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Why Interstellar Matters

My friend Frank Taylor was in town over the Thanksgiving holiday, having flown in from South Africa. With his wife Karen, Frank has spent the years since 2009 circumnavigating the globe aboard a 50-foot catamaran called Tahina, an adventure chronicled with spectacular photography on the Tahina Expedition blog. I highly recommend the site for anyone interested in travel and the sea, not to mention how high tech has transformed the ancient art of sailing. But when we spoke recently just before Frank returned to Africa, he had another kind of high tech in mind. Specifically, what had I thought about the film Interstellar?

I haven’t delayed my comments on the movie intentionally, but I was slow in getting to see it, missing the opportunity at the end of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop and then getting involved in recent activities including the One Earth New Horizons Message workshop at Stanford. I also wanted to read Kip Thorne’s The Science of Interstellar (Norton, 2014) and give the movie a second viewing. All that behind me, it’s time to explain why I was surprised by Interstellar. My expectations for Hollywood science fiction are always low, as I’ve found that today’s filmmaking wizardry all too often masks serious flaws in plot and character.

I can find problems in Interstellar as well, as many reviewers have, but I think this is an important movie whose mistakes aren’t significant compared to what it accomplishes. Interstellar is a movie that will baffle a large part of its audience, the movie-going public far more comfortable with battles in space and sleek starships like the Enterprise. This is not an audience that will easily follow the twists and turns through time and space that Christopher Nolan has created. But Nolan’s attention to detail, his partnership with Thorne, and his insistence on scientific plausibility wherever possible will get through to an important subset.


I’m talking about younger people with an interest in science for whom the movie’s stunning visuals will impel them to learn how to untangle the plot. For the intellectually curious, Interstellar is a tandem creation, a movie/book duality where each plays off the other — the motivated minority will want to immerse themselves in both. The film’s plot is demanding and operates at various degrees of believability, but there is a science puzzle to be untangled here, one to which Thorne’s book offers the key. When I was researching Centauri Dreams back in 2002-2004, I was surprised at how many scientists and aerospace engineers told me they had chosen their fields because of science fiction novels like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero. This movie will have the same effect. In fact, I can think of no movie that is so likely to create careers in the sciences, particularly physics, than this one.

Let’s talk about why. Here I get into details and suppose I should say that there may be spoilers below for those who haven’t yet seen Interstellar, so proceed with caution. I could focus on various issues, from a worldwide blight to passage through a wormhole, but the film’s treatment of black holes is what I’ll use as my working material. The wormhole itself, out near Saturn’s orbit and an apparent way out for a desperate humanity, is richly described in Thorne’s chapters, especially with regard to the special effects that bring it to life.

Our protagonist, Cooper, must learn which of three planets in an unusual system dominated by an enormous black hole called Gargantua is most suited for humans. When he and his team need to get to one of these, Miller’s Planet, from their parking orbit near the black hole, they have to produce huge velocity changes in the range of 100,000 kilometers per second. Thorne goes through the physics of this, including the bizarre time distortion on a world so close to a black hole. The upshot is that a gravitational slingshot maneuver must be performed. The movie skims over the matter quickly, but Cooper does discuss how this must have been done later, when he talks about using a neutron star to decelerate. The neutron star is a bit of a fudge — it turns out it wouldn’t be big enough to force the needed maneuver, but an intermediate-mass black hole would do the trick. Thorne made this case to Nolan but the director stuck with the neutron star.

That’s a scientific error forced by Hollywood values. Thorne relates his objections to Nolan during the re-writing of the screenplay and goes on to explain what happened:

…he [Nolan] didn’t want to confuse his mass audience by having more than one black hole in the movie. One black hole, one wormhole, and also a neutron star, along with Interstellar’s other rich science, all to be absorbed in a fast-paced two hour film; that was all Chris thought he could get away with. Recognizing that strong gravitational slingshots are needed to navigate near Gargantua, Chris included one slingshot in Cooper’s dialog, at the price of using a scientifically implausible deflector: the neutron star instead of a black hole.

