I just saw Interstellar, and honestly, it may be my favorite movie of all time. As I consider what it is that put this movie above the others for me, I realize that many readers who have or will see it may not agree with my conclusion. I’d like to explain why it was so important for me, and why I think you should give it a(nother) chance.
After seeing one of the Interstellar trailers a few weeks ago, Pascal let me know about a great article he’d read in Wired magazine. I pulled out my iPad and bought the November issue to see what he was talking about. It described how the movie came to be, starting with a theoretical physicist, Dr. Kip Thorne from Caltech who I’ve read about many times, and his dream to teach more abstract theoretical science to the masses.
As I understand it, Dr. Thorne created new equations to allow their software to generate the accurate gravitational lensing (this isn’t your daddy’s Star Trek, the original series, physics). He presented custom mathematical models for the design team to massage and feed into their custom rendering engine to make light bend in the correct way to simulate relativistic effects. That is way, way harder than it sounds and it’s easy to fail to appreciate it. In addition, he and the team came up with the new equations and simulations to model background accretion disks, tesseracts to represent multiple dimensions, etc.
According to the article, some frames took up to 100 hours to render. All that work is based on mathematics from the latest published, peer-reviewed work in astrophysics. Those equations account for the “bendy bits of distortion caused by gravitational lensing” among other things. The movie is almost 800 terabytes of data to crunch all the equations. Science fiction doesn’t need to be overly dramatized like it has been in many movies. Nature itself is more than capable of compelling the emotions they’re seeking. Here’s a link to the excellent article, Wrinkles In Spacetime – The Warped Astrophysics of INTERSTELLAR. The article includes a video about the physics behind Interstellar.
Here are some relevant quotes from the video:
Neither wormholes, nor black holes have been depicted in any Hollywood movie in the way that they actually would appear. This is the first time the depiction began with Einstein’s General Relativity equations. – Kip Thorne, Eminent Theoretical Physicist, Executive Producer
We found that we could get some very understandable, tactile imagery from those equations. They were constantly surprising, you know, spoke to the maxim that truth can be stranger than fiction. – Christopher Nolan, Director, Co-writer
Dr. Thorne will get at least two papers out of their work on this movie. One aimed at physicists and the other at computer graphics developers. He will discuss the things they’ve learned about gravitational lensing by spinning black holes (from modeling it for this movie) that we never knew before. These will be areas to pursue in physics and in simulating reality in the virtual world of games.
Aren’t the physics of Interstellar wrong?
Before seeing the movie a family member mentioned that he’d seen it and thought the physics were off. I think this is a common sentiment. Those untrained in what to expect of relativity will see problems in the unexpected behavior of black-holes, time warps, etc. Those familiar with these subjects will find problems in the creative license Dr. Thorne, the Nolan brother co-writers, and Legendary Studios took on the more speculative parts of the science and narrative/art direction. After watching the movie I read many reviews of Interstellar that discuss the physics. Some raised problems they believed were present in the science of the movie. I found that I had a response for almost every complaint. For brevity and to avoid spoilers, I won’t mention my responses here. I’ll just say that in each case I either had a different understanding of physics than they did or I gave allowances for narrative, believing the circumstances in question to be at least possible, if not likely. It’s a perspective difference, and I want to try to communicate what I think is the right perspective to view this movie.
Pascal and I have recently been discussing the work of our favorite theoretical and astrophysicist, Sean Carroll, a colleague of Dr. Thorne at Caltech. Dr. Thorne may be even more involved in the theoretical domain of physics, which is a great example of the overlap between physics and philosophy that we’ve been discussing recently. Please refer to my last comment from the recent post titled On Philosophy And Science for more on that overlap (or Dr. Carroll’s own thoughts on the subject). As such, some of the concepts Dr. Thorne considers are necessarily speculative (the philosophical side of his work). However, he did a great job of working with the team to ensure that nothing known to be forbidden by the known laws made it in the movie.
Given this interpretation, did I find the movie accurate with science? Yes! Within obvious parameters. As I mentioned, a lot of it is conjecture, but the simulations of the black holes, wormholes, relativity, gravity, behavior of light at those speeds and gravitational scales, is more accurate that it’s ever been depicted. It was designed in part to pique interest in high-level theoretical relativistic physics through art – the movie spectacle kind. Obviously there are some creative liberties for storytelling, but on the whole, yes, it’s extremely accurate as long as you know which parts are for storytelling. That is always the trick, isn’t it? The same issue arises when trying to interpret the Bible’s narratives.
Still think Interstellar has problems with physics you can’t get past?
Dr. Thorne released a book to help explain the physics of the movie to anyone interested. For all those who question the physics, Dr. Thorne goes into great lengths to clearly mark the reason behind each relevant scene as being backed by either:
- Scientific fact/truth – supported by numerous papers and observational data
- Educated guess (e.g. supported by math but not observed yet)
- Speculation (to varying degrees that he clearly marks).
If you want to publicly call out some piece of physics you don’t agree with, check out his reasons in the book first, and chalk some of it up to art direction or other requirement of the storyline which was the Nolans’ call. As an aside, Pascal, I just bought you an early Christmas present. The Science of Interstellar is on it’s way via Amazon. They only had paperback, sorry. I bought a copy for myself on iBooks.
Okay, Russell. So it was a good movie that modeled certain physics extremely well, but why was it so good that it might be your favorite movie ever?
Why should I watch Interstellar (again) and how should I view it?
First, don’t let the hype make you overly critical. Focus on the fact that all these achievements are in one movie.
- Science promotion among minorities and the media – Physicists and engineers are the leading characters, some of whom are women.
