Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – B: The Movie

Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – B: The Movie


Howard Adelman

In the movie, Interstellar, the black hole, Gargantua, a hundred million times heavier than our sun (only a neutron star approaches it in weight), is used, not as a route of travel, but as a way of gaining propulsion, much as a slingshot works, by propelling the spaceship along its event horizon and back out in space at enormous speed. In the film, this occurs as a way of reaching and going through the wormhole and, again, in traveling from Miller’s planet to Mann’s planet, and, finally, to escape from Gargantua, the black hole itself into which Cooper falls.

In contrast to an event horizon, singularities include the sharply-pointed prime singularity where black holes terminate; they were formed when black holes formed. Eric Poisson and Werner Israel at the University of Alberta, postulated there may be a second singularity within a black hole that grows as the black hole ages, the infalling singularity. There is also an outlier singularity that was discovered two years ago by Donald Marolf at UC Santa Barbara and Amos Ori at the Technion in Israel.

Space and time are infinitely warped in the prime singularity. Einstein’s laws of relativity and quantum laws clash like the rough waters between the Scylla and the Charybdis. That singularity will guarantee your death before you could get to the terminus of a black hole. That is not necessarily true of a gentle infalling or outlier singularity. That’s how Cooper survives, by detaching himself and the Ranger from Endurance and plunging into the gentle outlier singularity rather than the primary or infalling one. The Ranger retained just enough thrust for it to escape the gravitational pull of Gargantua. Conceptually, this is a real stretch. Only in extreme theory would it be possible. Of course, if Cooper had fallen into the infalling singularity, he would not have been able to return to Earth for billions of years. Cooper had to be hit by stuff that fell before, not after, he fell in. And he is able to escape using Gargantua’s slingshot effect.

The problem of using black holes is twofold concerning both entry and exit. First, the nearest one, the one at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, is still extremely far way. In contrast, it is theoretically feasible to find a wormhole within one solar system. That is not possible with a black hole. Secondly, in addition to the enormous distance to reach one, black holes are one way streets. Black holes can be used to escape this universe but never to return. Energy entering a black hole is trapped and condensed. There is no return voyage. Interstellar required a concept that allowed a spaceship to return, even if the passage of time of those aboard the spaceship was measured in hours while years passed on Earth. In fact, that difference in time is central to the dramatic core of the movie.

There are other problems in using wormholes than the ones mentioned above – aside from the fact that they exist only in theory. Even if one were discovered, would it still be in the same place by the time the mechanisms were created to travel through one. After all, the universe is a dynamic, not a static system. Even if the location of the wormhole remained relatively static, the energy dynamics might alter radically between the time the spaceship was launched and the time it took to reach the rim of the wormhole. For example, after launch, it took Ulysses sixteen months to reach the huge Jovian magnetosphere, the windsock formed around the planet Jupiter produced by its magnetic field. The magnetosphere changes in size and shape as it is blown by the solar wind, the outflow of magnetic gas traveling at speeds of 1.5 to 3 million kilometres per hour produced by the evaporation of the enormously hot (much hotter than the sun itself) and unstable atmosphere of the corona of the sun.

Thirteen years after Voyager I traveled to Jupiter, when Ulysses sailed past that planet on 8 February 1992, we discovered that the solar wind had died down. There had been something like a calm following a huge storm. At the same time, the size of the magnetosphere had ballooned. What might happen between discovering a wormhole, the time to prepare a launch and the time it takes to travel to the rim? How would a wormhole be altered by the changes in the character, speed and composition of the solar dust traveling in the opposite direction of our planets and asteroids? How would the possibility of reaching the rim of a wormhole be affected by the interstellar wind produced by the galactic cloud traveling usually at 50,000 mph, particularly as its speed and direction shifted? How would the changing turbulence of this interstellar cloud, which would probably travel in reverse direction to the spin of the wormhole just inside its edge, affect the possibility of a spacecraft traveling through a wormhole? These are among the many scientific issues Interstellar brackets. The movie already had a plethora of scientific issues on which to make a number of assumptions.

Thorpe doubted that the laws of physics would permit traversable wormholes to be created naturally– though this is the premise of the film. So why is it called science fiction and not science fantasy? Because, Thorpe argues, a wormhole could be created by a very advanced civilization. The members of that civilization – the undefined “They” in the film (they are our descendants who have become so advanced that they have acquired a fourth dimension of space) – were truly humanitarians. They developed the cosmological version of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) by creating an exit route for suffering humans. Of course, whereas UNHCR exaggerates all the weaknesses of humanity, the movie presumes that this advanced civilization is not only phenomenally advanced intellectually, but compassionately as well. Now whatever the presumptions of this advanced civilization, it is not science fiction but science fantasy. No known laws of psychology and sociology make this version of an advanced civilization possible. But, of course, in defining science fiction, Thorpe meant possible according to the laws of physics, not possible according to the laws of psychology and sociology. But even according to the laws of physics, bulk with a fourth dimension of space would be curled. That is not in the movie. A curled bulk would have no impact on our four dimensions and pictorially would be a bore. Further, its depth would be so small, no human, as Cooper does, could perform any tasks in the fifth dimension (the fourth dimension of space).

One of the most interesting parts of the science in the movie concerns the character of the wormhole that allowed the spaceship to drop down into it. The movie makers gave the wormhole a weak gravity (in contrast to a black hole). So the Endurance could control its speed and direction in traveling through the wormhole. Further, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the weaker the gravitational pull, the slower time moves, but the difference is miniscule. Christopher Nolan postulated that one hour of travel in the wormhole was equivalent to seven years of time on Earth (the time dilation), a not scientifically impossible estimate for Miller’s planet which rotated around Gargantua with its enormous gravitational pull, even though Gargantua is located in the far reaches of the observable universe. Christopher Nolan found that it was impossible to apply the ratio to the rest of the trip. That is another reason to call the film a science fantasy rather than a science fiction, though Miller’s planet was not pulled apart by Gargantua’s enormous gravitational pull because its distortion was kept constant as its spin kept one side only facing Gargantua. At the same time, the picture of Gargantua, as seen from Miller’s planet, was very significantly reduced for aesthetic and/or dramatic reasons.