Interstellar is closer to three hours than two (Thorne was writing before the film was finalized), but does anything else about this bother you? I’m going to argue that the combination of Nolan’s movie and Thorne’s book — and the fruitful collaboration the two engaged in throughout — induces the kind of puzzle-solving ethos that will prompt many a young mind to dig deeper into the movie’s physics. Nolan made a choice with a mass audience in mind, but the framework of that choice is laid bare in Thorne’s book, which goes on to explain how careful Nolan was to stick to scientific plausibility where he felt that he could. Filmmaking is always a matter of compromise, but Nolan was surprisingly tough. Finding where Interstellar works and where it stretches science out of shape is itself a lesson in problem solving.

The point is, the director was thinking about these things within a framework that, in terms of its spectacular visuals, is meticulous about getting the larger details right. Think about the accretion disk around the black hole Gargantua. Here we’re seeing a magnetic field in the process of converting gravitational energy into heat and then light — the field, explains Thorne, provides the friction that slows the circumferential motion of gas in the disk even as the black hole’s gravity tries to speed up the infalling material, with kinetic energy being converted into heat and light along the way. But go to the projections of black hole accretion disks you’ll find on the Net or in technical publications and you’ll find Nolan’s depiction is far more spectacular. Another Hollywood-enforced choice?

No. What Nolan and Thorne added was the gravitational lensing of the disk by its own black hole, an effect explored through computer code developed for the film. While you would expect that portion of the disk behind the black hole to be out of sight, gravitational lensing produces two images of it, one above and the other below Gargantua. This is special effects wizard Eugénie van Tunzelmann’s work, carefully wrought to produce the nested effect Thorne describes:

Inside these primary images, we see thin secondary images of the disk, wrapping over and under the shadow, near the shadow’s edge. And if the picture were made much larger, you would see tertiary and higher-order images, closer and closer to the shadow.


Moreover, Gargantua’s distortion of spacetime distorts the disk images, pushing the perceived disk away from the shadow on one side and toward the shadow on the other, creating an effect that appears lopsided. Here again Nolan intervened in an attempt to avoid confusion, especially as the audience tried to work out the reason for the lopsidedness of the disk and the star patterns created near its edge. So for the purposes of the imagery, he slowed the spin of Gargantua to reduce the effect, just as van Tunzelmann removed the Doppler shift created by the disk’s motion, which would have created an even more lopsided and confusing effect.

What pleases me here is that these changes and their rationale are thoroughly explored in Kip Thorne’s book, which likewise offers those intrigued with such visualizations the opportunity to explore how they could be fine-tuned and rendered with greater accuracy. Given the Hollywood culture in which he operates, I think that Christopher Nolan produced a movie with as much scientific accuracy as he could get past his producers, given the imperative for ratings and box office sales.

Most people are going to be wowed by the visuals; some will be dismayed by the all but supernatural intervention of beings from a higher dimension who may be our descendants. But a few, the ones I’m focused on, are going to use the high points of this movie — its unapologetic call for exploration, its entanglement with science as a form of quest — to choose to learn more, and there is no more engaging a guide than Kip Thorne to show them the way. Thorne says he was moved by the underlying message of Interstellar that the universe can be viewed optimistically because our species is capable of choosing its future:

But doing so, controlling our own fate, requires that a large fraction of us understand and appreciate science: How it operates. What it teaches us about the universe, the Earth, and life. What it can achieve. What its limitations are, due to inadequate knowledge or technology. How those limitations may be overcome. How we transition from speculation to educated guess to truth. How extremely rare are revolutions in which our perceived truth changes, yet how very important.