- Science education – The immense achievement of generating a new graphics rendering engine to simulate and incredibly accurate black hole via Einstein’s equations. The stunning visual representation of the possible behavior of forces within a singularity (I’ll resist defending an apparent science issue here to avoid spoilers). The tesseract brought to life as never before as a compelling way to visualize more than three spatial dimensions (similar in concept to Flatland but quite different, this has left me stunned for days as I try to envision it). The demonstration of gravity as a force that can affect changes across the four dimensions we experience from a higher dimension. The outstanding visualization of out-of-box thinking that pushes science forward.
- Spectacle – A tidal wave a mile high on an IMAX screen
- Simulating reality – It’s more than just black hole and wormhole simulations. I was familiar enough with those before the movie, though unveiling the universe at that level was a masterful achievement for humanity. We look at the star actors and actresses that perform on screen and stand amazed. We rarely realize the bigger, more inspiring work behind the scenes. Read about Dr. Kip Thorne‘s knowledge and contribution that are made possible by all the generations of scientists and philosophers that came before. This is not just a celebration and perspective alignment for Dr. Thorne, but for humanity. We can accurately model the procession of a black hole on a computer, in a movie, to striking detail and accuracy. You and I are both underestimating that sentence. Most of those words didn’t even make sense a hundred years ago. The stars are not just Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and others. The stars are all of us. Science is a human endeavor. We have to support each other in families, in wider circles, in civilizations in order to allow some to spend their lives working out the details of nature. These simulations on the big screen are a tribute to all of us – to how far we’ve come, and the exciting discoveries just beyond the current horizon that entice us forward.
- And the main reason, science value creation. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where ideas turn into MRI machines that save lives. For me, this is what it’s all about. If you want to live in a world filled with people who understand science, a massively popular movie featuring the frontier of the latest discoveries is how to get people talking and thinking. Like gravitational waves, the ripples of science value creation go far beyond the movie itself. The software simulation libraries will be adapted to future games and movies and added to the growing simulations of similar phenomena at the edge of our understanding. They will be open-sourced and built into further applications. They will be consumed on large screens and played in games by children and teenagers. Each iteration will lead to more questions, more interest in science, more discoveries, and better questions.
Bonus follow-up for point #5:
I’ve seen and played some game simulations built by physics and math graduate students specifically to render environments that are visibly affected by the character’s movement at close to the speed of light. The following quote is from Philip Tan, Creative Director for OpenRelativity, an open-source graphics engine toolkit from MIT Game Lab used to simulate effects of special relativity:
“… one thing that games are really good at doing is giving people an intuitive grasp of complex scientific ideas.”
Movies like Interstellar do the same thing. We aren’t wired to understand relativity or quantum physics intuitively. As such, deep understanding of quantum mechanics and the rules that make both systems work together (a problem underlying the plot of Interstellar) have so-far eluded us. The hope is that as simulations like those created for those physics games and this movie become more common, and open-sourced graphics engines are built and put to use, more children will grow up exposed to the odd behavior of the universe at these scales, speeds and masses. Such familiarity, coupled with the interest fostered by seeing cool actors staring in popular movies that bring the frontiers of science to life in compelling ways, may help lead future grad students to understand and unlock even deeper mysteries – mysteries that are naturally difficult to grasp without this mental exposure throughout childhood and adolescence. That is the landmark importance of Interstellar.
This is a blog about theism and atheism. Does Interstellar touch on concepts that affect this debate?
Yes, in several significant areas. Without giving too much away, Matt Damon’s character says something in-line with what Pascal and I learned in the Moral Animal which supports my more naturalistic view of reality. On the other hand, there is a major plot point that fundamentally affects my personal morality in a way that leads me to act as if there is a divine judgement waiting on the other side. This gives me conviction and a moral compass even when nobody is watching. I plan to write about both points in future posts.
Interstellar is not just an epic, intense, emotional spectacle filled with desperation, hope and massive stars (double entendre intended). It is a culmination of humanity’s long march into growing light – an attempt to reveal the very edge of our understanding about some of the deepest mysteries shrouding the fabric of nature. We can talk about black holes, worm holes, relativity, quantum physics and other such topics using vague analogies that are far too oversimplified. In reality, however, these concepts are simply ineffable. Our words are just labels; attempts at descriptions that require a full understanding of all parts of the sentence to fully make sense. In the case of things on the scale of very small, very large, very slow/old, very fast, etc., we humans are just not equipped to grasp those concepts intuitively. Our language is not equipped and analogies all break down at some point. But images, sounds, motion, those we do understand.
Interstellar brings something to the table that no other medium has been able to accomplish to the same degree. Its release as yet another in a long series of blockbuster movies belies the audacity and achievement behind those mathematical equations. In proper perspective, each are the result of thousands of years of humanity – gazing at stars, speculating, forming logic, developing philosophy, conceiving and evolving the rules of science, building models, understanding electricity and how to harness/store/use it, building computers, transistors and silicone, probing space, building successively upon math, unlocking fundamental large-encompassing simple equations about nature, iterating through software algorithms and faster computer chips and architectures, until one day, a very brilliant man works with a team of very brilliant artists and story tellers who, together, crunch a brand new set of equations that surpass all the abstract, inept analogies with a single moving image. The result is a palpable experience of some of the great mysteries of nature, compelling us each to sit down with the puzzle.
You may dislike a movie for any number of reasons. However, whether or not you like the plot, and whether or not you believe the author of nature is a loving God, Interstellar, viewed with the right perspective, should put you in appreciable awe of the cosmos.
What about you?
Have you seen Interstellar yet? What did you think about it?
Gentleness and respect,