (Rinchenia) (l-K), Velociraptor (l-K), Brachiosaurus (l-J), Styracosaurus (l-K), Ankylosaurus (l-K), Parasaurolophus (l-K), Struthiomimus (l-K)

Those funny little parenthetical bits there denote the age of rocks in which each of these animals are typically found. (l-K) means the late Cretaceous, just before the dinosaurs went extinct. Luckily, most of the animals depicted in the movie are from the late Cretaceous. That makes sense. The whole movie begins with an asteroid impact which, presumably, represents the one that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.

There are a couple of problems though. For one, the main character is an Iguanodon. Iguanodon lived in the early Cretaceous (e-K). That could be 50-70 million years before the rest of the characters. But if that’s not bad enough, Brachiosaurus is from the late Jurassic (l-J), which is tens of millions of years older than that.

So, these animals never actually co-existed.

Lemurs, or any modern primate did not appear on the Earth until at least ten million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. So that just wouldn’t happen. But fuzzy animals with goofy personalities are great for the show.

There are some other bits that were worrysome: Why are the lemurs on an island separated from the mainland? Why aren’t there dinosaurs on that island? How come the nesting grounds are unaffected by the meteor impact? Why are all the dinosaurs essentially sentient, except for the poor ankylosaur?

That landslide was a little sketchy, too. Where did that rock come from?

Oh, and hey. Why did any dinosaurs survive? After all, didn’t the asteroid wipe them out at the end of the Cretaceous? In the end, this is actually OK. Maybe some relict populations did survive beyond the end of the Cretaceous, but died out soon thereafter. There’s even some evidence that this occurred, though most paleontologists are skeptical. The point is that it is plausible that not everything died immediately after the impact.

Besides, it’s a kids’ movie. What do you want?

Bad Geology Movies: Jurassic Park, 1993

Jurassic Park


Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum

Premise: What if we could clone dinosaurs and made a theme park around them?

You were probably waiting for this one. I had to do Jurassic Park. I’m a paleontologist. It’s a rule, right?

When Jurassic Park came out, I was in my fourth year as an undergraduate (I’d been a senior for a while already, and wouldn’t graduate for at least one more year), studying both geology and biology. I was going to be a vertebrate paleontologist, and I was pretty sure I was going to study dinosaurs. (I never have studied dinosaurs, but I did become a vertebrate paleontologist. 50% is pretty good, right?)

I never did see this in the theater. I saw it a year later when it came out on video. I watched it the evening of the day that I took the GRE exams. Yes, exams in the plural. This is back when there were only two dates a year you could take the GRE and it was a hand-written test. I took both the general and the subject exam in one day. I was fried that night. I remember laughing at the cute dinosaurs while my roomates and friends fell on me in terror.

Since then, this movie has been a popular one to watch with the various geology clubs I’ve been associated with. It’s full of problems with both paleontology and biology. I’ll try to stick to the paleontology problems.

The bottom line is this: We’re probably not EVER going to see cloned dinosaurs. Now, maybe we can do some genetic engineering and get dinosaur-like animals from modern birds, but that’s about it.

I’m only planning to review the first Jurassic Park movie. The others are based upon accepting the assumptions from the first, so there’s little point in considering the others (with the possible exception of the character Robert Burke, from the second movie, The Lost World).


PORTRAYAL OF PALEONTOLOGY: Oh, goodness, it’s wrong. Just wrong. The setting, the outcrops, were all right, but what the science looked like is wrong.

Exposing the fossil: 1) I have never been to a fossil locality where a brush was all that was needed to expose a fossil. Additionally, paleontologists tend NOT to expose fossils as they dig. They only uncover enough so that they can determine the exent of the the fossil. Then they trench around the specimen, keeping as much rock as possible in place. Once a trench is dug, and the fossil is still encased in rock but now sitting on a pedestal, paleontologists will jacket the fossil with plaster and take it into a laboratory to fully remove it from the rock. Never, never, never do we do such detailed preparation in the field. The specimens will be ruined, if not by people walking on them (or helicopters landing nearby), but by the elements. It takes time, sometimes years, to get a fossil out of the ground. The more that remains encased in rock, the better.

Seismic: Not that I fully understand how seismic works, but I’m certain that a single shotgun blast isn’t going to yield an image by which a paleontologist can recognize the half-moon shape of the dinosaur’s wrist bone.

The fossil itself: Y’know, sometimes a complete fossil is found in its death pose, but usually even then some of the bones are out of place. To find as single complete specimen is unusual. To find two, both laid out perfectly, is so unlikely that I could not suspend reality to accept that part of the movie. And something as big as the ‘Velociraptor’ that they portray would almost certainly have damage or distortion somewhere.

Science and funding: Apparently Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, has been providing Drs. Grant and Sadler with $50,000 a year to fund their research. That might seem like a lot of money to you, but in reality, that’s chump change. Just saying. Research efforts like those are expensive, especially if Sadler and Grant are getting any salary from it. I’ve submitted some ‘cheap’ grant requests for less than $50,000 per year. That covers my research expenses and only two months of my salary. Most programs need much more than that.


