If you’ve recently been to the movie theaters to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, you may have left the movie like “OMG,” but possibly also like “WTF?” Through the film’s storyline, the audience is introduced to a number of captivating yet complicated topics that former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his team must tackle on their quest into unknown regions of space in order to save mankind.
To help demystify a few astrophysics-specific topics discussed in the movie such as using wormholes to travel to distant parts of the galaxy, the physics behind alternate dimensions, tidal forces caused by the gravitational pull of black holes, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the physics behind aging at different rates explained by the famous Twin Paradox just to name a few, InstaEDU has teamed up with its own physics, astrophysics, and cosmology tutors to not only help shed light on these topics but to open a dialogue between you, the reader, and our experts who can help explain the answers that you’re looking for.
Here to answer questions about the physics of Interstellar is one of InstaEDU’s “Interstellar” tutors, Jessica K, PhD from University of California, Berkeley and astrophysics tutor on InstaEDU.
InstaEDU: In the movie, Cooper and his team travel through a wormhole to shortcut their travel through space to a far-off galaxy. Can wormholes really exist?
Jessica: Wormholes have never been observed in nature, and in fact most theoretical physicists believe they cannot occur naturally. Wormholes do not violate any laws of physics, and in theory could be created by an advanced civilization. But currently (as far as we know) they only exist on paper, not in reality.
InstaEDU: So what is a super massive black hole, like the black hole in the movie nicknamed Gargantua?
Jessica: Black holes are known to exist and there is even a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Black holes are simply a huge concentration of mass in a very small volume. A super massive black hole is a black hole with a lot of mass in it (i.e. a million times the mass of our sun).
InstaEDU: In the movie, the space-faring team visits Miller’s planet, which orbits close to the black hole Gargantua, and finds that there is an actual difference of elapsed time between the time on that planet and on Earth (about 7 years on Earth to 1 hour on the foreign planet). How is this possible?
Jessica: Time is relative and our experience of time is not absolute but a function of how fast we are moving and the gravitational field we are in. This has been verified experimentally by taking identical clocks and flying one in a jet plane (or putting one at a different elevation) and seeing how time passes differently for the two clocks. Because the gravitational field near Miller’s planet was so huge (due to the supermassive black hole) they experienced time slower than people on earth who were in a smaller gravitational field.
InstaEDU: Is it really possible that Cooper, the main character in the story, could age slower than his daughter, Murph, who lives on Earth?
Jessica: Yes, this is possible and is commonly described in physics by the “Twin Paradox.” The “Twin Paradox” could occur if one person (say, one of two twins) was in a dramatically different gravitational field than another person (the other of the two twins), or if one person moved much faster than another person. This would cause them to experience the passage of time differently and thus age at different rates relative to each other. So theoretically, two twins born on the same date could have different ages if one were to travel near the speed of light while the other stayed on earth.
InstaEDU: On Miller’s planet, the team experiences some monstrous tidal waves due to the tidal forces of the nearby black hole. Can tidal forces really be that strong?
Jessica: Tides are caused by the gravitational field at one side of a planet being different than another side of the planet. On earth this is caused by the moon exerting a gravitational pull on the ocean water. You could imagine that if the moon were a lot bigger this could cause bigger tidal forces and more dramatic waves. However, the way the waves were visualized in the movie I don’t think is accurate. It would be less of a “wall of water” and more dramatic changes in the depth of the ocean. However it looks cooler the way they did it.
InstaEDU: Now on to the really good stuff. In the movie, Cooper ejects from his ship in the black hole and lands in the event horizon where he encounters “The Tesseract” — aka the black hole’s gravitational singularity. This place is represented as a place where the laws of space and time become infinite. First off, what are singularity and the event horizon? In theory, can a place like this exist where the fifth dimension is represented three-dimensionally?
Jessica: A singularity is the place inside the black hole where the gravitational field is so strong (due to an almost infinite density of mass) that the curvature of space and time become infinite. An event horizon is the edge of a black hole. Once you cross the event horizon you can not escape the black hole’s gravitational pull and are stuck inside forever.
In Interstellar the manifestation of the singularity is a place where one can navigate both time and space dimensions. This is allowed by the strong gravitational field warping space-time onto itself. In reality if such a place existed inside a black hole, any living thing would be ripped upon entering the black hole before getting to the singularity… or if they somehow got there, wouldn’t be able to escape to report on what they saw. It’s hard to imagine with our current knowledge of the laws of physics how someone could take advantage of a tesseract-like place, even if it were to exist.
InstaEDU: Lastly, if someone wanted to learn more about topics like the ones presented in the movie Interstellar, where would you recommend that they start?
Jessica: Most of the topics from the movie can be understood by learning about Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity, which can be done using Youtube videos or renting some good books. Kip Thorne, who is a theoretical physicists from Caltech and an executive producer for Interstellar, also wrote a book explaining the science behind the movie adequately named “The Science Behind Interstellar.” You should also chat with tutors, like me, on InstaEDU that can tutor in topics related to the movie Interstellar!
Want to message with experts in the fields of astrophysics, physics, and cosmology? Connect with InstaEDU’s online Interstellar tutors and set up one-on-one tutoring sessions with your favorite tutors to learn more about topics discussed in the movie and in the astrophysics community overall.