The speed of such a flight, even if inaccurate, was seriously altered. What about the width of the mouth of the wormhole or the distance from one end to the other? Unlike black holes, wormholes, like worms, have openings on each end. Envisioning the shape of the wormhole as a spool for holding thread with a fat axle was one of the great moments of the movie, especially given the distorted view of Saturn from its inside as if one were in a mirror maze in a carnival. However, when the moviemakers portrayed travel through the wormhole, the film abandoned science for artistic license to capture a feeling with which the audience could identify, even if that depiction of flight was impossible.

I will not go into detail into the most imaginative scientific extension of the movie, Michael Green and John Schwarz’s superstring theory. Nor will I deal with the visualization of four rather than three dimensions of space let alone the nine dimensions of space envisioned by the engineering of Endurance, especially in relationship to its landing craft, Ranger. The visualizations, particularly the huge waves encountered on Miller’s planet because of its proximity to Gargantua, were awesome. Those waves of over a kilometre high are scientifically realistic. The moon has a very weak gravitational pull. Yet, along the Petitcodiac River, off the Bay of Fundy and right into Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, the water level rises 25 feet with the Tidal Bore twice a day. Think how much it would rise if the Tidal Bore were pulled by the huge gravitational force of Gargantua. Nevertheless, in spite of all the valid science, I believe I have made my point. Though I loved the movie, and though there was an enormous amount of real science packed into the film which I really appreciated, Interstellar should have been labeled a science fantasy and not a science fiction.

So probably should Interstellar II be labeled when Cooper sets off to rescue Brand from her orbiting on Gargantua’s horizon in the damaged Endurance.


Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – A: Background

Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – A: Background


Howard Adelman

WARNING: This blog may make you dizzy and may be a hazard o your sense of balance, especially if you are resting on a Sunday morning.

Interstellar began with the postulate that drought, alternating with severe windstorms and then a blight infection, had ended the possibility of life on Earth. When we were in Marin County, it was pouring after years of drought. This was the case in Israel. In many situations, we have been torn between the optimism of nature’s eternal return and the pessimism that the end is near. This was especially true of agricultural societies, like the various ethnic groups that had settled in pre-conquest Mexico and that we learned about when we visited the second floor of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City on Friday. We are always condemned to fight our way past these two extreme possibilities or opt for flight as a third option. This very highly improbable conjunction of events provides the backstory for the movie.

If the relatively high altitude of Mexico City affects cardiovascular functions and the production of red blood cells in the body, think what long term space flight would induce – not only these results, but muscle and skeletal deterioration. After just flying from Oakland to Mexico City, my nails seemed to grow longer, but also more brittle; usually one nail fractures after a long flight, and one did. In space, a traveler is faced with not just reduced air pressure, but with no air pressure – a vacuum – not to count extreme cold (and sometimes extreme heat) and greatly increased radiation. The perils make Odysseus passing between the six-headed monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool of Charybdis seem like child’s play. Except, of course, if the whirlpool, like a wormhole, is seen as an opportunity rather than a terrible danger. I thought about this all week and the fact that I never finished my review of Interstellar by writing on the science in the film. Since our personal odyssey in Mexico City ended with a full day at the artisans market on Saturday, and we did not even make it to the Frida Kahlo Museum, I will finish my commentary on Interstellar, specifically on the science in that fictional odyssey, first by first providing some background and then, subsequently, commenting more directly on the science in the movie.

I have never seen a movie so packed with basic physics and biology as Interstellar. No wonder Kip Thorne wrote a whole book, The Science of Interstellar, discussing that science. (For a more professional perspective on that science, read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s commentary: I have relied on Thorne’s book a great deal in my comments, but since I am not a physicist I am bound to have made mistakes in my interpretation and welcome corrections.) As discussed in the last blog on the movie, given our present knowledge, the only possible way to reach another planet outside our solar system would take generations and require “generational” spacecraft. Alternatively, suspended animation could be employed. Frozen embryos could as well. Interstellar employs the last two techniques along with a third one. The major innovation utilized is not to travel to a planet in one of the nearby stars in our galaxy, but extend the human lifespan based on a warp in space-time by traveling to another galaxy through a wormhole.

Rather than traveling to another star in The Milky Way, it may be easier to travel to a planet in another galaxy millions or even billions of light years away taking advantage of space-time curvature. (Remember, a light year is the distance traveled in one year moving at the speed of light.) The latter is the proposition, and a valid, though almost impossible and unlikely, scientific premise of the movie, Interstellar. Further, understanding the science is important, otherwise you will be prone to make mistakes. Though as you shall see, I think the movie strays too often from science fiction into science fantasy, I disagree with David Denby’s review in The New Yorker. He wrote without elaboration: “the final third goes into pure science fantasy – and changing what we know about black holes.” It does not.

Interestingly, though the production of the movie induced Kip Thorne to make some scientific discoveries on how black holes work, which he will write up as technical papers for publication, the movie claims to stay within what is known, what is a possible expectation (an educated guess) and what is, at least, not impossible according to today’s scientific understanding. With respect to the latter, the film, in spite of its heavy science overload, does not, like the TV series Star Trek, introduce new scientific concepts that Star Trek did, such as a “warp drive” that would allow a space ship to move faster than light, a concept that previously was widely considered a scientific impossibility. In the development of cosmic theories, the imaginative leap of conceiving of a “warp drive”, however, influenced the development of Alcubierre’s theory.

