Interstellar Discoveries

I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.

But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.

Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down the equations needed to help show what happens to light in the neighbourhood of the black hole (such solutions of Einstein’s equations can rather dramatically bend the light around them in interesting and unexpected ways) and the filmmakers used computers to deduce from the equations what the visuals would be. (Students from my GR class will know the equations, I’d guess. Sounds like the equations for the null geodesics in the background. The tougher part is to find a nice way of treating them numerically, especially when the background solution, the black hole with an accretion disc, is maybe not known exactly, and so has to be solved numerically too?)

Apparently the results were quite new and unexpected, and you’ll see them in the film, and also in a research paper or two! Apparently Kip Thorne will publish the results soon, since this is useful for the research community too.

I like Adam Rogers’ work for Wired, in general. But I do have a complaint here. His Wired article leaves out an important thing in its going on about what’s “true” (whatever that means – and never mind his use of the annoying cliché that Truth is the concern of the scientist and Beauty that of the filmmaker. It is tired, and just wrong.). We know (or have a great deal of evidence) that black holes exist. We understand very well mechanisms by which they form, and indeed they seem inevitable in Nature. Wormholes however, while fascinating on paper, remain a fantasy. We don’t even have believable mechanisms (well, not many, if any) as to how they might form in Nature, so they might well stay on the page, or just exist as devices for allowing writers to move people around the galaxy a bit more easily… It would have been nice to see that mentioned in the article that talks about “accurate science” in several places. This is going to confuse people a lot. (He does briefly say “hypothetical” at one point early on, but that’s not really enough.)

Anyway, overall this all seems like an excellent outcome! I hope that this encourages film-makers to take more seriously the idea of genuine collaborations with scientists in telling wonderful stories, old and new, that we can all enjoy.


*Thanks aef!
**Thanks Tyson!

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5 Responses to Interstellar Discoveries

  1. Platohagel says:

    I learned about the show from Preskill blog entry of June 2013. Can be seen here –


  2. Platohagel says:

    I see you had linked Quantum Frontiers article in your blog entry of Wormhole March 12 2014 –


  3. Nick says:

    Gosh, I can’t wait to see this film. There seems to be a general trend towards embracing scientific accuracy in movies these days, with the success of scientifically accurate (albeit flawed) films like Gravity.

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