The intersection — maybe the union! — of science and sci-fi geekdom is overcome with excitement about the upcoming movie Interstellar, which opens November 7. It’s a collaboration between director Christopher Nolan and physicist Kip Thorne, both heroes within their respective communities. I haven’t seen it yet myself, nor do I know any secret scoop, but there’s good reason to believe that this film will have some of the most realistic physics of any recent blockbuster we’ve seen. If it’s a success, perhaps other filmmakers will take the hint?
Kip, who is my colleague at Caltech (and a former guest-blogger), got into the science-fiction game quite a while back. He helped Carl Sagan with some science advice for his book Contact, later turned into a movie starring Jodie Foster. In particular, Sagan wanted to have some way for his characters to traverse great distances at speeds faster than light, by taking a shortcut through spacetime. Kip recognized that a wormhole was what was called for, but also realized that any form of faster-than-light travel had the possibility of leading to travel backwards in time. Thus was the entire field of wormhole time travel born.
As good as the movie version of Contact was, it still strayed from Sagan’s original vision, as his own complaints show. (“Ellie disgracefully waffles in the face of lightweight theological objections to rationalism…”) Making a big-budget Hollywood film is necessarily a highly collaborative endeavor, and generally turns into a long series of forced compromises. Kip has long been friends with Lynda Obst, an executive producer on Contact, and for years they batted around ideas for a movie that would really get the science right.
Long story short, Lynda and Kip teamed with screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher), who wrote a draft of a screenplay, and Christopher eventually agreed to direct. I know that Kip has been very closely involved with the script as the film has developed, and he’s done his darnedest to make sure the science is right, or at least plausible. (We don’t actually whether wormholes are allowed by the laws of physics, but we don’t know that they’re not allowed.) But it’s a long journey, and making the best movie possible is the primary goal. Meanwhile, Adam Rogers at Wired has an in-depth look at the science behind the movie, including the (unsurprising, in retrospect) discovery that the super-accurate visualization software available to the Hollywood special-effects team enable the physicists to see things they hadn’t anticipated. Kip predicts that at least a couple of technical papers will come out of their work.
And that’s not all! Kip has a book coming out on the science behind the movie, which I’m sure will be fantastic. And there is also a documentary on “The Science of Interstellar” that will be shown on TV, in which I play a tiny part. Here is the broadcast schedule for that, as I understand it:
Wednesday, October 29, at 10pm PDT/9c
AHC (American Heroes Channel)
Sunday, November, 2 at 4pm PST/3c (with a repeat on Monday, November 3 at 4am PST/3c)
Thursday, November 6, at 11pm PST/10c
Of course, all the accurate science in the world doesn’t help if you’re not telling an interesting story. But with such talented people working together, I think some optimism is justified. Let’s show the world that science and cinema are partners, not antagonists.