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Your Choice of Starships

Think fast. You’ve only got a day or so to work on this. You’ve been asked to come up with a plausible way of getting a fictional crew from one star to another, but laser sails and fusion rockets won’t do. The target might be thousands of light years away, so you have to be thinking faster-than-light. Maybe Miguel Alcubierre comes to mind, or perhaps a wormhole, but a nod in either direction isn’t enough. You’re being asked for a high level of detail, and you’d better have some serious equations available to show you’re not just blowing smoke.

As you might guess, the question relates to the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival, which Paramount released in the U.S. last Friday following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. No spoilers here, just an entertaining tale. For the person who was asked to dream up fast interstellar transport was Stephen Wolfram, whose public relations people had received a request from the filmmakers to upgrade the science in the film, which was based on a 1998 short story by the brilliant Ted Chiang, a Nebula Award winning short story writer.


As to Wolfram, he heads up Wolfram Research and is the chief designer of both technical computing engine Mathematica and the Wolfram Alpha online presence. In what I might jokingly refer to as his ‘spare time’ he is the author of the recent A New Kind of Science, written during breaks from his work on knowledge-based programming, the latter being an expansion of Mathematica into what is now called the Wolfram Language.

Wolfram, in other words, is a formidable source when it comes to ideas pushing out to the edges of what we know. Intrigued by the challenge of Arrival, Wolfram and son Christopher traveled to Montreal to meet with the film crew. Soon both men were involved with analysis and computations as they turned questions from the director into Wolfram Language code and visualizations. But time was short, and the biggest challenge was coming up with a theory of interstellar space flight in the course of a single evening.

I don’t know if Wolfram is a movie buff or not, but I’d imagine that working this closely with actors and writers and everyone else on the site is enough to make him one. In any case, he’s keen to avoid giving away anything about the film — for that you have to see it — so you can go to his essay Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work? without concern that it will deflect your enjoyment of a film that is beginning to get a pretty solid buzz (I suspect our resident movie critic Larry Klaes is going to turn up with an essay about this movie, too).

What we get here is only an introduction into the material Wolfram supplied the filmmakers, but it’s intriguing in its own right. It draws from his own speculations about fundamental physics and the lowest level structure of space itself, the idea being that it is, in his words, ‘a network of nodes, where all that’s defined is connectivity.’ Thus space as we perceive it emerges as a large-scale feature even though it’s made up of discrete nodes. He likens this to water, which is made up of discrete molecules but ‘emerges’ as oceans and rivers.

The three-dimensional network underlying the universe, Wolfram supposes for the sake of his model, is made up mostly of local connections, while a few are long-range connections, which correspond to quantum entanglement. The trick is somehow to exploit these long-range connections, which involves disconnecting the outside of the ship from the rest of the network.

This calls for a form of matter that is not made from standard elementary particles, but as Wolfram says, “might be like a giant crystal formed directly from connections that make up space.” Thus the skin of the imagined ship is a dynamic metamaterial, and it is this boundary layer material that creates the needed interaction with the outside universe. And yes, it’s unobtainium, but remember, we’re in a fictional universe studying alien technologies.

We can’t go any further without going into the movie itself, but what comes across in Wolfram’s lively essay is the author’s sheer enjoyment at creating a self-consistent theory that could be referenced in the script. Numerous ideas for science fiction dialogue ensued, most of them not necessary in the actual film, but enlivening in their own right:

Here are a few of the ones that (probably for the better) didn’t make it into the final script. “The whole ship goes through space like one giant quantum particle.” “The aliens must directly manipulate the spacetime network at the Planck scale.” “There’s spacetime turbulence around the skin of the ship.” “It’s like the skin of the ship has an infinite number of types of atoms, not just the 115 elements we know” (that was going to be related to shining a monochromatic laser at the ship and seeing it come back looking like a rainbow). It’s fun for an “actual scientist” like me to come up with stuff like this. It’s kind of liberating. Especially since every one of these science fiction-y pieces of dialogue can lead one into a long, serious, physics discussion.