The latter theory, and the concept of what became known as an Alcubierre drive, is named after the physicist, Miguel Alcubierre, who proposed a theoretical model of how a spaceship might be able to travel faster than light, in fact, considerably faster. It became the main competitor to the traversable wormhole as the mode by which intergalactic flight could proceed by taking advantage of the space-time warp. This movie roots its science in the concept of a wormhole. It helps to understand that choice if it is to be considered an alternative.

The choice might be seen analogous to an eighteenth century scientist wondering whether, in order to get to China from North America, it would be faster to fly into space and land on the other side of the earth in twelve hours or, alternatively, drill a hole through the centre of the earth to lessen the distance considerably. The first depends on increasing speed. The second depends on reducing distance. The traversable wormhole is analogous to reducing distance. Using a thruster that can propel an object much faster than the speed of light increases speed. Without a radical solution to either problem, space travel outside our solar system is, de facto, impossible. Look at how long it took Voyager I to travel from Earth to slip around Jupiter within just one solar system in just one galaxy. A laser-powered spaceship with sails traveling at one-tenth the speed of light would take almost half a century just to reach the nearest galaxy.

On the other hand, note that wormholes are theoretical only. None have been found. It is difficult to understand how one could be created naturally. Nor can one easily imagine creating one since we live in four dimensions and would have to enter into at least a fifth dimension first to create the wormhole. Finally, even in theory, a traversable wormhole is only a Planck length, that is 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimetres, a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth the size of the nucleus of an atom. So we would have to have a means of enlarging it to human dimensions, an enormous scale of enlargement akin to stretching a nylon stocking from New York to Jupiter AND back. Assuming it did not fracture or split or explode, once enlarged, there has to be a system of holding the mouth of the hole open. How could this be done? By threading the opening with exotic matter, if that could be found, and then only by getting outside our dimension in the first place to carry out the action, theoretically in an area where exotic matter was to be found. According to what we know now, this is impossible. Once again, we are in the realm of science fantasy rather than science fiction, especially since Professor Brand in the movie envisions that “They” hold the wormhole open.

Given the virtual impossibility of any one of these steps, let alone the combination, Interstellar opted out of the problems altogether and simply stated that a wormhole had been found within our solar system of suitable size and with its mouth wide open. Now this is fiction based on no known reality or even reasonable scientific possibility. But it is not absolutely scientifically impossible.

Since the astronomer, Edwin Hubble, just under a century ago, established that all stars were not part of the same galaxy, we have learned that there are about a trillion galaxies. Our sun resides in one of those trillion galaxies. Our sun is a relatively medium sized star among up to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Our galaxy is 100,000-120,000 light years in diameter. That is, it takes over a hundred thousand years for light to travel across our galaxy from one side through the centre to the other side. Our solar system is located about half way between the circumference and the centre in the Milky Way galaxy. The universe is simply humungous. Just to travel outside our solar system requires either increasing speed enormously or reducing distance. Further, the little we know about the universe relates to matter that makes up only 5% of the universe. The rest is either dark matter – 27% – or dark energy – 68% – of which we know almost nothing. So science fiction relies on our tremendous ignorance about the universe much more than on what is known.

Galaxies are found in clusters. Our galaxy is part of the Virgo Supercluster that, in turn, is but a small part of a much larger Laniakea Supercluster. So how can one possibly travel from one galaxy to another? It is theoretically possible because of the relatively recently discovered space-time warp. (Cf. Stephen Hawking, Thorpe went further and relied on gravitational waves or ripples in the space-time continuum resulting from a collision of two black holes in outer space that tore a neutron star apart and, thereby, allowed Dr. Brand, when he was a young scientist using a Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, to detect that a wormhole had been created within our galaxy near Saturn by a burst of very high energy gravitational waves that were detected when a small proportion of those waves were captured by the wormhole. Except that whole rationale was excised from the movie in the fear that too much science would deaden the impact. Hence the discovery of the wormhole was really left unexplained.

But black holes and their singularities, wormholes and gravitational anomalies were all envisioned as possible by Stephen Hawking’s concept of the space-time warp. To take one example of a gravitational anomaly within our solar system, the precession of Mercury, that is, its shift in orientation of its rotational axis, does not follow Newton’s Law of gravity precisely, even though the deviation is extremely miniscule, This year, actual gravitational waves related to gravitational anomalies were probably detected indirectly (still to be confirmed), though the imprint takes place on electromagnetic waves. However, the anomalies presumed in Interstellar are totally fictitious, such as the way the tractors and harvesters converge on Cooper’s farmhouse because of a distortion in the GPS system. (I wanted to say that it was just me doing the navigation.) Another takes place when the dust settles in Murph’s library to form a bar code. None of these are scientifically plausible. Unless, of course, Professor Brand’s theory of “They” in the fourth dimension of space produce a gravitational anomaly that reads like the effects of an electromagnetic field and establishes that Einstein’s theory of gravity as a constant (G) is incorrect.

(No, I have not yet seen The Theory of Everything, the recent non-science fiction movie about Hawking’s twenty-five year marriage. Hopefully, it is as good as Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning 2001 movie, A Beautiful Mind, that starred Russell Crowe as the brilliant mathematician at Princeton, John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, of all things, for his contributions to game theory. I also expect A Theory of Everything will be more accurate in reflecting the main protagonist’s life and in expressing the science.)

Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity discovered that space (and time) were curved. Einstein did not, nor, I believe, do the majority of theoretical and astro-physicists, believe that time travel to the past is possible, as Stephen Spielberg’s science fantasy comedy, Back to the Future, envisioned. There are many reasons, even though, according to the General Theory of Relativity, it is possible to envision a space-time bubble in which travel could take place even faster than the speed of light. There are at least three reasons why such a project would be impossible. First, the energy produced would burn up the spaceship. Secondly, the spaceship would be subject to the enormous forces of Hawking radiation. Third, it would be impossible to guide the spaceship as the signal ahead of the spaceship would have to travel faster than the spaceship itself and then it would be impossible for the astronaut to guide the ship. Relativity, though envisioning time as a fourth dimension, presumes that time only travels forward even though we look backward in time when we see light arrive from faraway stars.

(For a much more extensive examination of this question, see the special issue of Scientific American on A Question of Time: The Ultimate Paradox. See also Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin (2014) The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy. These writers argue that there is only one universe at a time since Time is real. As Heraclitus argued, all is change. Mathematical theory is subordinate to this reality. Time travel to the past is theoretically possible in theoretical physics rooted in mathematics; it is impossible in nature, not just technically impossible, but conceptually impossible.)

The movie does not envision time travel, though time is slowed down for the astronauts. Time travel is science fantasy. The changing speed of time is another matter. This movie is supposedly science fiction. Traveling through a wormhole is the enormous conceit of the movie. For, until now, no one has ever seen a wormhole. However, if the theoretical postulate of a wormhole could be discovered, and discovered within our galaxy, for the travel envisioned in Interstellar, the energy requirement of a macroscopic spaceship would be reduced enormously, analogous to reducing the energy requirements from the mass-energy of Jupiter to the energy that was needed by Voyager I.

So should or could spaceships rely on spatial distortion to achieve the goal of intergalactic travel or on much more powerful thrusters, such as an envisioned quantum vacuum plasma thruster? The movie does not explore options, but elects a theoretically feasible route permitted by mathematical equations. Of course, if the alternative of enormously more powerful thrusters were feasible, such as the use of quantum vacuum fluctuations or through a pre-selected shaping of the electric field (a Serrano Field Effect Thruster) to develop enough thrust to propel the spacecraft, then the spacecraft would not be required to carry any propellant, almost a prerequisite to envisioning the kind of space travel envisioned in Interstellar.

So which direction do we take – search for a feasible faster-than-light (FTL) or superluminal thrust for both movement and communications, or a mode of travel that takes advantage of folds in the space-time continuum using the energy produced within the hole to get through it? That is, if an unusually distorted region of space-time of a wormhole could be located – the movie presumes one was found near Saturn – then a spacecraft, while traveling to the rim of the wormhole, would have to use normal subluminal rocket thrust to reach the edge of the wormhole, and could do so in far less time than light takes to travel to reach a very distant location. In other words, do not try to travel much faster than light; try to envision a way of making the distance very much shorter.

But why a wormhole? Why not a black hole? Why could this method not also be used in traveling into a dark hole? After all, wormholes are only theoretical. Black holes have been proven to exist. Theoretically, a black hole could be used, as the physicist Harold White showed a decade ago. For the spacecraft would develop energy akin to dark energy characteristic of black holes without requiring NASA or another space agency to harness exotic matter to produce the enormous amounts of energy required for a superthruster. Many black holes have been located, unlike any wormhole.

Ironically, I just read a report that, for the first time, astronomers are on the verge of getting their first image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Black holes are billions of times more massive than our sun with so much energy that they effect and distort the host galaxy within which they are found. With energy so powerful, a black hole occupies very little space. Since it does not emit light but sucks in light and even whole stars, no one has previously been able to actually observe a black hole.

However, using massive computer power and a world-wide cooperative effort and multiple telescopes coordinated by MIT’s Haystack Observatory using the Event Horizon Telescope, it seems like the first picture of a black hole, or, at least, the event horizon of a black hole, the one in the region of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A that emits a complex radio source, will soon be available for viewing. We will have another important proof of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.


II: The Science of Interstellar

II: The Science of Interstellar


Howard Adelman

As far as I can recall, there is no mention in Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar, of the science of ions of interstellar origin as documented by the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer on the spacecraft Ulysses. One wonders why since the connection with the thrust of the movie as a modern day Odyssey is so obvious. Further, the Ulysses spacecraft was designed to study interstellar space, specifically, the poles of the sun and the interstellar space above and below the two poles. Further, the spacecraft, Ulysses, with its two stage rocket and its smaller thrust engine, could easily have been the model for the space craft that rendezvoused with the spaceship, Endurance.

Instead, the shuttle used in Interstellar to reach the Endurance appeared to rely on chemical rockets rather than alternative forms of thrust that would be needed to propel a spaceship into outer space, possibly a laser-powered ion propulsion system or, at least, a nuclear powered spacecraft or even fusion propelled spacecraft. Alternatives could have relied on beamed lasers mounted on asteroids and laser reflectors, or a plethora of small spinning microsails. However, Interstellar is not about traveling between suns or from our solar system to the nearest one, Alpha Centauri, a triple system closer than any other star. It is about traveling to another galaxy altogether through a wormhole.

