Book Review: “The Science of Interstellar”

 

The Science of Interstellar by Kip ThorneChristopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who, having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this effort would live up to its promise of getting the science (mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.

The author of the present book is one of the most eminent physicists working in the field of general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation. Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became Interstellar from its inception, and worked closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating black hole, have never been rendered accurately before, and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published as professional papers.

Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie’s genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider, perspective, how the development of the story presented him, as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer), with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then, Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation, black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and “brane” scenarios stemming from string theory. Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course, this isn’t always possible—in some cases the needs of story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure images had to take priority over scientific authenticity, and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.

Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as “truth”: generally accepted by those working in the field and often with experimental evidence, “educated guess”: a plausible inference from accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in circumstances under which we’ve never tested them, and “speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole) which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.

This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which, for those who enjoyed the movie but weren’t entirely clear whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a “SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that the ending and major plot details are given away in the text. I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read the book, since I’ll know what to look for in some of the visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation for them.

For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text, the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on the first visit. Here is a direct link. In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are useless since the electronic edition does not contain real page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and one factual howler: Io is not “Saturn’s closest moon”, and Cassini was captured in Saturn orbit by a propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not affect the movie in any way: it’s in background material).

Thorne, Kip. The Science of Interstellar. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-35137-8.

Here is an interview with Kip Thorne and Christopher Nolan about the science behind the movie.

This is a mediocre documentary about the science of Interstellar which nonetheless has some things of interest.

 

 

 

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There are 14 comments.

  1. Profile Photo Member

    You’re going to attract me to science fiction yet, John…No question!

    • #1
    • December 13, 2014, at 6:01 PM PDT
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  2. Severely Ltd. Inactive

    It’s not often that I can add anything to your science posts without showing my ignorance, but there is a scene that intersects one of my few areas of expertise. It’s not much of a spoiler given the trailer, but stop here if you’re worried it might be.

    In the scene on the watery planet a large wave threatens the ship as it approaches and approaches and approaches in the knee-deep water of that ocean. A wave breaks when its circular motion below the surface encounters resistance (i.e. the sea floor) two-thirds the height of the wave face.

    The wave in the film, some hefty fraction of miles tall, overtakes the ship, sucks it up the face and somehow defies physics and resists breaking. If that wave is a half mile tall, it should be breaking in water a third of a mile deep. Yet it looms and threatens and steepens in knee-deep water without pitching and making the granddaddy barrel of all time. That’s when I figured out it wasn’t a documentary.

    • #2
    • December 13, 2014, at 6:13 PM PDT
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  3. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Severely Ltd.: In the scene on the watery planet a large wave threatens the ship as it approaches and approaches and approaches in the knee-deep water of that ocean. A wave breaks when its circular motion below the surface encounters resistance (i.e. the sea floor) two-thirds the height of the wave face.

    The wave in the film, some hefty fraction of miles tall, overtakes the ship, sucks it up the face and somehow defies physics and resists breaking. Say if that wave is a half mile tall, it should be breaking in water a third of a mile deep. Yet it looms and threatens and steepens in knee-deep water without pitching and making the granddaddy barrel of all time. That’s when I figured out it wasn’t a documentary.

    I haven’t seen the movie, and the waves on Miller’s planet are discussed only briefly in the book. As I understand Thorne’s interpretation, Miller’s planet is almost tidally locked to Gargantua, but wobbles a bit with respect to its centre of mass over the orbit. This causes large waves because the gravitational equipotential shifts with respect to a given point on the surface, and the ocean follows it, creating large waves. I’m not sure we can extrapolate from waves due to very small tidal forces to those where tidal forces are almost completely dominant (on the rocky body of the planet as well as the ocean).

    If there were no wobble, there would be no waves, just an ellipsoidal shape of the ocean. Whether the wobble Thorne proposes would create the waves depicted in the movie, I have no idea.

    But then, throughout the book, Thorne is the the first to acknowledge that this is entertainment, not a physics tutorial. The spin of Gargantua required to achieve the time dilation in the movie is right on the ragged edge (parts per trillion) of being nonphysical.

    • #3
    • December 13, 2014, at 6:28 PM PDT
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  4. Severely Ltd. Inactive

    My post was tongue in cheek, but I wonder why they didn’t write the scene to accommodate reality as it wouldn’t have impacted the plot. My son saw the trailer with some of the wave footage and when I told him I’d been to the movie it was eye-roll time concerning the wave. I imagine all surfers will catch that considering the physics of a breaking wave would apply anywhere at any size. Well maybe not in a black hole, but I wouldn’t know.

    • #4
    • December 13, 2014, at 8:10 PM PDT
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  5. Indaba Inactive

    What about the robots. We’re they also designed by a robotics expert? They were spectacularly strange but believable. We have come a long way since List in Space.

