Although I like science, or maybe because of it, I tend to get irritated with films that casually break the laws of science merely to achieve a cheap solution to a plot problem. I don’t expect perfect fidelity but gratuitous violations of laws (such noisy explosions in space or the presence of Earth-like gravity on spaceships) are annoying. This is why I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey and to a lesser extent Gravity, because they tried to stick as closely as possible to what may be actually possible.
Reader kyoseki sent along this article in Wired magazine that discusses the science behind the new film Interstellar to be released on November 7. It turns out that the filmmakers worked closely with astrophysicist and cosmologist Kip Thorne to be as realistic as possible and turned to him for advice on what black holes and wormholes might look like and what they could do.
But then something unexpected happened.
So [visual effects expert Paul Franklin] asked Thorne to generate equations that would guide their effects software the way physics governs the real world. They started with wormholes. If light around a wormhole wouldn’t behave classically—that is, travel in a straight line—what would it do? How could that be described mathematically?
Thorne sent his answers to Franklin in the form of heavily researched memos. Pages long, deeply sourced, and covered in equations, they were more like scientific journal articles than anything else. Franklin’s team wrote new rendering software based on these equations and spun up a wormhole. The result was extraordinary. It was like a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in spacetime. “Science fiction always wants to dress things up, like it’s never happy with the ordinary universe,” he says. “What we were getting out of the software was compelling straight off.”
[Eugénie von Tunzelmann, a computer graphics supervisor at the award-winning special effects firm Double Negative] tried a tricky demo. She generated a flat, multicolored ring—a stand-in for the accretion disk—and positioned it around their spinning black hole. Something very, very weird happened. “We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” Franklin says. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”
That’s what led Thorne to his “why, of course” moment when he first saw the final effect. The Double Negative team thought it must be a bug in the renderer. But Thorne realized that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied.
Still, no one knew exactly what a black hole would look like until they actually built one. Light, temporarily trapped around the black hole, produced an unexpectedly complex fingerprint pattern near the black hole’s shadow. And the glowing accretion disk appeared above the black hole, below the black hole, and in front of it. “I never expected that,” Thorne says. “Eugénie just did the simulations and said, ‘Hey, this is what I got.’ It was just amazing.”
So in a surprising turn of events, making the film provided insight into actual physics and Thorne says that he can get at least two publishable papers out of what he learned from the products of the special effects.
I had not initially planned on seeing this film because I find the two main stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to be annoying to watch. It is an irrational reaction on my part to some actors. Hugh Grant, Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage, and Scarlett Johansson are also on that list. Julia Roberts used to be on it until I saw her in August: Osage County and that fine performance moved her off it.
But now that I have read more on this film, I plan to see it. Here’s the trailer.