The reason is that even by using these alternative forms of energy propulsion to travel between solar systems, it would still take far too long even if such systems could be perfected in the next two centuries. The probable speed would be from 1/13th the speed of light to 1/5th the speed of light. Even if the latter were achieved, it would still take forty years to reach Alpha Centauri, and that solar system does not seem to have any planets that could support life. Working in any of these directions would take far too long if Earth were dying as a habitable planet and, in any case, even when such systems were developed, would take decades, even a century, to get to and back from that other solar system to report on whether there was a habitable planet.
However, if one envisioned traveling to a planet within this solar system to move proximate to a wormhole, if one were to be located there, this offers an option far more feasible and closer to technology currently available and under development. What appears as a disconnect between the old fashioned mode of thrust portrayed in the film and more credible alternative systems for interstellar travel, is, in fact, more credible than the far-out thought experiments for interstellar travel. Further, a movie viewer would not have recognized these innovative propulsion systems as characteristic of interstellar travel. Ironically, travel to another galaxy seems to be more scientifically plausible than interstellar travel. I presume that is why Chris Nolan opted for the portrayal of old-fashioned chemically-propelled thrust rockets which accord more with viewer expectations as well as with scientific evidence. The problem is the verisimilitude of traveling to a wormhole, going through it and still being able to explore another solar system in a different galaxy to find livable planets.

Is this important to the movie? It is the scientific crux on which the plausibility of the whole film depends. If verisimilitude and plausibility are goals, then far out solutions, such as traveling the immensely greater distances between galaxies rather than the relatively short distances between nearby solar systems, is the better option. The stated aim of the movie is to be as true to scientific actuality or possibility as movie makers can manage. Where there are deviances, as when Amie Brand in her argument with Cooper over which planet they should travel to next, offers a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the viewer who has some familiarity with the science does not know whether she is making a scientific mistake (unlikely, since she is so advanced as a scientist) or whether she is just being emotional at the time because she wants to find her lover, or, most plausibly, she is just bullshitting Cooper who is an astronaut and pilot and not an astrophysicist. Thorne, the famous astrophysicist who first co-conceived the movie and served as a consultant and executive producer for the film, claimed that the science in the film was either established fact, an educated guess or speculation, but in either of the latter options, never impossible.

But that is not how one experiences the opening pre-story of the film that Jonathan Nolan developed in his script of a world in which blight has attacked one crop after another so that corn remains the only cereal crop left and we soon learn that it too will soon be ravaged by blight. The population on earth has been devastated. Human civilization has gone in reverse mode and almost everyone is a farmer or services agriculture. America is the 1930’s dust bowl ten times over with the landscape ravaged by huge dust storms. This is the dystopia with which the film begins, not the current wave of environmental disasters caused by humans, but one wrought by nature itself.

Kip Thorne wrote that, while such a scenario was highly unlikely, it was not impossible. At least that is what he and fellow scientists at Caltech with whom he consulted concluded – including an expert on plants in general, a top cell biologist, a microbe expert and a fourth Nobel-Prize-winning biologist. However, what is highly unlikely is not verisimilitude or even plausibility. And to entice us if the movie is to be an exercise in science fiction and not science fantasy, “highly unlikely” is an unacceptable criterion. So the movie starts on a wrong note and then leads us into the world of astrophysics. Instead of establishing a really possible if not probable foundation, we are led into a strange world that, for most movie goers, seems far closer to fantasy than it should or could have been.

Why is the opening dystopia implausible even though not entirely impossible? Well it is not presented as an all-out dystopia, uncomfortable perhaps, but baseball continues. Education deformed by dogma prevails, but there is still education. But it is a form of education in a country that has lost its way, a society in defensive mode, a society that has lost sight of aspiration in favour of mere survival. The last is the least plausible. Having studied and written about genocide – in Rwanda and the Holocaust – in societies far worse than the extreme dust bowl of the opening scenes, even these societies, where genocide is widespread, evince more hope. Further, the calamity is set in America, the land of hopes and dreams, where a Jewish son of immigrants from Eastern Europe could write America’s most famous and best-loved song about imagining somewhere over the rainbow way up high, a place where skies remain blue, where the clouds are far behind and dreams that you dream of really do come true.

Certainly pathogens can mutate, certainly monocrop agriculture is more fragile and more prone to attack at the same time as scientifically produced seeds have developed inner systems for protecting against pests and lethal microbes. The mutant microbe IS part of our everyday fears. The melting ice cap could release an ancient pathogen that could overcome all current defence mechanisms. These, and many other scientific scenarios, are possible, if highly improbable. What is not probable or even plausible is the passive surrender to a virulent natural disaster. Nothing we know about America, as self-destructive as it has become, prepares us for such a presumption. The problem is not in the natural science but in the political science, the sociology and the psychology. And the movie offers no preparation or plausible account for that shift.

Nothing wrong with that if the movie is a true dystopia. But the movie leads us into recovering our scientific dreams that have continued to take place in secret. Cooper, through the “magic” of the moved books and the magnetic arrangements of the sand from the dust storm, is offered the message of where, surprisingly within a relatively short driving distance, a secret NASA operation continues to build manned spacecraft for flights to outer space. A scenario of blight feeding on the enormous supply of nitrogen in our air and wiping out all crops, a blight in which microbes are both 100% lethal AND transferable to all vegetation, is not plausible given what we know of biological science. Such a scenario is theoretically possible, but Kip Thorne agrees is highly unlikely. So why start with such an opening if the movie intends to restore our faith in science?
I protest too much. After all, this is science fiction. But Interstellar is supposed to be science fiction that is as close to fact or at least to possible fact as possible in exploring the cosmos. It is not science fiction that strays off into the fantasies of a disaster movie. Instead of setting the audience up for truly believing in the possibility of the exploration of outer space taking place via travel through a wormhole, the opening pre-story undermines that goal. This is quite aside from the contradictory messages received from that fifth dimension that tells Cooper he should stay but, at the same time, gives him the clues that will enable him to resume his career as an astronaut.