Wolfram says he got involved in Arrival because Hollywood films all too often don’t get the science input they need, a fact he attributes to directors being more attuned to human conflict and character development than the ‘science texture’ of their movies. But of course we have seen some films with an active science advisor, like Kip Thorne in the recent Interstellar, who conjured up its black hole effects with Mathematica. And (I hadn’t known this), Marvin Minsky worked on artificial intelligence issues for 2001: A Space Odyssey, while mathematician Manjul Bhargava spent years helping to bring The Man Who Knew Infinity to the screen, with careful attention to the math. Agreed, that one isn’t exactly science fiction, being a study of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Even so, science fiction in Hollywood hasn’t been known for its history of verisimilitude. Wolfram again:

When I watch science fiction movies I have to say I quite often cringe, thinking, “someone’s spent $100 million on this movie — and yet they’ve made some gratuitous science mistake that could have been fixed in an instant if they’d just asked the right person.” So I decided that even though it was a very busy time for me, I should get involved in what’s now called Arrival and personally try to give it the best science I could.

There’s a lot more than starship talk in Wolfram’s essay, especially on establishing communications with an alien intelligence (Wolfram starts with cellular automata), the similarities between software design and movie production, and the possible uses of gravitational waves (massive, spinning non-spherical objects produce them). I keep thinking that with people like Stephen Wolfram involved, the science standards in our films are bound to be on the uptrend presaged by Kip Thorne’s presence in Interstellar.

That could lead to some interesting choices of scripts as we tap the vast store of written science fiction, all too little exploited, for film plots with a genuinely scientific underpinning. Countless short stories and novels form a rich tradition growing out of the science fiction magazines and emerging in the late 20th Century as a vibrant literature in its own right. It’s time Hollywood embarked upon a much deeper acquaintance with this material.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thomas Goodey November 14, 2016, 12:40

    It’s not a spoiler to say that the entire plot of ‘Arrival’ revolves around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Actually this concept was used as the basis of the plot of ‘Babel-17’ by Samuel R. Delany, way way back.

  • Blank Reg November 14, 2016, 13:36

    Start with Larry Niven.

  • Alex Tolley November 14, 2016, 14:15

    I suspected that he would refer back to the cellular automata models in “A New Kind of Science”. Wolfram appears to use that a basis over which he overlays some quantum entanglement to sex it up. I just see it as more technobabble but with some underlying physics rather than the Star Trek word salad approach.

  • don wilkins November 14, 2016, 15:04

    My wife and I saw Arrival. She is not a science fiction but enjoyed the movie. Unusually for us we were discussing the movie for two days afterwards focusing on the choices made and why.

    Arrival was fun but to me was somewhat inconsistent. That discussion would involve a spoiler and I don’t like using spoilers.

    I remember an old science story about a team who goes to Mars and finds an ancient dead civilization. There were plenty of books about (I said this was an old story) but written in an alien language with no ties to human language – no hope of a Rosetta stone.

    However, the heroine of the story drew parallels in science – a picture was understand as the representation of a hydrogen atom. Suppositions about the surrounding material gave toe holes into the material. Not quite the breakthrough used in Arrival but perhaps more plausible.

    • Gregory Benford November 16, 2016, 14:25

      ‘Omnilingual’ ?

    • ljk November 28, 2016, 11:15

      Arrival is science fiction for those who are not usually into the genre. The same thing was attempted with the reimaged Battlestar Galactica series.

  • Geoffrey Hillend November 14, 2016, 18:00

    From what I’ve read about entanglement and quantum teleportation is that there is no evidence that something can be teleported faster than light. There is the belief in tachyon particles but also no evidence of them. For example. If a positron and electron annihilate and send two photons in opposite direction and you measure one photon spinning up you know the other one has to be spinning down. Entanglement is really part of a super position of two photons which each are both spinning up and down. Consequently, if you measure it again due to probability you might see the first is spinning down and the other one up. “it’s all part of the same system, if you play with one part it affects the other” Lawrence Krauss. Also reference The Quantum World, Ford.

