"Interstellar," a 2014 science fiction film directed by Christopher Nolan, presents a captivating vision of humanity's future among the stars. The movie combines elements of adventure, drama, and science fiction to offer a plausible scenario where Earth's environment becomes uninhabitable, necessitating a search for other habitable planets. A major strength of the film lies in its effort to incorporate real scientific principles, made possible in part by the involvement of physicist Kip Thorne, a Nobel laureate known for his work in general relativity. Despite its ambition, how accurate is "Interstellar" from a scientific perspective?

Starting with the good, "Interstellar" pays considerable attention to the theory of general relativity. The concept of gravitational time dilation is accurately represented during the scenes involving the water planet, Miller's planet, which orbits closely around the black hole Gargantua. Time dilation occurs because of the immense gravitational pull of the black hole. The characters find that time moves much slower on Miller's planet compared to Earth, which is a real effect predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The representation of the black hole, Gargantua, itself is also notably accurate. Kip Thorne used the equations from general relativity to simulate how a black hole would look, and the results were so novel that they led to scientific papers. Unlike the often-simplistic depictions of black holes as mere dark voids, "Interstellar" portrays the warped accretion disk and the gravitational lensing effect, where the light bends around the massive object, creating an eerie halo.

The film also tries to incorporate the concept of wormholes in a fairly plausible way. In "Interstellar," a wormhole is placed near Saturn, serving as a shortcut to faraway galaxies. While we have never observed a wormhole, they are theoretically possible constructs. The way the wormhole is visualized in the movie — as a sphere rather than a hole — is in line with current scientific understanding.

Now, for the less accurate aspects. The concept of the "tesseract" near the end of the film, where Cooper interacts with the past through a higher-dimensional space, is more speculative. While the theory of higher dimensions is a topic of discussion in theoretical physics, especially in string theory, the way it is represented in the film takes considerable creative liberties.

Additionally, the idea of a habitable planet so close to a black hole raises some questions. Such a planet would be subjected to intense radiation from the accretion disk of the black hole, which would likely sterilize the surface and make it uninhabitable. The film somewhat glosses over the dangers of radiation, not only near the black hole but also during space travel, where cosmic radiation poses a significant risk.

The portrayal of the endurance of human life on the spacecraft also raises questions. The movie doesn't deeply delve into the issues of closed-loop life support systems that would be essential for long-term space travel. Challenges related to food, waste recycling, psychological health, and other issues related to living in confined spaces for an extended period are somewhat simplified.

Another aspect that raises eyebrows is the "Plan B," which involves populating a new world using embryos. While this idea is theoretically possible, the complexity of raising human beings from embryos to adults without any existing social infrastructure or adult supervision is highly questionable and far from straightforward.

Lastly, the "blight" affecting Earth's plants in the movie is described as consuming nitrogen, but this is a bit of a scientific faux pas. Most plants on Earth don't consume nitrogen directly from the atmosphere; they rely on a form that is "fixed" through biological or industrial processes.

In summary, "Interstellar" makes a commendable effort to adhere to scientific principles, providing one of the most visually accurate renditions of black holes and relativity to date. However, as with any work of fiction, it takes liberties in areas that are more speculative or would be challenging to depict realistically. Overall, the movie serves as an engaging bridge between scientific possibility and speculative fiction, encouraging viewers to ponder the complexities and wonders of our universe.

Roger Sarkis
Tagged: astronomy space