Professor Elliot Myerowitz offered some plausible scenarios for a nature-caused die off – enormous algae blooms as a result of ultraviolet light getting to earth through the ozone hole; a recurrence of the cyanobacteria that produces oxygen rather than carbon dioxide and once managed to kill almost everything on earth. He also offered the suggestion of a microbe that attacks the chloroplasts in plants that, on the one hand, produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow and, on the other hand, releases via photosynthesis the oxygen from carbon dioxide which humans need to breathe. So a scenario of excess production of CO2 is much more plausible than nitrogen (already 80%) increasing at the expense of oxygen. Further, it is a scenario that is part of our daily fears, for CO2 need only increase to 2% in our atmosphere to radically change how we can live.

But this is science fiction. Who cares whether the science is credible! When it comes to science, moviegoers are credulous. But credibility, plausibility and verisimilitude are not only important to Kip Thorne who conceived the movie, but to the absorption of the audience in the dramatic action. I have no idea why a more realistic political and biological foundation was not provided for the film. What we observe is very entrancing, but it does not lead us to expect a realistic – or as realistic as possible – excursion into outer space. For science fantasy is an escape genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, prepares us for enlarging our aspirations, the central message of the film. A world where aspiration and vegetative life have been exhausted may serve as a great counter to a restored faith in science, but if it leads us to believe that science is sheer fantasy, then that purpose has been undermined. And my very small survey of viewers of the film is that they saw the movie as science fantasy which they equated with science fiction. In other words, instead of strengthening the human belief in science, the movie undermines it. And there are so many more plausible scenarios that could have pressured humans to seek a new home on another planet.

When we get to the science of leaving earth and reaching another galaxy, the scenarios, however unfamiliar, are scientifically much more plausible. Tau Ceti, the nearest sun with a possible planetary system with a possible earth-like planet is 11.9 light years away. (Proxima Centauri, the nearest sun, is only 4.24 light years away, but it does not have planets conducive to supporting life.) So if spaceships could travel at the speed of light, that planet could be reached in just under a dozen years. But space travel at the speed of light is just implausible in science. So the problem is not just the distance of alternative solar systems, but the difficulty in getting there within a reasonable time. Voyageur 1 has been traveling for 37 years and is only 18 light hours – not 18 light years – from Earth. As Thorne has written, this is like traveling to downtown Manhattan from midtown when your destination is Perth, Australia.

Hence wormholes. Traveling to the moon, the only space body to which humans have traveled, is fact. Traveling to Mars is within range of achievement. Traveling to Saturn, though much more difficult, is feasible. An advanced version of Voyager I, using gravitational slingshots as Voyager I did around Saturn and Jupiter to give the spaceship a boost, make such travel possible. If we can get to Saturn, and if there is a wormhole near Saturn, travel to another galaxy becomes plausible. Not yet feasible, but scientifically plausible.
The movie set in what is no longer Oklahoma or the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz, which blames nature rather than humans for the extinction of life on earth – in contrast with Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction – has universal appeal because the message is acceptable to both tree huggers as well as the anti-environmentalists who believe that environmental science is a religious cult. But if the effort was intended to seduce the anti-environmentalists into at least accepting the validity and superiority of science as an awesome enterprise through the beauty and fascination of the power of science as well as a love of nature’s magnificence, the film lacks coherence, which is as important to the credibility of science as Thorne’s preoccupation with a correspondence theory of truth.

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in the dystopian pre-story poetically laments that, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Unfortunately, the opening pre-story does not help restore that faith in science. Aim higher, break barriers to ignorance, reach for the stars, explore, pioneer and persevere. Most of all, as Dr. Brand intones repeatedly like a sledgehammer that sucks the music out of Dylan Thomas’ great poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” For although wise men know that death – personal or of the Earth itself – is inevitable, humans cannot and should not lie down before the awesome inevitability.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That is why this movie is deeply religious, not in terms of organized religion, but in terms of its spiritual message. Jesus did not go raging into that good night. He accepted his crucifixion with equanimity. But he refused to passively accept the death of others whom he raised from the dead, such as the young girl who supposedly died in Luke 8:49. Jesus insisted that she was only sleeping. While everyone around was wailing and weeping, Jesus woke her up. So Jesus spoke with a forked tongue, a tongue which offered two opposite lessons at the same time – total acceptance of his own demise while quietly raising others from the dead.

Dr. Brand, who we learn in the movie has spoken with a forked tongue in a very different sense, as both a liar and a man who believes that radical alternative choices have to be made when two roads diverge in a wood. He is given those precious lines of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle as his motto to pass onto future generations. But the Welsh poet’s message to his own father is a rant against acceptance of death by the other, whereas Thomas was a fatalist alcoholic when it came to his own death. So which are we to believe, the forked tongue of Dr. Brand in which science has to operate via the use of Plato’s noble lie or Cooper’s raging efforts to live up to the vow he made his young daughter?

Cooper could have recited lines from another famous poet, an American one, to counter that of Dr. Brand, the last verse of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Next Blog:
Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel
Speed, Distance, Navigation, Communication, Long Duration, Propulsion and Time Dilation

Interstellar – the Drama

Interstellar: I – The Drama


Howard Adelman

Nancy and I along with our son and daughter-in-law, Daniel and Jessica, went to see a film that I thought was called Intergalactica, but soon discovered was called Interstellar. My mind, and often my mouth and even my fingers, for some reason, known or unknown, often does that – transposes one word or phrase for another. One example – always guaranteed to split the sides of my wife, Nancy, and my two young children – is the substitution of the name of candies called “Jolly Ranchers” with the name “Jolly Rangers”. When I first typed the substitution, I even reversed the names, writing that I substituted the correct name, “Jolly Rangers”, for the name “Jolly Ranchers”. I only caught the error in editing. Jolly Ranchers were favourite candies of Daniel and Gabriel when they were young. I always seemed to call that candy by the wrong name. The mental reason for that substitution is unknown to me until this day.

