Saturday, February 14, 2015

Revolving Around the Arts and the Sciences

Warning of possible spoilers

It’s all too common. We read books, watch movies, visit websites that claim to have the most accurate facts. But in reality…how much of the facts are actually legit? How can we be sure that the facts are correct without having to dig deep into a textbook or encyclopedia? We often wonder because many forms of media want to include technical facts on topics such as science or history. Today, I am going to check out the validity behind the astronomy in the critically acclaimed movie Interstellar.

Just to give some background information: the basic storyline of the movie is that Earth has become uninhabitable due to crop failure. A team of astronauts is sent up to space to travel to a separate galaxy via a wormhole. On the other side of that wormhole are multiple planets that orbit around a gigantic black hole. The astronauts are tasked to investigate three of the planets (named Miller, Edmonds, and Mann), which from previous space expeditions are still transmitting pings back to Earth.

Black hole
First let’s go with the facts that seem reasonably correct. Many sources explain that time dilation is represented accurately throughout the movie. With the help of general relativity, the closer you are to a really large object, the slower time passes. So during the movie when they are on a planet that is super close to the black hole, it makes sense that a couple hours on that planet can mean decades on Earth. When they learn the planet is inhospitable, they realize that the beacon sending the pings was in reality only active for a couple minutes on the planet (translating to decades of pings back on Earth). As they move farther from the black hole to explore the other two planets, rushing to save time on each planet is less relevant because the effects of time dilation are diminished.

Two other objects that are pretty well represented in the movie is the wormhole they travel through to get to the new galaxy and the gigantic black hole. When making the wormhole Kip Thorne and a team of 30 physicists researched and wrote new equations that led to another team writing new software to render a physical model. What popped out was an orb-like object. As for the black hole, the gravitational lensing around it (matter in between an object and observer can distort light) and the accretion disk (a disk of matter and light that is sucked in by the black hole) are both as accurate as the laws of physics can make it.

But while the models were visually accurate, the way they interacted with other objects might be a bit iffy. One concept a lot of astronomers and physicists are discussing is the idea of spaghettification. When Cooper falls into the large black hole, his feet technically feel a larger gravitational pull than his head. Since this black hole has an insane gravitational pull, as Cooper enters the black hole, he should be violently stretched out. But he isn’t. In addition, the he wasn’t attacked by intense x-rays that accretion disks are known to emit.

Another issue is how the scientific process is portrayed in the movie. Back on Earth, Professor Brand tries to solve a conceptually difficult problem by trying to harness the power of gravity to send a huge space station to space. Throughout the movie he is shown trying to solve this problem with only one other scientist. There is just a two-man team trying to potentially save all of humankind. Where are all the other scientists, astronomers, and physicists? In another scene, the space crew is deciding which planets they should go to first. Shouldn’t all of this be initially planned? Where are the contingency plans? Where are the contingency plans to the contingency plans? It seemed everything was thought of on the spot, something space travel is not about.

Interstellar, in my opinion was great. The visuals, accompanied with a fitting soundtrack, made it an entertaining movie. After doing some research, it seemed like a lot of science was thought out thoroughly and painstakingly researched. But, unfortunately, there are details in the science that the most die-hard science fans will find inaccurate. 
- Eric Lee