Thirty years from now there will be working scientists who explain to interviewers how Interstellar, a movie flawed by occasional mawkishness (think of Amelia Brand’s regrettable lines about love being the fifth dimension), weighed down by what may be the ultimate deus ex machina (in the form of Cooper operating through the tesseract), and reactive to Hollywood’s relentless popular ethos, nonetheless captured their imagination so that they read a book (Thorne’s) that helped to launch them down a path whose end they could not imagine. I call that a fine result, and reiterate my surprise in finding a Hollywood blockbuster I can seriously recommend.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • RobFlores December 10, 2014, 16:20

    Spoilers: on Interstellar coming:

    I loved the film and I rate it as being worth 90% of the ticket price (it’s how
    I rate movies). The movie is describing, I think a universe that is at least
    5 dimensions. My view was that in this PARTICULAR slice of 4d universe Cooper existed, there is continuum between past present and future. This continuum is in fact like a solid crystal, it is fixed. In INTERSTELLAR we see that the future affects the past because it’s the only way the future can exist (aka future descendants of humanity helping out) In all other 4 d versions of the universe humanity is extinguished, because events do not
    develop as in the movie.
    I was disappointed by 3 things in the movie but they maybe a personal
    1) Wayward astronaut was too obvious
    2) I would like to have more developed story on the ‘SICK’ earth.
    maybe a backstory on Regional War that used Bioweapons that got out
    3) You also had NASA ignoring the possibility of Colonizing Planets
    in our OWN solar system, they should attempted to justify why we
    discarded those as possibilities.

  • Rob Henry December 10, 2014, 16:45

    Some scientists have a strange attitude to science in movies. It is NOT bad if it doesn’t correspond to your first best guess. Here I take issue with many comments I have seen elsewhere on ‘the blight’. Let me lay it out the problems.

    1 It seems to effect all plants irrespective of immune defences.
    2 It significantly lowers O2 in decades whereas even if completely halting all photosynthesis on Earth this would take millions of years.
    3 The blight ‘breathes’ N2 in the same way we do O2, and plants do not do this

    If we take an appeal from authority approach to science this is shocking stuff, but what if we take the problem solving approach. Those three ‘mistakes’ are not mistakes but clues, and before the movie was even over I had worked them out. Let me explain.

    The bight is not a parasite of the plants – because from 1 we know it (almost) can’t be, it is a parasite on our ecosystem. If it brings down the O2 it must have a huge biomass compared to all plants, and that dust-bowl is a hint is after their water. From 3 we known it uses N2 in the same way we do O2, and there is only one way to do that that brings down O2.
    N2 + O2 + H2O -> HNO3
    This uses a small amount of energy under stp but NO3- concentrations are so low that it generates energy on today’s Earth. The blights success at extracting energy from our system can only be limited by the rate nitrate flows off to the oceans, and equilibrium comes when only a trace of O2 is left. If the blight has marine versions, the end comes even faster. If even one organism EVER gained this ability, there is little question that Earth would have to be abandoned by us… So, tell me, where is the bad science of blight here.

    PS. Lovelock has written about this problem about a decade ago – its not original to me.

  • Frank Taylor December 10, 2014, 21:25

    Hey Paul, thanks for the mention and referral to our Tahina site! I’m glad to see you give your review of the movie and your thoughts are insightful as always. I think you are the most respected writer on the subject of interstellar travel in the scientific community, so your thoughts are important. Now I’m eager to read Thorne’s book for a better perspective. I’m also hopeful your analysis is correct about the effect it will have on children choosing science and technology for careers.

  • Rob Henry December 10, 2014, 22:38

    RobFlores, I would like to address your point 3). In any discussion of saving the human race from an ecological disaster, there is moral outrage by many over any thought of spending public money on an elite who then can (and must) leave the rest of us to die that little bit faster (since slightly less can be spent on slowing the problem here on Earth). In Interstellar, NASA solves that problem by secrecy, but it can only retain this subterfuge in a small programme and here is the problem…

    To live on a SELF SUSTAINING Martian colony, you would need to plant a full technological economy there of at least a million people, You can’t slowly build to this because of the need for secrecy, and people can’t survive in more primitive fashion on that planet, and build up to it slowly a hundred years later.

