Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My (Delayed) Musings on the Movie Interstellar and David Brooks' NYT Column about the Film

Note: I originally wrote most of this entry in late November about 2 weeks after seeing "Interstellar" on Nov. 16, 2014 at the National Air & Space Museum's IMAX Theatre.

Dr. Cooper in the higher-dimensional tesseract that he entered after falling into the black hole Gargantua in the movie "Interstellar."

In this hyper-dimensional space that was created by descendants of humans who are advanced-beyond-corporeal-form and that exist hyperspatially, Dr. Cooper is able to "see" time as another spatial dimension, in particular, the critical moments of his life earlier in the film when he made a mistake (thus allowing his daughter to subsequently correct it -- and thus save the human race).

More importantly, it allows him to communicate with his daughter Murphy both as a young girl and an adult through gravitational waves -- using the dust from one of the frequent dust storms on blighted Earth blown into her farm house through an open window to create Morse code signals.

These signals allow her (as an adult) to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics -- and thus create the necessary technology for humanity to evacuate dying Earth and set up large space colonies elsewhere.

As for a tesseract, if you ever read the late, wonderful Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, then you know, what that is in the context of space travel.

By the way, the movie images for this entry come from the pages that make up the Interstellar Wiki website.

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So I haven't actually mentioned on this blog anything about the movie Interstellar other than I saw it last Sunday afternoon at the IMAX theatre at the National Air & Space Museum here in D.C. This is partly because I've been pondering the movie -- gradually coming to like and appreciate it even if aspects baffle me and partly because it was a crappy week and weekend and I didn't feel like writing.

Among the bafflements: Why you would pick a planet (Miller) that is so close to a large black hole -- named "Gargantua" -- that it would have not only massive time dilation effects but, more immediately for anyone there, incredible tidal forces such as the thousand foot high tidal waves (and they are truly tidal waves rather than tsunamis).

Scene of one of the thousand-foot high tidal waves (not tsunamis) that roll across the ocean world of Miller.

Such endless waves of such stupendous height and volume would surely create massive tidal drag that would rather quickly slow the planet's rotation.

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I suppose the answer is that the one-way explorers venturing through the wormhole on the far side of Saturn to one of the trio of worlds (Miller, Mann, and Edmunds) a few light months travel within did not know what they would find. Then there is the issue that information is actually able to pass through the wormhole -- hence the two-way transmissions that are (totally not) possible with what is (at least on one side) a black hole.

Gargantua seen close up with the Endurance -- visible as a speck center right -- being given a centripetal acceleration (i.e., perpendicular to the black hole itself) to nothing less than relativistic velocities riding just above the accretion disk itself.

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Another bafflement: If Miller, Mann, and Edmunds merely orbited in some complex fashion this black hole - binary star system, how was there any "sun" to provide warmth and light? I mean, the accretion disks around the black hole and possibly the binary star are certainly not a realistic long-term stable "sun" for these planets. It would vary wildly based on the amount of inflowing material at any given time. And the jets of X-rays blasted perpendicularly from the accretion disk would sterilize any planet of organic anything that happened to be in the line of X-ray fire.

Gargantua and either the planet Miller or Gargantua's binary companion, a neutron star called Pantagruel. (Yes, Gargantua and Pantagruel.) It's not clear to me which it is.

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I've also been wondering whether Gargantua is in fact the opposite side of the wormhole, or is it a totally separate black hole, which it seems like it would have to be since the opposite end of the wormhole (in whatever distant galaxy it is) should be a (hypothetical) white hole. To this point, the timeline image posted at left below suggests the two are in fact distinct objects, although it too shows Gargantua as effectively a wormhole.

An "Interstellar" movie time-and-worldline.

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Oh, and then the fact that Romilly was onboard that ship for 23 years as Joseph Cooper* and Dr. Amelia Brand went to the surface of Miller (the planet closet to Gargantua and hence experiencing the greatest relativistic time effects). Even if he was in cryogenic sleep for years at a stretch, it still beggars the imagination that he would be alive, much less sane and rational after all that time alone.

*Yes, "JC" initials -- Jesus Christ.

Finally, I'm confused about the situation on Earth -- were there any central governments at all in this dying world? How was NASA able to exist and do the activities it was doing (at NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain facility, I believe)?

The truly alien "sun" of Gargantua and nearby Planet Mann with one of the smaller ships associated with the Endurance.

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All that aside, I wanted to post this David Brooks -- yes, David Brooks -- column the Nov. 24th print edition of The New York Times that also appears online. I kind of liked the column, especially likening love to quantum entanglement. Before I post it, though, let me say that my favorite black hole movie remains ot this day the 1979 Disney film The Black Hole.

OK, without further ado, Brooks' column is below with a few images thrown in just to break up the text.

--Regulus

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Artist's conception of the view nearing a Reissner-Nordstrom black hole with no accretion disk -- just the "hole" (event horizon) itself with frame dragging just beyond the event horizon.

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Love and Gravity

by David Brooks

The New York Times
Nov. 21, 2014 (print edition) / Nov. 20, 2014 (online version)

Source here

Most Hollywood movies are about romantic love, or at least sex. But Christopher Nolan's epic movie Interstellar has almost no couples, so you don't get the charged romance you have in normal movies where a man and a woman are off saving the world.

Instead, there are the slightly different kinds of love, from generation to generation, and across time and space.

The movie starts on a farm, and you see a grandfather's love for his grandkids and the children's love for their father. (Mom had died sometime earlier).

The planet is hit by an environmental catastrophe, and, in that crisis, lives are torn apart. The father, played by Matthew McConaughey, goes off into space to find a replacement planet where humanity might survive. The movie is propelled by the angry love of his abandoned daughter, who loves and rages at him for leaving, decade after decade.

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It's the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.


When the McConaughey character goes into space he leaves behind the rules of everyday earthly life and enters the realm of quantum mechanics and relativity. Gravity becomes variable. It's different on different planets. Space bends in on itself. The astronauts fly through a wormhole, a fold in the universe connecting one piece of space with another distant piece.

Most important, time changes speed. McConaughey is off to places where time is moving much more slowly than it is on Earth, so he ends up younger than his daughter. Once in the place of an ancestor, he becomes, effectively, her descendant.

These plotlines are generally based on real science. The physicist Kip Thorne has a book out, The Science of "Interstellar", explaining it all. But what matters in the movie is the way science and emotion (and a really loud score) mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere.

Nolan introduces the concept of quantum entanglement. That's when two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even though they might be far apart. He then shows how people in love display some of those same features. They react in the same way at the same time to the same things.

The characters in the movie are frequently experiencing cross-cutting and mystical connections that transcend time and space. It's like the kind of transcendent sensation you or I might have if we visited an old battlefield and felt connected by mystic chords of memory to the people who fought there long ago; or if we visited the house we grew up in and felt in deep communion with people who are now dead.

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there's a Noah's ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There's an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.

But this isn't an explicitly religious movie. Interstellar is important because amid all the culture wars between science and faith and science and the humanities, the movie illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms.

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, My Bright Abyss, "If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication..."

I suspect Interstellar will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.

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