    • #5
    • December 13, 2014, at 8:26 PM PDT
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  6. Brian Watt Member

    Thanks, John. Will definitely check out the book and site.

    Kip Thorne’s contributions certainly seem to have given Interstellar a more believable narrative. Think what a science advisor of Thorne’s stature could have done to make Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus more credible instead of the unintentional laughable romp that it was.

    For Gerard K. O’Neill fans there are some wonderful scenes finally and deftly realized. That’s all I’ll say on that.

    I do have a couple of nits on the ending of Interstellar that seems less scientific and more mysticism which I chalk up to the Nolan brothers creative license. But overall, a very satisfying film.

    • #6
    • December 14, 2014, at 8:35 AM PDT
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  7. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.

    Pretty sure ending up behind a bookcase in your daughter’s bedroom is about the least likely “theory” that one could come up with.

    I think the problem with the movie, which really disappointed me and turned it into just another sci-fi movie…wasn’t so much the science or the explanations for the events. I could buy all of that, because one could plausibly think of theories that might explain it (except maybe the whole “love” thing).

    The biggest problem was that the humans in the movie were all…idiots.

    I’ve never seen a movie where not a single piece of story-line made any sense.

    Hey, when we get to a new galaxy, lets first try going to a planet which is right next to a black hole and has massive time differential. Cause, yeah, that’s the most likely place to find a habitable planet!

    Hey, when I end up inside a “time machine” and have direct communication with my daughter, let me just tell her 1 word “don’t go”, instead of telling her “don’t go to the black hole planet or the Matt Damon planet!”. I’m in a time machine…I can tell her every detail of what not to do!

    Hey, I’m in a giant space station on the edge of a worm hole going to another galaxy, where we are going to meet that girl in the new planet. But I can’t wait that long! I’m gonna get on my own spaceship and try to get there….a few minutes earlier. Cause! …Love!….even though I barely talked to that woman the entire movie.

    Hey! I’m going to launch off from earth in my new spaceship using a giant Saturn V booster. But when I land on an alien planet in my new spaceship, even though the gravity is higher than earth’s, I don’t need a Saturn V booster to take off.

    Amazingly beautiful movie. Nonsensical story.

    • #7
    • December 14, 2014, at 11:46 AM PDT
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  8. Tim H. Member

    The bookcase scene strikes me and several other astronomers as a deliberate homage to Jorge Luis Borge’s famous short story, The Library of Babel. (An unofficial translation is here.) It’s not physics at that point, it’s…sort of a fantasy of the mind. And why not?

    Thanks for the review, John. I hadn’t known of this book before now, and I’m going to buy this for my wife for Christmas. She’s a general relativist, and we really enjoyed seeing Interstellar. It provoked lots of good discussion at home.

    • #8
    • December 14, 2014, at 1:38 PM PDT
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  9. Tuck Inactive

    Haven’t read the book yet, but I did finally get around to seeing the movie. One of my new all-time favorites.

    The scene concerning the Apollo moon landings nearly made me cry for our bleak future, as this was probably the most believable part of all the speculation.

    • #9
    • December 14, 2014, at 3:41 PM PDT
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  10. Steve McCormick Inactive

    The movie seems to me to follow the semi-imaginative nature of astrophysics, of course all based on real theories. I thought is was great and I wasn’t preached to about how we are destroying the planet.

    • #10
    • December 14, 2014, at 4:35 PM PDT
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  11. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Brian Watt: Think what a science advisor of Thorne’s stature could have done to make Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus more credible instead of the unintentional laughable romp that it was.

    The problem with Prometheus was that it tried having a plot, and characters, and people in it.

    Interstellar fixed all that by skipping the characters and the people and the plot…by covering it all up scenes from space and giant dust storms. Which isn’t a bad idea, unless you actually like characters and people in your movies.

    Indaba: What about the robots

    Which was another plot line in the movie which made little sense. They had these robots which could do things much better than any human, yet they decided to send humans to these planets. Why? Even today we shoot a probe at something first before going in.

    I don’t blame the people in the movie who thought the Apollo moon landings were faked. If what we saw in the movie is how NASA operates, then they couldn’t have landed on the moon.

    • #11
    • December 14, 2014, at 10:13 PM PDT
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  12. Scott Abel Inactive

    AIG:I’ve never seen a movie where not a single piece of story-line made any sense.

    Hey, when we get to a new galaxy, lets first try going to a planet which is right next to a black hole and has massive time differential. Cause, yeah, that’s the most likely place to find a habitable planet!

