I finally got around to seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It’s alright, I guess. I liked the way they turned these complex relativity principles into visual eye candy, specially that part about how time (the fourth dimension in spacetime) was turned into a kind of a physical coordinate that Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) could navigate — a tesseract.
[NB: Spoilers alert. This article assumes the reader had seen the movie.]
I originally recalled the word “tesseract” only from the move The Avengers which referred to the device they used for travelling between Asgard (Thor’s home planet) and Earth. For that matter, Marty McFly’s DeLorean in Back to the Future could then be another type of tesseract as well! Then from Interstellar, I learned that a tesseract is not really a device but (according to Wikipedia) “an 8-cell or regular octachoron or cubic prism” that is “the four-dimensional analog of the cube.” So you navigate four-dimensional spacetime in a tesseract the way you’d navigate three-dimensional space in a cube, the way you’d navigate a two-dimensional plane in a square, the way you’d navigate a one-dimensional direction on a line.
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But why couldn’t Cooper get to interact directly with his daughter Murph through the tesseract (the way Thor and McFly could use theirs to do interesting stuff)? Back to the Future‘s Emmet “Doc” Brown would explain it by saying that the future Cooper coming across his past self on Earth would prove “catastrophic” to the order of the spacetime continuum as we know it (or something to that effect). In Interestellar, however, that did not seem to be the main showstopper at stake. I think the film was drawing from the theory that gravity is really more an effect of how humans perceive curvature in spacetime. Since Cooper was seeing Murph as a transcendental being within a spacetime tesseract, he could only interact with her by causing limited disturbances in spacetime from where he was situated — which is why the then Earth-bound Cooper on the other side kept muttering “gravity” everytime they saw the effects of future-Cooper’s desperate attempts to communicate from his side (the books falling from the shelf, the back-and-forth ticking of the watch, the way dust settled on the floor, etc.).
Pretty mind-bending but neat just the same! Interstellar got the relativity stuff pretty much down pat if I recall my college Physics and if I understood Stephen Hawking’s books right.
It was therefore so tragic that Cooper and his crew had to visit that first planet orbiting, of all things, this massive black hole — the one that turned out to be impossible for humans to inhabit owing to these huge 100-storey-high tidal waves (presumably caused by the gravity of the said blackhole the planet orbits) that formed every half a minute on its surface. According to relativity, because spacetime is more severely curved near a massive object such as a black hole, time moves a lot more slowly on that planet relative to the passage of time far away from it (or further away from the black hole). So every hour spent by Cooper on that planet’s surface where spacetime was severely curved was the equivalent of seven years passing for observers far away from it where spacetime is a lot flatter.
Bad news, indeed. Because of a couple of mishaps that cost them an additional hour’s delay there, Cooper and the landing crew spent the equivalent of 23 years on that planet — life went on for his kids (who had all grown up) by the time Cooper and crew blasted off from that planet and rendezvoused back with their mothership. Yikes! I wish I could spend my beach vacations on such a planet (or is it the other way around??)!
Using that analogy, that’s how Marty McFly would have gone “back to the future”. His DeLorean’s flux capacitor will have created some sort of energy field that recreates the same gravitational conditions present on the surface of that first tragic planet in Interstellar. No wonder Doc needed a 1.21 gigawatt power supply for it! That still wouldn’t explain how McFly could have travelled back from 1985 to 1955 on that DeLorean to begin with. Or how Superman’s flying around and around the Earth faster than light saved Lois Lane in 1977’s Superman movie. Interestellar offers only a very limited solution to those hat tricks, unfortunately.
So there you go. The space and time travel elements in Interstellar, unlike other sci-fi films, don’t let an embracing of Einstein’s theory of relativity get in the way of a good story. That kinda puts a reality check in the way Han Solo might routinely hop onto the Millenium Falcon to meet up with buddies on a planet in a system on the other side of the galaxy then come back in time for the next Rebel Alliance meeting. But that’s not to say there were a few other technical holes in the plot of Interstellar. Why, for example, did it take a three-stage rocket to blast off from Earth, but just a small landing ship to escape from a planet orbiting a black hole?
Overall, a good show if not a tad dramatic. All good, seeing that Interstellar put the “science” back in sci-fi.
Frustrated artist doing geek for a living.