  • Jer December 10, 2014, 22:49

    Speaking of visuals that depict ‘epic’ periods in human civilization… an interesting alternative history mini-series based on …er… ‘loosely inspired by’ Project Orion – if it happened to have launched in 1963 – starting in a few days:


  • David W December 10, 2014, 22:58

    It is a movie I agree -We have Mars and The blight thing is well off but he may have used it as metaphor. On the big Picture Nolan is right We are turning our back on the future -We focus on austerity and despair and turn away from Science and exploration For him to focus on this he deserves a big thumbs up for bringing some inspiration
    Which Brings me to Inner Solar system I did spend all of last Thursday with Orion . It looks like NASA does have a good template to build a manned space program that will give a lot of build on options. The pathetic thing is we are going to bow to the austerity billionaires and do nothing for years

  • Harold Daughety December 11, 2014, 0:52

    I have not seen Interstellar in part because of inertia: I am of an age that a good book and a warm fire is an invitation to a long mid afternoon nap. I watched Avatar on CD and summarized it for a friend: an agent for an international company acts as liaison between the natives of a land being exploited and his employer. He falls in love, goes native, and leads the natives in a war to oust the exploiters. The story could have been set in any third world country in the 19th century. New life was breathed into an ages-old story by a setting on an alien world of improbable beauty via artistry.

    Interstellar is also a fantasy, but with closer conformation to possible future reality. The human drama, however, is the crux of any story that draws an audience large enough to pay for its telling. The future possible facts – nor the true past history – cannot be permitted to spoil a rousing good tale.

  • Al Jackson December 11, 2014, 8:46

    Jim Benford and I discussed the film over dinner Wednesday night after the TVIW. I had read The Science of Interstellar , there was a Kindle edition available two days before the film opened. All the four dimension science in the movie is correct while the five dimensional material was , as Kip Thorne points out, highly (to me ultra) speculative.
    Jim and I thought that its was a good cast and technically very well presented , but the dramatic narrative seemed too ‘cobbled’ and should have been gone in a drawer and incubated for a month of two. Would like to have seen Johnathan Nolan’s screenplay , this is Christopher brother. Johnathan had worked on the script for years. Johnathan is a praised screen writer even sharing an Oscar nomination with his brother. I got the impression that Christopher was under some kind of dead line and rewrote the screenplay too hastily. All this just from Thornes’s book. Kip even voiced some disguised qualms about the film. It’s a film worth seeing at least once, and like a few other films of it’s ilk true to the spirit of modern science fiction prose, a rare thing!
    (Nolan idolizes Kubrick , but his idol still has him trumped.)

    On the why-not-colonize-solar-system-planets … that WAS confusing, seemed at the end of the film Earth has flung out O’Neill Cylinder colonies , that’s ok, but should have been explained.

    Jessica Chastain was at JSC two weeks ago to visit astronaut training, she came by the engineering simulators , the instructors said she was a quick study.
    Jessica , this time, will be get to go into space, she will be the commander of the Hermes ,the mother spacecraft of the Ares 3 mission a failed Mars mission. She will be reunited with Matt Damon who has the main role as an astronaut stranded on Mars.
    This will be Ridley Scott’s film The Martian based on the terrific Andy Weir novel. If Scott just does a direct adaptation this will be a fine film and a ripping yarn!

  • Dan December 11, 2014, 8:51

    I thought the science/tech parts of interstellar were utterly retarded, it was so bad that I dont know where to start, it was just everywhere. In the end it was a relationship/family drama with spontaneous fisticuffing mixed with some real bad SF. The special effects were nice but then again all modern movies have good SFX. Even the drama plotholes were huge. (Spoiler alert) For instance….

    At the very end when you see Dr Brand you learn that they apparently never sent another expedition trough the wormhole despite Murphy figuring out how to make an antigravity drive because Dr Brand is seen by the grave of her love Dr Edwards who died alone of high age. Apparently all of NASAs post-rocket energy went to construction of gigantic ONeill cylinders. Its so retarded that I just roll my eyes.

