Interstellar: An impressive mixture of scientific accuracy and imagination

Interstellar is the must-see science-fiction film of the year, much like “Gravity” in 2013. Co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film excels not only thanks to its remarkable cast, but also because of its scientifically realistic depiction of a plausible future. As life on Earth becomes extremely hostile and approaches its end, a group of explorers take on the most important mission in human history: they must break through the limits of our galaxy in order to find out if the human race can survive by migrating to a new habitable planet… A breathtaking Odyssey into space that combines a multitude of scientific concepts, which are sometimes proven facts, and sometimes the product of a vivid imagination…
Interstellar is a movie, and it is therefore meant to trigger the audience’s emotions. All things considered, I do not think that it includes many scientific errors. It is actually quite remarkable

Indeed, Nolan was quite rigorous when it came to portraying a scientifically realistic story. In order to do so, he chose to team-up with Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist whose theses were a great source of inspiration to the story, and whose equations allowed a “black hole” to be simulated, for the first time in cinematic history.

According to Bruno Jardin, an aerospace engineer at EADS, « the most realistic element of the film is the black hole. Its modeling is so accomplished that the astrophysicist Kip Thorne will use it for an upcoming article”. The word is that this simulation is awe-inspiring, because of its highly accurate representation of everything that happens around a black hole, which is to say, all the orbiting matter that is attracted by it.

However, like any good science-fiction film, Interstellar does not stop at the depiction of proven facts. It goes a step further, adventuring into the realm of the unknown, and of course, it somewhat extrapolates reality. We see this when the astronauts are able to successfully enter a black hole, to find themselves in a strange place where the time dimension is materialized… Theoretically, explains Bruno Jardin, “a black hole absorbs everything and nothing gets out. This passage is 100% imaginary”.

In these subjects, we reach domains of physics where imagination plays a very important role, even if it is necessary to respect established theories. Einstein had an extremely vast imagination…

Another credible - yet slightly futuristic - element in the film is the robot that accompanies our heroes during their interstellar journey. This intelligent robot is in charge of several missions, such as auto-pilot and calculating trajectories. But, the most impressive characteristic for this futuristic robot is that he has a sense of humor, that he can communicate with humans, and therefore, that he provides the astronauts with an alternative source of conversation in the lonely depths of space.

Eric Lagadec, an astrophysicist at the Côte d’Azur Observatory, explains: “The Japanese have already created a robot of this kind!” What is more, “in the space ship, each command button corresponds to a functional reality and the astronauts suits are accurately inspired by those of NASA”. Decisively, Christopher Nolan leaves little space to chance!

Another abstract concept, which has not been proven yet, is the famous “wormhole”: in the film, our brave interstellar explorers use it to shorten the spatiotemporal distance, as a means to avoid spending several centuries travelling from our Solar System to the new galaxies and exoplanets they need to reach.

According to Bruno Jardin, these wormholes would probably be “terribly unstable” up to the point in which, if we were to penetrate them, it is very likely that we would be totally disintegrated. Therefore, in principle it would be impossible for a spaceship to enter the wormhole and leave it in one piece, as it does in the film.

Science is often a source of inspiration for movies. At the same time, scientists can also be influenced by them. During their research, when facing the unknown, they can use films as a means to excite their imagination 

The Twin Paradox is also perfectly portrayed. The paradox involves two identical twins, one of whom travels into space at the speed of light, returning home to find he is a lot younger than the twin who remained on Earth. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is therefore central to the story, as the father [Matthew McConaughey] and his daughter [Jessica Chastain] experience it together, with a mind-blowing outcome, which you’ll have to discover on the big screen!

For us, a very important highlight was the fact that, during Interstellar’s captivating 169 minutes, a prominent role was given to Women in Science. Alongside Matthew McConaughey’s leading character, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway were cast to save humanity, taking on the roles of a brilliant physician, and of a highly-skilled and courageous astronaut, and becoming Interstellar’s uncontested heroines. The movie tactfully raises the public’s awareness to the fact that women scientists are incredibly talented and accomplish great things. What is more, this image of women in science allows the world to see the scientific community under a new light, putting aside prejudices or pre-assumptions, and allowing for a new and more sincere point of view.

All in all, this Odyssey to space is of great visual and scientific coherence, which treats very complex matters and puts our imagination to the test, for almost three hours. At times, it even goes beyond our understanding, as Christopher Nolan explores a wide span of notions, like gravity, time, space, dimensions, and, above all, family and love, which are the main drivers of the movie. A baffling journey into science and feelings at the service of fiction, that makes you leave the cinema full of questions!

Clearly, interstellar has the accuracy and content required to serve as an inspiration for science

What did you think of Interstellar, the new film by Christopher Nolan? If, like us, you still have a lot of questions running through your head, let us know on Twitter!

For Women in Science

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