Calling Jules Verne — Earth’s Solid Center May Not Be Solid After All

“Is the Master out of his mind?’ she asked me.
I nodded.
‘And he’s taking you with him?’
I nodded again.
‘Where?’ she asked.
I pointed towards the center of the earth.
‘Into the cellar?’ exclaimed the old servant.
‘No,’ I said, ‘farther down than that.”
― Jules Verne, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth

We’re getting accustomed to things from science fiction novels and movies becoming reality – entire books have been devoted to the real inventions from ‘Star Trek’. In ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’, Jules Verne created a world deep inside our planet, but scientists have adamantly countered that Earth has a solid inner core made of iron allow surrounded by a liquid outer core. While we have no definitive evidence of either one, most people support the latter … except Rhett Butler. No, not that one – this Rhett Butler is a geophysicist at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and author of a new study which presents the theory that Earth’s core is mushy and perhaps even liquid. If this theory holds true, could a hollow spot be found?

Well?

“Illuminated by earthquakes in the crust and upper mantle, and observed by seismic observatories at Earth’s surface, seismology offers the only direct way to investigate the inner core and its processes.”

In a University of Hawai’i press release, Butler explains how he and co-author Seiji Tsuboi, research scientist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, got around the impossible-yet-most-definitive option of drilling a 3,200-mile tunnel to the center of the Earth by instead using seismographs to analyze how earthquake waves travel from one side of the Earth to the other. If the center is solid, the waves should be predictably distorted by the iron core. They selected five earthquakes which had seismometers directly opposite them on the other side of the planet – the pairings were in Tonga–Algeria, Indonesia–Brazil and three between Chile–China (see photo below). Butler then fed the data into Japan’s Earth Simulator supercomputer and crunched the numbers. The results would have made Jules Verne smile.

“In stark contrast to the homogeneous, soft-iron alloys considered in all Earth models of the inner core since the 1970s, our models suggest there are adjacent regions of hard, soft and liquid or mushy iron alloys in the top 150 miles of the inner core. This puts new constraints upon the composition, thermal history and evolution of Earth.”

Maps show the locations of earthquakes (red symbols) and corresponding antipodal stations (names highlighted in red). Locations of the antipodal seismic stations are labeled (yellow pins). (Credit: Rhett Butler, Seiji Tsuboi)

Does this open up the possibility that there are hollow spots inside the Earth that could match at least some of the science fiction of Verne or the theories of hollow Earthers? That’s probably unlikely – but Butler just smashed the solid core theory that has solidly persisted for over 50 years so it’s worth feeding more data into his supercomputer and see what the models predict. What would Jules Verne say?

“Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes; but of mistakes which lead to the discovery of truth.”

― Jules Verne, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth

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