    Rob, HNO3 is nitric acid, if the blight produced this as its metabolic end product it would kill itself.

  • Eric Hughes December 11, 2014, 11:26

    The best of the many radio interviews I heard about Interstellar is, without any doubt, the one on Science Friday, which was a joint interview with both Christopher Nolan and Kip Thorne. It’s worth listening to in its own right, as it explores the interplay between drama and science that led to this film. My favorite tidbit from this interview was that the inspiration for the astronaut fight scene was Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film Greed.


  • Erik Landahl December 11, 2014, 12:01

    Dan: I am going to see it tonight with my 14-year old budding physicist son. Your review contradicts those of Paul, Frank, Rob Flores and Rob Henry, David and Al. I don’t dismiss your review, but the fact that it clashes drastically with the others confuses me.

    Would you, or the other reviewers, or anyone else please comment on the differences between your review and the reviews from the others?

    Thanks much.

  • Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey December 11, 2014, 13:07

    You might enjoy David A. Kirby’s fine book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, which considers the role of science advisors to film and TV.

  • Alex Tolley December 11, 2014, 14:13

    @Al Jackson – Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain in “The Martian”. Cool.
    IMDB has the updated cast:
    Looks like you might be seeing some interesting actors.

  • Alex Tolley December 11, 2014, 14:18

    @Eric, Dan – Interstellar does seem to have evoked quite polar reviews around the web. Most are positive (IMDB has an 8.9 rating), but there is a minority who intensely dislike it for various reasons, including the science.

    The best thing is just to see it for oneself and make up your own mind.

  • Rob Henry December 11, 2014, 17:22

    @Dan, nitric acid would no more kill every organism that secreting stomach HCl would kill humans. Some archaea have optimal growth around pH 1
    and at least one can can grow at negative pH. Several eukaryotes (all yeasts) can also grow very close to pH0, so this is not the problem. Even worse, to such an organism, huge amounts of energy could be extracted from ammonia and urea, drastically reducing the availability of N to other organisms.

    The traditional way to answer this mystery is that the intermediate products of this oxidation are toxic (to every organism that ever existed).

  • andy December 11, 2014, 17:38

    Bit of a mixed movie for me, the final act of the movie jumps off into silliness. The rest of it, I quite enjoyed. (Though by the third time the Dylan Thomas poem came up I had to stifle a groan… too many repetitions!)

    Refreshing to see a movie where science is not the villain though. Also cool to see the black hole, would like to see a render with the Doppler colour shift/boosting taken into account to see how different it would look. Also I like that the movie depicted the habitable candidate planets as devoid of obvious life, conveys the whole “magnificent desolation” thing quite well.

  • Paul Gilster December 11, 2014, 21:56

    andy writes:

    Refreshing to see a movie where science is not the villain though. Also cool to see the black hole, would like to see a render with the Doppler colour shift/boosting taken into account to see how different it would look. Also I like that the movie depicted the habitable candidate planets as devoid of obvious life, conveys the whole “magnificent desolation” thing quite well.

    So true!

  • Peter Chapin December 12, 2014, 8:25

    I’m one of those who didn’t like the movie… and largely because of the science. The problem wasn’t one of inaccuracy. The problem was that it was gratuitous. The characters are exploring a highly unusual system consisting of a black hole with normal planets and contending with the various effects of General Relativity. So how does that relate to the story? As far as I can see it doesn’t.

    The movie appears to be addressing the theme of how we manage to escape the threat of extinction due to our own mishandling of our world, and evolve into something more… ultimately something grand and glorious. That’s a good theme. Why do we need a black hole for that?

    Science fiction does need some scientifically interesting devices but I thought the idea of some unknown “power” creating an artificial wormhole to help us find our way out of our plight was very good for that. The story and the characters would have worked better, and would have been more believable, if the star system they were exploring was more ordinary.

