Interstellar is causing rivers of electronic ink flow in turmoil. It is not a common thing to see a science fiction film received with so much controversy. The public seems to be divided into two camps: those who judge the film by Christopher Nolan a masterpiece, and those who destroy it mercilessly. Among the latter, many attack the film right on that aspect that should be the movie’s strongest point: its scientific plausibility.
Just for the latter, a very interesting take is from the book—released to coincide with the film—The Science of Interstellar, signed by that Kip Thorne scientist who is also the scientific advisor for the script, and one of the leading experts in blacks holes, curved space, quantum effects on gravity and time.
The book, in English, aims at readers with an average science education. Kip Thorne is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, USA.
How well did the Interstellar?
In the introduction, Thorne tells how the project of Interstellar was born. In a phase of his life, Thorne was single and trying to raise a child alone — in Interstellar, the father-daughter relationship is central — and came to know that Carl Sagan, with whom Thorne was in close friendship, had organized an appointment with Lynda Obst, a former journalist who was trying to break into the world of movies as a producer. The two had a brief romantic relationship, but even if in the end it did not work they remained good friends.
Years later, in 2005, Obst, who had produced Contact, the film based on the novel by Sagan, proposed to Thorne to work on a script on a similar subject. Thorne became interested in the idea, and in the next four months he knocked off what would have been the subject of Interstellar, with inside all the topics that interested Thorne: blacks holes, wormholes, gravitational waves.
Obst was pretty good at her job, and was able to engage a big-time screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan, and Steven Spielberg as director. But the project with Spielberg was wrecked, and for a couple of years it seemed that everything would end and lost to oblivion. Then Obst succeeded in involving Christopher Nolan, and Interstellar, the project, received a fresh, new start.
The script was re-written by Jonathan Nolan this time together with Christopher, and with the advices from Thorne. The thing, says Thorne, worked like this: Nolan said Thorne what had to happen in the film, and Thorne had to find the scientific justification.
In the book, Thorne explains how they dealt with various aspects of scientific history. For example, as regards to the first part, for the blight that is destroying all plants on Earth, Thorne invited to dinner the elite of his university’s biology and medicine, and, sitting around the table, began to make assumptions in order to give a scientific explanation the type of disease that was described in the script. After discarding many assumptions, the conclusion reached by the group was that yes, it was possible — although not very likely — that a certain type of organism would evolve to become able to attack the chloroplasts and then kill plants and decrease the percentage of oxygen in ‘atmosphere. The implausibility, however, is that the effect could be as rapid spreading as the one described in the film, unless one hypothesizes, for example, that the amount of plants on the bottom of the oceans is much higher than what is estimated today together with their contribution to the atmosphere.
Others, like Phil Plait, criticized the fact that the planet Miller was so close to the black hole to be subject to such a strong time contraction (every hour on the planet was equivalent to seven years for the ship in orbit) and, yet, without being destroyed by tidal forces of the black hole.
The idea, though, was not Thorne’s, who reveals that Chris Nolan has basically imposed how things were, then asked him to find a scientific explanation. Thorne found it then by assuming that the black hole had a huge mass (similar to blacks holes at the center of galaxies) and rotated very fast. The same Plait later admitted that he had considered the rotation, and that he was wrong in formulating its critics. Things remains that different mathematical models can give different answers to the same questions.
Not all things went as Thorne wanted. The biggest regret of the scientist was the elimination in the plot of gravitational waves, a theme he was very keen to explore in the movie (being a subject that has long occupied in his career). But it became too complex and the story would not hold well together.
In other cases his advice has not been used for artistic reasons. Thorne is very proud of the representation of the black hole, visible in its glorious, real appearance for the first time in the rendered images of Interstellar. The computer provided the answer through complex calculations based on studies from Thorne. Conversely, the calculations performed by Thorne to see the shift in the wormhole were discarded because the effect would be too similar to things already seen in other science fiction films (imagine the effect warp of Star Wars or Star Trek); Nolan then decided to use something completely different.
Is There a Way to Travel Between Stars?
In a very interesting chapter, Thorne also addresses the theme of travel in the interstellar space. As we know, the nearest stars are a few light years away, and to reach them with today’s engines would require thousands of years. Thorne analyzes five or six kind of propulsion that would allow a ship to travel at speeds reasonably close to the speed of light; interesting hypothesis, but all, concludes Thorne rather improbable and still quite beyond our current capabilities.
The only possibility is therefore the wormhole. But wormholes may exist?
The idea of wormholes dates back to 1916, and was theorized by the Viennese physicist Ludwig Flamm. Later, the topic was studied by Einstein himself with Nathan Rosen, and the two gave the name to that effect that is known as the “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” while the term ‘wormhole’ was coined by another great astrophysicist, John Wheeler.
The concept works like this: a caterpillar who wants to move from side to side of the apple has two roads; circumnavigate the apple, or dig a tunnel and go through it. Essentially two-dimensional universe is coming out of the surface of the apple to get into a different dimension that “cut” through the space between two points of the universe-apple.
Thorne explains how a natural wormhole is completely unstable and would have no more than a few seconds before it evaporates. However, by including in the wormhole exotic matter, you can lock the wormhole, expand it, and make it stable. In essence, says Thorne, wormholes are possible, but only artificial ones. This allowed Thorne to win a bet with Steven Hawking, who argued the impossibility of a stable wormhole. Hawking agreed to pay the bet, but argued on the regularity of the solution, because the artificial wormhole should not have been foreseen as part of the bet.
Thorne, of course, knows his subject, and we must recognize that he’s also very good at exposing, captivating the reader, and entertain him with a hint of irony.
Massimo Marino is a scientist envisioning science fiction. He spent years at CERN and The Lawrence Berkeley Lab followed by lead positions with Apple, Inc. and the World Economic Forum. He is also co-founder of “Squares on Blue”, a Big Data Analytics service company.
Massimo currently lives in France and crosses the border with Switzerland multiple times daily, although he is no smuggler.
As a scientist writing science fiction, he went from smashing particles at accelerators at SLAC and CERN to smashing words on a computer screen.
He’s the author of multi-awarded Daimones Trilogy.
His novels have received the Seal of Excellency from both AwesomeIndies.net and IndiePENdents.org
• 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club