Understanding The Science of ‘Interstellar’ Movie: A Guide

Interstellar cover image

‘Interstellar’ draws inspiration from a plethora of iconic sci-fi films and literature, notably Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ which Christopher Nolan, the director, encountered at the age of seven. Similar to ‘2001,’ ‘Interstellar’ is firmly rooted in real scientific principles. Nolan collaborated closely with experts like Kip Thorne, a luminary in theoretical physics, to seamlessly incorporate concepts such as relativity, event horizons and intricate rocket equations into the film’s narrative. Check out this spoiler-free guide where we dissect the science behind ‘Interstellar’.

Einstein-Rosen Bridge (aka a Wormhole)

A beloved invention among sci-fi screenwriters, the wormhole stands as one of the most enigmatic entities in the universe of Interstellar, offering audiences the chance to journey inside its mysterious depths. And if you’re fortunate enough to catch the film on an IMAX screen, you’ll truly feel as though you’re being drawn into the adventure alongside the characters.

Image Courtesy: Popular Science

So, what exactly is a wormhole? It’s a theoretical concept that, if real, could potentially allow an exceedingly advanced civilization to transport objects instantaneously between two distant points in the universe. Presently, there’s no empirical evidence confirming the existence of wormholes, but numerous physicists have explored the idea using the equations of general relativity. In a seminal 1988 paper, Kip Thorne delved into the notion of utilizing wormholes for traversing space and time, sparking discussions about the possibility of time travel. These very ideas about wormholes and their implications, including the tantalizing prospect of time travel, are central themes explored in ‘Interstellar’.

Black Hole

One of the standout scientific elements of Interstellar is the depiction of the ‘Gargantua’ black hole. Its breathtaking beauty contrasts sharply with the immense challenges it poses for the characters in the film. The CGI team painstakingly brought this black hole to life by creating a model based on information gleaned from academic journals. These journals, filled with complex equations, were provided by the film’s scientific advisor, Kip Thorne. According to an article in American Wired, this rendering may be one of the most scientifically accurate depictions of a black hole ever seen in a science fiction film.

Black hole--Interstellar
Image Courtesy: Space.com

So, what exactly is a black hole? Essentially, it’s a gravitational mass of such immense magnitude that not even light can escape its pull. Think of them as the cosmic equivalent of sink drains, with a ‘singularity’ at their center (instead of a plumbing fixture), where gravity and space become infinite. Black holes form when massive stars reach the end of their life cycles and collapse inward. For instance, there’s a colossal black hole at the heart of our own galaxy, boasting a mass equivalent to that of four million suns.

Accretion Disk

The mesmerizing yellow ring of superheated gases swirling around Gargantua is referred to as an accretion disk, and it stands as one of the most breathtaking visual spectacles in the film.

Accretion Disk--Interstellar
Image Courtesy: NOIRLab

But what exactly is an accretion disk? Black holes possess an immense gravitational pull, drawing in vast amounts of matter, including gases from neighboring stars. As this matter orbits the black hole, it becomes intensely heated. Accretion disks surrounding black holes rank among the brightest and hottest entities in the cosmos, sometimes known as ‘Quasars.’ Some of these accretion disks are so incredibly hot and luminous that they can outshine entire galaxies.

Event Horizon

Here’s a crucial piece of advice: steer clear of these cosmic phenomena, unless, of course, you happen to be a fictional character in a sci-fi flick (and even then, proceed with caution). We’ll leave it at that.

Event Horizon--Interstellar
Image Courtesy: GQ

So, what exactly are we talking about? The event horizon marks the boundary surrounding a black hole where gravitational forces become so intense that not even light can escape. Once you cross this threshold, there’s typically no turning back (or is there?). According to Stephen Hawking, traversing the event horizon of larger black holes might be a relatively seamless affair, with little notice. However, smaller ones are likely to subject you to gravitational forces that would tear you apart long before you reach the horizon. This information is particularly relevant for the characters in Interstellar.

Also Read: Chronicles of Time: Exploring The Mythos of Time Travel Machines

Relativity And Time Dilation

As we’ve noted, the black hole Gargantua presents significant challenges for our characters, primarily due to the time dilation effects caused by super-massive black holes.

Relativity And Time Dilation--Interstellar
Image Courtesy: GQ

So, what exactly is time dilation? According to Einstein, space and time are interconnected: your speed and your distance relative to gravitational masses influence how quickly you move through time. For instance, clocks on GPS satellites orbiting Earth at great distances tick slightly faster than clocks on the planet’s surface. The immense gravitational mass of a black hole means that if you travel close to it, your watch would seem to slow down (or even stop) to observers from a distance.

O’Neill Cylinder

Discussing this further would spoil the plot, so you’ll have to watch the film (and you definitely should). The fact that we’re even mentioning it borders on a spoiler…

So, what is it? If we ever managed to evacuate every human from Earth, we might use a theoretical spaceship known as an O’Neill cylinder. This concept, envisioned by physicist Gerard K. O’Neill in a 1976 book and recently brought to life by a special effects team, involves placing a giant cylinder in space with a radius of about ten miles. By spinning it at a rate of about 40 times per hour, it would create artificial gravity equivalent to that of Earth. Now, all we need to do is build a spacecraft the size of the M25.

Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation

If Earth becomes uninhabitable in the future, as depicted in Interstellar, we might need to find a new home in space. However, launching heavy objects into space, such as the entire human population, requires an enormous amount of fuel. The fact that a significant part of the plot hinges on such an equation underscores that Interstellar is far from your typical blockbuster.

Image Courtesy: Revolutionized

So, what is it? The Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation states that “a one-ton craft needs 20 to 50 tonnes of fuel” to overcome Earth’s gravity. Considering humanity’s total mass is around 400 million tonnes, sending everyone into space would necessitate tens of trillions of tonnes of fuel. And that’s not even including all the supplies we’d need to bring along. Thanks a lot, physics.