    In this respect I think Kip Thorne’s involvement in the movie was a hindrance. The movie was much too focused on exotic physics and the storytelling get left behind.

  • Athena Andreadis December 12, 2014, 11:35

    Having seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film of the same title located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness & sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway & Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even Mcconaughey was more bearable in the latter. As for the vaunted science, the biology would make a child laugh, or an adult weep.

  • william December 12, 2014, 11:42

    I certainly like the part where Ann Hathaway’s character is being submerged into the tank for the voyage to Saturn and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is talking to the rectangular shaped robot, and the robot shouts, “WHY ARE YOU WHISPERING!” . I got to admit that that robot had personality !

  • Neutrino78x December 12, 2014, 11:57

    As far as Brand at the end, remember from Brand’s perspective she has only been on the planet a few hours. Decades passed due to time dilation when they performed the slingshot maneuver, but those decades passed for EARTH, not Brand. Cooper and brand experienced the same dilation.

    As far as the O’Neill cylinders, don’t forget that the point of driving a theory of everything was so they could lift the large spacecraft — which they had already built on the ground — into space, using a spacetime warp technology. Presumably they could then build other large structures on Earth on lift then into space as well.

    So the movie explained these things, but you had to be paying attention. :-)

  • william December 12, 2014, 16:16

    @Neutrino78x I have to say that I didn’t get that from the movie, although I did think of that as a point because what I was wondering was that you had this capability to lift things into space, then why not just throw the entire population of Earth through the wormhole over time and you will send them to their target planet without all this must and fuss fuss?

  • ljk December 12, 2014, 17:32

    Alien intelligence and the lost prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey

    Carole Jahme

    Thursday 11 December 2014 02.00 EST

    The digital re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey reminds us of the power of science fiction – no matter how speculative.

    We know that fact can be stranger than fiction, but should science fiction be a stranger to scientific facts, or has sci-fi become our most loved film genre because of its blue-sky thinking and impossible plot twists?

    The British Film Institute’s Days of Fear and Wonder science fiction season has brought these questions into focus. One of the highlights has been a digitally remastered 2001: A Space Odyssey, now showing in selected cinemas – including the Curzon Soho in London on Thursday.

    The creator of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Bernard Lovell, influenced the director Stanley Kubrick’s conception of the film. Kubrick wanted the movie grounded in fact and originally planned for it to have a prologue in which Lovell and 20 other scientists would discuss their thoughts about aliens, evolution and space travel. But 2001: A Space Odyssey turned out to be an unusually long film, even without the prologue, and so the 1966 footage was never used and is now lost. Fortunately, the transcript has survived and makes fascinating reading.

    Full article here:


  • Dan December 13, 2014, 9:05

    Neutrino: yes I understood that. But go and read something about relativity, black holes, orbital mechanics and time flow in compressed spacetime, then go and watch this and weep. It just doesnt work like it does in the movie. I dont get the hype about this movie, it is sure F but theres no S whatsoever inside it, what we see is an uneducated liberal arts student’s (mis)conceptions about science. The engineering is another sore point but ill leave that aside, for those that havent seen this movie, dont waste your money, pirate it and watch it at home at 2x speed, that way you will only waste 90 minutes of your life.

  • Alex Tolley December 13, 2014, 12:59

    Between Dan and Athena, one would think this movie is trash. (Has Athena ever given a positive review of a SF movie, she always seems so jaundiced?) This seems at odds with the majority of reviewers. It is starting to seem that this is one of those pieces of art where these is no consensus, just a bimodal distribution between those that like it a lot, and the minority that just hate it.
    We’ll have to wait a few years to see if a consensus emerges.

    One feature I always look for over time is whether the movie influences other movies. 2001, Star Wars, Alien and Bladerunner all had strong stylistic influences on succeeding movies, not to mention themes. It will be interesting to see whether Interstellar does or not.

  • william December 13, 2014, 16:50

    Whether movie is accurate scientifically or not it is the box office that ultimately decides ‘how good’ a movie is. And I think it’s doing pretty good monetarily speaking.

