The Science of “Interstellar”


On Nov. 5, Matthew McConaughey and a crew of brave scientists will boldly go where no man has gone before . . . INTO THE TIME WARP!!

Okay, not “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but “Interstellar,” is the latest film from “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan. The film tells the story of a near-future Earth that is on the verge of total environmental devastation. After the discovery of a nearby wormhole, explorers and scientists unite in order to enter into the space tunnel, which will hopefully lead them to a habitable planet in another galaxy. The movie is exciting for two reasons:

  1. It’s another film by Christopher Nolan, who is one of my favorite directors working in Hollywood today.
  2. The shots of space and the wormhole look absolutely gorgeous in the trailer. Especially the wormhole, which is far from the cartoonish whirlpools we are used to seeing in other forms of media.

To make a realistic looking wormhole, which have never been accurately portrayed in previous Hollywood films, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was hired as the film’s scientific consultant. Thorne based numerous equations on Einstein’s general relativity (the geometric theory of gravitation that is the basis for modern physics) in order to enable visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and his team of computer effects artists at Double Negative to portray the behavior of light rays as they realistically would when they travel through a wormhole. Not only that, but new CGI software had to be created just to provide the film’s simulation of gravitational lensing, which is the lens-like effect you get when light rays are bent while passing through a massive object’s gravitational field (galaxies or black holes). Some individual frames of the wormhole along with its accretion disk (stars and other debris that orbit a black hole, which helps visualize it) took the effects team 100 hours to render along with ridiculous amounts of computing power!!

It’s so easy to under-appreciate the intense hours that go into visual effects work.

The resulting images are not only beautiful, but also gave Thorne new insight into the effects of gravitational lensing and accretion disks surrounding black holes. Due to this, two scientific papers (one for the astrophysics community and the other for computer graphics) will be published.

Who said movies offer no educational value?


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