Interstellar 'should be shown in school lessons'

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Media caption,
Christopher Nolan talks about the importance of science in creating Interstellar

The film Interstellar should be shown in school science lessons, a scientific journal has urged.

They say their call follows a new insight gained into black holes as a result of producing the visual effects for the Hollywood film.

Experts have also confirmed that the portrayal of "wormholes" is scientifically accurate.

Scientific papers have been published in the American Journal of Physics and in Classical and Quantum Gravity.

Dr David Jackson, who printed one of the papers in this month's AJP, said "publishing this paper was a no-brainer".

He added: "The physics has been very carefully reviewed by experts and found to be accurate. The publication will encourage physics teachers to show the film in their classes to get across ideas about general relativity."

The director of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan, told BBC News that Dr Jackson's comments and the two journal publications were "very important" to him.

"Right from the beginning we all really believed it's time to inspire another generation to really look outwards and to look to the stars again.

"We hoped that by dramatising science and making it something that could be entertaining for kids we might inspire some of the astronauts of tomorrow - that would be the ultimate goal of the project," he said.

Image source, Double Negative
Image caption,
This is how a wormhole might appear - like a crystal ball - with a distorted view of a distant galaxy inside

Mr Nolan worked with Kip Thorne, a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who was also one of the film's executive producers. Prof Thorne's vision was to produce a sci-fi film with real science woven into the fabric of the story.

"Films such as Interstellar or Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey are inspirations for young people. A number of people I trained as a physicist with got involved with science because of movies like these. So if you are going to have a film that really does attract young people to science it had best be scientifically accurate," he said.

Designers drew on scientific equations when creating their computer-generated effects. Particular attention went into the representation of the super massive black hole in the film and a wormhole that connects our Solar System to another in a different galaxy.

Image source, Joel Ryan/Invision/AP
Image caption,
Christopher Nolan's hope is that the science of Interstellar will inspire a new generation. Here, he is pictured with Profs Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and Kip Thorne

The visual effects company Double Negative developed a new suite of software that enabled them to calculate the way light rays travel across the warped space around the black hole.

The software was developed to produce extremely high resolution images suitable for a Hollywood film. The resulting pictures revealed delicate filigree patterns never observed before.

These raised new questions that were of sufficient scientific interest that they prompted a publication in the Institute of Physics journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

The wormhole produced in the film is unlike any other seen in Hollywood films. Typically, they are shown as a giant cosmic drain with material falling into them. But by turning to physics the scientists determined that it would look like a crystal ball hanging in space. Inside was a distorted image from the galaxy on the other side.

These new discoveries prompted Prof Thorne and the visual effects team at Double Negative to publish two scientific papers.

"What was really exciting was that we were able to show the reality of the Universe was stranger than anything we could imagine," said Paul Franklin, the film's visual effects supervisor.

"You can tell an exciting story in all sorts of different ways. But by incorporating the reality of how extraordinary the Universe can be in Interstellar we ended up with a more exciting film than if we made it all up."

Amazing concepts

Christopher Nolan told BBC News that scientific accuracy helped him tell a better story.

"The importance of the science was baked in, very much in the DNA of the project from the beginning. And we tried to be true to that initial impulse of looking at reality and what's available to us in terms of the body of knowledge, real physics, real astrophysics and the narrative possibilities that those amazing concepts offer."

Image source, Double Negative
Image caption,
This image produced for Interstellar has given scientists new insights into black holes and raised interesting new questions

Mr Nolan told BBC News that he has always been interested in science and was inspired by Carl Sagan's popular science TV programme Cosmos when he was younger.

"I got a lot of fascinating insights into the possibilities of the Universe and so we felt a real responsibility with the film to try to inspire young people in the same way," he explained.

And he added that getting the science wrong in films these days is no longer an option.

"Consumers have a lot more immediate access to information. If you go and see a film about a particular subject, particularly a true life story, you can go home and look it up on Wikipedia and see if the basic things portrayed in the film are true or not and the same is true of science in the films."

Scientific credibility

In general, Hollywood does seem to be getting better at portraying science in its blockbuster films. This may partly be due to an initiative by the US National Academy of Sciences called the Science and Entertainment Exchange. This puts scientists in contact with film-makers and TV producers in order to get more accurate science on the big and small screens.

Prof Kip Thorne believes that it has been a successful initiative and recalls how films used to be.

"My only pet peeve is the Disney movie, The Black Hole, which was both a bad movie and a bad depiction of the science. I understand Disney is remaking it and presumably this time it will do a far, far better job," he said.

Prof Thorne may have some insight into how attitudes at Disney have shifted because he was giving a talk at the corporation's studios two weeks ago about the science of Interstellar.

"There is a lot of interest from Disney in this movie and the methods we used to get the science right," he said.

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