  • DJ Kaplan November 14, 2016, 18:14

    Thank you, no spoilers please.

    But it does raise the question, however: would one travel to an alien planet without researching their language and learning a mutually usable means of communicating?

    • Rob Henry November 15, 2016, 20:08

      You are thinking to much of humans today. The question is: would humans of 1000,000 AD travel to a planet 1000 ly away to talk to the natives, or for scientific study?

      If it is the latter, these contacts might be very much of secondary significance, or none at all, unless those natives goes to great lengths to try and start the conversation.

  • Terry November 14, 2016, 21:27

    hi don, that story was probably the h. beam piper story “Omnilingual”

    • don wilkins November 16, 2016, 12:49

      That was it. He wrote a large number of great stories. Thank you.

  • Joe November 14, 2016, 21:50

    We desperately need to find some unobtainium to make FTL ideas work or we’re never going to make it to the stars.

    • ljk November 15, 2016, 11:13

      That idea has been perpetuated by countless science fiction stories and in my opinion has done a great deal to delay our reaching the stars through less exotic but more scientifically and technically plausible slower-than-light means. Your very comment highlights my point.

    • Eric Hughes November 16, 2016, 10:36

      The only two certain things in life are death and the speed of light.

      • hiro November 16, 2016, 21:20

        The third one is (human) stupidity isn’t it?

        Dr. Baxter used some combinations of topological defects such as domain walls + cosmic strings to cook up FTL spaceships in his novel Ring. I haven’t watched this movie yet hence I don’t know whether the director covers any basic fact about the Fermat principle of least action which is the backbone in the novel.

  • Patient Observer November 14, 2016, 22:18

    The cover story of the current issue of Scientific American relates to a concept that entangled particles and black holes are similar in that pairs of entangled particles and pairs of black holes have a connection through space-time wormhole of sorts (which I do not understand). The author posits that a multitude or web of entanglement (entangled particles or black hole pairs) create in some manner the “fabric” of space-time.

    I had a musing a while back that all particles are connected to all other particles in some indescribable manner thus space does not exist at the most fundamental level. I have a faint hope that the concept of interconnected entangled particles and black holes are the first inklings of such a possibility. I

  • David Herne November 15, 2016, 6:45

    This for me is close to home. I was introduced to Mathematica in the early 90’s. Mathematica in my opinion epitomises the power and utility of modern personal computing and was a key element of my PhD for processing and displaying data. Safe to say then that I am a fan. I had no idea that Wolfram and his son had consulted on Arrival, I might need to get to a cinema.

  • ljk November 15, 2016, 11:32
    • hiro November 16, 2016, 21:13

      I still have problems understanding that darn Codex Seraphinianus.

  • ljk November 15, 2016, 11:58

    Arrival -The SciFi Movie: “Language of the Third Kind”

    November 14, 2016


    Would the ETI advanced enough to visit us be organic or Artilects (non-organic thinking/aware machines)? I tend to go with the latter for several fundamental reasons:



    And guess which famous alien-focused equation is 55 years old in 2016:


  • Geoffrey Hillend November 15, 2016, 17:46

    It didn’t explain the entanglement very well. Entangled photons are part of the same system so if you make a measurement it’s like collapsing the wave function of a superposition of two states. You only see the first one on the first measurement but it really is only half of the superposition. The idea that if you measure a photon spinning up you know the other one has to be spinning down no matter how far they are separated. The idea is that there might be some faster than light communication there but if you make a second measurement you might see the reverse: the first one is spinning down so you know the second one has to be spinning up. Both photons are up/down and you collapse them into a single state so looked at this way there is no mystery and no faster than light communication.
    I’ve seen the idea of quantum entanglement in Scientific American to try and save the conservation of information if an entangled particle falls into a black hole and the other is outside so it is postulated that information can be beamed out from the one inside to the one outside, but since the escape velocity of a black hole is faster than light I don’t think it will work. The information will be cut off at the event horizon.

