Guest column: Astrophysicist Dr Joseph Roche reviews the science of Interstellar


24 Nov 2014

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The Endurance spacecraft as seen in Interstellar. Image via Paramount/Everett/Rex

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Irish astrophysicist and Mars One hopeful Dr Joseph Roche breaks down the true science, and the not-so true science, of one of the most anticipated films of the year, Interstellar.

While it may seem obvious, for those who have not yet seen Interstellar, there are numerous references to the plot so you may want to avoid reading this review until you have seen the film – Siliconrepublic

Four astronauts say goodbye to their lives on Earth and embark on a daring mission, the outcome of which is shrouded in uncertainty and will have ramifications for the entire human race. This is a loose description of the movie Interstellar.

It is also a loose description of the one-way mission to Mars for which I have volunteered, so stop reading here if you hate happy Hollywood movie endings, or sad, real-life endings.

I wanted to go see Interstellar for a number of reasons. I have liked every movie that Christopher Nolan has directed and this is the first movie that he has set in space. I also wanted to see if Interstellar is one of Hollywood’s standard sci-fi movies that blatantly disregard the laws of physics (Armageddon, 2012, The Core) or if it is one of the rare breed that handles science respectfully (Contact, 2001, Gravity).

Director/co-writer/producer, Christopher Nolan, (second right from centre) on the set of Interstellar. Image via Paramount Pictures/Warner Brothers Entertainment

Influence of Kip Thorne

Interstellar might well be the most polarising movie I have ever watched. I neither loved it nor hated it but I found my opinion alternating at different points in the movie.

There were moments where it portrayed the science and lure of space exploration so accurately and so tenderly that I thought it would reach hitherto unexplored heights of cinematic space glory, only for the movie to pivot at several crucial junctions and rocket towards the mires of Hollywood drivel.

From the perspective of a scientist, there are a lot of things to like about Interstellar, probably due to world-renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne acting as scientific consultant and executive producer. Immediately that puts Interstellar in the higher echelons of accurate science fiction movies and is possibly the reason why science is central to the plot.

All of the main characters are scientists and engineers. Space flight is handled well in the movie, in particular the low-gravity environment of the space station Endurance and how its rotating structure allows for artificial gravity to be induced. The wormhole and the black hole, at least visually, are as scientifically accurate and breathtakingly beautiful as any movie has ever shown.

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and David Gyasi aboard Endurance. Image via Legendary Pictures/Allstar

Weighed down by science of gravity

The science does get a little bit muddled on occasion. A key part of the movie involves some of the astronauts visiting a planet near a black hole where the gravity is so strong that it causes time to flow more slowly.

This is scientifically possible, but to get the drastic time difference portrayed in the movie (one hour on the surface of the planet they visit corresponds to seven years on Earth), the force of gravity would probably be too strong for the astronauts to survive or for a planet to even exist there in the first place.

Another important part of the movie depicts the race to solve an equation that would allow gravity and quantum mechanics to work together. That is a challenge that does exist in the real world but it is unlikely that a robot could be sent into a black hole and return the ‘quantum data’ needed to ‘solve’ the equation.

What happens inside the black hole is the scene in the movie that seems to irk most people, but our uncertainty over of what could happen inside means that it is not unreasonable to be creative.

Even the idea that it could allow access to ‘higher dimensions’ and the subsequent manipulation of time is not easy to disprove so it has to at least be respected as a possible theory.

Exploring the icy planet's surface. Image via Legendary Pictures/Allstar

Influence of ‘Hollywood moments’

Sometimes the characters themselves are portrayed as scientifically rational people only to act distinctly unscientific at times. It is a little unrealistic to expect that some of the astronauts would need the very basics of how a wormhole works explained to them by their colleagues using a pencil and paper right before they encounter one.

If the stakes are high, and in this case the astronauts are fighting for the survival of humankind, I would like to think that they would be striving to make decisions using reason and logic and would endeavour to remove their own emotions from each decision.

This is dealt with in the movie, but the most jarring ‘Hollywood moment’ occurs when Anne Hathaway’s character remarks that, “Love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space”.

Perhaps I am not romantic enough but I cannot imagine any self-respecting scientist in a time of crisis for humankind getting away with saying that out loud without being jettisoned out the airlock.

Comparing Interstellar with Mars One mission

The underlying plot of the movie had intriguing similarities to the Mars One project. The whole reason for the astronauts undertaking Interstellar travel was in a bid to find a new home for humankind.

The situation in real life is not yet as dire as that depicted in the movie, but there is no denying that if we continue to abuse our planet on such an irresponsibly grand scale we will inevitably face a time when leaving the earth becomes a necessity.

Mars is likely to be the first stop on that journey. I think Interstellar is a good movie, I just wish that it could have capitalised on its potential to be a great movie by giving us a more scientifically plausible conclusion.

D Joseph Roche, astrophysicist and lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and shortlisted Mars One mission hopeful.

I volunteered for the Mars One mission knowing that if it were to happen, it is unlikely that any subsequent benefits for humankind would be witnessed within my lifetime. I understand that audiences like to see at least some of the heroes having a happy ending, but what if the characters carried out their mission and were left only to hope that their actions would someday help their descendants?

The movie would end with them making peace with the knowledge that it would be impossible for them to ever see the outcome of their efforts. It might not be ending that would make Hollywood happy, but I would be happy if that is how things ended for me.

Dr Joseph Roche is an astrophysicist and lecturer at Trinity College Dublin. He is assistant professor of science education and has also worked at NASA, using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe symbiotic stars. He is a shortlisted candidate for the Mars One mission which aims to establish the first human settlement on Mars in 2024.