As another example, I almost always say “loan” when I mean “borrow”. I know the right term in my mind, but there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth. Almost everyone does this a few times because of a memory synapse error, but for some of us, it is a chronic condition. For others, the condition is acute. The phonological system involved in speech output in the language-dominant hemisphere is impaired. It is one major reason why I almost never read a talk. For almost inevitably one word or phrase will be substituted by another, in spite of the script before my eyes, to produce an unintended joke and unwelcomed laughter. When this occurs in a seemingly extemporaneous speech, it is barely noticed.

I do not know the physiological explanation for my condition, but I think I have a rational explanation for why I called the film Interstellar by the name “Intergalactica”. The name “Interstellar” never made sense to my rational and scientific mind, so my brain independently performed a transposition. After all, interstellar means travel between stars. From the little I had heard about the movie, the space travel was from the planet earth in one solar system to another life sustaining planet in another galaxy. The movie was about travel between galaxies using a wormhole in the space/time continuum. In any case, why would humans seeking an alternate livable planet want to travel from one sun to another? Perhaps to a planet in a very different solar system. But everyone knows, or do we, that this is impossible – even in science fiction. Intergalactic travel, believe it or not, is a far more realistic scenario which the imagination of the movie makers literally bend to their advantage.

The more I reflected on the movie to write about what I was thinking, the clearer it was to me that I could never write about it in one or even two blogs. I wanted to write about the science in the film as I started to do above. But the film was so packed with science – from the biological to fundamental physics – that it would take a blog or two just to unpack the scientific dimensions of the movie. Put another way, truer to that science, science was but one dimension of the film and it alone had multi-dimensions.

Secondly, there was the visual and auditory aesthetics of the movie. I had never seen or heard a movie anything like it before – and I am not just referring to the soundtrack that sometimes made it impossible to decipher the dialogue, especially the dialogue about science. Was that deliberate? Usually I can re-run the movie in my own head when I write about it the next morning. I found that impossible with Interstellar. It was so rich in visual and auditory terms. And those are the dimensions of a movie I often recall least of all. I am not a person who can easily recall what a person looks like or sounds like, or can richly describe a scene where we have just been. Somehow, I can usually do it with movies. However, with this one, I plan to return and see the movie a second time just to concentrate on that dimension. Since we leave in three days for our southern trip en route next week from Seattle to Marin County in California, that second viewing will probably have to wait until we return to Victoria in mid-March. Hopefully, the movie will be playing at some IMAX somewhere.

The dimension that I – and usually most others – can most easily grasp is the dramatic and thematic one. That dimension alone was very rich – though sometimes corny and cloying. Although basically a classic love story, that aspect of the movie also had many dimensions. I could not help but think of E.M. Forster’s great novel, Passage to India, even as I was watching the movie. In a late chapter in the novel, Professor Godbole is at a festival celebrating the midnight birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. The celebration is not a national feast or even a multicultural one, but an effort to allow everyone to feel at one with the universe. Godbole is thinking about his obsession with the English lady, Mrs. Moore, his memory of a wasp sitting on a rock and the rock itself. He fails. The movie Interstellar is imbued with the same Hindu vision of merging mankind to be at one with the whole universe while also revealing what separates humans.

Love is the means to get there. But what kind of love? Godbole thinks it might be a man’s love for a woman. But he is unsuccessful. So is the effort of Dr. Amie Brand, played brilliantly as usual by Anne Hathaway, who is determined to reunite with the great love of her life, an astronaut, Dr. Wolf Edmunds, who, in the Lazarus mission ten years earlier, was one of twelve scientists who set off to find an alternative planet where the survivors of Earth could resettle. Is it the love of mankind for future generations? This is what drives the chief scientist, Amie Brand’s father played by Michael Caine, so much so that he tells the great noble lie called Plan A that dominates the film. Humans had already demonstrated a great disregard for future generations and had allowed the planet Earth to move pell mell towards its own destruction in the dystopian bleak opening and pre-story to the movie’s major scientific narrative. Can one scientist’s determination to save future generations overcome these propensities?

Behind that destructive force is another – the love of a human for himself – a personal survival instinct. This is what drives Matt Damon playing the part of the fallen angel, Dr. Mann, whose determination to live overcomes his responsibilities as a scientist. Mann is man’s worst enemy. However, in this interplay, of self-love and species love, of inter-personal love of a man for a woman, there is a fourth form of love that supersedes them all. It is the love of a parent for a child and of a child for a parent. In the movie, it is the love of Cooper, himself an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey, not for both of his two children, but for his daughter Murph. Murph as a child is played by Mckenzie Foy, as an adult by Jessica Chastain and as an old woman on her death bed, by Ellen Burstyn. Cooper’s connection to his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet as a 15-year-old boy and Casey Affleck as a grown adult) is just blown sideways, or, rather backwards, because Tom grows up to be a stick-in-the-dust farmer just as his grandfather, Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), was.

The competing forms of love constitute the dramatic centre of the film .However, only a parent’s love for a child, more specifically, a father’s love for his daughter and its reciprocal response, allows humans to escape the gravitational pull of earth and become the embodiment of infinite love that allows the survival and re-birth on another planet of the human species. Godbole’s affection for Mrs. Moore and his attempt to merge the rock and the wasp and Mrs. Moore in a singular unity could not accomplish that task. Nor could Professor’s Brand’s effort. But Cooper and Murph could and did in this Hollywood romance. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” But not any love. Only the love between a father and a daughter is successful.
And what a reversal of the biblical precept (Numbers 30:16) that gives a father command over the vows a young daughter might make. In Interstellar, the relationship is reversed. Murph is the superego who holds her father to account for his vow to return. Murph is Antigone, anti-gone, who becomes the guardian of the faith and stands up to the principle and teacher who would betray science and the cultural heritage of learning and exploration of humans.