THE DINOSAURS: They did pretty good with the dinosaurs, all things considered. I’m glad that Spielberg isn’t going to go all “George Lucas” on these movies and fix them up though…

Velociraptors and the relationship with birds: What Alan Grant in the movie says about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs is mostly true. Most of us in the paleontological community refer to birds as ‘avian dinosaurs.’ We have chickens and I am always calling them my little dinosaurs. What Dr. Grant says about ‘raptor’ meaning ‘bird’ may also be true, but let’s face it, that’s not evidence that birds and dinosaurs are related. If I start calling a donut a banana, does that make the donut fruit? No. (Besides, ‘raptor’ actually means ‘thief’!)

Speaking of Velociraptors: The true ‘Velociraptor’ is a little animal that would stand about hip-high on most adult people. The veolociraptors in the movie were enlarged to make them look cooler. When Spielberg came up with this, paleontologists said, ‘Well, ok. Sure. It’s a movie. Go ahead,’ basically accepting that this was going to be wrong. But at about the time that the movie came out, a huge new species related to Velociraptor was discovered in Utah, and was named Utahraptor. The velociraptors of the movie could be Utahraptors in real life. And the paleontology community breathed a collective sigh.

Inferences about behavior: Velociraptors hunt in packs. Gallimimus ran in herds. This is arm-waving. This is literary license. This is not something that can be inferred directly from the fossil record. We don’t know exactly how these animals interacted. We don’t know how they behaved. We can observe modern birds and assume that dinosaurs might have behaved in similar ways. Nothing more.

Inferences about perception in dinosaurs: Apparently, Tyrannosaurus can’t see you unless you move. Dr. Grant knew this somehow. OK, we don’t actually know this. There are animals that can only see objects if they move quickly, like some frogs, but we can’t possibly know if this is true with dinosaurs. By the same token, we don’t know if velociraptors can stare you down, either. If we’re going to base this inference on their nearest living relatives, however, I’m pretty sure that T. rex could see you even if you were sitting still.

Modern understanding of dinosaurs: If this movie were to be made today, the velociraptors would most likely be completely covered with feathers. The T. Rex would also have feathers, probably. Any of the theropods would be feathered. Now, I’m not sure about the sauropods – the big Brachiosaurus – I’m sure someone else knows.

By the way, Dilophosaurus: Dilophosaurus does not have the neck frill that is shown in the movie, and it didn’t spit poison, either.


Cloning: So this is biology, and a bit of chemistry. 1) DNA wouldn’t last. Over 65 million years it would degrade so much that it would be unrecognizable. 2) Frog DNA? If they were clever, they’d use bird DNA. Seriously, a FROG?! Now if we really wanted dinosaurs, what we need to do is study the anatomy of dinosaurs and compare that with birds as adults and embryonically. Then let’s try to make the embryo of modern birds develop to make a dinosaur-like skeleton and see what we get… This, I think, is within the realm of possibility, but the ‘dinosaur’ we’d get won’t be any dinosaur that ever walked the Earth!


Females turning male: Actually, such things are possible. In many vertebrates, the temperature of the eggs during development will determine the sex of the young when they’re born. Equally possible, though not mentioned, is parthenogenesis, wherein a female simply gives birth or lays eggs without fertilization. The babies are clones of the mother. This is known in many species of lizards. It’s a stretch, but it’s possible.


I could go on. There are several little details in the movie that I found annoying, but these are the big ones (or so I think). I’ve got other movies to watch and review…

Friday Headlines: 1-4-12

Friday Headlines, January 4, 2013




Quadrantid. Photo by Brian Emfinger in Ozark Arkansas, January 2, 2012

The Quadrantids are a meteor shower that happens in January. They seem to come from an area in the sky between the handle of the Big Dipper and the head of the constellation Draco.

(source: EarthSky Communications, Inc.)

Alas, by the time this is published, the peak will be just past, having been Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Plus, the waning moon (and all the snow where I live) make it difficult to actually observe this meteor shower.



In the Pilbara region of Australia are some of the planet’s oldest rocks, dating back to about 3.4 billion years ago. In these rocks are various evidences for ancient life, including textures (like minute strands connecting to each other in a network similar to that of modern bacteria) and geochemical tracers. Yes, folks, there be isotopes there!

Metabolic processes in bacteria result in an isotopic signature wherein there is more ‘light’ carbon (carbon-12) than ‘heavy’ carbon (carbon-13) than would be expected for a limestone that formed without bacteria present.

Strelley Pool in the Pilbara, where 3.4 billion-year-old fossils have been found. Photo: David Wacey

What’s important is that finding these bacteria in such ancient rocks might suggest that the Earth’s atmosphere had oxygen in it a billion years before we previously thought. Oxygen in the atmosphere has had a profound effect on both the evolution of life on Earth and as well as it’s geologic history.


Snowflake classes

This is just cool. Who knew snowflakes were so complex? In light of all the snow we’ve received of late, this gives me something to look for in the next snowfall.