A couple of days after seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I bumped into Sir Roger Penrose. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want spoilers, I’m sorry but you’d better stop reading now.
Still with me? Excellent.
Some of you may know that Sir Roger developed much of modern black hole theory with his collaborator, Stephen Hawking, and at the heart of Interstellar lies a very unusual black hole. Straightaway, I asked Sir Roger if he’d seen the film. What’s unusual about Gargantua, the black hole in Interstellar, is that it’s scientifically accurate, computer-modeled using Einstein’s field equations from General Relativity.
Scientists reckon they spend far too much time applying for funding and far too little thinking about their research as a consequence. And, generally, scientific budgets are dwarfed by those of Hollywood movies. To give you an idea, Alfonso Cuarón actually told me he briefly considered filming Gravity in space, and that was what’s officially classed as an “independent” movie. For big-budget studio blockbuster Interstellar, Kip Thorne, scientific advisor to Nolan and Caltech’s “Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics”, seized his opportunity, making use of Nolan’s millions to see what a real black hole actually looks like. He wasn’t disappointed and neither was the director who decided to use the real thing in his movie without tweaks.
Black holes are so called because their gravitational fields are so strong that not even light can escape them. Originally, we thought these would be dark areas of the sky, blacker than space itself, meaning future starship captains might fall into them unawares. Nowadays we know the opposite is true – gravitational forces acting on the material spiralling into the black hole heat it to such high temperatures that it shines super-bright, forming a glowing “accretion disk”.
The computer program the visual effects team created revealed a curious rainbowed halo surrounding Gargantua’s accretion disk. At first they and Thorne presumed it was a glitch, but careful analysis revealed it was behavior buried in Einstein’s equations all along – the result of gravitational lensing. The movie had discovered a new scientific phenomenon and at least two academic papers will result: one aimed at the computer graphics community and the other for astrophysicists.
I knew Sir Roger would want to see the movie because there’s a long scene where you, the viewer, fly over the accretion disk–not something made up to look good for the IMAX audience (you have to see this in full IMAX) but our very best prediction of what a real black hole should look like. I was blown away.
Some parts of the movie are a little cringeworthy, not least the oft-repeated line, “that’s relativity”. But there’s a reason for the characters spelling this out. As well as accurately modeling the black hole, the plot requires relativistic “time dilation”. Even though every physicist has known how to travel in time for over a century (go very fast or enter a very strong gravitational field) the general public don’t seem to have cottoned on.
Most people don’t understand relativity, but they’re not alone. As a science editor, I’m privileged to meet many of the world’s most brilliant people. Early in my publishing career I was befriended by Subramanian Chandrasekhar, after whom the Chandra space telescope is now named. Penrose and Hawking built on Chandra’s groundbreaking work for which he received the Nobel Prize; his The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes (1983) is still in print and going strong.
When visiting Oxford from Chicago in the 1990s, Chandra and his wife Lalitha would come to my apartment for tea and we’d talk physics and cosmology. In one of my favorite memories he leant across the table and said, “Keith – Einstein never actually understood relativity”. Quite a bold statement and remarkably, one that Chandra’s own brilliance could end up rebutting.
Space is big – mind-bogglingly so once you start to think about it, but we only know how big because of Chandra. When a giant sun ends its life, it goes supernova – an explosion so bright it outshines all the billions of stars in its home galaxy combined. Chandra deduced that certain supernovae (called “type 1a”) will blaze with near identical brightness. Comparing the actual brightness with however bright it appears through our telescopes tells us how far away it is. Measuring distances is one of the hardest things in astronomy, but Chandra gave us an ingenious yardstick for the Universe.
In 1998, astrophysicists were observing type 1a supernovae that were a very long way away. Everyone’s heard of the Big Bang, the moment of creation of the Universe; even today, more than 13 billion years later, galaxies continue to rush apart from each other. The purpose of this experiment was to determine how much this rate of expansion was slowing down, due to gravity pulling the Universe back together. It turns out that the expansion’s speeding up. The results stunned the scientific world, led to Nobel Prizes, and gave us an anti-gravitational “force” christened “dark energy”. It also proved Einstein right (sort of) and, perhaps for the only time in his life, Chandra wrong.
Why Chandra told me Einstein was wrong was because of something Einstein himself called his “greatest mistake”. When relativity was first conceived, it was before Edwin Hubble (after whom another space telescope is named) had discovered space itself was expanding. Seeing that the stable solution of his equations would inevitably mean the collapse of everything in the Universe into some “big crunch”, Einstein devised the “cosmological constant” to prevent this from happening – an anti-gravitational force to maintain the presumed status quo.
Once Hubble released his findings, Einstein felt he’d made a dreadful error, as did most astrophysicists. However, the discovery of dark energy has changed all that and Einstein’s greatest mistake could yet prove an accidental triumph.
Of course Chandra knew Einstein understood relativity better than almost anyone on the planet, but it frustrates me that many people have such little grasp of this most beautiful and brilliant temple of science. Well done Christopher Nolan for trying to put that right.
Interstellar is an ambitious movie – I’d call it “Nolan’s 2001” – and it educates as well as entertains. While Matthew McConaughey barely ages in the movie, his young daughter lives to a ripe old age, all based on what we know to be true. Some reviewers have criticized the ending – something I thought I wouldn’t spoil for Sir Roger. Can you get useful information back out of a black hole? Hawking has changed his mind, now believing such a thing is possible, whereas Penrose remains convinced it cannot be done.
We don’t have all the answers, but whichever one of these giants of the field is right, Nolan has produced a thought-provoking and visually spectacular film.
Image Credit: “Best-Ever Snapshot of a Black Hole’s Jets.” Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.