  • ljk November 16, 2016, 9:46

    Arrival shows there’s still room for literary science fiction films in Hollywood

    Science fiction concepts are all over blockbuster filmmaking right now, but Arrival’s willingness to engage deeply with those ideas is still rare.

    Updated by Peter Suderman

    November 15, 2016, 9:00 am EST

    Full article here:


    Arrival’s screenwriter tells us how it took more than 100 drafts to think like an alien

    “So many of our conflicts and our problems stem from miscommunication.”

    Updated by Todd VanDerWerff@tvoti

    November 15, 2016, 10:30 am EST


  • Al Jackson November 16, 2016, 18:09

    Marvin Minsky was not the only subject matter expert to make contributions to 2001:A Space Odyssey besides Arthur C Clarke* there was Frederick Ordway who stayed with the production for four years. Ordway was on leave from the Marshall Spaceflight Center where he was special staff to von Braun. Ordway had thousands of connections to the academic and industrial aerospace industry and contributed a vast amount of information to Kubrick. Ordway , with technical illustrator produced a massive amount of technical design to the film, especially spacecraft , interior design, equipment design , display design and many many other technical details. 2001 remains the single best expression of scientific engineering verisimilitude in a science fiction movie.
    *Also Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, I. J. Good and Louis R. Leakey.

    By the by for those interested in the making and science of 2001 there are some excellent recent books:

    2001: The Lost Science Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Paperback) by Adam K. Johnson, Apogee Prime (2012 and 2016) ,112 pages.

    The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film , Christopher Frayling ,Reel Art Press, Jun 20, 2015 – Design – 336 pages
    The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001. a Space Odyssey’, Piers Bizony, Taschen (September 5, 2015), 562 pages.

    Should have listed Vol. 1 of the Johnson book long since it has now become a collector item , maybe can be found cheaper on the web.
    The Bizony book is massive! Tons of material. I bought it last year when they had a special edition signed by Christiane Kubrick. The regular edition is about 40 dollars down from 700!

    • Al Jackson November 17, 2016, 10:10

      I see I left out Harry Lange’s name , tho his book is there.
      All those beautiful spaceships in 2001 where designs he and Ordway created.
      Lange also did hands of work in making the models.
      The space suits where also Lange and Ordway’s design and are ,as of this day, still advanced design.

  • Jeff Wright November 18, 2016, 14:20
  • Charlie November 18, 2016, 18:09

    One thing that was quite interesting on this movie was the final scene where the ships underwent departure from our planet. I don’t think anyone else’s commented upon this, but I thought it was quite interesting, the fact that the ships didn’t leave Earth by receding from our planet by speeding off into the distance, but rather simply faded into the clouds and were gone !
    It seems that the spaceships don’t move in standard manner, but rather have some kind of ability to make a jump (if you will) between destinations. Or at least that’s how I read the appearance of this movie – quite interesting in this context.

    • Al Jackson November 18, 2016, 19:29

      I like that too. On film can only remember the Heighliner ships in Dune, tho, I am not sure they ever called them that even tho they did have the Spacing Guild.
      Tho the ‘folding of space’ FTL has been used in The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith in 1954 with is delightful mix of humans ,Go Captains , cats and ‘pin lighting’.
      I am telling you there is hands down no science fiction like Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction!

    • ljk November 21, 2016, 11:00

      Despite Stephen Wolfram’s important and useful technical/science input to Arrival, the aliens’ method of interstellar propulsion was definitely not the focus of the film. The producers only gave Wolfram a day to come up with a method of FTL travel, which is very telling.

      I also hope no one who has yet to see Arrival read your post!

  • Project Studio November 18, 2016, 23:10

    I looked for the most appropriate, recent CD article to post these links in the comments section:

    It’s official:

    NASA paper (free article):

  • Joe November 20, 2016, 16:34

    I saw the move. It was good, but any dialog about FTL mechanics was left on the cutting room floor.

