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Physicists say Interstellar Should be Shown in School Classrooms

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Caroline Reid

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711 Physicists say Interstellar Should be Shown in School Classrooms
Screenshot of the rendered black hole from Interstellar.

The film that explores our universe in more epic proportions than ever before – "Interstellar" – should be shown in science lessons at school. 

Before you make a quick judgement on this statement, it is not the mere opinion of someone completely unqualified to make such a surprising assertion. Rather, this is the conclusion from a paper that explores the hard physics used to make the film as accurate as possible.


Christopher Nolan, the film's director, 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. Nolan and Thorne shared an ambition to make the visuals of galactic objects as accurate to the science as possible. This devotion to robust science is part of what makes the film so overwhelming. 

For Dr. David Jackson, who printed one of the papers in this month's edition of the American Journal of Physics, "publishing this paper was a no brainer," he told the BBC. "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."

General relativity isn't the only tough concept that the film faces head on. It also looks at time dilation, wormholes and black holes.

Explaining wormholes. Interstellar.


The wormhole in "Interstellar" is shown as a spherical, crystal ball-like structure. It is the first film to portray a wormhole in such a manner, and not as a hole. In the paper, the authors write that "although wormholes were central to the theme of Contact and to many movies and TV shows since then, including Star Trek and Stargate, none of these have depicted correctly a wormhole as it would be seen by a nearby human. Interstellar is the first to do so." 

The "Interstellar" clip above is one of the most beautiful, succinct and lucid explanations of why a wormhole would be a spherical hole. It's a lot to wrap your head around.

"Interstellar" is also the first movie to try and depict what it would be like to be in close proximity to a black hole, which was an awe-inspiring feature in the film.

Gravitational lensing by spinning black holes in astrophysics, and in the movie Interstellar. Oliver James et al. 


Here, the focus is on the effects of gravitational lensing – the bending of light due to gravity. When a massive object (like a black hole) sits in space, it warps the space-time around it, as described in Einstein's theory of general relativity. 

The film team went as far as to create new software to model how a black hole would look – gravitational lensing, accretion disks and all. And it needed to be impressive enough to plaster over a cinema screen (with 23 million pixels per image). The visual effects company, Double Negative, was up for the challenge. A second paper published in Classical and Quantum Gravity describes that process in detail.


These astronomical topics are baffling at the best of times and any classroom could benefit from the movie's depictions of these ideas in physics. And hopefully, the film will also inspire a new generation of space explorers. 


[H/T: BBC]


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