    As far as the science goes, that actually would be what stuck out to me the most – would you want to put inhabitants of Earth on a planet where one hour planet-time equals seven hours of normal space-time? That would retard any kind of space travel efforts once you have settled there, or your ability to react if there was any kind of global disaster caused from space, and sitting next to Gargantua, I would rate that as more probable than normal. Edmund’s Planet seems the best bet on the face of it immediately, because it apparently has nothing to do with the black hole.
    There was an interesting episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the ship entered orbit around a planet where the effect was the opposite – that time past many factors faster on the surface than normal space, and seeing Voyager up in the sky for thousands of years, even though it was only a few days on the ship, inspired the inhabitants to become a space-faring civilization.

    Hey, when I end up inside a “time machine” and have direct communication with my daughter, let me just tell her 1 word “don’t go”, instead of telling her “don’t go to the black hole planet or the Matt Damon planet!”. I’m in a time machine…I can tell her every detail of what not to do!

    I was under the impression that once you had left a sliver of time in the tesseract, that you couldn’t revisit, which is why Cooper had to go forward to deliver the message. He was emotional in that first manipulation, but as he figured out how to communicate, he eventually figured out the solution.

    Hey, I’m in a giant space station on the edge of a worm hole going to another galaxy, where we are going to meet that girl in the new planet. But I can’t wait that long! I’m gonna get on my own spaceship and try to get there….a few minutes earlier. Cause! …Love!….even though I barely talked to that woman the entire movie.

    They could have gone with a relationship, but didn’t, as far as I could detect. A few minutes earlier, he spoke about how he had no stomach to look back, and Murph’s description of what she was probably was doing on Edmonds’ planet was “what’s next” for him. After all, you can’t have the hero ride to the planet on the space barge …

    Hey! I’m going to launch off from earth in my new spaceship using a giant Saturn V booster. But when I land on an alien planet in my new spaceship, even though the gravity is higher than earth’s, I don’t need a Saturn V booster to take off.

    If fuel consumption is a concern, it would make sense to sling your lander into orbit with its own tanks full, no?

    Amazingly beautiful movie. Nonsensical story.

    I liked it better, it seems than a lot of people that I know, and a some of the people here. Actually, it’s a film that I had to watch again to pick up a lot of the details I missed, because it was such a thick steak of a film.

    Although 2001 set the standard for this kind of movie, I like Interstellar quite a bit more than it. It certainly had a more interesting final act.

    • #12
    • December 15, 2014, at 1:47 PM PDT
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  13. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    AIG: Hey, when we get to a new galaxy, let’s first try going to a planet which is right next to a black hole and has massive time differential. Cause, yeah, that’s the most likely place to find a habitable planet!

    (The balance of this comment contains plot spoilers for the movie.)

    They ended up near the black hole Gargantua because that’s where the other mouth of the wormhole happened to be. A wormhole connects two specific places in spacetime; when you go into it, you don’t get to decide where you’ll come out. In Thorne’s interpretation of the movie, the wormhole was constructed by advanced beings in the 4+1 dimensional bulk who, for their own reasons, chose to put one mouth near Saturn and the other near Gargantua. Once the explorers came out of the wormhole, they could only get to planets in its vicinity. Getting to planets of other stars would require interstellar travel, which would be just as impractical as starting from the Solar System.

    In Thorne’s interpretation, they were not seeking to settle humans on the planets near Gargantua. The purpose of the mission was to learn the laws of quantum gravity which would allow the colonies to be lifted from Earth to locations within the Solar System. That could only be done by exploring gravity in the strong field regime, which could be done in the vicinity of a black hole.

    Of course, one eventually runs into the constraint that the speed at which you can wave your arms cannot exceed the speed of light.

    • #13
    • December 15, 2014, at 2:24 PM PDT
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  14. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    John Walker: In Thorne’s interpretation, they were not seeking to settle humans on the planets near Gargantua. The purpose of the mission was to learn the laws of quantum gravity which would allow the colonies to be lifted from Earth to locations within the Solar System. That could only be done by exploring gravity in the strong field regime, which could be done in the vicinity of a black hole.

    Which wouldn’t require going to the planet at all.

    Besides, this part wasn’t evident in the movie: i.e. the astronauts weren’t told that this was their mission, nor was this their mission in the mind of the NASA guy. So no one was actually trying to do this until “decades” later.

    John Walker: Once the explorers came out of the wormhole, they could only get to planets in its vicinity.

    Of which they had 3 options. 2 of them did not require spending 20 years on a planet.

    If they picked that option, they were dooming the people on the other planets to many years of being stranded there, pretty much guaranteeing that the mission would take decades, they would be dead, as well as lots of people on earth would be dead. Going first for the other 2 would be faster, and the person in the black hole planet wouldn’t know the difference (it would be a couple of hours for them).

    • #14
    • December 15, 2014, at 9:25 PM PDT
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