  • ljk November 21, 2016, 11:19

    An Astrolinguist Explains How to Talk to Aliens

    Written by Daniel Oberhaus, Contributor

    November 20, 2016 // 11:00 AM EST

    Released in US theatres just a week ago, Arrival is quickly shaping up to be the science fiction movie of the year, a turn of events that almost no one—including the author himself—would’ve guessed based on its premise [which is very sadly telling about modern allegedly civilized society].

    The story follows linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to communicate with a pair of extraterrestrials whose spacecraft has just landed in Montana. For most of us, Arrival was just another entertaining alien flick, but for a handful of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researchers who are actually tasked with figuring out how to communicate with extraterrestrials, the film felt more like a documentary than a drama.

    “I am so envious of Louise Banks because she gets to have a face to face with ET,” Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International president Douglas Vakoch told Motherboard. “But in the scenarios that SETI and METI folks deal with there’s no possibility of that. Our idea of a snappy exchange with extraterrestrials is a decade—and that only works if the nearest star is populated.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 21, 2016, 14:41

    Physics professor and author Chad Orzel looks at one aspect of science that was not explored in Arrival:


    Spoiler comment here: It is interesting to note as the above article points out that, unlike in so many other films about alien contact – and how most of SETI views the situation – the main scientist is not terribly relevant in this particular close encounter, only the linguist.

    Granted in this film the ETI themselves are almost McGuffins for the real heart of the story, but it is notable to point out that it is entirely possible our first contact with an alien intelligence may have little to nothing to do with science, either in how they are found (or they find us) or their reasons why they want to interact with humanity. Just as with radio telescopes as the main choice of weapon, SETI still often thinks the first signals they detect will be from a group of altruistic scientists, even if they are alien in every other respect.

    As this next article asks, are we ready for Contact? Probably not. However, that does not mean it still won’t happen, just as earthquakes happen whether people can actually handle them or not.


  • ljk November 30, 2016, 13:33

    Review: The Arrival’s surprising message of happiness and hope for humanity

    Posted by Jason Davis

    2016/11/30 13:01 UTC

    If you haven’t seen The Arrival yet, but plan to, I recommend you don’t read any further. The less you know about the plot, the more the movie will have a chance to impact you uniquely.

    Having said that, there are spoilers ahead.


  • ljk December 5, 2016, 14:26

    Why ‘Arrival’ Is Wrong About the Possibility of Talking with Space Aliens

    Human efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials are doomed to failure, expert says

    Article ID: 665512

    Released: 28-Nov-2016 5:05 PM EST

    Source Newsroom: University of California, Irvine

    The full article here:


    To quote:

    A few years ago, at a SETI Institute conference on interstellar communication, Hoffman appeared on the bill after a presentation by radio astronomer Frank Drake, who pioneered the search for alien civilizations in 1960. Drake showed the audience dozens of images that had been launched into space aboard NASA’s Voyager probes in the 1970s. Each picture was carefully chosen to be clearly and easily understood by other intelligent beings, he told the crowd.

    After Drake spoke, Hoffman took the stage and “politely explained how every one of the images would be infinitely ambiguous to extraterrestrials,” he recalls.

    • Alex Tolley December 5, 2016, 19:49

      I guess Hoffman likes stirring up controversy. Keith Devlin did a talk at the SETI institute a number of years ago where he suggested that even maths is not such a guaranteed method of communication.

      Having said that, even if aliens are wired to perceive and interpret the environment very differently, that doesn’t mean their AIs will be similarly handicapped. Arguing that the Venn diagram of communication is totally separated seems extreme to me. We may be able to partially communicate, perhaps enough to make a conversation.

  • ljk December 12, 2016, 18:37

    What We’ve Got Here: “Arrival”

    By Jordan Brower

    DECEMBER 12, 2016

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    As an instance of the “hard science fiction” subgenre, Arrival has been the subject of commentary by linguists who have been asked to weigh in on the movie’s disciplinary accuracy. Some have appreciated the degree to which Arrival presents Banks as a scientist; they laud Donnelly’s compliment of her, “You approach language like a mathematician,” and they bristle at the fact that she ends up performing the task of the translator. Coming from a different angle, critic Darren Franich complains that the film contains a lot of “pop-science whiteboarding.” The academics and Franich agree, though, that the depiction of linguistics as a science is important to the film; this reading is supported by the movie’s production, which involved consultation with McGill University linguist Jessica Coon.

