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“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.


*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.


Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

30 Responses to ““My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Interesting review! I agree wholeheartedly- in SF, it isn’t just bad science if the author/creator whips up a new set of miracles to create and solve every plot complication. It is bad storytelling, period.

    In SF, the story must follow logically from the characters and their situation while remaining consistent with the ground rules established along the way. The same in fantasy- which is where magic can go awry, if the author suddenly introduces new rules to bail out their characters when all seems lost. Most science in SF is not “real” science, but in the best stories it is always internally consistent- and never a deux ex machina generator.

    I have not been able to judge Interstellar for myself, as I have not seen it yet, but if the plot goes along pretty much as reviewers have described I have a feeling that is no great loss. (-;

  2. CWJ says:

    Yep. To paraphrase you, Interstellar was full of deus ex five dimensions…

  3. Asakiyume says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely have gotten the sense from the reviews I’ve seen linked to on Twitter that the science was extremely dubious, and your review really shows how they push beyond the bounds of any sort of reasonableness. I wonder what the creators were trying to accomplish. Were they just throwing science at the screen and seeing what would stick?

  4. CWJ says:

    Broadly, “science fiction” movies have become mostly vehicles for special effects shots. This is in part because with CGI one can do more special effects for the dollar, and also in part because movies have become an international business and special effects translate easily overseas–much more easily than complicated dialog and human relations. It seems like nearly every big budget movie must end with something blowing up. (Even the 1999 movie “Anna and the King,” a non-musical version of the story from “The King and I,” bizarrely climaxed with, yes, you guessed it, something blowing up. In this case a bridge. Whaa…?)

    Now, I like special effects. I do. I have followed special effects in the movies, from the early models through advanced special effects in “2001” and “Star Wars” to the CGI birthed in “Jurassic Park” and the amazing motion capture whereby in the future all parts will be played by Andy Serkis. But special effects are like frosting on a cake, or the fatty bits on a nice steak…tasty, if you like that sort of thing, but after a while too much will just ruin it. And so now it’s gotten to the point that the more gee-whiz the specail effect, the less sense there has to be.

    Also, in this case: success has obviously gone to Nolan’s head. His Batman trilogy was financially hugely successful, no doubt the studio execs told him he could do no wrong, and so we got this bloated mess. All this has happened before and will happen again. Peter Jackson made it big with The Lord of the Rings, and immediately made a bloated mess of King Kong and an even bloatier mess of The Hobbit. J. K. Rowling hit it big with the early Harry Potter books and so the later ones became increasingly bloated. None of these people are stupid or evil or bad. They did some good work…and in part got lucky. And in return the studios/publishers, fearing to kill the geese laying golden eggs, didn’t touch them. (You can see quite clearly in the Harry Potter books how the later ones are not nearly as briskly edited as the first ones, not just in the plot sprawl, but also the sentences and even the goddamned punctuations becomes just lazy….) It’s inevitable, it seems.

    However, I absolutely promise and swear on whatever you like, should I ever become fantastically successful, I won’t let this happen to me! 🙂

  5. Asakiyume says:

    Yes, it makes good sense what you say about special effects. It’s how I feel about choreographed martial-arts fight sequences, too. They can be beautiful to look at, but I really like them to come with a persuasive story.

    Let’s let the gods tempt us with fantastic success, and we’ll see how we do 😉

  6. CWJ says:

    Speaking of “blowing things up,” I went back to my review a while back of “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” where I wished for Alfonso Cuaron to take over the director’s chair for the series.

    Instead, we’re getting Justin Lin, of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Get ready for “Star Trek: Star Crash!”

  7. Athena says:

    Just when I thought the Star Trek reboot franchise couldn’t get ANY worse… it just did. Next up: Riddick instead of Spock.

  8. Christopher Phoenix says:

    The Star Trek reboot franchise can ALWAYS get worse. 😀 It is like an infinitely deep well- no matter how far you fall, you can always go down some more.

    I must admit that I like the first two Riddick movies. Even though the aliens in Pitch Black make no sense whatsoever- and seeking to crush your foes with a giant war hammer is probably not the most successful approach to galactic domination.

    That said, a war hammer might be the most suitable instrument with which to respond to the next ST II film.

  9. Athena says:

    I didn’t mind the first Riddick film, it was an interesting concept and it played to Van Diesel’s “strengths” — but making ST a splatterfest, as has been the case for the reboot, is a fundamental error.

  10. Calvin says:

    Ironically, some other films with fantastical themes have been given over to directors with experience not with spectacle but with human drama and acting: Kenneth Branagh and “Thor,” Mark Webb and “The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2,” Jon Favreau and “Iron Man,” and so on. (With varying results, it is true.) I find it highly ironic, and very frustrating, that Star Trek, arguably one of the more cerebral SF franchises, is being thought of more and more by the studio as just a blow-em-up.

    Maybe Justin Lin will surprise me. I haven’t see any of his films. But it does not sound promising.

  11. Athena says:

    One third of Lin’s directing has been the Fast & Furious franchise, not a cause for optimism. At this point, those of us familiar with the original Star Trek may have to simply stop watching ST|| — a sad development, considering how few SFF films are meant to provoke cerebral, rather than thalamic, reactions.

  12. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I enjoyed Pitch Black quite a bit when I first saw it- particularly the idea of an incredibly rare eclipse on a planet illuminated by multiple suns that sends nocturnal predators into a feeding frenzy. I just wish they had thought up a more convincing environment and food source for the aliens than bones on a moon covered by an unbroken desert.

    Of course, one-biome planets and aliens that seem to exist without any supporting ecosystem are common sins in SF- as in Dune.

