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The Core of the Matter

August 28, 2004

There is no secret map charting a simple route to the core of the planet, like the 12th century rune that led Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, down the chimney of an extinct volcano in Jules Verne's "A Journey to the Centre of the Earth." That hasn't stopped scientists from trying to get there anyway.

In 1991, J. Marvin Herndon, a maverick geologist in San Diego, challenged the notion that the Earth's core was merely a dull, if very hot, sphere of iron and nickel. Henderson's core is a dynamic, churning nuclear reactor, shifting continents and energizing the Earth's magnetic field, which repels deadly solar radiation.

Herndon's theory got little attention until last year, when it was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Since then, scientists have proposed scores of experiments to prove him right or wrong. Even prominent academics who believe his theory to be hokum, such as David Stevenson, a planetary science professor at Caltech, have proposed testing it. Stevenson proposes using a nuclear explosion to crack a relatively thin part of the Earth's crust in an unpopulated part of Iceland, then fill the gap with hot iron and a grapefruit-sized probe that would sink to the core in about a week. It would then, if all went well, transmit data from the core, much as satellite probes do from outer space.

What seems to be roiling many mainstream academic scientists, however, is not Herndon's ideas per se, but the opportunistic way he has promoted them. Last year, for instance, he was a consultant to Paramount Pictures on "The Core," a dopey and short-lived thriller about scientists who burrow to the center of the Earth to prevent the magnetic field from deteriorating. In promoting the film, Paramount inaccurately claimed that Herndon's National Academy article predicted the dire scenarios portrayed in the movie, including people with pacemakers dropping dead and the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Herndon's role in stoking Paramount's overheated claims remains unclear, but he hasn't been shy since then. Earlier this year, for example, when satellites over southern Africa picked up signs of a future reversal in the magnetic field, he was quick to tout his theories as a tool to help scientists better predict fluctuations in the field. If his theories were to prove true, they could also help predict climate changes, such as El Nino and global warming, that may be partly caused by such fluctuations.

Even expert geologists are unsure exactly what lies far beneath the Earth's surface, so there's no point in blankly dismissing the provocations of nonconformists like Herndon. At their core, these provocations are useful. They are helping advance science not necessarily because they're right but because they're prompting so many people to try to prove them wrong.

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