Science & Research

Fact and fiction in “Interstellar”

By
Science & Research Editor
Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This article is the second in an ongoing series, Science at the Cinema, that explores research and researchers portrayed in film.

“Interstellar,” the story of a perilous space journey, is a must-see film for its grand visual effects and far out ideas that bend space, time and the filmgoer’s mind.

The film, which received five 2015 Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for best visual effects, places its characters in a future world that is nearly depleted of nutrients. Desperate to propagate the human race, a team of astronauts launches a mission to find a distant, potentially habitable planet. The main character, Cooper — played by Matthew McConaughey — leads the space travelers through a wormhole that eventually dumps them in deep space near an enormous black hole called Gargantua.

Though the laws of physics allow the astronauts to explore the far reaches of the universe, the same laws also end up creating immense social tension between the characters. Gargantua’s massive size causes gravitational time dilation, making time progress more slowly for the astronauts than it does for people on Earth. Strained by space and time, Cooper’s Earthly relationships deteriorate as his daughter ages more quickly than he does, eventually surpassing his own age.

Professor of Physics Brad Marston said the film’s representations of various physical phenomena seemed to be generated from a “gradient of speculations,” with some aspects of the movie being more scientifically plausible than others. The elongation of time is a well-known corollary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and the makers of Interstellar represented the distortion of time accurately with their portrayal of Gargantua, he added.

But other parts of the film, such as its representation of a higher-dimensional tesseract in which Cooper can observe instances — like the aging of his daughter — throughout time, are supported only by theoretical, not experimental evidence, Marston said. Though the possibility of a universe with more than four dimensions is consistent with current theoretical physics, the movie “takes this to an extreme limit,” he added.

The movie also capitalized on some interesting physical extensions of mathematical possibilities, but many of them were not grounded in realism, said Professor of Physics Ian Dell’Antonio. For instance, traveling through a wormhole is theoretically possible according to relativity, but the necessary conditions have not actually been observed in the universe, he said.

“A plot where the astronauts find a wormhole that can’t be traversed isn’t very interesting,” Dell’Antonio added.

Kip Thorne, a renowned theoretical physicist, was hired as the scientific consultant for the film and provided the scientific knowledge necessary to portray the large-scale phenomena in Interstellar. Marston, who was a student of Thorne’s, said he could see Thorne’s influence on the movie. It was apparent that the producers of Interstellar “strived much harder” to maintain scientific accuracy than the directors of other science fiction films, Marston said.

Though the filmmakers went the extra mile to increase scientific accuracy, they deliberately deviated from the truth at times, Dell’Antonio said. When Thorne worked out the math behind the visual imagery one would experience while traveling through a wormhole, it was too boring, so the filmmakers chose to enhance it for the viewers’ sake, Dell’Antonio said.

When talking to his colleagues about the film, Marston said he noticed that each professor had a criticism that was targeted at their particular field of expertise. For example, one person who primarily studies black holes found Gargantua to be problematic, while a geologist he talked to questioned the distant planet’s physical makeup.

Despite any stretches of scientific truth, a positive side effect of the movie is that it could enhance young students’ interest in physics, Marston said.

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