    But the mathiness, the seeming exactitude of its scientific signage, is not what makes Arrival effective. Arrival is effective because it knows that the whiteboard contains some nonsense, and Banks erases much of it (Donnelly exclaims, “No, no, no, not the top!”). She then writes the core problem of the movie in the blank space in a nod to high concept: “What is your purpose on Earth?” It’s hokey, of course — we are of course supposed to ask ourselves the same thing. And the scene works not because of the rudimentary invitation to philosophize, but for demonstrating how philosophy and indeed all analysis starts. It is a pedagogical moment seamlessly embedded in the reality of the narrative — the formal antithesis of the didactic interludes in The Big Short — and this is not “pop-science” at all. This is real reading: this is critical inquiry based on close reading. Banks, it turns out, is a really good teacher, not necessarily of hard-science linguistics — she never really explains her computational methods — but of something more solidly, less sexily humanistic. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Donnelly are her students; so are we.

    It’s unfortunate that Arrival was released on November 11 instead of six months ago. Now it seems to chide us for too readily falling for the assurance of polling numbers, for not knowing how to properly construe the data. But at the same time, it argues for the necessity of a humanist education in a time of posthumanity. Everyone seems to like it when Donnelly calls Banks a mathematical thinker, but everyone also seems to miss Banks’s response. She doesn’t nod and smile and say “that’s right”; with a thousand-yard stare and a monotone voice, she says “I’ll take that as a compliment.” That is, she does not let the study of language be reduced to mathematics, even if, in her capacity as a linguist, she’s aided by the methods of other disciplines. Digital humanists, especially those invested in the computational analysis of narrative: heed the warning. Arrival does not advocate for a monodiscipline. Rather, it claims that the study of language is as necessary to saving the world as physics. Language and science are both cornerstones of the civilization we should want. Collaboration pays off for both Banks and Donnelly since the proper understanding of the alien language results in a transcendence of the linear flow of time.

    Utopian science-fictional hoo-ha this no doubt is, but the practical lesson is banal and absolutely necessary: we need smart people to work together to solve our common problems. The reduction of jobs in the humanities has forced many of us to jealously guard our thinking in the fear of being scooped. Arrival calls bullshit on that approach when communication with the aliens stalls as a result of each country cutting off its satellite links and siloing its information. In order to achieve this kind of open collaboration, though, we’d need a different academy. Perhaps that’s just a different utopia.

  • John Halley December 20, 2016, 14:38

    I am a bit confused with this article and the requested reply content. Is this intended to be serious science or just science fiction speculation for new movies? I realize people are being encouraged to offer out of the box thinking about possible future solutions, but doesn’t this have to start with known proven scientific principles? Many physicists I know are lost in their own equations and have lost sight of reality in their zeal to prove they can write an equation. We can write an equation to try to demonstrate anything we can imagine, but it does not mean it is possible. If we are to seriously consider interstellar travel, we have to accept that there are certain realities that do not allow fantasy to become reality. For example, I hear some speak of time travel, not time dilation, but moving back and forth in history. That is a total misunderstanding of what the term time is. Time is a measurement of movement of objects relative to each other, not a place to come and go. There are reality limits to the movement of all forms of energy within the universe in which it exists. Perhaps I missing the point of the discussion.

  • ljk February 21, 2017, 17:37

    Talking in Circles: Creating the Alien Language of ‘Arrival’

    By Calla Cofield, Space.com Staff Writer

    February 14, 2017 11:31 am ET


    ‘Arrival’ Writer Eric Heisserer on How ‘Interstellar’ Forced Him to Change the Ending


    FEBRUARY 13, 2017


    When They Came from Another World

    James Gleick

    JANUARY 19, 2017 ISSUE



    Robert Garcia

    February 13, 2017 News