As suggested in reference to Dr. Mann, the movie is as much a religious film as it is an exercise in science fiction. Hence the Lazarus name of the previous mission echoing Jesus’ restoration to life of Lazarus four days after he purportedly died. In that mission, twelve apostles, no, astronauts, are sent forth to find an alternative livable planet. Three found possible prospects. In addition to Dr. Mann and Dr. Edmunds, there was Dr. Miller on the first of the planets that was thought to offer a possible viable alternative to Earth. She too died. However, there is no raising any of them from the dead. Cooper and his crew prove not to be miracle workers and the ghostly suggestions of books thrown off their shelves in Murphy’s bedroom when she is still a young girl will also prove to be more metaphysical than mystical. So why if the movie is a blend of the heart and the scientific rational brain, are there so many religious references?

Well it is a tale of faith versus cynicism. It is a story of good versus evil, the latter emerging in many forms, from political historical re-writing of the truth of the Apollo mission into a tale of political shenanigans to Dr. Mann’s behaviour in enticing Cooper’s crew to land on his planet. It is a tale of resurrection of a different sort, if not from the dead, from a cryogenic hypersleep as two of the astronauts aboard Cooper’s space ship, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), do. It is a tale of awe for the absolutely divine magnificence of the enormous universe in which we live. However, instead of, “And God said… and then there was…” we find what was and try to discover and articulate it. Thought, reflection and words follow and do not precede the cosmos. But more than anything, this is a tale of both human vision and human responsibility, both often celebrated in religion, but also both just as often repressed by organized religion.

Then, as Megan Garber’s article in The Atlantic on the movie put it, there is also a Chosen One – Murphy – a chosen people – those brought to the new promised land. If religious, the movie is more Jewish than Christian even though Murph saves the world when she is thirty-three years old. For the people must go on an exodus given the widespread failure of crops and famine in the land. However, one cannot make too much of this for there is no real persecution, though the space voyageurs do not go forth into the Land of Oz “somewhere over the rainbow”. As much as the movie is religious, it is religion caught up within the network of science. To the extent that religion is not reverent of science, to the extent that it is a matter of blind faith in the lessons taught by authority, the film is stridently anti-religious while always remaining ethical. In that sense, it has the same ironic references to religion as Passage to India that I mentioned above. The sense in which it is most religious and also most akin to science is that both involve faith in an eventual salvation, faith in benevolence, faith in a world that is overwhelmingly unknown and, to some extent, unknowable.
The clues can be found in the text book assigned to Murph by her school that now denies that humans ever landed on the moon. For institutionalized thinking has become dogmatic and is at war with both curiousity and wonder in favour of order and good behaviour. Conformity is at war with exploring the impossible to make it possible by dogmatically preferring certainty over speculation, especially that of science fiction. The message of the movie is as simplistic as any religious message: dare to aim higher; break barriers and reach for the stars, replace self-protection and survivalism with exploration, risk and perseverance. Our greatest tales are of journeys to discover the unknown based on faith in the promise of the future.

Our rich cultural history provides the clues to regaining that lost art of speculation, wonder and pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward. The titles of the books on Murph’s shelves in her room and of the books that are thrust by some unknown force onto the floor. I was looking because I thought that surely Passage to India or Homer’s Odyssey would be among them. But I did not spot either. Instead, the books I spotted, with a few exceptions, seemed more mundane than profound with no subtlety whatsoever in the connections with the movie. I actually cheated here since I could only recall a few, so I looked on line at close-ups of the bookshelves that play such a prominent part in the film.

The mundane books included Stephen King’s The Stand about a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by plague, James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere, Curtis and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders: an Atomic Tale and Elizabeth Wolff’s Out of the Blue in which the title says it all, in the latter case referring to both chance and to the source of truth in the sky. There is also a biography of Charles Lindbergh, a Scrabble dictionary and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. These books were clues that subtlety would not be a great strength in this movie. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, an updated version of the Moses story set in New York, seems to have some connection with the movie, but I would have to read Helprin’s book to figure it out.

However, Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab chasing a huge white whale, is also among Murph’s books. The novel begins, “Call me Ishmael.” Is Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, the narrator, Ishmael, while Cooper is Ahab searching to find, not a spirit whale, but a habitable planet where the human spirit as well as body can survive and thrive? It is hard to say. For the film is syncretic, mixing and not always matching multiple sources and influences. I was sure one of the most important was Odysseus’ (in Latin, Ulysses) travels in the Odyssey and his ten-year effort to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. In a small way, perhaps. But there were too few parallels. In Interstellar, there are twelve ships that were driven off course just as in the Lazarus mission ten years before Cooper set off. Are the people on Earth the infamous lethargic lotus-eaters? Certainly multiple winds that Odysseus had in the leather bag given by Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, permeate the story.

However, there are no cannibals though the voyageurs are torn between Dr. Mann’s and Dr. Edmund’s planets, the Interstellar tale is actually far less fantastical than the narrative of the Scylla and the Charybdis. For this film is about science fiction, not science fantasy. Odysseus never meets the spirit of his own mother, but rather the real flesh and blood presence of his own daughter. He was the spirit. She was the real thing. It is Cooper’s daughter not Cooper himself whom the new colony of humans is named after. After all, the movie is about father-daughter love as an expression of quantum entanglement, the interaction of two particles that behave as one even though they may be light years apart. We no longer live in the mechanical industrial age but in a networked communicative age; this movie is surely an expression of my children’s and grandchildren’s era rather than my own.

Next Blog: The Science of Interstellar