  • Al Jackson December 13, 2014, 22:47

    I saw the article in the Guardian.
    The documentary prolog to 2001 was primarily not used for artistic reasons. It’s the same as working screenplay for 2001 , which had a running voice over narration to be added in post processing. Fred Ordway , 2001 technical adviser wrote a memo to Kubrick that it should be used, Kubrick wisely discarded it.

    A film historian of mind claims the prolog is not lost , that the Kubrick estate has it , for reasons unknown they have never sanctioned it’s release.
    Same is true of film material and art work that Douglas Trumbull owns and was going to make into a documentary, that project is on hold due to objection by the Kubrick estate.

    On the other hand the Kubrick estate did not object the publication of Fred Ordway’s vast collection of technical support material for 2001:
    2001: The Lost Science by Adam K. Johnson, a very nice book.
    I have found out that there will be a second volume of material , I think next year.

  • Rob Flores December 14, 2014, 1:32

    This film is not meant to be a treatise on science within our reach. It is
    meant to be scientific, but the science is a supporting vehicle. As presented the film is meant to grab those in the audience who want to depth and meaning to their experience. There are two extremes in making the kind
    film Nolan is making, which he avoided. Using a film to force feed scientific concepts and be constrained by those concepts. For Example the Andromeda Strain. It’s an ok film, but it did not find an audience and I doubt it inspired too many to delve into scientific careers. The other extreme is to not care about science and focus on just the adventure, using
    protagonists that are trite, and plots that are easy to digest. Disney’s the BLACK HOLE. comes to mind. I was surprised to learn that some people actually like that film, which I found to be a bitter dissapointment.
    In my view interstellar moves that part of the audience that is looking for
    a higher adventure, with characters we can emphasize somewhat from their actions in the film. The science is the tapestry on which it all occurs.

  • Alex Tolley December 14, 2014, 15:13

    @Al Jackson 2001: The Lost Science by Adam K. Johnson, a very nice book.
    I have found out that there will be a second volume of material , I think next year.

    Please keep an eye out for that and let me/us know when it is published. I’d really like to add that to my collection.

  • Heath Rezabek December 14, 2014, 16:32

    I’m seeing a number of posts like these now, where thoughts on Interstellar have taken a month to incubate. That’s a good thing to see happen. I’ve now seen it a few times (and can say that, if you have the chance, you should absolutely try and see it 70MM IMAX). It rewards multiple viewings for me, as each time I muse on a different aspect.

    The aspect I’m fascinated by right now has to do with the escape velocity of human aspiration. While talking with David Iron about Lunar Mission One, we got onto economics. To do something truly ambitious (to even get ourselves off the planet’s surface, much less to another place in the solar system or Galaxy) requires a value proposition for those funding it. The future cannot pay us for helping to steward it into being. So that simple gravity of pragmatic self-interest exerts a huge inwards pull. And, this is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a force to be reckoned with.

    Thus, Mann points out something quite true even in the midst of his cowardice, which is that evolutionarily, we haven’t yet collectively found a way to expand our sense of value very far beyond the self of this moment. To our family, yes. Maybe. Much further out than that, and things get dicey. Evolution exerts a compressing effect on the scope of our concerns. (This analogy between compassion and gravity is woven through the movie, and really my only regret there is that Nolan felt compelled to make his character parrot it so bluntly, mistrusting the intelligence of his audience. Which related to your critique. But the analogy is there, and is fruitful.)

    Similarly, Professor Brandt felt he had to lie, just to get people to work hard enough that the goal could be achieved. Right or wrong, he didn’t believe a critical mass of people could care about the prospects of anyone beyond themselves or their immediate families. For Mann and Brandt, to achieve escape velocity in overcoming that powerful winnowing force required them to ‘go thermonuclear’, ethically speaking. That is the thesis, the challenge of the movie’s core plot. Does an answer to that appear, beyond a hamfisted ‘love is strong as gravity’?

