Where to now?

Where to now?

On Interstellar and ‘real physics’

Interstellar stars Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain glitzing it up for the European premiere. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Poor old Richard Branson. SpaceShipTwo has only just stopped smouldering after struggling to get more than 20km from the Earth and there’s the Nolan brothers getting Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway not only to Saturn but to another galaxy in the “most realistic” science fiction movie ever made!

And to add insult to injury they’ll probably make a profit.

Interstellar is one of the most-hyped blockbusters of the year, but if you thought Hollywood’s marketing machine had got the average citizen excited about the movie, think again! Compared to the average astrophysicist, they were yawning.

Anyone with a copy of Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s masterpiece on general relativity (GR) and gravitation on their bookshelf was struggling to contain their bodily fluids in advance of the release. The movie was going to involve black holes, neutron stars, space travel. A nerd’s dream.

Real radio jets emerging from a supermassive black hole observed with the Molonglo radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Shivani Bhandari.

And it had been a tough week for American astrophysicists. Their compatriots had just elected the most scientifically-hostile and ignorant representatives in the nation’s history. If you think they have a hope of explaining the importance of testing the “no hair theorem” to politicians who think global warming is a conspiracy, think again!

As America prepares to enter a new dark age where all we have to do is turn back the clock to an era when gasoline cost a dollar a gallon, health care was something you bought – it wasn’t a right, evolution was just a theory and the universe was 6,000 years old, astrophysicists were preparing for one last night of escapism watching a movie with real physics.

And the Hollywood PR machine knew how to push all our buttons.

We were told of the “most realistic depictions of black holes to ever appear on screen” spawning “amazing discoveries”. Kip Thorne, Caltech Professor and GR cult figure, was an executive producer. Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Inception, was the director. What could possibly go wrong?

Christopher Nolan and his wife British producer Emma Thomas at the European premiere of Interstellar. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

And so the world’s astrophysicists (myself included) queued up and bought their tickets to Interstellar and came out with very mixed reactions.

Many had secretly hoped that as they sat in the cinema and approached the black hole time would dilate and they’d re-emerge to a Democrat-led congress. Others saw it as a physics exam and looked for physical inconsistencies and plot holes. Surely with Kip Thorne’s genius and real physics Interstellar was going to deliver the ultimate nerdasm?

In truth the movie was quite enjoyable but it wasn’t because you could write out a series of equations that were never violated. And thank goodness too.

The distances to the stars, the astonishing gravitational forces involved near the surfaces of black holes and the speed of light would make any movie about the realistic habitation of planets around other stars or in other galaxies extremely boring.

Interstellar went half way towards physics realism. There was no whooshing in space, they understood centripetal forces, there was gravitational lensing and depending upon your threshold, there was limited physics “magic” even if some concepts in relativity had been stretched a bit. Humans had wrecked the planet.

When we emerged from the theatre, though, conservative governments with an anti-science agenda had been elected in three of the most educated countries on Earth (Canada, Australia and the US), gravity waves had still not been detected, and the world had just passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.

I still love you Kip, but Interstellar hasn’t made all of our dreams come true.