    But, hey, Abrahms has solved the original problem, ST|| isn’t too “cerebral”! We can sell it to the shoot-’em-up happy apes of Earth rather than limiting showing to Talos IV. Selling tickets in exchange for illusory fulfillment of all your forbidden desires can get a bit awkward sometimes. 😀

  13. Walden2 says:

    Thank you, Calvin. Thank you, Athena.

  14. Walden2 says:

    If you read The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne, you will see that although he was the film’s resident scientists and he made plenty of suggestions, he pretty much had to go along with what Nolan dictated and bent the science to his wishes. Of course Nolan was in charge so you might say what could Thorne do, but I think it just shows that he may be a good physicist but an iffy science fiction scriptwriter at best.

    Here is the first Interstellar parody I have seen on the internet. It is not perfect but it captures the “feel” of the film, which was far more style over substance anyway. The depiction of the robots is my favorite bit:

  15. Athena says:

    Larry, this is in line with many SF anthos that attempt to portray science and scientists. Most of them are only good for insomnia.

  16. Calvin says:

    Larry, thanks for that hilarious video.

    Athena can confirm for you that many writers/filmmakers/artists/etc have no interest in science except to serve as justification for their vision. To them science is a modern form of mythology or magic that can do anything. I could bore you with many long tales of people wanting my advice and then ignoring it, even when it dealt with fairly trivial things. To them, every jot and tittle of their artistic vision overrode any science. That would be fine, except that they _asked_ for scientific input.

    It’s not uniformly true, and I’ve had some pleasant interactions where writers actually listened. But that’s been the minority.

    Again, it’s not “getting the science wrong” that bothers me, it’s the ones who claim to want to get the science right (like Nolan) and then completely blow off the science which annoys the hell out of me.

  17. Walden2 says:

    If Interstellar was right, is this the sign of the Apocalypse? :^)

  18. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Hey, Athena, this is slightly off-topic but I’ve been wondering about this for a while… what do you think of the “seed-ship” concept? You know, the scheme where you send a robotic ship with a cargo of frozen embryos which are brought to term and raised by robots after planetfall.

    For the rocket engineers, reducing the mass of the payload is always appealing… although I think there are numerous showstoppers to this “solution”, from radiation to human parenting not being reducible to canned responses by a robot.

    You mentioned this in passing in an earlier post, and I’d love to know the reasons why the seed-ship won’t work, since it keeps getting mentioned- but apparently without any input from biologists.

  19. Athena says:

    Radiation and socialization (including language acquisition) are certainly major showstoppers for this scenario. It’s indicative of its feasibility that the conversations don’t include biologists. So we’re at scifi level — great for space opera; real missions, not so much.

  20. The Duckmonkey says:

    Funny, it seems like all those schemes inevitably run into insurmountable barriers. It’s almost if space colonization and manned space travel are scientifically bunk and a dead-end, respectively.


  21. Athena says:

    Personally, I’m too enamored of the idea of visiting other planets to completely write off such possibilities. But we have the best chance of success if we face the very real problems involved, because fast propulsion systems (FTL, wormholes) are almost certainly out of the equation.

  22. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Yes, while fascinating, the seed-ship falls firmly into the realm of scifi technology- particularly where the onboard synthetic intelligence concerned.

    However, even if we did solve all the above problems, more pressing issues would loom… imagine the outrage when the news spreads that the seed-ship will include a frank sex-ed program for when the children become teenagers. And that the concept of homosexuality has not been expunged from the memory banks. Horrors!!

    Once we imagine putting together the seed from which an entire culture will spring, you have to decide what is important and what should be left out. Oh, yes, and who decides who’s gametes get sent, anyway? I think we can both imagine what that discussion will be like.

    Knowing on our history on Earth, I don’t think there is anyone living now or ever who could handle the responsibility of building a seed-ship. But perhaps this would all be a moot point once we turn the mission over to an AI perfectly capable of forming its own opinions… and which has plenty of time to mull over the inconsistencies of its human creators.

  23. Athena says:

    Well, if someone (carbon or silicon) finds themselves in such situations they will make decisions and hope for the best. That’s the traditional approach!

  24. Christopher Phoenix says:

    That’s all you can do in those situations! (-: Whatever the intentions of those who launch an interstellar mission, the crew- or seeded colonists- will make their decisions based on the pragmatic matter of adapting to their new home.

  25. Walden2 says:

    This guy says wormholes probably do not exist:

    Oh science, make up your mind and just agree with Hollywood, won’t you?

  26. Athena says:

    Yes, stop harshing their squees! On the other hand, I unashamedly use stable wormholes and FTL rings in my space operas.

  27. Walden2 says:

    Well there is this article on wormholes by MIT from 2013 which says you have to have one in order for there to be entanglement:

  28. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Hey, Athena, I’ve been reading some of the titles on the list of books you recommended me- and I just started on Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow. I’m enjoying it immensely so far! It is a “first contact” story, but it almost seems wrong to call it “scifi” if only to avoid associating it with the morass of hack writers who made use of the same motifs with little skill and no subtlety- excepting James Blish, of course.

    And, after I made the mistake of reading The Mote In God’s Eye, it is a much needed breath of fresh air. (-:

  29. Athena says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying The Sparrow! Its sequel, Children of God, is less bleak but equally absorbing. Another interesting first-contact work is Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators, which I discussed in Space Operas and Gender Shoals.

  30. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I’ll put Collaborators on the list of books in my radar- I love first contact stories but it is hard to find ones that balance an engaging story with an absorbing alien culture. The last good one I had was James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. That one was very bleak too.

    Oh, and I forgot last time- thank you for your recommendations! As an incorrigible bookwork (and regular face at the local library), I am in constant need for more books, but it can be hard to find the kind of stories I like.