    I think it does. Cooper does a number of things simply because he realizes he must, like the docking maneuver. He speculates that the eventual civilization humanity will become, the bulk beings of the future, will have escaped that gravity well of self-concern, by virtue of an expanded view of what exactly the self really means. Seeing the self as spread across time and space, planting hints in the past that 20/20 hindsight will recognize as having been crucially necessary to bring the future about.

    With practice, I think people start to know these when they see them, and begin to trust that instinct. Like learning to throw a ball or ride a bike, getting to know gravity on its own terms. (Cooper says he needs to feel the controls; “That’s why I’m here.”)

    In discussion with David, it struck me that the Great Filter may possibly be the sheer gravity of economic self-interest and short-term focus. This allows for the possibility that civilizations are numerous, and frequently bound tightly to the surfaces of their worlds by the compression of a myopic economic worldview.

    Maybe the asteroid rush will trick us into a leap. I’m hoping more and more that the value they hold is immense, because of this possibility.

    In the meantime, I’ve started (tongue in cheek) work on what I call the Rezabek Equation, to calculate the number of civilizations that achieve a comprehensive, recoverable, off-homeworld archive of their existence prior to their extinction.

    Any mathematical assistance is welcomed. ;)

  • Alex Tolley December 14, 2014, 18:30


    Great Filter may possibly be the sheer gravity of economic self-interest and short-term focus. This allows for the possibility that civilizations are numerous, and frequently bound tightly to the surfaces of their worlds by the compression of a myopic economic worldview.

    OTOH, the drive for economic growth may be the driving force for off planet expansion. Increasing economies require increased consumption which at present means larger populations. The best place for that is going to be space colonies to allow for the needed lebensraum – far vaster than any conceivable cities on Earth.

  • Adam December 15, 2014, 5:24

    The science was better than Dan makes out – Thorne’s book goes into the details and is worth chasing up for that alone.

    What I found was a certain predictability – I’d figured Cooper was messaging to himself and was the entity in the wormhole long before he entered the Tesseract. Inevitability was a natural part of such an exploration below an event horizon, since we’re talking about Closed Time-Like Curves inside a Kerr-Newman Black Hole of that scale.

    In reading up on the physics of below the ‘Event Horizon’ (an aside: the titular film wasted so many good SF ideas on a stupid parrotting of Crichton’s “Sphere”) I am surprised by the possible existence of stable orbits and immense volumes and energy flows which would be attractive to advanced intelligent life. The presence of 5-D post-humans on the Other Side seemed inevitable too.

    Athena’s and Dan’s grumbles aside, I agree with some of the grumbles – the Dylan Thomas poem was repeated at least one too many times, the ‘love is 5-D’ thing was unsubtle, and the evocation of Apollo by a seemingly unnecessary quasi-Saturn V launch was artistic, yet odd given the high performance orbital vehicles.

  • Eniac December 15, 2014, 13:32


    This allows for the possibility that civilizations are numerous, and frequently bound tightly to the surfaces of their worlds by the compression of a myopic economic worldview.

    This is a possibility, but I think a more approrpiate word here is “always” instead of “frequently”. In more mathematical terms: For this compression to be the Great Filter, the probability of escaping it must be less than the inverse of “numerous”.

  • Rob Henry December 15, 2014, 17:51

    Eniac, you understate by orders of magnitude with
    “the probability of escaping it must be less than the inverse of “numerous””

    Those ETI that remain on their planets can be expected to have a lifetime, L that is usually chosen to be 10,000 years. Those that get off planet will quickly fractionate into millions of sub-civilisations around other stars and become immortal. Since the universe is circa ten billion years old we need to substitute Heath’s “numerous” with “1000,000 x numerous” if we are to grab it in desperation as ad hoc fix to the great filter model.

  • Athena Andreadis December 19, 2014, 20:38

    As a matter of record, Alex, I have written plenty of positive reviews of SF & fantasy films. They just may not coincide with films you happen to like. Not the same thing.