Understanding the Science of Interstellar: Book review

Written for E&T magazine

640_interstellarOne of the most eagerly anticipated movies of 2014, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ has divided opinions, with some critics complaining about the script being overloaded with scientific theories, making it rather hard to digest.

Set in a world that thinks it no longer needs engineers, as every hand is needed to grow food for the remnants the once-proud species now fighting for bare survival, the movie is an ambitious apocalyptic adventure. In a desperate attempt to save mankind from certain doom on Earth, a group of scientists embarks on a mission to another galaxy to find a new home. They find themselves flying through a wormhole, struck by extreme ocean tides on an exotic planet and racing against the warping of time in the vicinity of a giant black hole.

The film’s heavy physical science may come as no surprise, though, as it is the brainchild of well-known Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne, an expert in black holes and worm holes.

Without doubt an ultimate geek movie with occasional reminiscences of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Contact’ (an adaptation of a book by another astrophysicist, Carl Sagan), ‘Interstellar’ was born from Thorne’s discussions with his film-​producer friend Lynda Obst, who wanted to make a blockbuster science-fiction movie fully grounded in real science.

In his book ‘The Science of Interstellar’, released by WW Norton as ‘Interstellar’ enters cinemas worldwide, Thorne describes the lengthy process behind the creation of the movie and the sometimes tricky job of allowing the creative talent enough freedom while observing the scientific rules (or not), but most importantly provides a step-by-step guide to understanding the science driving the story.

And it’s not just any science. The ambitious all-encompassing epic balances on the edge of the yet unexplored, marrying cutting-edge astrophysics with futuristic spacecraft engineering, environmental science and quantum theory.

Having served as an executive producer throughout the making of ‘Interstellar’, Thorne set himself and his co-operators simple guidelines. Firstly, nothing in the film should violate firmly established laws of physics or the firmly established knowledge of the universe. Secondly, speculations about poorly understood scientific phenomena should spring from real science, from ideas that at least some respectable scientists regard as possible.

Those who have already seen the movie may wonder what fact-founded basis could Thorne possible have provided for the movie’s rather mysterious finale. The author, however, has himself acknowledged that while the story led the creators to such unexplored territories as quantum gravity and the theory of five-​dimensional space, there was more than enough room left for sometimes rather wild imagination.

On nearly 300 pages, Thorne covers every scientific phenomenon touched on in the story. He clearly gives more consideration to subjects close to his heart such as the behaviour of space near black holes and wormholes, but he has consulted expert biologists to provide grounding for the movie’s environmental prerequisites.

Although clearly intended for those who saw the film, the book provides an intriguing overview of some of the most daring concepts in 21st century physics and its building blocks written by a man who clearly knows his stuff.


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